At the end of last month’s column, Canadian expatriates MacIver Wells and John Chadwick had just won a victory against the City of Seattle that guaranteed its nascent gay and lesbian community a degree of freedom unusual in Eisenhower America.
However, the victory also left owners of businesses catering to gays and lesbians in the same position with the police as before: cash cows to be milked through monthly extortion payments.
In his Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, Gary L Atkins documents how an ill-timed cigar puff put an end to this decades-old system of exploitation.
Wells and Chadwick decided that their Madison Tavern, which had suffered during the lawsuit, would offer live music as a customer draw. They proceeded to install a piano and mount hugely popular amateur nights. This pushed them into illegal territory, as the Madison did not possess the requisite cabaret license.
Wary city inspectors decided to leave the piano but took away the stool, so that performers had to stand to sing or play. Music soon led to requests for dancing, and after negotiations with the police–an extra payoff of $150 a month–the Madison became the first lesbian dancing bar in Seattle.
Without anyone quite realizing it, a page had just been turned.
The commercial gay and lesbian scene in Seattle was booming. New players were coming in and older players were expanding, including Wells and Chadwick who opened two new bars. Competing to attract customers, the new gay and lesbian businesses began to seek–and to pay for–broader freedoms from the police.
The police found their extortion business expanding and realized that they could grow the gay and lesbian dollar by brokering deals, such as the one they proposed between Wells and a rival, which would see them opening a bar together with the police getting 50 percent of the take.
The negotiations went badly, Wells recalled. “[The cop] says, ‘Well, you’re a smart ass.’ And I say, ‘Yes, and you’re just a punk.'”
Wells then walked out, leaving the field clear for his competitor to close the deal on his own, an unexpected development that left Wells simmering. When, a few weeks later, a police sergeant new to the beat blew cigar smoke in Wells’ face as he demanded an increase that would see the total annual payoff from Wells and Chadwick’s three bars reach $5,000, Wells got mad. Then he decided to get even.
His first attempt was to get the FBI to intervene. The Bureau had contacted Wells soon after his 1958 lawsuit against the city, and Wells had been sending them a record of his payments to the police ever since.
Seven years later, Wells figured that the FBI could finally put that information to good use. What the FBI did was to send a memo to the Seattle police suggesting that payoffs were getting out of hand. The police, rightly suspecting Wells, began harassing his businesses.
Wells then decided to go to the Seattle Times. That is when, as Wells later put it, “the shit hit the fan.”
By exposing the extortion racket, Wells ran the risk of becoming a pariah among fellow gay and lesbian bar owners because everyone stood to lose: any bar owner could be prosecuted for having made a payment and any officer fired for having accepted one. The system also provided a major benefit: bar owners who could continue to operate without fear of attracting attention from the city’s moralists who would undoubtedly demand stricter enforcement of the laws governing drinking and dancing establishments.
Things went badly at first. The Times published an article called “Seattle Homosexual Problem Reported To Be ‘Out Of Hand'” which made no mention of police corruption but instead raised the spectre of Seattle becoming a second San Francisco.
To calm a deeply alarmed mayor, the police proposed to reduce the number of gay and lesbian bars, and a brief police crackdown ensued.
Then inspectors from the city comptroller’s office began to pay frequent visits to the Madison, angering Wells. “Wells was on his feet screaming and hollering ‘you son of a bitching asshole,'” reported one inspector.
Despite this initial setback, Wells persisted in getting the Times to write an exposé on police corruption, to the extent of helping reporters spy on on-duty police officers playing poker in one of his bars.
Finally, the Times delivered, breaking the story about gambling cops and following up with more stories, including one about the FBI investigating the payoffs to police. The payoff system soon fell apart under the weight of public scrutiny and legal action.
From that point on, Seattle’s gays and lesbians would have to operate in the open.
Wells and Chadwick sold their bars soon afterwards and retired to Camano Island. Chadwick died in 1994 and Wells in 2000. They are buried under a shared headstone bearing roses and a maple leaf.