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Prescott Townsend

Two portraits side by side of Prescott Townsend when he was young and old.
Prescott Townsend as a young man in a World War I uniform ca. 1917-1919 (left), and decades later as an elderly, bearded man in a beret ca. 1960s (right).

Private collection of Adrian Cathcart (both photographs).

Early gay activist Prescott Townsend made his home on the north slope of Beacon Hill, adding his colorful, eccentric personality to the neighborhood’s vivid history. The stately brick structures of the hill hold the stories of many generations, communities, and cultures. For much of the nineteenth century, one of the most dynamic free Black communities in the United States called the northern slope of Beacon Hill home. Later, the same part of the hill became the residence of various immigrant groups, including Jewish people who fled persecution in Eastern Europe. For a significant portion of the twentieth century, these immigrants and their descendants shared the hill with a lively counterculture presence that transformed the north slope into an enclave for artists and the LGBTQ+ community, starting in the 1920s. Townsend exemplified this bohemian side of Beacon Hill.

Early Life and Education

"Most autobiographies start with ancestors," Townsend wrote in 1958. "Twenty-three of mine came over on the Mayflower. My third great-grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution; the only man to be so inconsistent."[1] By the time Prescott Townsend entered the world on June 24, 1894, over two centuries of Boston Brahmin pedigree and wealth had set expectations for the life he should live. In his early life, Townsend followed the conventional path of a Yankee aristocrat from preparatory school to Harvard. He struggled to attain passing grades in college, with one faculty member writing, "his chief trouble is not so much stupidity as it is a lack of poise and self-confidence, together with a nervousness that is sometimes pathetic."[2] Despite these difficulties, Townsend still managed to enjoy himself there and always took pride in being a Harvard man.

Harvard provided Townsend with opportunities to explore his attraction to other men. Earlier in his adolescence, Townsend told his parents about his sexual orientation. As he recalled to his biographer Adrian Cathcart decades later, they accepted him but warned him to "be careful."[3] In the early 20th century, every state in the United States criminalized homosexuality. If caught, Townsend risked imprisonment and negative publicity for his prominent family.

Military Service and Travels

Townsend pressed on through Harvard, but the U.S.'s entry into World War I interrupted his academic progress. Similar to many young men of his class, he chose to leave school and enlist. Harvard offered him a war degree, which secured his place among the Class of 1918 despite his absence. Townsend entered the U.S. Naval Reserves on April 1, 1917, with the rank of chief boatswain's mate. By September, he received a promotion to ensign and a new assignment to the USS Illinois in the Atlantic fleet. After a year aboard the Illinois, the Navy stationed Townsend, successively, in New Orleans and at Texas A&M University.[4]

Upon his discharge from the Navy in January of 1919, Townsend studied at Harvard Law for a year, but he did not continue and decided to travel instead. Like many of his "Lost Generation," Townsend found his way to Paris in 1920. The bohemian counterculture he encountered there instilled a love of offbeat aesthetics that shaped his personal goals and style for the rest of his life.

Experimental Architect and Patron of the Arts

Portrait of Prescott Townsend from late 1930s-early 1940s
Prescott Townsend as a middle-aged man, around the time of his arrest, ca. 1938-1943.

Credit: Harvard University

When he returned to Boston in the early 1920s, Townsend ventured into real estate and purchased a number of properties on the northern slope of Beacon Hill. He rented them out as restaurants, bookshops, antique stores, and artists’ studios, with bohemian Paris and the emerging artistic scene of New York’s Greenwich Village serving as his models. The centerpiece of his properties, an old building on Joy Street, operated as the Barn Theatre, or simply the Barn, throughout the 1920s. Townsend’s love for the arts, fostered in Paris, led him to fund the Barn’s troupe and co-found the Boston Society of Independent Artists.

Sadly, this period of Townsend's life only lasted a short time, as the stock market crash of 1929 hit Townsend and his tenants hard and, as he later wrote, "the depression took the buildings away."[5] He lost most, though not, all of his properties, but retained a house on Lindall Place and the house directly behind it on Phillips Street. Undeterred, Townsend set his sights on Cape Cod and began his decades-long foray into experimental architecture, with Provincetown becoming his base of creative operations. He aimed to design "an adequate house, reasonably priced,"[6] something that many Americans needed during the Great Depression. He eventually designed, though never patented, a solar-heated modular home called "Arch Sun House," constructed of plastic and salvaged wood. No evidence suggests that, apart from his prototype in Provincetown, Townsend ever built Arch Sun Houses.

