As a lifelong horror film devotee,
I enjoyed one of my most surreal cinematic experiences during a William Friedkin double feature
at a musty revival theatre on Halloween in the 1980s. I was in my early teens
and had never before seen the featured films, The Exorcist and Cruising;
in the Pleistocene era before VCRs old movies were viewed butchered on network TV or not at all,
a fate which seems unimaginable today.
The Exorcist was screened first;
I remember being terrified as Linda Blair waged her head-spinning battle with Captain Howdy,
but in a cinema full of drunken college kids Old Scratch seemed manageably far away.
Cruising, on the other hand, left me baffled—too naive to appreciate the complexities of the leather scene,
I may as well have been watching a Bollywood epic subtitled in Sanskrit.
Although my tween self grasped the rudiments of homosexuality—I had a fabulous hairdresser uncle who ruled the
dance floor at family weddings—I was completely ignorant
of the S&M culture in which Cruising unfolds.
In the days before the internet salacious information was doled out to minors
on a need-to-know basis—Al Pacino’s famous catchphrase
“Hips or Lips?”
may as well have been a Zen koan for all I could make of it.
And for the life of me I could not understand
why everyone in the nightclub scenes kept sniffing those dirty rags—poppers, alas, were beyond my ken.
Thanks to cineaste James Franco’s recent Sundance homage Interior. Leather Bar,
Cruising is having a bit of a renaissance
and I recently learned the fisting scene isn’t the only aspect of the film my younger self failed to appreciate;
Cruising and The Exorcist have a symbiotic relationship
and a connection to a series of real life crimes far more terrifying
than Linda Blair’s post-Exorcist career.
A crazed killer or killers stalked the NYC gay bars of the 1970s
leaving a trail of leather-clad corpses and mangled body parts scattered across lower Manhattan.
Even the butchest of Daddies were spooked;
as writer and gay activist Arthur Bell told a reporter from The New York Times,
“Normal S&M types, who are usually bravura types, are very worried.”
The bloodshed began on January 4th, 1973, with the murder of Ronald Cabo,
age twenty-nine, in his West Village apartment;
the known leather enthusiast had been stabbed to death on his sofa,
his apartment set alight in a fruitless bid to camouflage the crime.
Four days later Donald MacNiven, age forty, and John P.W. Beardsley, age fifty-three,
were found stabbed to death at 11 Varick Street.
Well-known denizens of the S&M scene, the duo lived in separate units in the building
but were found together in MacNiven’s living room; again the scene had been set ablaze.
A New York Times article about the crime incongruously notes the presence
of John P.W. Beardsley (Harvard ’42) on both the NY and Philadelphia social registers,
and then helpfully explains to readers that leather bars
“cater to homosexuals who dress in leather jackets and dungarees.”
An apt description, certainly, albeit one that lacks pizzazz.
A few days later, on January 17th,
the body of Gay Liberation Front member Robben Borrero,
was found floating in the Hudson River off the Morton Street Pier,
his remains still clad in his black leather jacket;
the Queens College student
and aspiring writer had been missing for five weeks.
At this juncture detectives had not yet determined if any of the killings were connected,
but the murder of two gay men and their pet poodle nine days later proved beyond a doubt that whether beset by one predator or several, the leather community was under siege.
On January 28th, distressed by a radio that had been blaring for hours,
a Brooklyn Heights building superintendent used a passkey to enter Nelson Robert’s
Henry Street apartment; the thirty-two year old school teacher and leather bar habitué
had been stabbed to death, his corpse sprawled on the floor beneath a gray blanket.
Robert’s roommate was found in another room, his neck broken;
as a ghastly coup de grâce the couple’s black toy poodle had been drowned in the bathroom sink.
Police at the time declined to state
whether they believed the crime was linked to the West Village murders,
but one fact was undeniable—the contrived pain of the gay S&M scene was becoming frightfully real.
Although the epic carnage of January 1973 was never repeated
violence continued to stalk the Greenwich Village leather scene—soon severed body parts
wrapped in garbage bags
began washing up on the Hudson River piers, at the time a notorious gay cruising spot.
Given the state of the remains authorities were unable to identify a cause of death
for the dismembered corpses, which eventually numbered six in all.
Unable to prove murder without a cause of death,
the NYPD initially declined to open a homicide investigation
instead categorizing the deaths as CUPPI—circumstances undetermined pending police investigation.
Although I suppose it’s possible a paranoid drug dealer might dismember an occasional overdosed houseguest,
as the body count grew
it became increasingly clear that something sinister was afoot.
One butchered body might be mischance,
but half a dozen swaddled in identical packaging
bespeaks grimmer tidings—there was a knife-wielding madman on the loose, and disarticulation was his métier.
Eventually detectives were able to trace garments found with the severed body parts
to West Village boutiques catering to a largely gay clientele,
and tattoos emblazoned on one of the bodies
indicated the victim had likely been homosexual—death, it seemed,
still stalked the shadowy recesses of lower Manhattan’s gay subculture.
