Troubles in St. Thomas

1957 Trial

In 1957, the Virgin Islands Police launched a campaign against “undesirables”, and I was a prime target. First, I had spoken openly about my belief that laws against homosexuality should be overturned. Second, I was active in the civic life on the Island: a boy scout leader, on the board of the museum, organizing events at the library and owner of a prominent bookstore. Finally, people knew I occasionally had sex with men–sometimes natives, sometimes continentals.

In March of 1957 I was charged on four counts of sodomy and lewd and lascivious conduct. It was one of the low points of my life. Beyond the trauma of the trial, it was a great financial burden since I had to hire a lawyer. The incident also contributed to the death of a very close friend.

Cameron Clark, a prominent architect from Connecticut, and his wife Agnes had a home on St. Thomas, where I often spent time. One evening, soon after I had been charged, I was visiting when he received a phone call. Apparently it was some woman from the museum board raving about my arrest and demanding I be removed as a trustee. The exchange became quite heated as Clark vigorously defended me. Suddenly, Clark collapsed on the floor with a heart attack. I still feel a sense of responsibility for his death.

The small town politics of St. Thomas also meant my arrest served as a diversion from revelations regarding the sexual activities of several prominent officials on the island. The hypocrisy of this led me to write two public letters to the Virgin Island legislative assembly demanding an investigation of homosexuality on the island, so that laws against it be liberalized. In the second of two letters, I suggested a list of two dozen native islanders who I knew were gay. These letters caused quite a stir in the local press and may or may not have helped my case. Nonetheless, in October of that year all charges against me were dropped.

 Ralph Moolenaar

After this incident I managed to avoid being harassed by the authorities, but I was nearly caught up in an incident that triggered another call for crackdown on “deviates”. In January of 1963 I had a very attractive young man living with me named Ralph Moolenaar. He was in his early twenties and from a prominent family on the island. One night he came back to my house got into bed with me and asked, “If you stab a man will he die?” I told him, “It depends.” He then got up and left the house again.

Ralph was a volatile youth. He had pulled a knife on me once, although I don’t remember what triggered it. But that night apparently he had stabbed the Deputy Commissioner of Commerce, Sheldon Nulty, in the stomach with a bread knife. Nulty died the next morning, but not before identifying Moolenaar to the police as the perpetrator.

The rumor that circulated was that Moolenaar had caught Nulty with another man in his room and stabbed him in a rage of jealousy. The real tragedy was that Nulty might have been saved had the other people in the house taken him to the hospital immediately, but they thought it was only a minor wound and no-one wanted to get the police involved.

Of course, this led to a major scandal in the local press, and Governor Paiewonsky called for new legislation to stop the spread of “homosexual practices.” The police called in many of the more public queers and told them to get out of town.

After I learned what happened, my first thought was to get rid of any signs that Moolenaar had been living with me. For a while, I was extra careful going to bars, not picking up men as I otherwise might. Police would stand outside looking for “suspicious activities”. I remember seeing Moolenaar at a bar one evening while he was out on bail, and I avoided him, thinking it very indiscreet that he should be out like that.

Moolenaar’s family hired an excellent lawyer, who negotiated a conviction of manslaughter and a sentence of six years. The next time I saw him was sometime in the seventies in New York City. I was exiting the subway at Forty Second Street, and there he was in Times Square. We greeted each other briefly. He was well dressed and looked great. He was likely trying to prostitute himself. Ralph was a handsome guy, Dutch ancestry, tall, athletic. That was the last I saw of him.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this page are those of Tram Combs and do not necessarily reflect the views of his transcriber, Paul Mason Fotsch.

Tram Combs Autobiography