U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the first openly lesbian member of Congress, added her voice to calls by activists that the Justice Department open an investigation into an alleged 1954 blackmail scheme that led to the suicide of Democratic Sen. Lester Hunt of Wyoming.
In an Oct. 1 letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Baldwin pointed to information reported in a recent Yahoo News documentary and by other investigators that at least two of Hunt’s Senate colleagues threatened to disclose that his son was arrested in Washington for soliciting gay sex unless he gives up his seat in the Senate.
Political observers at the time believed that a decision by Hunt not to run for re-election in 1954 would most likely result in his being replaced by a Republican, which would shift control of the Senate from Democrats to Republicans in the midst of the anti-communist and anti-gay purges orchestrated by Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wisc.).
In a development that shocked the nation’s political establishment, Hunt brought a rifle to his Senate office on June 19, 1954 and shot himself to death. His son, now 87, said in the Yahoo News documentary that he believes his father took his own life after being blackmailed by then-Sens. Styles Bridges (R-N.H.) and Herman Welker (R-Iowa).
Both were allies of McCarthy. Researchers familiar with the incident believe McCarthy was part of the blackmail conspiracy, in part, because Hunt was an outspoken critic of McCarthy and what he called the excesses during the so-called “McCarthy era” witch hunts against government workers and U.S. military officials.
“While decades have passed since this tragic incident, it remains a troubling example of the misdeeds of the McCarthy era and the role homophobia and bigotry has played in the history of our nation, including at the highest levels of federal government,” Baldwin said in her letter to Lynch.
“I believe it is important for the integrity of the Senate and our continued efforts to acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of our past that a formal investigation of Senator Hunt’s death take place,” she said.
Except for Sen. Hunt’s son, Lester C. Hunt Jr., all of the principals believed to have been part of the alleged blackmail scheme or victimized by it are deceased.
Charles Francis, president of the recently revived gay rights organization Mattachine Society of Washington, said a Justice Department investigation into the matter is needed to unearth more government documents that may shed further light on how such a scheme could have taken place at a time when the U.S. Civil Service Commission was purging gays from the federal workforce.
Francis, whose organization has been compiling government documents related to the 1950s-era anti-gay purges, cooperated with Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, in the production of the documentary on the Hunt case, which is entitled, ”Uniquely Nasty: The U.S Government’s War on Gays.”
Justice Department spokesperson Dena Iverson said the department is reviewing Baldwin’s letter and letters by others asking for a DOJ investigation into the alleged blackmail scheme targeting Hunt.
Hunt Jr. has confirmed reports based on D.C. police records that he was arrested on June 9, 1953 on a charge of “soliciting an immoral act” in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.
Information reported in a 2013 biography of Sen. Hunt and in the ‘Uniquely Nasty’ documentary shows that Sens. Bridges and Welker reportedly pressured D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office into changing their initial decision to drop the charge against Hunt Jr. and to move ahead with the prosecution. Hunt Jr. was eventually convicted of the charge and fined $100.
Hunt Jr. states in the documentary that the two senators then threatened his father by saying they would inundate his state with 25,000 pamphlets revealing that his son was convicted of soliciting homosexual sex in Washington unless Sen. Hunt gave up his Senate seat before the 1954 elections.
“It is shocking to me that no formal investigation was ever conducted by either the Senate or the Justice Department,” Hunt Jr. said in his own letter to Attorney General Lynch in July. “Given the egregious nature of the matter, it seems to me that although belated, a formal review of the case is warranted and I am writing to ask that it be done.”
Sen. Hunt’s suicide is believed to have been the impetus for the widely read 1959 novel “Advise and Consent,” which was later made into a popular Hollywood film.