A gifted pianist with criminal aspirations, James Blake, found himself hitchhiking north in the summer of 1956. Fresh off a two-and-a-half year stint in a Florida lockup, Blake was in the wind, dressed in a set of ill-fitting, prison-issued duds with $5 to his name. He initially had designs on catching a ride to Atlanta. That was until a Chrysler bound for Charleston pulled to the side of the highway.
The driver, a Mt. Pleasant shrimp boat captain by the name of Stony, was returning from a failed trip to Jacksonville to win back his estranged wife. Stony, who Blake referred to as a “bitter, somber black man,” offered to take the hitchhiker as far as he could go. Then, like any polite host, he offered Blake a slug from the handle of Canadian Club he kept in the glovebox and a cold beer from the cooler in the floorboard. It’d been more than two years since he had a proper drink, and by the time they reached the turnoff for Atlanta, Blake had decided to accompany his new pal all the way to Charleston.
Making a brief detour at a roadside church picnic, Blake found himself pulled into a celebration complete with an improvised dance floor. Returning to the car, Stony had noticed Blake’s awkwardness with women, asking, “You don’t dig broads, do you?”
Blake deflected, but both men knew what they were. Stony was a black man trying to make it home alive. Blake was a gay ex-con trying to keep both points a secret. Together, they were headed for Charleston.
After a brief interlude at the local Skid Row, Blake, in his own words, “went looking for trouble.” What he found was Dan Cooper, a lover and antagonist who would control Blake’s every move.
According to a letter written by Blake on July 26, 1956, Cooper operated a nightclub called the Magnolia Room. Cooper was described as an old-money Charlestonian, “Thirty-eight years old, stocky, muscled, rugged-ugly, with an unsettling charm that comes from a poetic, perverse, avidly curious mind.”
With enough cash in his pocket to cover one beer, Blake slipped into the Magnolia Room and aced an audition to become the club’s regular piano player. New to the city, he had cozied up to a pair of actors from Dock Street Theatre, but Cooper would have none of it. He secreted Blake away to his secluded island off of Folly Road. There, Blake would spend the steamy summer evenings in a former slave quarters separate from Cooper’s main house on the island. Soon, Cooper and Blake would begin a heated affair that would devolve into jealousy and violence.
As Blake wrote in an Aug. 3 letter, “When it was done — this silent, contemptuous, and curiously onanistic performance — the first daylight was rising over the water. I had been coolly employed, crumpled, and discarded like a Kleenex.”
Under your spell
Blake later reframed his unflattering descriptions of Cooper, instead offering up excuses for the man he would come to view as a threat. Deep down, it seems that Blake viewed his new lover with a sort of sympathy usually possessed by someone attempting to free a wild animal from a trap, only to fall prey themselves.
“What I feel is beyond shame or guilt, or even embarrassment: I know that his homosexuality is like my own, in that it is a matter of attraction between two masculine minds, and not a tinsel thing in which one of them must pretend to be a woman,” Blake wrote. “Cruel or not is irrelevant, there is a vast uneasiness and torment in the man, a bottled loneliness.”
Although Blake claimed to be obsessed with honesty, it appears he was willing to exaggerate about his time in Charleston. Through his own personal research, archivist and head of special collections at the College of Charleston Harlan Greene has uncovered the truth about the man Blake referred to as “Dan Cooper.”
“The fellow that he really did have an affair with was basically just a blue-collar kind of guy in town that ran the bar. I don’t understand why Blake felt the need to romanticize to some extent you know and glorify the man that he was having an affair with,” says Greene.
Despite whatever connection Blake felt with the man he called Cooper, it wasn’t enough to keep his eye from wandering. Blake fell in with a trio of Navy musicians. Of particular interest to Blake was a trombonist with big brown eyes who would prove to be Blake’s undoing.
