It’s a Scandal on Plum Island!

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Benjamin Koehler as a West Point cadet. Courtesy Mary Elke.

By Annette Hinkle

At 840 acres, Plum Island is a spit of land that lies like an errant fingernail just off the tip of Long Island’s North Fork. It’s the island that the ferries motor past upon leaving Orient Point dock, bound for New London, Connecticut, and it has long been a source of fascination and speculation.

Since the mid-1950s, Plum Island has operated as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s animal disease center. Rumors of a secret biological weapons program have circulated for years, as have questions about what really goes on behind the doors of its mysterious Lab 257.

And fans of Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel “The Silence of the Lambs” may recall that Plum Island was the “vacation” destination the FBI dangled in

front of murderer Hannibal Lecter in exchange for his assistance on a case.

But in her new book, “Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused” (published by East End Press), Wainscott author Marian E. Lindberg tells a different tale of Plum Island — one that takes place in the early years of the 20th century, long before “Hannibal the Cannibal” or Lab 257.

Back then, Plum Island was the site of Fort Terry, a military installation constructed to guard the entrance of Long Island Sound in the wake of rising tensions with Spain.

“The federal government had bought it before the Spanish-American War when they were concerned we did not have a good coast defense system,” explained Lindberg. “The war was in 1898, and they built the fort between 1900 and 1912. There was a lot of construction then — including Building 257, which was the first Plum Island animal disease lab.”

Fort Terry was one of several such facilities situated at the mouth of Long Island Sound. Lab 257 initally functioned as the mining and torpedo storage facility and the 700 or so enlisted men stationed there took part in drills to mine the harbor. The also practiced artillery drills at the fort, which had 11 gun batteries facing east.

While the functions of Fort Terry are well explained in Lindberg’s book, the real story of “Scandal on Plum Island” has to do with Major Benjamin Koehler, who assumed command of Fort Terry in 1911, and, in 1913, was accused by two disgruntled junior officers of engaging in groping and “homoerotic acts against males” at the facility.

In terms of the charges against Koehler and the resulting military trial, which took plac in 1914,  the evidence was sketchy at best, but for many involved in the case, the details of his personal life were enough to raise suspicions. Not only was Koehler unmarried, and short of stature, he lived on the Army base with his sister, Sophia, and was an unenthusiastic and disinterested athlete who spent his time horseback riding, reading and gardening.

Former Fort Terry barracks and parade grounds on Plum Island, looking east. Marian E. Lindberg photo.

Those peculiarities alone were enough to convince others that he was sexually suspect at a time when masculinity was a quality valued above all others in this country. It also didn’t help that Koehler grew up in LeMars, Iowa, a town run by Brits from whom he learned mannerisms that fed into his portrayal as a “homo-sexualist.”

Still, the accusations were somewhat ironic, given that, as Lindberg notes, in the years leading up to his Plum Island appointment, Koehler, a West Point graduate, had been an exemplary military man with a distinguished and unblemished career in the Army.

“Right before Koehler was sent to Fort Terry, he was heading recruitment in New York City, and the military obviously found him to be a good judge of men’s fitness” said Lindberg. “By the late 1800s standards, he was what the Army wanted — Koehler had fought in the wars in the Philippines and Cuba.

“But by 1913, we were in peace time, and standards had changed,” she said.

Sophia and Benjamin Koehler in 1902 at the Presidio in San Francisco. Courtesy Mary Elke.

Lindberg explains that in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War, notions of masculinity and military aggression were inextricably linked. Perhaps nobody embodied those ideals more thoroughly than Theodore Roosevelt, who came to epitomize the image of the rugged outdoorsman and strong military hero. Conversely, those who advocated for peace and compromise with Spain at the time were seen as weak and were accused of possessing distinctly undesirable feminine characteristics.

“It’s quite fascinating. There was this very strong peace movement in the 1890s, and many women and national women’s organizations supported it and the idea that there should be negotiation with Spain instead of war,” said Lindberg. “Some men supported it, too — arbitration, they were calling it.

“The more hawkish position was personified by Theodore Roosevelt — he was the top guy in terms of arguing that a strong America should go to war,” she added. “You can draw a straight line to the emergence of the hyper-aggressive male. At first, it was born of war, and it served the nation’s military interest to be told you should be violent, physical and hyper-aggressive. You most realize your manhood while in war.”

