The Daily Agenda for Friday, November 11
November 1st, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
55 YEARS AGO: Charleston Man Bludgeoned to Death in “The Candlestick Murder”: 1958. The front page of Sunday News and Courier bore shocking news to Charleston, South Carolina readers: “A 30-year-old Charleston chemical company executive was clubbed to death with a heavy brass candlestick in his Queen Street house sometime yesterday morning.” A maid found Jack Dobbins’s bloody and nude body on his living room sofa when she arrived for work. A housemate, a young student at the Medical College of South Carolina was sound asleep upstairs. The paper described the scene:
Dobbins’ body lay on his side fully outstretched on the sofa, the candlestick cradled between his crossed arms. The wall and sofa, in addition to the candlestick, showed bloodstains. A matching candleholder was in Dobbins’ bedroom. The victim’s underclothing lay on a nearby coffeetable and the remainder of his clothing was on an upstairs bedroom dresser. Also on the coffeetable were two highball classes nearly full of bourbon, a package of cigarettes and lighter. On a disk across the room stood a nearly empty bourbon bottle
The coroner said that Dobbins had been struck nine times with the candlestick, which fractured his scull in three places. He also said there was no signs that Dobbins resisted the attack and the room showed no signs of a violent struggle taking place, and suggested that Dobbins may have been taken by surprise while laying on the sofa. The housemate had heard nothing downstairs, and neither had the neighbors.
The next day, an airman at Charleston Air Force Base, Airman 3rd Class John Joseph Mahon, was arrested and held pending further investigation. According to Mahon’s lawyer, Mahon surrendered “upon having read of Dobbins’ death.” Mahon was charged on November 3 with murder and held without bail, just as Dobbins was being laid to rest in Spartanburg.
Dobbins, a Korean War veteran who was continuing his education through the Army, was well-liked in the neighborhood and well-regarded by his employer. These factors seemed to have influenced the way The News and Courier handled their reporting. “‘Affable,’, ‘pleasant,’ ‘personable’ — these were the adjectives to describe the slain Dobbins,” the paper said. Nowhere in the initial reports on Dobbins’s death did the News and Courier explicitly identify Dobbins as homosexual.
But they hardly had to. That Dobbins’ nude body was found on the sofa while his male housemate slumbered upstairs only began to set the stage. The brass candlestick was obviously not something that would be commonly found in a typical bachelor pad, but since it was the murder weapon, its presence could hardly be ignored. And so the candlestick loomed large in the story: two-feet tall, with relief carvings on its blood-caked base depicting the Virgin Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The paper initially labeled the case the Halloween Murder or the Queen Street Murder, but before long, it was the Candlestick Murder in the minds of Charleston residents.
But the reports which gingerly placed Dobbins among “his kind” appeared on November 3, which said, “Ironically, Dobbins was very proud of the candlestick used to kill him. An acquaintance said Dobbins purchased a pair of antique holders at a candle shop last fall.” That’s hardly typical of heterosexual bachelors. A second article said he was “an admirer of fine paintings with a flair for artistic home furnishings. …The tastefully appointed rooms in his quaint Queen Street house bear out his reported appreciation for artful furnishings.”
And while the News and Courier was busy placing Dobbins in his element, the same paper was also describing Mohan as a an “18-year-old, boyish-looking airman,” a “clean-cut youth” who stood five feet six and weighted about 135 pounds, the very picture of innocence. That set up morality place nicely, as Mahon’s lawyer told reporters, “The youth’s actions were completely justifiable and in self defense. A complete statement will be given at the proper time.”
When the trial began on December 9, the defense attorney set the stage by asking Dobbins’s housemate whether Dobbins ever had a girlfriend. Dobbins hadn’t, as far as the roommate knew. The maid was asked what color Dobbins’s sheets were. They were lavender. And what about visitors? Almost exclusively men, as far as she knew. What relevance any of that had with the murder, nobody bothered to explain. Then the trial turned to what happened in the house that night. Two Air Force buddies testified that when Mahon returned to the base, he gave them two different stories:
One version is that the young airman struck Dobbins with the candlestick after Dobbins made improper advances. The airman at that stage, according to the testimony, became frightened and ran out the door.
Another story… is that the airman obtained the candlestick from Dobbins’ room to protect himself and that while he was upstairs Dobbins put out the lights in the living room and then made advances toward the airman.
At this point… Mahon struck Dobbins with the candlestick and Dobbins fell back on the couch, but bounded to his feet and the two struggled. Dobbins — 5 feet 10 and weighing an estimated 170 — struck the airman two blows, according to the testimony, when the airman — weighing an estimated 130 points — punched Dobbins in the stomach and “he got a funny look in his face and went down.” Mahon, according to that version, rifled the trouser pockets.