Cooper grew unsettlingly cold to Blake and continued his regular practice of firing off his pistol on the island. The two stayed drunk all the time. A bad break was on the horizon. Met with violence when he told Cooper about his wishes to leave the island for good, Blake eventually relocated to a downtown hotel for his final weeks in Charleston. He would return to Florida and a failed criminal career on Nov. 22, 1956. But not before writing a friend at Dock Street Theatre to share one final plea for Charleston’s gay community, which he feared to be turning in on itself.
“Seemingly, you have marooned yourself on an arid island with a number of other castaways (joyless and juiceless, but utterly, oh utterly, comme il faut) and there you sustain yourselves by nibbling on one another in modish cannibalism,” Blake wrote. “So, a plea. Less cleverness? More kindness? For the good of the breed, such as it is.”
While Blake returned to an ill-fated life of crime, another recent Charleston transplant committed to his adopted home. Jack Dobbins, a chemical company executive, arrived in Charleston around the same time as Blake. Although the two men shared little in common, both were restricted to the downtown clubs and bars that served as safe havens for gay nightlife. But while Blake was able to escape Charleston with his life, Dobbins would not be so lucky.
Halloween night 1958, Dobbins stopped on his way home to buy candy for trick-or-treaters. He was a stout man, 29 years old, standing 5-foot-10 with a full, round face and dark hair.
Around 6 p.m., he had dinner with his housemate, medical student Edward Otey. They shared a pink two-story at 14 Queen St. After dinner, the two men joined a small, all-male get-together at a Rutledge Avenue apartment. Dobbins left around 10 p.m. to go tend the bar at Club 49 where he often volunteered.
Billy Camden, who moved to Charleston in 1947, met Dobbins when he first arrived. Camden would later open a downtown bar. In James Sears book Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968, Camden describes his experience with Charleston’s club scene, saying, “There were always gay bars in Charleston … Some of the bars were mixed, like The Anchor. It was not openly gay, but a lot of bachelors would meet. Then there was the 49 Club, where the front was gay, the back was mixed with couples, and the upstairs was gambling.”
By featuring both heterosexual and same-sex couples, bars like Club 49 could avoid scrutiny. This didn’t stop Club 49 from advertising itself as the “Gayest Spot in Town,” a message that came with a wink and nudge, but also served as a coded invitation to someone looking for a safe place to socialize.
“For people who were in the military, teachers, government and state workers — if they found out you were gay, then they would lose their jobs,” Camden recalled. “So these people were very careful not to be seen in a place known as a ‘gay bar,’ which is why a lot of the bars were mixed. Those are the places where people went. Even if you were a civilian working for a private company but were hanging around military or government employees, the Navy would investigate you.”
As the owner of a bar, Camden was subject to one of these unofficial military inquests. One day, he received a visit from two officers with a photo album who asked that Camden point out any servicemen he believed to be homosexual. Camden declined.
With Cold War anxiety leading to increased efforts to identify any American service members who might be homosexual, destinations such as Club 49 represented a safe space for gay men in Charleston to openly meet. Manning the bar at Club 49 on Halloween, Dobbins struck up a conversation with a young airman by the name of John Mahon. Of slight build and 18 years old, Mahon was seated at the bar, dressed in a leather jacket and dungarees. Brown, wavy hair, 5-foot-6, 135 pounds, Mahon was stationed at Charleston Air Force Base.
According to Mahon’s testimony, Dobbins served him a few beers and suggested they go check out some finer establishments. Eventually arriving at the Elbow Cocktail Bar around 2 a.m., the two men found little luck at the East Bay Street club. Mahon was denied service due to his failure to meet the bar’s dress code.
“Finally Dobbins said, ‘Come on, I have better bourbon than this at my place. We then left the Elbow Room. It was pretty late,” Mahon later testified. He told Dobbins he was short on money for drinks and promised he’d make it up to him. Mahon claimed that Dobbins responded by shoving a few bills into his pocket and inviting him home for a nightcap. Mahon accepted.
By the end of the evening, Dobbins was dead. The resulting murder trial sensationalized Charleston, while also demonizing anyone who might possess so-called “abnormal” tastes.
