James Polchin


Shadow Men

The Tangled Story of Murder, Media, and Privilege That Scandalized Jazz Age America

The Great Gatsy meets Last Call, and set against the rapid social transformation of the post-World War I era in New York, Shadow Men is a deeply reported narrative nonfiction of queer exploitation and class privilege told through a murder mystery that captivated a nation

On the morning of May 16, 1922, the body of a young man was found on a desolate road near the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City. Killed by a single bullet to the chest, it took the coroner three days to track the man’s prints to naval records in Washington, D.C. The victim, nineteen-year-old Clarence Peters, would be termed by the press as a “penniless ex-sailor” and his murder soon went from local story to national scandal.

The day after Peter’s identity was made public, Walter S. Ward, the thirty-one-year-old vice president and millionaire heir of the Ward Baking Company, whose factory in Brooklyn produced the iconic fluffy white loaf known as Wonder Bread, issued a statement through his attorney admitting that he was the one who committed the murder. This confession only added to the mystery. Ward claimed to have run afoul of the “shadow men,” those who entrapped others in compromising positions and then blackmailed them to remain silent.

In Shadow Men: Blackmail, Murder, and a Sensational Scandal at the Dawn of the Jazz Age, James Polchin tells the story of a diverse cast of characters who either by choice or circumstance were drawn into the case, from minor figures such as small town butchers and shoemakers in Massachusetts, and Black doormen and maids in Harlem, to the well-known and powerful, like the New York State governor and future presidential candidate Al Smith, Joseph Medill Peterson, the ambitious editor of New York Daily News, and even the British detective writer Arthur Conan Doyle.

In placing the queer aspects of this crime within a host of complex social tensions in the 1920s about class privilege, criminality, and the growing power of the press to define ideas of private life and public reputation, Shadow Men reckons with the elusive nature of crime stories themselves—what they reveal and what remains hidden.

Indecent Advances

A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall

Edgar Award finalist, Best Fact Crime
American Masters (PBS), “1 of 5 Essential Culture Reads”
One of CrimeReadsBest True Crime Books of the Year

“A fast–paced, meticulously researched, thoroughly engaging (and often infuriating) look–see into the systematic criminalization of gay men and widespread condemnation of homosexuality post–World War I.” —Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle

Stories of murder have never been just about killers and victims. Instead, crime stories take the shape of their times and reflect cultural notions and prejudices. In this Edgar Award–finalist for Best Fact Crime, James Polchin recovers and recounts queer stories from the crime pages―often lurid and euphemistic―that reveal the hidden history of violence against gay men. But what was left unsaid in these crime pages provides insight into the figure of the queer man as both criminal and victim, offering readers tales of vice and violence that aligned gender and sexual deviance with tragic, gruesome endings. Victims were often reported as having made “indecent advances,” forcing the accused's hands in self–defense and reducing murder charges to manslaughter.

As noted by Caleb Cain in The New Yorker review of Indecent Advances, “it’s impossible to understand gay life in twentieth–century America without reckoning with the dark stories. Gay men were unable to shake free of them until they figured out how to tell the stories themselves, in a new way.” Indecent Advances is the first book to fully investigate these stories of how queer men navigated a society that criminalized them and displayed little compassion for the violence they endured. Polchin shows, with masterful insight, how this discrimination was ultimately transformed by activists to help shape the burgeoning gay rights movement in the years leading up to Stonewall.