But this masculine movement came in the midst of, and perhaps as a reaction to, a rapidly changing world. At the time, many were looking back with nostalgia at the Civil War, when men were believed to be strong and principled, no matter which side they were on.

“By the 1890s, there was a depression, and we had come to the end of the frontier, which I think is analogous to climate change today,” said Lindberg. “You feel that you’re running out of space and opportunity. The workplace is changing — small-businessmen and artisans were now doing more factory work, and they felt emasculated by that.

“The population was growing, immigrants were coming to the cities, and people were moving from more agrarian to more urban areas.”

Former Fort Terry guardhouse on Plum Island.

So the Spanish-American War was a campaign that not only ridded Cuba and the Philippines of Spanish rule, it also shored up American ideals of manhood. But as the new century dawned, women began to assert their presence and were clamoring for the right to vote.

In March 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, activist Alice Paul organized the Woman Suffrage Procession through Washington, D.C., where she and her fellow marchers were physically attacked by those who were not at all ready for women to gain the right to vote.

“There were a lot of strong women in the late 1800s, and they were getting educated,” Lindberg explained. “Men were concerned about women influencing boys and men and making them too feminine. The Boy Scouts was founded to keep boys away from women.

“If men were stronger, then women would know their place,” she added.

While Koehler may not have been married, as one of 11 children, he was certainly surrounded by strong women. Not only was his younger sister, Sophia, highly educated, his older sister, Lucy, was a supporter of women’s suffrage, while his brother, Louis, married the niece of Susan B. Anthony, an original women’s rights activist.

Though Koehler’s accusers were other officers and soldiers with obvious axes to grind, their accusations against Koehler were taken seriously by the military.

When asked why, Lindberg said, “The atmospherics. Back then, demonstrating sexual interest in women through marriage was a hallmark of a man. If you weren’t married, you should have a pretty good explanation of why you’re not. The top Army lawyer at the time was a bachelor, but he made it clear he had a hopelessly dependent family and wasn’t able to marry. As the book makes clear, Koehler would have been wise to spend more time talking about his manliness during his command.

Author Marian E. Lindberg.

“I don’t think Koehler understood the atmospherics well enough,” she added. “I think he had strong self-confidence and was devoted to the Army and duty. He never believed the allegations would be taken seriously.”

Though Koehler’s case may feel like ancient history at this point, Lindberg believes the attitudes of the military (and much of the country) in the early part of the 20th century and the subsequent court-martial of Koehler led to the government’s later efforts to involve itself in the personal lives of its soldiers. The military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the more recent ban on service by transsexuals, which is currently being challenged in court, are two examples that she cites.

Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, that workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While it’s a definite victory for the LGBT community, Lindberg feels there are still some lingering effects from those cultural norms of the early 1900s, including “toxic masculinity” and the notion that men should fear, loathe and reject anything in their psyches that leans toward the feminine or emotional side.

When asked how she first became aware of Koehler and why she found his story so intriguing, Lindberg, a lawyer and a former reporter, said she first read about Koehler in “A World Unto Itself: The Remarkable History of Plum Island, New York,” a book written by Amy Folk, Ruth Ann Bramson and Geoffrey K. Fleming and published by the Southold Historical Society in 2014.

“She [Folk] had written a chapter about him,” said Lindberg. “The journalist in me was intrigued that this case happened right here and no one knew about it, while the lawyer in me was intrigued by ‘how did this happen?’

“It’s early. The first federal action against homosexuality I knew of was the purges in the 1950s, when the government fired anyone who was gay and worked in their ranks,” added Lindberg. “But the federal government wasn’t really in the policy arena in 1913.

“There may be an earlier case, but I didn’t find it,” she said. “It was a pivotal period in terms of issues we’re still dealing with today and baggage we’re digging out from under.

“I do think it’s a fascinating period in showing us, here are how these divisions of American cultural and character arose.”

Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor presents Marian E. Lindberg reading from and discussing “Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused” on Friday, June 19, at 6 p.m. on Zoom. Register at canios.wordpress.com.

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