The two witnesses said that Mahon had returned to the base with money, a money clip, a cigarette lighter, a silver fingernail file, and other personal items. But when Mahon took the stand, it was now Dobbins who was on trial. Mahon described meeting Dobbins in a bar and accompanying him to several other clubs around town. They then went to Dobbins’s apartment, where Mahon said Dobbins offered him a drink and “made improper advances at him.” Mahon said excused himself to go to the bathroom, which was upstairs behind Dobbins’s bedroom. He came back down stairs, he said, to find the lights out and Dobbins unclothed (even though earlier reports said that Dobbins’ clothing was upstairs except for his underwear). Mahon said he ran back upstairs, found the candlestick, and came back down stairs. He then claimed that he hit Dobbins three or four times. Dobbins fell down on the couch, and Mahon tossed the candlestick down and fled the house.
Little of this made any sense. Nobody bothered to explain why Mahon didn’t just walk out the front door. Nothing in Mahon’s testimony explained how Dobbins received his fatal injuries or how the blood got on the candlestick. Given the testimony, the stolen items and the bloody candlestick, it ought to have been an open and shut case. The prosecution asked for the death penalty, the defense asked for acquittal. The jury got the case at 8:00 p.m. and was still deliberating after midnight, when the judge lost patience and called the jury into the court room. “If the state is entitled to a verdict in this case, it is entitled to it tonight,” he told the jury. “If the defendant is entitled to a verdict in this case, he is entitled to it tonight.” The jury went back to the jury room and emerged eight minutes later with its verdict: not guilty. ONE magazine, the nation’s first pro-gay magazine, summed it up all up this this way:
A bright and merry Christmas was in prospect for all-all, that is, except Jack Dobbins who would spend his Christmas six feet under the sod with a shattered skull. But then, of course, Jack used lavender sheets!
[Sources: Unsigned (“A Charleston Reporter”). “The Hallowe’en Party.” ONE 7, no. 5 (May 1959): 17-19.
William Chapman. “Queen St. Man Murder Victim: Candlestick Weapon in Halloween Killing.” The News and Courier (November 2, 1958): 1
Otis Perkins. “Airman held in killing: Teen-ager Jailed After surrendering to Police.” The News and Courier (November 3, 1958): 1.
William Chapman. “Queen Street Death: Jack Dobbins was Liked By Neighbors.” The News and Courier (November 3, 1958): 13.
“Halloween Murder: Young Airman Is Charged in Slaying.” The News and Courier (November 4, 1958): 1.
“Candlestick Murder Trial Gets Under Way: Five Witnesses Take the Stand.” The News and Courier (December 10, 1958): 1B.
“Conflicting Tales Told by 2 Trial Witnesses: Perjury Hinted in Halloween Murder.” The News and Courier (December 11, 1958): 1B.
Glenn Robertson. “Murder Weapon: Candlestick Plays Big Role in Case.” The News and Courier (December 11, 1958): 1B.
“Dobbins Murder Case Given to Jury Here: Defense Declares Killing Justified.” The News and Courier (December 12, 1958): 1B.
Otis Perkins. “Time Hung Heavy for 18-year-old: Jury Acquits Young Airman of Halloween Killing Here.” The News and Courier (December 13, 1958): 1B.
ABC Broadcasts “That Certain Summer”: 1972. ABC television’s Wednesday night broadcast of the Movie of the Week broke refreshing new ground when it aired “That Certain Summer,” which marked the first sympathetic portrayal of gay people on television. The made-for-TV movie portrayed a mid-40’s divorced man who must explain his homosexuality to his 14-year-old son, Nick, who is on a visit during summer vacation. The production was written and produced by Richard Levinson and William Link, and it had been pitched to NBC first, which rejected it. “It was perfectly acceptable for Bob Hope or Johnny Carson to mince about the screen doing broad parodies of homosexual behavior,” they later observed. “But anything else, anything not derisive or played for laughs, was out of the question.” ABC picked it up instead.
“That Certain Summer” featured Hal Holbrook as Doug Slater, the teen’s father, Martin Sheen as Gary McClain, Slater’s partner, and Scott Jacoby as Nick. None of the characters fell into stereotype. In fact the two men were actually seen touching and neither of them died in the end. The New York Times’ John O’Connor said that the cast delivered “some of the most impressive and sensitive acting ever contributed ot television.” It would go on to receive seven Emmy nominations, with Scott Jacoby picking up the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Drama for his portrayal of Nick. It also won a Golden Globe for Best Movie Made for TV.
But not everyone thought the movie was so wonderful. Sacramento’s KOVR received 400 phone calls, including a bomb threat, in protest. The calls began as early as 10:00 a.m. on the morning before the film aired. But station manager Bill Lange said that most of the calls on Thursday were favorable. That seems to have been the pattern across the country. ABC hired extra operators to handle an anticipated avalanche of angry phone calls, but the calls never materialized.
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