The Candlestick Murder
November 1, 1958, was a Saturday. Elizabeth Bryant was scheduled to perform her weekly cleaning of 14 Queen St. Just after 11 a.m., Bryant turned her key in the lock and entered Dobbins’ home. Stepping into the living room, she noticed the body of a man lying on the couch. He was nude, slumped on his side. His face was masked with blood and cradled in his arms was the murder weapon — a bloody and bent candlestick.
The other candlestick in the set remained in Dobbins’ bedroom, along with the rest of the clothing he had been wearing on the night he was killed. The room where Dobbins died showed no signs of a struggle, save for the blood spattered across the wall and sofa. On the coffee table sat Dobbins’ underwear, a pack of cigarettes, and two highball glasses filled with bourbon.
Mahon voluntarily surrendered to police and remained in custody until his trial the following month.
Although reports of Dobbins’ murder stated that he was in his thirties, Dobbins actually died a couple weeks shy of his 30th birthday. His official cause of death was listed as “Triple fracture to the skull,” a result of being “Beat to death in his apartment at 14 Queen St.; struck with large candlestick.”
People packed the courtroom on the opening day of Mahon’s trial. Those in attendance on Dec. 9 were looking for a scandalous court proceeding. And that’s largely what they witnessed over the next three days.
Allusions to Dobbins’ sexuality had been peppered throughout news stories on his murder and the pending trial. An obituary for Dobbins appeared in the Nov. 3, 1958, edition of the News and Courier. Penned by a staff writer, the article began by describing Dobbins as “A man of many hobbies, but apparently dedicated to none. A favorite of the neighborhood children. An admirer of fine paintings with a flair for artistic home furnishings.”
Dressed in his Air Force uniform during the trial, Mahon leaned forward in his seat, his hands clasped tightly in his lap as witnesses were called to the stand. On the opening day, the court heard from five witnesses, none of whom spoke directly of Mahon or his possible guilt. Bryant, the housecleaner, took the stand to recount discovering the body. Asked by the defense if she ever noticed any female visitors at Dobbins’ home, Bryant said she never saw any women, but “sometimes the Citadel boys would come in.” Defense questioning eventually lead Bryant to reveal that Dobbins had lavender sheets on his bed, while his housemate’s sheets were yellow with stripes.
Edward Otey was grilled by the defense about his relationship with Dobbins. Otey said he and Dobbins were on “good terms,” but he had sometimes considered moving out due to Dobbins’ “questionable habits” and “tendency toward abnormal behavior.”
The second day of the trial featured testimony from witnesses associated with the various bars that Dobbins and Mahon visited on the night of the murder. Larry Schaffer, bartender at the Elbow Cocktail Lounge, recalled turning Dobbins away due to Mahon’s failure to meet the club’s dress code. An article published in the May 1959 issue of ONE magazine, the country’s first pro-gay publication, featured an account of Mahon’s trial. In the article, an anonymous Charleston reporter wrote, “It was never satisfactorily explained during the trial what the airman was doing in the downtown Charleston barrooms late at night dressed in dungarees and leather jacket — the costume favored by male prostitutes on the make.”
Testimony from two fellow airmen raised allegations of potential perjury and admonitions from the judge. Prosecutor Theodore Stoney was allowed to cross-examine his own witnesses after claiming that airmen Clayton Winkleplack and Daniel Munoz were withholding the truth.
Written statements previously gathered from the two men, which they argued were made under duress, detailed Mahon’s return to base the night of Dobbins’ death. With him, Mahon had a lighter, door key, money clip, chain, a silver nail file, and $23 cash. During their investigation, police found Dobbins’ pants in his bedroom, the pockets empty.
During the final day of testimony, Mahon was allowed to share his own account of the night Dobbins was killed. Entering the home, Mahon removed his jacket, while Dobbins prepared some drinks in the kitchen. Both men took a seat on the couch, and Mahon took a sip.
“As soon as Dobbins sat down, he put his hand on my shoulder and another on my lap,” Mahon told the all-male jury. “I was scared. I told him I had to use the latrine.”