Arrest and Incarceration

Townsend’s life underwent another dramatic change because of his arrest on January 29, 1943. Townsend's parents had warned him to be careful in his youth, but he did not always heed that advice. Charged with performing a "crime against nature" in a Beacon Hill doorway, Townsend refused to deny his actions and received an eighteen-month prison sentence, which he served in the Massachusetts House of Corrections on Deer Island.[7] No family members petitioned the state to reduce his sentence. Rather, his name quietly vanished from the Social Register—books listing members of high society—during his imprisonment. In the eyes of those in his social class, Townsend’s arrest crossed a line from which he could not return. Townsend emerged from Deer Island with a new sense of purpose and nothing to lose. The cause of gay rights remained at the top of his list of priorities for the rest of his life.

Prescott Townsend sitting in a chair smiling.
Prescott Townsend around the height of his activist career, ca. 1960s

Credit: New York Public Library

LGBTQ+ Activism

“The third and last phase in my life has been the fight for social justice. This has also been the most fun.”[8]

Some sources indicate that Townsend began his gay rights activism as early as the 1930s, when he petitioned the Massachusetts state legislature to decriminalize homosexual activities. Though primary sources confirming these early visits to the State House remain elusive, secondary sources that speak to their existence agree that "he was politely received but swiftly dismissed."[9] After Townsend's release from prison, his efforts intensified and, as the 1940s became the 1950s, he claimed that "the first social discussion of homosexuality in Boston"[10] occurred at his home and bookshop in Beacon Hill’s Lindall Place. These informal gatherings evolved into the Boston chapter of the Mattachine Society, a gay men's group originally founded by Harry Hay in Los Angeles in 1950.

While Mattachine Society chapters thrived in many cities until the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, Boston Mattachine existed for only a brief, acrimonious period. Townsend's rivals for power in the organization and some outside observers in the New York chapter saw Townsend as the key factor in the Boston chapter's early demise. These other society members disapproved of Townsend's shabby, beatnik appearance, the disreputable company he kept, and, above all, his flagrant disregard for respectability politics. In late 1959, Townsend asked officers in the New York chapter if they would allow the Mattachine Society to sponsor a bill in the Massachusetts state legislature to change the Commonwealth's anti-sodomy laws. New York replied, "I feel that it is still too early in the history of the Mattachine to sponsor a bill in the state legislature concerning change in the sex laws" and explained that they wanted to wait until they had the support of ministers, lawyers, and psychiatrists before trying political routes.[11] While many other society members preferred quiet, gradual progress, Townsend demanded loud, immediate change. As someone who had already been jailed for his sexual activities and turned into a social outcast, he approached these discussions of activism from a much different perspective than men who remained closeted. As Townsend’s longtime rival Tony Giarraputo related in an interview, "he alienated a lot of people by the way he did it. Of course, he had nothing to lose, but we did."[12]

Even after Boston Mattachine moved its meetings out of Townsend's home and into the historic Parker House hotel, the power struggle continued until Townsend’s critics pushed him out of the organization in the early 1960s. Significantly, removing Townsend did not eliminate infighting, as the chapter dissolved shortly after his ouster. Townsend, undeterred, founded a gay rights society of his own, the Demophile Center, which never gained a large membership but appeared at events and published a newsletter through much of the 1960s. At some point in this period, Townsend created his Snowflake Theory of human sexuality, which posited that no two people’s preferences are alike, just as no two snowflakes are alike. However, like a snowflake, each person's attraction had six points: "I/You, He/She, Hit/Submit."[13] For much of the decade, Townsend passed out his homemade leaflets about his theory on the streets of Boston.[14]

Red brick brownstone in Beacon Hill that was Prescott Townsend's home.
Prescott Townsend’s Beacon Hill home at 15 Lindall Place

NPS Photo/Linger

Life on Beacon Hill and Provincetown

Townsend operated the Demophile Center out of his remaining Beacon Hill properties at 15 Lindall Place and 75 Phillips Street. Living in these homes, and at his compound in Provincetown, provided a memorable experience. As Joe McGrath, Townsend's longtime secretary and driver, related, “It was, in some ways, a challenge. He lived a very ascetic, very plain life.”[15] In the two cluttered Beacon Hill houses, connected by a subterranean passage, Townsend did not have a refrigerator, telephone, television, or radio.

