Remembering William Bishop Again

Jim Burroway

January 6th, 2016
Subject: William Bishop

Mr Burroway

Would you please contact me at XXX-XXX-XXXX or email I am the niece of William Bishop. Thank you.

William Bert Bishop. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

William Bert Bishop. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

Most of our Daily Agenda stories involve rather ordinary and otherwise anonymous people who, but for that one event, would have lived their lives unnoticed by all except their family and loved ones. This probably would have been true for William Bishop, 29, if it weren’t for that one thing that would bring his young life to an abrupt end in 1955, in his Miami Beach apartment.

His story was featured in yesterday’s and today’s Daily Agenda. Here’s a recap: On January 5, 1955, William had met Thomas Francis McDonald, 21, who newspapers would describe as a “burly 210-pound Korean War veteran.” Thomas had abruptly left his wife and six-month-old daughter behind in Eatontown, New Jersey on December 28 (PDF: 21.6 MB/44 pages, see page 33), following a fierce argument that reportedly left him “despondent.” The papers also said he was depressed over the death of his parents, although his mother would later show up to testify at the trial. McDonald headed south, covering over 1250 miles before checking into the Tuscany Motel in Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami. We don’t know when he arrived in Hollywood, but we do know that on January 5, he made his way nine miles south on highway A1A to a bar on 74th street in Miami Beach where he met William. They had a few drinks, played some shuffleboard, and sometime during the course of the evening, William invited Thomas to his 82nd street apartment.

After that, it’s mostly he-said/he-said, except one of them would be dead. What everyone did agree on, mostly, was that when William’s roommates discovered his body the next morning on the enclosed porch, it was clothed in what was described as a silk dressing gown (although some reports would describe him as nude), with his hands tied behind his back with an extension cord and a sash from his gown, and a towel and handkerchief stuffed in his mouth as a gag.

Now even this story might have come and gone like any other murder story, and William Bishop’s name might has slipped back into that same obscurity from where it came. But two things conspired to revive his memory more than half a century after his not-quite three-decade life had ended. First, William’s death came after one of Miami’s worst “lavender scares” ever to take place. That scare was the product of a fierce headline war between the scrappy afternoon Miami Daily News and its larger morning competitor, the Miami Herald. While both papers had engaged in anti-gay skirmishes more than a year before, it was the August 1954 murder of an Eastern Airlines male flight steward and the subsequent “discovery” of a large gay community in Miami that sent both papers into a running battle over who could provide the most sensational headlines and shrillest alarms — and capture the most readers. The witch hunts had mostly died down by December, but not before a fresh round of anti-gay ordinances were passed, bars and beaches were raided, names and photos were plastered on the front pages, and countless people were fired and their lives ruined. William’s murder took place against that historical backdrop, and for two days in January, it earned the same sensationalistic and hyperbolic coverage in the local press as the numerous other stories over the previous five months.

The second thing that helped to bring William’s memory back to life was the Internet, and the decision by Google to digitize and post online several editions of the Miami Daily News. That historical trove has since been removed (temporarily, I hope), but it did allow me to write two items for the Daily Agenda about William’s murder and McDonald’s arrest and conviction. And that allowed Judy Bishop Sewell, William’s niece, to find a few answers to questions she had about her uncle’s death, answers that none of the older family members were willing to provide while they were still alive. She emailed me last April, and we spoke briefly on the phone a few days later. We then followed up with another conference call that also included her brother, Chip Bishop. Together, we pieced together a much clearer picture of who William Bishop was, and the impact his death had on the family.

William Bishop with Judy Bishop Sewell

William Bishop with Judy Bishop Sewell. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

William grew up in the paper mill town of East Millinocket, Maine, the youngest of six boys. As an adult, he honed his hairdressing skills in nearby Millinocket, where he opened his own beauty shop. Chip is too young to remember him, but Judy was about thirteen years old when William was murdered.  “I remember his kindness,” Judy said, “and I remember that he would play with me and I know that he bought me some clothes. And as a young kid, that was just wonderful. And there was always something that he was going to give me, and I think that we went to the circus one time. And also, he gave me one of the vanities at his shop when he left. And I just remember him as being a warm person and a favorite of my father’s brothers.”

William worked at Serene's Beauty Shop in Millinocket, just a few miles west of East Millinocket. The beauty shop was located under the green awning on the right hand side. (Image via Google Streetview.)

William worked at Serene’s Beauty Shop in Millinocket, just a few miles west of East Millinocket. The beauty shop was located under the green awning on the right hand side. (Image via Google Streetview.)

Millinocket had been founded in 1899 by the Northern Development Company, which later became the Great Northern Paper Co. East Millinocket was founded eight years later. Both were, in essence, company towns. Williams father worked at the mill in East Millinocket, as did just about everyone in town. “The mill paid a very good salary,” said Judy. “I think that I had a wonderful childhood growing up in that town. I made friends there that I’ve kept in touch with for … well since I went to grammar school. … It was a nice town to grow up in. It’s now very much on the decline with no industry there. People are moving out, the kids not staying because there are no jobs. It’s kind of a depressed area.”