NYPD detectives, always paragons of sensitivity, dubbed the investigation the “Fag in a Bag” murders, but unable to identify even a single victim, their inquiry went nowhere.
prompted by the recent death of drag performer Toni Lee, strangled
in her MacDougal Street apartment,
Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell
wrote an inside account of the fear that gripped the bar scene,
noting that despite the pall
cast by the killer or killers in their midst
the loose sexual mores of the pick-up culture continued unabated.
“As homosexuality came out of the closet,”
“romance went in and bolted the door.”
The article, entitled “Looking for Mr. Gaybar,”
implied that unless this wanton cruising was curtailed the murders would continue,
and Bell’s prophecy proved correct—the 1970s
NYC gay murders would soon claim their final,
and most celebrated, victim.
On September 14th, a few months after the article’s publication, Addison Verrill,
was found murdered in his apartment
at 2 Horatio Street; he’d been stabbed and bludgeoned with a cast iron skillet,
his belongings ransacked.
A film critic for Variety magazine,
Addison wasn’t out to his family or colleagues, but in his personal life,
according to Arthur Bell,
“[he had] two toes out of the closet;”
he was a well-known patron of the West Village leather scene, treated as something
of a celebrity due to his high-profile role at Variety. The first media accounts of his death in The New York Times made no mention of the murder’s possible connection to the previous gay slayings, stating that police suspected robbery as the motive for the killing. The fact that Addison was found nude
and the scene begrimed with Crisco,
1970s lubricant of choice, went unmentioned.
The straight press may have failed to peg Addison’s murder as another gay-tinged homicide,
but Arthur Bell at the Village Voice immediately recognized
the film critic’s fondness for leather likely played a role in his demise;
a week after the Voice published an article decrying the murder’s whitewashed media coverage
Bell transitioned from journalist to crime-solver when he received a phone call
at the Village Voice office from a man claiming to be the film critic’s killer.
Bell describes his twenty minute conversation with the purported killer:
the caller claimed he’d met and partied with Addison
at several leather bars over the course of the evening,
retiring to Addison’s West Village studio at approximately 5am;
during the course of the evening the men had indulged in cocaine,
poppers and marijuana chased with two bottles of scotch.
After their sexual romp was complete, the caller claimed to have experienced an epiphany:
“Something hit me,” the alleged killer claimed.
“Addison hadn’t been reciprocal. It wasn’t the sex act itself that wasn’t reciprocal; it was the soul act, too. I wanted a lasting thing, something that would go beyond sex into a friendship, a lover [sic], a marriage.”
When Bell relayed the confession’s particulars to NYPD detectives
he learned he’d been speaking with the film critic’s actual killer—-the caller had related
each and every detail of the crime correctly, providing never before released tidbits
such as the fact that the killer had stolen Addison’s passport and credit card,
and a surfeit of Crisco had bedazzled the scene.
Later that evening
Bell was contacted by a man named Richard Ryan,
pseudonymously identified as “Mitch” in
Village Voice articles.
Ryan identified the professed killer as Paul Bateson,
an alcoholic who had once worked as an X-ray technician at various New York hospitals;
due to his continued struggles with sobriety
Bateson had lately been reduced to working as an usher at a gay porn theater.
Ryan claimed Bateson, an acquaintance he’d met during rehab, had called him
and confessed to Addison’s murder
the day after the slaying.
Bateson had also told Ryan he “liked to kill,”
and had allegedly claimed responsibility for the so-called “Fag in a Bag” murders.
When detectives confronted Bateson he quickly confessed to Addison’s murder
and led police to the film critic’s MasterCard and passport,
items pilfered during the commission of the crime;
Bateson had also stolen $57 in cash,
which he’d frittered away on alcohol. Addison Verrill, celebrated film critic,
cherished son and brother, died choking on his own blood for less than a hundred bucks.
Journalist Arthur Bell visited Bateson on Riker’s Island where he was held pending trial;
in an article entitled “A Talk on the Wild Side,”
Bell describes Bateson’s eyes as “electric blue,”
and waxes rhapsodic about Bateson’s physical appearance,
noting that had the two met in the bars Bell might have suffered the same fate as the murdered film critic.
During the interview Bateson blames the murder on his alcoholism,
but it’s clear his internalized homophobia played a role as well;
the openly gay Bateson denigrates “swishes” and “drag queens,” claiming:
“They give gays a bad name, like any type of extreme group would.”
The fact that gay murderers such as himself
fail to burnish homosexuality’s reputation apparently escapes him; no model minority, he.
Hollywood director William Friedkin had filmed The Exorcist’s arteriogram sequence
at NYU Medical Center and Bateson, at the time an X-ray technician at the hospital,
had played a small role in the film as a male nurse.
