Homosexual Bar Bombed in Springfield


At five in the morning of Wednesday, September 12, 1973, an explosion leveled the Arch Café at 1737 Main Street in downtown Springfield. In the newspaper photo published the next day, it looks like the walls blew out and the roof lifted, broke, and then resettled onto what had just become a pile of rubble. No one was injured in the blast, but the building, which the owners estimated to be worth $90,000, was totally destroyed.

KMArchCafeSept131973
courtesy  Springfield Union Sep. 13, 1973

Sixty windows were blown out in the side of the Hotel Charles right next to the Café. Changes in the transportation patterns from rail to automobiles had brought the once proud Hotel to near financial collapse, but it was a handy tryst place for subcultural denizens. There was additional damage to the Army&Navy store on the ground floor of the Hotel and to the Friendly Tavern across the street.

hotel charles marquee
The Hotel Charles in its decline

The Arch Café was named after the immense granite railroad arch that flanked the café’s south side and carried the Penn Central railroad over Main Street. The Arch Cafe was so well known to authorities that it was described in the Springfield Union as “long acknowledged as a gathering place for homosexuals in the Connecticut Valley and beyond.”  Men had previously been arrested at the café on “morals” charges, and the establishment was regularly scrutinized by the Health and Liquor Licensing Boards. Smith College professor Newton Arvin, who lived in nearby Northampton, described the Arch in his diaries as a place he cruised for casual sex in the late 1950s and early 60s. (See the previous blogpost the Scarlet Professor .)

springfield_ma_6 main st arch postcard

The incident was investigated by local, state, and federal authorities. The Arch Café had been operated for seventeen years by brothers Louis and Andrew Lake and in-law Constantine Kyros. The Lake brothers told investigators that the establishment had been plagued in recent weeks by obscene, threatening telephone calls. The reason Andrew Lake gave for not previously reporting these calls to the police was that “after a while you get used to this kind of thing.” The owner of the neighboring Army&Navy store told investigators his business had also received numerous obscene phone calls, starting two weeks before the explosion. Follow-up by police revealed that other bars with homosexual crowds had not been receiving such calls during this period.

When enough debris was cleared away for the fire marshals to get a good look at the damage, gas leaks or an oil tank combustion were eliminated as possible sources for the explosion. A kerosene soaked rag that had not ignited was found on the scene. The rag, along with other forensic evidence, was sent to the state’s lab for analysis.

KMArchCafe NO SALE photoSept171973
Visible in the background are the Hotel on the left and the end of the railroad arch on the right. courtesy Springfield Union Sep 15, 1973.

Pursuing the idea that the Café might have been deliberately targeted because of its homosexual clientele, a Springfield Union reporter James Shanks interviewed Robert Dow of the Homophile Union of Boston. Dow said that his group was “quite concerned” about the Arch explosion. He added, “A number of churches sympathetic to homosexuals and gay churches in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York have been destroyed or damaged by fire bombings. The number of crank calls against gays increased alarmingly in the last month.”

The idea of targeting “homosexuals” was not at all unlikely. Such an incident had been reported in the local and Boston newspapers just a few months previous to the Arch Café explosion.  A page three article in the June 26 Springfield Union printed parts of an Associated Press story from New Orleans about an arson fire at a “gay” bar in which twenty-nine people burned to death, with another sixteen injured as they jumped from upper floor windows and a fire escape.

nolo bar fire better02182016
Coverage of the NOLA arson that appeared in the Springfield Union June 26, 1973, courtesy of the newspaper

Almost two weeks after the blast the return of findings from the state laboratory helped the fire marshals determine that the Arch Café destruction was caused by a “malicious explosion” deliberately set using a homemade black powder bomb.

KMArchCafe1973
courtesy of the Springfield Union Sep. 25, 1973

With the help of federal agents, the investigation turned to trying to trace the source of the powder, a controlled substance. Months passed with no announced results, but sporadic newspaper coverage about arson in the area linked the Arch bombing to a group of other open cases of fire bombing in the Greater Springfield area.