Chip added: “Back in the time that we’re talking about, well when the company came in, they built the town, they helped people to build the houses. They put everyone in a square, divided it into house blocks, and they gave everyone land and they help them build the houses. And so it was a very tight community. It wasn’t spread out geographically at all. It was bunched straight up. It was a town where they all worked in the same place, and where everybody knew everybody else’s business. And there was a lot of gossip and a lot of talk, and they would go on and it would spread like wildfire. You were apt to hear something from somebody in town before you would hear it from your own relatives, the way the gossip and the wildfire would spread.”

William Bishop with two nieces. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

William Bishop with two nieces. Photo courtesy of the Bishop family.

While we don’t know for certain, it appears that gossip and wildfire, precipitated by a particularly embarrassing brush with the law, may have led to William’s move to Florida. Sometime around 1952 or 1953, William was arrested on what Judy remembered as a sodomy charge. “I saw a little cutout of an article in Mom’s jewelry box about it. But I didn’t know even what sodomy was at the time. I know as I read that article that he had been arrested, and then as I got older I remembered that article. I went snooping in my mother’s jewelry box and I found it with some other articles that she had saved – not about William but about other people. And I thought, well, that kind of answers the question about why one day we all went to Bangor, and I think it was when William either went there for a trial or went there to discuss this charge that had been brought up with a lawyer. But I remember us going to Bangor and my mom said we have to go, and it’s about William. And I never heard anything else about it.” Judy remembered pestering her parents about what sodomy meant, but “I just couldn’t drag it out of them.”

We don’t know the specific charge against William, nor the circumstances behind it. An 1857 law provided from one to ten years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of “the crime against nature.” (It was repealed by the state legislature during a comprehensive revision to the criminal code in 1975.) We don’t have any indication that William was ever imprisoned. Nor do we know whether he was found guilty of a lesser charge.

But we do know that by 1954, he had moved to Miami Beach, a city that he was probably familiar with. “William and his mother would often go to Florida for several weeks to a month during the winter,” recalled Judy. He re-established himself as a hairdresser and it seems the he was doing pretty well for himself. He was living in a rather nice apartment located just two short blocks from the beach. He shared that apartment with two other roommates: William H. Tower, a florist who was twenty-two years old at the time of William’s death in 1955, and Edward B. Hedgepeth, twenty-seven and also a hairdresser.

“Edward Hedgepeth, left, and William H. Tower, William Bishop’s roommates, being escorted to a telephone in a neighboring apartment by Miami Beach police officer. (Photo by the Miami Daily News.)

For the rest of William’s story in Miami Beach, we now have to turn to the city’s newspapers. Now in those days, newspapers could usually be counted on to be sympathetic to the murder victim and antagonistic to the perp. Not so in this case. The Miami News reminded readers four times — twice in the headlines — that Bishop was a hairdresser. It also described his roommates as “hysterical” twice, a coded description that at the time was reserved almost exclusively for women. Despite the apartment still being the legal private residence for two surviving roommates, police allowed a reporter to roam through the entire apartment where he found a desk “littered with reading matter about homosexuals, including the book, ‘Strange Loves,’ by Dr. LaForest Potter.” Police also gave the reporter a close-up look at William’s body:

Bishop’s hands were tied behind him with a man’s handkerchief and the dressing gown sash, which were twisted together. The wrists and ankles were bound together with the electric extension cord, and a dish towel and another handkerchief were knotted around the face as a gag. … John Berdeaux, sheriff’s homicide investigator, said: “It looks to me like a sadistic murder.”

Detective Charles Sapp handcuffs Thomas F. McDonald. (Photo by the Miami Daily News.)

McDonald — “who has a wife and 6-month-old child,” the Miami News quickly assured its readers — was arrested the next day and charged with murder. Newspapers throughout Florida and the wire services across the country consistently described McDonald as a “burly 210-pound Korea War veteran” every bit as often as they described Bishop as a “hairdresser,” who McDonald had no choice but to kill because Bishop “tried to make some improper advances towards me. I hit him with my first three or four times, and he struck back and got me on the jaw twice. He fell when I hit him again.” McDonald also had no choice but to tie him up “because I figured he might follow me,” what with Bishop being unconscious and all. McDonald also insisted that he wasn’t gay. “I never had any use for them and I still don’t,” he protested. The newspapers’ subtext was clear: they both were guilty — and the murderer was also a victim. “It was almost like a put-down to William,” said Judy, “when it was noted in the newspaper that he was a hairdresser, and that kept coming up. Why did they have to repeat it so many times?”

William’s family found out about his murder the same way everyone else did: through the papers. Judy was in school when “one person came up to me, and it was when that article in the Bangor Daily News happened. She came up and said, ‘Did you know your uncle was murdered in Florida?’ And I was absolutely stunned. That’s how I found out.”

She continued: “I went home for lunch and I told my mom what had happened, and I think she said, ‘Your grandmother just found out in the newspaper that William had been murdered.’ So I don’t think anybody called to break the news. I was always told that they found out in the newspaper, which to me is just not right.”