Mahon claimed to have spent five minutes in Dobbins’ bathroom, trying to think of an escape. Returning to the living room, Mahon said he found Dobbins standing completely nude.
“I ran back upstairs, thinking he was behind me. I grabbed the candlestick. I then went to the door, looked down the stairs, and didn’t see him,” Mahon testified. “I went downstairs and started to cross the room. I had told him I wanted no part of that. He grabbed me. I hit him three or four times and ran out of the door.”
Finally, Mahon confessed, “I only thought I had knocked him out. I don’t think I could go through life with that on my conscience. I didn’t mean to kill Mr. Dobbins.”
On the evening of Dec. 11, the fate of John Mahon was put in the hands of the jury. A deep frost had descended upon Charleston. News of a verdict would reach the public on the coldest day since 1899, as snow blanketed the state.
At several moments during the trial, those in attendance laughed and clapped before being called to order by the judge. The prosecuting attorney argued that Mahon had “set up events which led to the slaying of Dobbins.” According to news reports, the prosecution alleged that robbery was the prime motive in Dobbins’ killing, stating that thieves often preyed upon “persons of abnormal behavior to get money.”
Meanwhile, the defense cited a South Carolina law, which “gave Mahon the right to defend himself against improper advances by Dobbins.”
“Give back this mother her wonderful son,” concluded the defense. “Give back the Air Force its excellent soldier. Give back this young man his future and his self respect.”
Around 1 a.m., after being charged by the judge to reach a decision, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty. The ruling was met with applause from Mahon’s supporters in the gallery. Mahon fell into his mother’s arms, an innocent man. His Air Force superior on base announced that Mahon would be allowed to return home to Michigan for the Christmas holidays. He and his family prepared to leave Charleston immediately.
Today, the Candlestick Murder stands as a sort of signpost for a period in Charleston’s not-so-distant past when social anxieties and outright bigotries were thrust into plain sight. In a 2008 USC master’s thesis titled “Offending Decent People: Murder, Masculinity, and the (Homosexual) Menace in Cold War Era Charleston,” Santi Thompson examines the effect that Cold War tensions and Mahon’s trial had upon Charleston’s LGBTQ community.
“By emphasizing accepted gender roles, the defense lawyers placed sexuality on the list of concerns for those in Charleston looking to maintain the old social order of veiled white supremacy and racial segregation,” writes Thompson, current head of digital research services at University of Houston Libraries. “Furthermore, the close coverage of the trial by local and regional newspapers helped to spread the consequences of sexual non-conformity to a wider audience, even if these newspapers did not blatantly engage in a discussion on homosexuality. The trial served as just one in a series of reminders on what the white power structure of Charleston and other Southern cities would tolerate.”
It was during this time that fears of homosexuals and communists began to conflate. The same year that Dobbins was killed saw the creation of the Committee to Investigate Communist Activities in South Carolina.
Describing the direct impact that Mahon’s trial had on the local LGBTQ community, Harlan Greene says, “There’s a fellow who has subsequently died who actually told me the impact that it had … He specifically told me — no supposition required — that he felt threatened as a gay person, that he felt it was not safe to come out as a gay person in the city of Charleston.”
A friend of Dobbins, Billy Camden spoke rather bluntly when it came to the jury’s final verdict. In his mind, Mahon wasn’t as naive as he let on.
“Now, this kid had been in the gay bars; he knew what was going on! Yet he robbed and killed Jack, then turned himself in to a strong Catholic lawyer,” Camden said in an interview. “‘The boy was protecting his virginity,’ his counsel argued in court. Well, the boy got off with a slap on the wrist and a trip out of town. Dobbins’ mother … didn’t pursue it because she was embarrassed and hurt. She just wanted it swept under the rug and forgotten about.”
Camden adds, “Back then, the gay community didn’t get justice; we didn’t expect it. Then, gay people were often robbed and too embarrassed to report it. If they did report it, the person who was robbed was victimized again by the system.”
Camden was right about Dobbins’ mother. Alma Hendrix remained out of the public eye following the death of her son, although she did make one final effort to preserve his memory.
