In 2013, I wrote “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins-The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.” Following the book’s release, mock trials were held around Wyoming based on the book’s allegations that Senator Hunt took his own life because of what may have been the criminal conduct of three of Hunt’s colleagues, Senators Styles Bridges (R-New Hampshire), Herman Welker (R-Idaho), and Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin.
One of the mock trials was held in the nation’s capital, sponsored by the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC, the oldest U.S. organization advocating for LGBTQ rights. Mattachine President Charles Francis said the Hunt suicide and its causes are a part of American history that some hoped to hide forever. “The erasure was almost complete,” Francis posted on his organization’s Facebook page, “until Wyoming pastor and historian Rodger McDaniel wrote a breakthrough history in 2013.”
My book detailed the threats and coercion employed by Senators Bridges and Welker as they attempted to force the Wyoming Democrat to resign from the Senate, then controlled by a single Democratic vote. McCarthy joined the alleged conspiracy with trumped up claims that Hunt bribed a detective to dismiss the charges. McCarthy’s announcement that he would hold one of his infamous witch-hunt hearings into those phony charges followed a year of threats that included the ransacking of Hunt’s Washington home. Early the following morning Hunt killed himself.
It was good to know of the book’s impact on Baldwin, but it was not alone. A few months ago Hunt’s suicide was the subject of a documentary produced by renowned journalist and investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. His film is titled “Uniquely Nasty-The U.S. Government’s War on Gays.”
The Hunt tragedy is but one of many such stories Isikoff documents. In the 1950s it was U.S. government policy to ruin the lives of gays and lesbians and your government went about their work with vigor.
This dark episode in American history has caught the attention of a United States Senator who occupies the seat once held by Joe McCarthy. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is the only openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. At the National Press Club this week it was announced that Senator Baldwin has sent a letter to United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking the Justice Department to open an investigation into Lester Hunt’s 1954 suicide.
Baldwin called it shocking that the death of a United States Senator was never investigated either by the Senate or the Justice Department. Indeed it was equally shocking that no Wyoming newspaper or politician ever demanded an investigation. Six decades ago, the popular Hunt, a former Governor and Secretary of State, was quietly laid to rest. His story was buried with him. Almost.
Perhaps Tammy Baldwin and the U.S. Attorney General can remedy that failure. The Senator’s October 1, 2015 letter said, “While decades have passed since this tragic incident, it remains a troubling example of the misdeeds of the McCarthy era and the role homophobia and bigotry has played in the history of our nation including at the highest levels of the federal government.
Baldwin explained to the Attorney general how important she believed an investigation is to maintaining the integrity of the United States Senate.
Baldwin’s letter was the second request Lynch received. In July, Lester Hunt Jr. wrote Ms. Lynch asking the same. The Senator’s son said he’d come to believe his father died “because he was being threatened and blackmailed by three of his Senate colleagues in order to change majority control of the U.S. Senate.”
Cold case civil rights cases are nothing new. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 directs the Department of Justice and the FBI to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of Civil Rights Era homicides that occurred on or before December 31, 1969.
The act is based on the belief that the truth is good for the soul, even the soul of a nation. Wyoming’s congressional delegation might consider joining Baldwin’s cause. After all Hunt was our Senator.