Judy doesn’t remember there being a funeral, nor does she remember anyone in the family talking about William’s death. “I mean, it was like nobody was supposed to know about this. … Which seemed strange to me, you know? I think the family was dysfunctional in the fact that I suspect they knew that there was something, quote-unquote, ‘wrong’ with William, that he wasn’t like the other brothers. I think they just kind of dismissed it and nobody wanted to talk about it.”

She and Chip both think that the family’s discomfort over William’s sexuality and the circumstances surrounding his death were compounded by other dynamics in the family. “I think he grew up in a dysfunctional home because his mother, my grandmother, was an alcoholic,” said Judy. “And I think children that grow up in a home where there’s a parent who is an alcoholic have a very difficult life.” Chip added that William’s mother “also had man-friends that came over a lot and played cards, drank, and whatever… Mom used to talk about.”

“He had five other brothers that lived a very hard life,” Chip added. “I mean, my dad dropped out of high school in the eighth grade to go work in the woods to help the family. My dad went into the service and had a very bad time in World War II, where most of the people in each of his squads were killed. He came out, like, the only guy, a couple of times. He did a lot of killing over there in Italy. He come back and, my mother always told me, was very hardened. He wasn’t the same guy when he came back. So I would image when this came out about William, he did not want to hear this at all! And I suspect that, he also had a couple other brothers that also served, and they were probably of the same mentality and feeling that they did not want this. I think they really did everything that they could to suppress it.”

McDonald went on trial that May, where he repeated his claim that Bishop made improper advances. McDonald reacted by hitting Bishop on the head with an ash tray and tying him up. One press report included this detail:

McDonald said he thought of the idea (of tying Bishop up) after recalling how he had seen GIs in Korea bound and gagged the same way — the only difference being the soldiers had been shot through the head.

Other reports stated that the medical examiner determined that Bishop had been “abused sexually.” Judy wondered whether there was some post-traumatic stress playing out. “If William made an advance and he was uncomfortable maybe, it might have just triggered pure rage in this man. I don’t know. I’m just guessing. … I think his war experiences had an effect on him. It couldn’t help but have an effect.” She also noticed that McDonald only had two defense witnesses: his wife, Joan, who was then twenty-one years old and raising their infant daughter, and a “Mrs. J.E. McDonald” of Chelsea, Massachusetts. “It was just so sad to read that. It must have been terrible for that family as it was for our family. And it was interesting, too, that McDonald’s mother lived in the Boston area and that’s where I live. She lived in Chelsea, right outside Boston, and I live in Ashland, which is about twenty-five miles west.”

As we ended our phone conversation, Judy was reflective: “I’ve thought a lot today about his pain in being a gay man and probably not getting any support from family and friends. That’s got to be very hurtful. And I wonder if William didn’t divorce himself from the family when he went to Florida to live, if he had just had enough and wanted to start anew. Because with the sodomy episode in Maine and the small town gossip, it must have been gut-wrenching for him.”

HeadstoneAt the time we spoke on the phone, she and Chip didn’t even know where William was buried. A few days later, I got a couple of emails from Chip. The ring that McDonald stole was recovered and had been returned to the family. The diamond was removed and placed in a new setting. It is now a treasured heirloom. Chip was also relieved to find William’s final resting place in the East Millinocket Cemetery — William’s info was missing from the cemetery’s registry. “It really made my day in knowing his five brothers were able to step up and do right by William,” he wrote. He also noticed that the headstone got William’s name backwards — “Bert William” instead of William Bert.

Here is some additional biographical information that I’ve been able to uncover:

Thomas Francis McDonald, William’s killer, was born on March 13, 1933 in Everett, Massachusetts, to David C. McDonald and Jessie E. (Marshall) McDonald. He died on July 29, 1994 in Boston at the age of sixty-one, which suggests that he was paroled sometime before he died. If his daughter is still alive today, she would be sixty-one years old. If his wife, Joan, is still alive, she would be eighty-two.

Edward Bernard Hedgepeth, one of William’s roommates, was born on January 20, 1927 in Nash County, North Carolina. He apparently changed his name in 1956, just a year after the murder, to Edward Bernard Edwards, taking his mother’s maiden name. He was still living in Miami in 1984 and in North Miami in 1992. He passed away there on January 4, 2002, just shy of his seventy-fifth birthday.

William H. Tower, William’s other roommate, was born sometime around 1932 or 1933. I have been unable to find any further information about him. If he is still alive today, he would be eighty-three years old.

If you or someone you know has any information about William Bishop or anyone else in this story, please contact me here.

Mark F.

January 6th, 2016

Good detective work!

Timothy Kincaid

January 6th, 2016

Thank you Jim for this great story.

Ben in oakland

January 6th, 2016

Thank you very much indeed. Just what I asked for.

And it shows just how much destruction homohatred wreaks on the lives of everyone who comes into contact with it, whether it was poor William or the murderers baby daughter.

Paul Douglas

January 7th, 2016

Wow! What a story. Thank you Jim!

Amy Damboise

June 23rd, 2017

I just spoke to someone recently that knew this man. This is such a sad story. I am so sorry for the family.

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