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The carefree parties on Plum Island drew the ire of Maj. Benjamin Koehler, yet he would be the man later arrested and accused of “immoral conduct” at the end of 1913. Koehler, a West Point alumnus and Philippine War veteran, had been tasked with bringing discipline to the 700 men living at Fort Terry, a sprawling garrison on a beautiful island off New York’s coast. He lived on officers row with his sister, an educated and independent woman who, like her brother, was unmarried. Little did the devoted siblings know that Fort Terry would soon become the stuff of front-page headlines, with Ben Koehler at the center of them—and not for his patriotic efforts. The claims that Fort Terry’s commander had engaged in homoerotic behavior shocked the Army and Koehler’s many supporters, but the accusers were smart, triggering one of the first high-profile instances of federal legal process against an alleged homosexual.
Deeply researched, involving historical figures as contrasting as Theodore Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony, Scandal on Plum Island traces Koehler’s career from respected officer to vilified outcast and turns up provocative information about his defense. Moving from America’s heartland to New York City, the Philippines, San Francisco, the east end of Long Island, and government offices in Washington, D.C., his story is a warning about the high cost to individuals and society when people and governments police the sexual orientation of others who seem different. Involving a toxic mixture of egos, malice, and changing standards of masculinity [over a century ago], Koehler’s experience speaks directly to modern discussions of gender norms, damaging stereotypes, and the fundamental misunderstandings that divide our country.
A lawyer and award-winning journalist, Marian Lindberg spent several years researching the story of injustice told in Scandal on Plum Island while also working to open New York’s Plum Island to the public after the United States closes its classified laboratory located there. Lindberg’s previous book told of her search for the truth underlying a family story of murder in the Amazon (The End of the Rainy Season: Discovering My Family’s Hidden Past in Brazil.) She is a graduate of Vassar College and Columbia Law School and currently works for The Nature Conservancy.