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Joel Dorius, 87; Educator Convicted, Exonerated in `60s Gay Pornography Case

February 23, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Joel Dorius was teaching Shakespeare, classic English literature and poetry at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., when his quiet life as an academic was shattered in 1960.

The victim of a federal crackdown on obscenity in the mails, he was arrested, dismissed from his job at the elite women's college and left feeling like a "criminal" for decades.

Dorius, one of three teachers at Smith College who lost their jobs after being convicted of possessing gay pornography but were later exonerated in the headline-making case, died Feb. 14 at his home in San Francisco after a battle with bone marrow cancer. He was 87.

The stage for what critics have described as a homosexual witch hunt and sexual McCarthyism was set when Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield of the Eisenhower administration launched a campaign to "stamp out smut in the family mailbox," an effort aided by Congress' passing of a number of measures that allowed postal inspectors to open and examine people's mail.

At the same time, Massachusetts passed a state law that turned possession of obscene material from a misdemeanor into a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Dorius' troubles began after three state troopers, a Northampton policeman and a federal postal inspector raided the apartment of Smith College English professor and literary critic and biographer Newton Arvin.

In their search, they found box-loads of gay erotica, including some hard-core pornography but primarily consisting of muscle magazines featuring men in underwear or posing straps -- material that today would be considered akin to a Calvin Klein ad. They also found Arvin's diaries, in which he chronicled his homosexual encounters.

Arvin had shared photos of male nudes with fellow Smith colleagues Dorius and Edward Spofford at a party several nights before the raid, and while undergoing questioning, Arvin gave police their names and those of a number of other men.

"Very soon, the spirit of old Salem was resurrected in Northampton, and the righteous were once again out to get the sinner," Dorius wrote in a 2003 essay in the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. "We shared some photos of male nudes.... This was our dastardly deed, the unspeakable act from which all else followed."

Barry Werth, author of the 2001 book "The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal," said the arrests sent "a panic throughout the elite college campuses in the Northeast."

"Arvin gave a lot of names," Werth told The Times this week. "For a two-week period, the police thought they were in the midst of busting up a major pornography ring."

Dorius was vacationing on Cape Cod when his home was searched.

"He actually heard on the car radio on the way back that he was being hunted" by the police, said Werth, who interviewed Dorius for his book. "By the time he returned home, his apartment had been ransacked by the police."

Among the objectionable items seized were reproductions of ancient Etruscan frescoes. As Werth recalled, "I believe the police found pictures of naked men. They didn't find any hard-core pornography, but it was all lumped together."

Werth said that about a year after the arrests of Arvin, Dorius and Spofford, "the Supreme Court ruled that all these beefcake magazines, which were simply pictures of men naked or semi-naked, were 'tawdry and visually uncouth' but were not obscene." So their arrests, Werth said, "happened almost at the last moment [they] could have."

Although they were threatened with long sentences, none of the three went to prison.

Arvin, who was reportedly pressured by the prosecution to testify against Dorius and Spofford, was charged with lewdness and possession of pornography. He pleaded guilty and received a $1,200 fine and a one-year suspended sentence.

Smith College allowed the 60-year-old Arvin, the only one of the three with tenure, to retire after his conviction. Arvin, who had won the National Book Award for his 1951 biography of Herman Melville, died of pancreatic cancer in 1963.

Dorius and Spofford, whose contracts with Smith were not renewed, were found guilty of possessing pornography.

But they pursued an appeal based on a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that materials seized without a legal warrant could not be used in evidence against the person from whom they were seized. And in 1963, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court acquitted them of the charges.

Losing his teaching job at Smith shattered Dorius' life, Werth said.

"All Joel ever wanted was to teach," he added. "He had taught at Harvard and Yale, and he believed after he was arrested that he would never teach again. He felt shamed and disgraced and deprived of his vocation and livelihood."

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