In a May 1974 special feature on arson for profit in the Springfield Republican, Lt. Edward Smith, the State Fire Marshal, outlined the growing arson problem and described new patterns being discerned across the state as well as in Springfield. Since 1960, arson cases had tripled in the state. In Hampden County, one in eight deliberately set fires might be commissioned by property owners in order to profit from over-insurance. A representative of the insurance industry stated that they felt strongly that the syndicate or mafia was involved in this in Springfield. Neither the police nor the fire marshals would comment on this allegation except, in my interpretation of the article, to imply that arson arrests couldn’t be made without evidence against specific people and that there were an increasing number of arsons that no one was willing to talk about.

Early in the Arch Café investigation, it had been determined that the property was under-insured, since the owners were recouping only a fraction of its value. This made this case unlikely to be an example of insurance arson. Police discovered, however, that the Arch Café operators also owned the Viking Lounge, which had been the object of several bomb scares in recent months. These bomb threats had not been received at the Café. Although “no one was talking,” investigators brought the attention of journalists to a group of other unsolved fire bombings which had occurred in 1973 in the Greater Springfield area. In addition to the Arch Café, these included two trucking firms, a tenement, a pharmacy, a car, and two restaurants. The FBI was investigating some of these for a Boston connection.

No one was ever identified as responsible for setting the bomb, nor was the motive for it made clear. I have heard enough rumors of mafia control of gay bars and protection rackets in other cities to find that to be a plausible theory about what was happening in Springfield at the time. It is, of course, only speculation.

I never visited the Arch before its demise, and couldn’t find a photo of it. Google maps street view takes one along Main Street and under the railroad arch. The Arch Café would have been on the immediate right as one emerges from the arch, with the Peter Pan Bus depot, then as now, across the street. The large vacant lot, with some concrete being poured in Nov. 2015, was the site of the 400-room Hotel Charles, which had been next door to the Arch Café. The hotel was demolished after a fire in 1988.

site of arch cafe, google maps street view
1737 main street, site of the former arch cafe, 2009 google maps street view

 

SOURCES:

__Thank you Jan Whitaker for turning me on to GenealogyBank.

__”Arch Blast Probed.” Springfield Union. Sep. 13, 1973. Springfield, Massachusetts.

__Shanks, James M. “Officials to Raise Arch Roof.” Springfield Union. Sep. 14, 1973.

__MacConnell, Art, photographer. “No Sale.” Springfield Union. Sep. 15, 1973.

__”Survivor Says Arsonist Torched ‘Gay’ Bar.” Springfield Union. Jun. 26, 1973.

__”Bars Block Escape of 29 Fire Victims.” Boston Herald. Jun. 26, 1973. Boston, Massachusetts.

__”Arson Confirmed in Arch Café Fire.” Springfield Union. Sep.25, 1973.

__”Agents Seek Source For Bomb Powder.” Springfield Union. Oct. 3, 1973.

__”Firebombing Try Probed by Police.” Springfield Union. Apr. 4, 1974.

__Andreoni, Phyllis. “Insurance Sighting In On Arson for  Profit.” Springfield Republican. May 19, 1974.

 

COMING NEXT: Dancing Wimmin; Lilith

The Scarlet Professor


This is the first in a series exploring the gay subculture that existed in Northampton prior to the 1970 beginnings of a social revolution.

In the autumn of 1960, seven Northampton men were arrested and found guilty of a range of offenses that ultimately related to their being gay or bisexual. Three of them were on the faculty at Smith College. Two successfully appealed their convictions, and no one was imprisoned, but all the men’s lives were irrevocably changed by the public revelation of their sexuality.

This event is chillingly recounted in Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor. While the book’s focus is the scarlet prof cover102865Smith College professor, his intellectual work and how it intersected with his homosexual stigmatization, it also contains the first available portrait of gay male life in Northampton. Drawing on unprecedented access to Arvin’s private papers, Werth provides vividly detailed information on Arvin’s social network, his feeling of isolation within the small town of Northampton, the excitement and concurrent risks of cruising the gay “demimonde” in Springfield, and the repressive social climate of the 1950s.

The only really lighthearted content is found in the descriptions of Arvin’s very young lover Truman Capote getting off the train in ’Hamp and racing across town trailing a long, fluttering scarf to Newton’s Prospect Street apartment. Or Truman’s going into

McCallums Department Store (Historic Northampton)
McCallums Department Store (Historic Northampton)

McCallums department store on Main Street to, scandalously, buy a pink sweater in the Ladies Department. Arvin met Capote in 1946 at Yaddo, the writers’ colony, and they had a three-year affair before continuing as friends.

