By: Laura Castro Lindarte
Long before the Muslim ban, the United States had a law banning immigration by homosexuals – even if that word didn’t appear in it.
In 1907, Congress passed a law stating that immigrants could be denied entry or be deported for having been “convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.” This was often used to exclude people who had admitted to having same-sex relations or had been convicted of doing so.
Here’s one case, from a century ago: It’s drawn two sets of documents that I recently uncovered n the National Archives Washington D.C. facility, concerning deportation proceedings for Samuel James South and George W. McBurney in 1916.
In early 20th century, immigrants who entered the United States from Canada would be registered and examined in immigration facilities along the border to see if they had any health issues, prior criminal charges, financial problems or mental disorders that might disqualify their entry. If deportation proceedings were later launched against them, they could be questioned in the same border facilities.
Samuel James South sat in the interrogation room with immigration official Carl W. Giltner. It was 11:35 a.m. April 24, 1916. Giltner needed as much information from South as he could get. It wouldn’t be hard. From the start, South admitted what he had done. The 24-year-old had been arrested by the Department of Labor’s Immigration Service for a crime “involving moral turpitude prior his entry into the United States.” In other words, South had had sex with another man before immigrating from Canada.
“Do you remember the statement that you previously made to me in regard to your relations with Mr. McBurney?” Giltner asked.
“Yes sir,” South responded.
“What was that statement true?” Giltner asked again.
“Yes sir,” South repeated.
The statement South made was that he had “immoral relations” with a man named George W. McBurney while “under the influence of liquor.” South would go on to talk about the relations, saying they occurred in a hotel, The Walker House, in Toronto while he was visiting. South is described as being 5 feet, 11 inches tall with fair complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. He is of Scottish descent and was born in Brigden, Canada.
A couple of days before, April 19, McBurney had also been interrogated by Giltner, but, unlike South, he had refused to admit any wrongdoing. When asked about the sexual activity, the 29-year-old said that, to his knowledge, it had not happened.
“Do you deny, under oath that you did that thing?” Giltner pushed.
“Deny under oath? Why, with a clear mind,” McBurney said.
McBurney was 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with a “medium complexion,” brown hair and blue eyes. He was born in Toronto. He met South sometime before Feb. 8, 1915, when the earliest letter presented as evidence in the case was dated. Despite denying having relations with South, McBurney had written very fondly to him, often calling him “sweetheart” and “lover.” McBurney told Giltner they met at The Walker House, the same hotel the sexual relations are said to have taken place.
In the Feb. 8 letter, McBurney complains to South about the “awful long time that stands between us before I can have my dear lover in my arms again” and wrote that “the Walker House doesn’t seem the same.” The letter opens with “my dear Jim,” McBurney’s nickname for South. No letters written by South would be presented as evidence.
An application for a warrant of arrest, included in the documents, states that in March 1915 South moved to Detroit, Michigan to work as a real estate salesman. McBurney’s letters show that by March 31, McBurney was already planning trips to visit him. South also visited McBurney in Toronto in May, which is when the sexual relations are said to have happened.
Both men agreed that McBurney was drinking that night. South claimed he drank too, but this was denied by McBurney. South said no one initiated the intercourse, but that “it was just done.” He claimed this was the only time the two had sex, though he admitted they kissed about three times. Despite the relations having taken place in May, well after South had moved to the United States, for the purposes of immigration law it still counted as a crime that he committed before arriving – since he had left and reentered the country twice after that. Each was treated as the first time he entered.
McBurney got South a ring while he was in Toronto. In both McBurney and South’s interrogations, it is stated that the ring was engraved in the inside. South claimed it said, “Love finds its way.” While McBurney said it read, “Love will conquer,” he claimed it signified “love of friends. If anything should happen, he would always think of the ring.”
South reported wearing it, but, by the time of the case, he didn’t. This is one hint of a falling out between the pair. Other signs are South saying things were not the same after one of McBurney’s visits, and a woman living in South’s building accusing McBurney of “not being a man” in a letter. In his interrogation, South said the woman wrote to McBurney after she saw the letters McBurney had written him and he told her about what had happened. In his interrogation, McBurney said he was “enraged” by the woman’s letter.
By September 25, 1915, McBurney had moved to the United States to work as a drapery salesman. The documents do not say whether the men still maintained a relationship then.
On March 6, 1916, McBurney was called into the U.S. Immigration Office in Detroit after a complaint had been filed against him and South for “committing acts against nature.” It is not clear who filed the complaint against the two men. McBurney was charged with entering the U.S. without passing through the normal immigration process at the border. He was not charged with the sexual relations because he never admitted them. On June 29, 1916, he was deported.
South was found guilty of the original charge of having relations with McBurney. Instead of waiting to be deported, South took matters into his own hands. On June 20, 1916, he walked into the U.S. Immigration Office in Detroit and, at 4:40 p.m., voluntarily took a ferry back to Canada.