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Plum Island's forgotten sex scandal

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Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused
By Marian E. Lindberg
East End Press, 416 pages

 

Think of Plum Island, and what probably comes to mind are natural habitats, a lighthouse and remoteness, all of which were highlighted in a recent report on the island's potential.

Most people probably wouldn't think of military intrigue, courtroom drama and sexual politics.

But for one strange moment in the island's quiet history, all of these things combined to make the place a national sensation. Then the headlines faded, and the episode was forgotten.

As a coalition of groups continues its push to keep the island from being sold by the federal government, one of the people trying to give it a better future has also revived that incident from its past.

Marian E. Lindberg, who works for the Nature Conservancy, is the author of a new book called "Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused."

It details the 1914 court-martial of Army Maj. Benjamin M. Koehler, the ranking officer at Fort Terry, which once occupied the entire island. He was charged with making homosexual overtures to men under his command.

Lindberg, a Long Island resident, was interested in exploring Plum Island's past, since the movement to preserve it tended to emphasize its natural aspects. When she read "A World Unto Itself," a 2014 book about the island's history, she found a chapter devoted to the Koehler case and was quickly drawn in.

"I was just fascinated by it on so many levels," she said in a phone interview.

In addition to illuminating a slice of the island's history, the case presented her with a mystery, a legal drama and an early incident in the struggle for gay rights. For Lindberg, a lawyer who has done civil rights litigation and written a book about a mystery in her own family, it all clicked.

Driven by curiosity about whether Koehler really did what he was accused of, she decided to take a fresh look at the case from a legal perspective.

The result is a complex tale that draws in national figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony. It also reflects American society of a century ago in terms of attitudes about gender and sex, and this casts well-known events in a different light.

A known disciplinarian

At the center of it all is Koehler, an exemplary soldier who earned praise for his combat role in the now-forgotten Philippine War and was known as a disciplinarian. That reputation got him assigned to command Fort Terry, a coastal-defense fortification where things had become lax.

But his efforts to clean up the place didn't sit well with all who reported to him, and stories started circulating about Koehler touching various men, or saying lewd things, or exposing himself. In December 1913, he was brought up on charges that set a court-martial in motion.

The book offers compelling circumstantial evidence that the accusations against him, by 16 men, were fabricated in a conspiracy to rid the island of his unwelcome discipline. But the backstory of the court-martial goes deeper.

Part of it involves the early 20th-century status of homosexuality in U.S. society generally and in the military in particular. At the time, Americans placed a high premium on masculinity, which manifested itself in everything from common attitudes to foreign policy. Yet the military, the most masculine of institutions, had no laws expressly forbidding homosexual conduct.

A major factor in the case was military politics, of which Koehler appears to have been an innocent victim. Lindberg argues that the real force behind the court-martial was a general named Leonard Wood, who was nursing a grudge.

Years earlier, Koehler's brother, also a soldier, had crossed Wood and been court-martialed twice. But he was exonerated and came close to destroying Wood's reputation. That gave Wood a motive to take vengeance on Benjamin Koehler when complaints about him surfaced on Plum Island. Wood by then was one of the top generals in the Army and a few years later narrowly missed being the Republican nominee for president.

The political, military and social contexts for Koehler's court-martial are presented in rich detail, and the account of the trial itself becomes a convincing legal argument for his innocence. His accusers' stories are picked apart, and even his defense lawyer comes under criticism for being hindered by his own apparent bias against homosexuality.

With so many accusers and supporting players, names and events tend to blur together, and the level of detail is perhaps more than the general reader needs. But one gets the idea that if the book were the basis for a retrial, it could well lead to an acquittal.

Mystery man

Though it was off-limits to the public, the trial was covered by national newspapers, which sent reporters to the ferry dock in New London in search of whatever scraps they could find. Speculation filled the void, and one paper compared the court-martial to the famous case of Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier wrongly convicted of treason amid a wave of anti-Semitism.

The author had access to letters written by Koehler's unmarried sister, with whom he lived, to her eventual husband. They give a hint of the anger and frustration he felt over his fate.

But for the most part, Koehler is a mystery, a man who left an impressive résumé but almost no written account of himself.

The book fills in some of the gap with background on why he might have been seen as "unmanly" by some. For example, he was raised in a small town in Iowa that was full of immigrant British aristocrats. Their genteel ways, which included playing cricket instead of baseball, rubbed off on him.

Even the question of Koehler's sexual orientation, a natural thing for the reader to wonder about, is an enigma that isn't addressed directly until late in the book.

Lindberg says the question isn't whether he was gay but whether he had sex with men. That sounds like a distinction without a difference, but she says being gay was not yet an identity, and the relationship between heterosexuality and same-sex acts was murky and overlapping.

Rescuing the Koehler case from obscurity broadens the appeal of Plum Island, Lindberg believes, and if the island remains in public hands, the history of the court-martial could be featured at a restored Fort Terry.

Her research has already led to another possibility. Members of Koehler's family are talking about launching an effort to clear his name. Lindberg said a good start would be to interest elected officials from Iowa, where he grew up, and Nebraska, where some relatives live, along with New York.

"Wouldn't that be a nice red state-blue state alliance to try and get him pardoned," she said.

j.ruddy@theday.com

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