On Jan. 5, 1959, Hendrix filed an official application for a military headstone for her son’s grave in Spartanburg. Despite having every detail of his life scrutinized publicly, Dobbins’ military service was scarcely mentioned. His two tours of duty in the Air Force during the Korean War were a footnote in his own obituary, overshadowed by comments about his flair for decorating. Coverage of the trial failed to mention Dobbins’ service, and even recent sympathetic accounts of the Candlestick Murder have overlooked Dobbins’ time in the Air Force. As presented to the world by the press and Mahon’s attorneys, Dobbins was a sexual deviant, a man of abnormal desires. He damn sure couldn’t be a soldier.
A place in history
As Nancy L. Buc Pembroke Center Archivist at Brown University, Mary Murphy curates women’s and gender non-binary histories. While completing a master’s program at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Murphy researched significant sites related to Charleston’s LGBTQ history, going on to map out a walking tour of these important destinations. Chief among the stops are Dobbins’ home and the former site of Club 49.
“It is an incredible disservice to communities to whitewash their history in terms of race, in terms of gender and sexuality, in terms of class. Cities, I believe, are the strongest when they come to terms with the diverse histories that have happened in their locales — good, bad, and the ugly,” Murphy says. “The Candlestick Murder was obviously a scene of a crime, arguably a hate crime. These are fascinating stories. The city’s reaction to these spaces and sites have significance in terms of the politics of the city, the culture of the city.”
Growing up in Charleston, Leonard Matlovich was a 14-year-old military brat at the time of Dobbins’ death. A closeted student at Bishop England, Matlovich dated girls, but was unable to escape being called a “faggot” by his classmates. In James Sears’ book Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South, Matlovich recalls the night the verdict was delivered in the Candlestick Murder trial. Lying in bed that cold evening, Matlovich whispered to himself, “My God, am I one of those terrible creatures?”
Later serving three tours of duty in Vietnam, Matlovich earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Eventually assigned to teach enlistees about racial tolerance, Matlovich’s lover told Sears that his partner found it funny that someone from the Deep South would assume such a duty.
“Being as polite and well-mannered as he was, I can understand why Leonard felt he could champion others’ civil rights and teach about racial prejudices, yet be unable to champion his own. Certain things are just ‘not done.’ ”
On March 6, 1975, Sgt. Matlovich placed a letter on the desk of his commanding officer. He was no longer a frightened teenager. The letter read, “After some years of uncertainty, I have arrived at the conclusion that my sexual preferences are homosexual as opposed to heterosexual. I have also concluded that my sexual preferences will in no way interfere with my Air Force duties.”
Later that year, Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine, dressed in full uniform beside the headline “I am a homosexual.” After being discharged, he became an advocate for gay rights until he died of AIDS in 1988. His tombstone carries the message, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
“One of the things that I learned from studying the Candlestick Murder and Club 49 was the deep overlap between the Navy, the military, and the queer community in Charleston in the 1950s … It challenges the public to think more critically about the history they’re consuming or the sites that they’re seeing,” says Murphy. “Of course, Charleston is beginning to take this on, far more critically around the history of slavery in Charleston and around race, but I think it’s important to also challenge the city to do the same around gay liberation.”
Earlier this year, Harlan Greene secured funding to launch a project titled “LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry.” Together with historian Cara Delay, he is working to collect oral histories and other records, which he hopes will help elevate the LGBTQ community.
“It’s so interesting that as these different ethnic groups or small groups start getting their historical markers up in the city they also start gaining political power,” says Greene. “It used to be just historical markers to straight white men. We started seeing historical markers to women, to African Americans. They’re now sharing in the power, so I think we’ve kind of reached this kind of cusp with LGBTQ stuff.”
“It’s so interesting how the future and the past in Charleston are linked. Once you prove that you have been here, that you’ve got a gay history, people take you seriously,” Greene said in July. “So while there’s other social problems, the murder of a trans woman this past Saturday in [North] Charleston, I still think rediscovering the history is really important if for no other reason than just not to repeat it.”