Truman introduced Arvin, who was much older and had struggled with his sexuality through a failed marriage and psychiatric treatment, to New York City’s gay subculture. Newton went on to explore the closer underground world in Springfield, often cruising the bus station and the Arch, a gay bar known for rougher trade. He also entertained younger men in his apartment, sometimes sharing with individuals and small groups his collection of homoerotic material. There appears to have been little social interaction with gay Smith faculty women.

Other than these small private gatherings, gay male life within Northampton as recorded by Arvin in his diaries was limited to cruising the men’s rooms at the City Hall and bus station in order to arrange anonymous sexual encounters. In 1956, a visiting professor at the college had been fired when caught by police having sex in a car with a boy who may have been a minor.
Early in 1960, toward the end of the McCarthy era, the U.S. Congress authorized the Postal Service to inspect and seize mail that the Postmaster General deemed obscene. As part of this national anti-“smut” campaign, Massachusetts made its distribution a felony and formed a special investigative unit headed by Sergeant John Regan of the State Police. Included in the list of banned material were male “beefcake” magazines and the newsletter of a homosexual civil rights organization.

Arvin
Newton Arvin, 1951 (Smith College Archives, Northampton MA)

As recounted by Werth, on September 2, 1960, state and local police led by Regan raided Arvin’s apartment on a tip from the Post Office. They confiscated his erotica and diaries dating back to 1940, and arrested him for distributing pornography. Shattered, Arvin surrendered the names of several friends, including Smith instructors Ned Spofford and Joel Dorius, then admitted himself to  Northampton State Hospital.

The head of the vice team, Regan, anticipated breaking a major interstate ring of “smut-peddlers” centered at the prestigious women’s college. He trumpeted his finds and plans to the press, which resulted in daily headlines in the Boston and New York newspapers. A wave of fear spread through the East Coast gay grapevine as Arvin’s name was recognized. Regan publicized that Arvin’s diaries were being scrutinized with dozens of arrests expected around New England. Men cleaned their houses of explicit material, feared their phones were tapped, and left town or otherwise distanced themselves from the accused.

As six more arrests followed, police revealed to the public that Arvin and the other suspects, including three married Northampton men, were homosexuals. As all seven men were convicted and given suspended sentences for possessing obscene material, and/or being lewd and lascivious persons or committing unnatural acts, it became apparent that no distribution of pornography had taken place. The men had merely shown each other their private collections or had sex in the privacy of their homes. Werth concludes that the overzealous investigator had stitched together a gauze of half-truths in hopes of gaining attention in Boston for the fledgling vice unit’s efforts. Regan and the state police had simply dragged a net through Northampton’s underside, entangling seven unfortunate men.

Dorius
Joel Dorius (Smith College Archives, Northampton MA)

Spofford and Dorius appealed their convictions and were later acquitted on the basis of a 1961 Supreme Court ruling banning illegal police searches. In a second ruling a year later the Supreme Court found that the “beefcake” magazines, while “dismally unpleasant, uncouth and tawdry,” were not obscene. But it was too late for the men whose secrets had been revealed. The three Smith faculty lost their jobs and suffered subsequent bouts of depression. (Expect a later post on Smith’s belated amends.)

Though not included in the biography of Arvin, author Werth was able to trace the fate of two of the other four Northampton men. One eventually married and moved to Florida; the other, Richard Stanley, left Northampton after losing his marriage and being hospitalized. He moved West, in an ironic turn of event, within days met a wealthy horseman who became his life partner.

Sources;
__Werth, Barry. The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal. New York: Random House; 2001.
___________” The Scarlet Professor” in New Yorker, October 5, 1998.
___________. Correspondence with, Summer 2003.
___________” The Scarlet Professor” in A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts 1654-2004, edited by Kerry W. Buckley, Historic Northampton, 2004. Highly readable and recommended excerpt from the book, freshened for this anthology.

Coming Next: Was there a gay women’s subculture in Northampton prior to 1970?