Friedkin had been following Arthur Bell’s coverage of the murders in the leather community,
and was considering optioning the film rights to Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel Cruising,
based on an earlier spate of unsolved gay killings in the 1960s. Over the years the NYC S&M subculture has had more homicidal maniacs than badly-lit bars named after body orifices, it seems.
When queried about his guilt during Friedkin’s visit Bateson admitted, “Yeah, it’s possible I may have lost it
and killed Verrill.”
Bateson stated that he had no memory of any further murders, however,
claiming his alcoholism had made his memory unreliable. He complained to the director that detectives were trying to pressure him into pleading guilty to all six “Fag in a Bag” dismemberments
as part of a package deal for a reduced sentence,
a detail Friedkin later incorporated into the Cruising screenplay.
At no point did Bateson profess remorse for Addison’s death
or sympathy for the film critic’s aggrieved friends and family;
no wonder Addison declined to “reciprocate” during their sexual encounter—Bateson’s lack of empathy is surpassed only by his lack of charm.
Despite the plethora of evidence against him
Bateson had told Arthur Bell he was sure to be acquitted;
his confidence, thankfully, was as overblown as his ego.
On March 5th, 1979, Bateson was convicted of second degree murder following a four day trial;
the evidence was so overwhelming the jury deliberated only thirty minutes
before announcing their verdict.
During the sentencing hearing the prosecutor raised the spectre of Bateson’s involvement
in the “Fag in a Bag” murders, but to date no one has been charged with the killings and none of the six victims has ever been identified.
Bateson was ultimately sentenced to the slightly less-harsh twenty years to life,
despite his possible involvement in half a dozen other murders.
It’s unclear if Addison’s sexual orientation played a role in the court’s bestowal of leniency,
but I can’t help but wonder
if the film critic’s leather fetish was a factor in the judge’s refusal to grant the maximum punishment.
Blaming homosexuals for their own murders was and is par for the course;
to this day, gay panic defense is legal in every state except California.
being closeted must’ve been such a fraught existence—his mother his ever-present escort at film premieres,
terrified his colleagues at Variety
would guess his dirty little secret—and then one night
he brought home the wrong needy loser
and wound up dead for failing to reciprocate “the soul act,” whatever the hell that is.
And then the whole world found out that not only was he gay, but he loved leather—and drugs.
And The New York Times, newspaper of record, trumpeted the gory details of his last cocaine-dusted, poppers-fueled one night stand, and his nearest and dearest will forever be aware that he died nude and covered with lube.
The indignity of it all.
Addison’s gravestone features a line from Hamlet: “Goodnight, sweet prince;”
for some reason I find it a poignant epitaph, and heartily endorse the sentiment:
“Goodnight sweet prince / and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
After serving twenty-four years in prison Paul Bateson was released on parole on August 25th, 2003;
On an interesting side note, although William Friedkin’s Cruising screenplay had been partly inspired
by Arthur Bell’s coverage of the S&M murders
the Voice writer was incensed when he read a leaked draft of Friedkin’s script;
deeming the movie homophobic,
Bell organized protests designed to disrupt Cruising’s West Village filming.
Angry leather aficionados took to the streets with whistles and flashlights,
but Friedkin prevailed and the film was completed.
Looking back, it’s ironic the gay community would become so galvanized
by a mere film—during 1979 there was a killer on the prowl far more lethal
than the “Fag in a Bag” murderer, a killer whose victims would soon be numbered not in tens
but in tens of thousands.
As Friedkin’s cameras rolled AIDS was unfurling its vast tentacles throughout the NYC gay community—men would soon begin to die, my own beloved uncle among them.
now seventy-four years old, he lives quietly in upstate New York—the terms of his supervised release
expired in 2008. Ironically, I can’t help but wonder if his imprisonment
saved his life;
the AIDS epidemic cut a wide swath through the NYC leather community,
and at the time of his incarceration he seemed poised at best
to drink himself into an early grave.
Personally, I’m not inclined to believe Bateson was responsible for the “Fag in a Bag” murders,
or any of the other gay killings of the era;
although his medical knowledge certainly would’ve aided the dismemberment process
he seemed too eager to confess to Addison’s murder—he clearly relished the attention.
If he’d played a role in any of the other slayings I can’t help but believe
he would’ve taken credit and basked in the limelight long ago.
And yet, it’s certainly possible that Bateson, perhaps in an alcoholic blackout,
perpetrated some or even all of the crimes—he was handy with a knife,
and he was certainly capable of murder.
So next time you don your leather chaps and sidle up to the bar at The Manhole
take a good look at the codger on the stool beside you—maybe he murdered a Variety film critic in 1977.
Or maybe he murdered drag performer Toni Lee, or John P.W. Beardsley (Harvard ’42).
Maybe he hacked six men into pieces so small
that not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men
could put the putrefying human jigsaw puzzles together again.
Maybe he killed all these victims and fifty more
and now after laying low for a few decades he wants to kill you too, just for old times’ sake.
Personally, I find that a lot scarier than The Exorcist.