The cheap rent and the social atmosphere drew people to Townsend’s properties, not the amenities. “One of the fun things about living in his house was that you never knew who was going to stop by,”[16] McGrath reflected. For many years, in both Boston and Provincetown, the homes drew in young, mostly gay runaways, hippies, and artists, who could get a bed and a hot meal for just a few cents. Here, Townsend’s business practices dovetailed with his activist interests, as he served as a mentored and housed the next generation of gay activists and artists. Filmmaker John Waters and poets Rene Ricard and Stephen Jonas counted among the more well-known tenants. Decades after his 1967 stay in Provincetown, Waters remembered, "It was the most freedom I ever had in my life, living there.”[17]

Later Years and Death

In 1966, Townsend made it to the silver screen, in a short student film called "An Early Clue to the New Direction." This half-hour feature starred Joy Bang as a young woman who spends an afternoon in the company of an aging Bostonian (Townsend) and learns about his Snowflake Theory of sexuality. The film received positive reviews in art film circles, with particular praise for Townsend's performance.[18] Townsend took immense pride in his film debut and viewed it as an opportunity to share the Snowflake Theory with a wider audience. In this later period of his life, Townsend stopped shaving and cutting his hair, soon fitting in with the hippies that stayed with him. This shaggy-haired iteration of Prescott Townsend traveled to New York City in June of 1970 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising--the very first Pride parade. Biographer Adrian Cathcart described Townsend "tottering along with a grin alternating with a look that seemed to be asking: 'Where am I?' but really was not."[19] Decades of change culminated in this awestruck moment for Townsend.

Prescott Townsend with four other young men at a Pride Parade
Prescott Townsend with a group of younger men at the first Pride parade in New York City, 1970. From left to right: Peter Ogren, Prescott Townsend, Tom Doerr, Mark Golderman, Randy Wicker.

Courtesy of New York Public Library.

While the late 1960s and early 1970s offered their share of triumphs, they also represented Townsend's final period of decline. Amid struggles with his health, everything else went up in smoke. A suspicious fire destroyed the Provincetown house in 1968; 75 Phillips Street and 15 Lindall Place became uninhabitable after a fire in 1971. The fires destroyed much of the documentary evidence of Townsend's life, making historians’ work difficult. More urgently, they left Townsend "essentially homeless"[20] in his final years. He settled in a friend’s basement apartment on Garden Street and passed away there on May 18, 1973.[21]

A bearded Prescott Townsend with a dog.
Prescott Townsend with a large dog on a Beacon Hill sidewalk, ca. 1972.

Credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Legacy

Townsend left behind a complicated legacy. Since so many pieces of Prescott Townsend’s tangible legacy—writings, buildings, organizations—did not outlive him, it can be difficult to measure the mark he left upon the LGBTQ+ community. Tony Giarraputo, his rival from Boston Mattachine who blamed him for the organization’s failure, said, “You might say he’s the great-grandfather of the gay movement in Boston. Alright, fine. But if he hadn’t done it, it would have come anyway. I think he did a lot of harm, because people would point to him…and well, he was the kiss of death.”[22] People who had more positive relationships with Townsend believed otherwise. For instance, Joe McGrath, when asked about Townsend’s legacy in a 2020 interview, replied,

Well, I think Prescott was ahead of his times in many ways vis à vis the gay rights area, and I think that, while he may not have been able to affect any dramatic change in his lifetime, he got the ball rolling in certain areas. . . . He, maybe, at least began to talk about gay rights, and I think that that’s basically his legacy—being an early speaker for gay rights.[23]

Randy Wicker, a longtime gay activist and friend of Townsend, cited Townsend’s personal mottoes as models for his own life:

Well, to me, he has only one legacy, and it’s ‘love, money, uplift.’ And, that doing for others brings you happiness. Those are the two most important statements you will ever hear anyone make.

Wicker went on to say that Townsend demonstrated the possibility of being gay, living a long life, and being relatively happy.[24] As a young activist finding his own place in the world, it had been heartening to witness an elderly man being so ferociously himself. Though often critical of Townsend in his unpublished biography, Adrian Cathcart finished the manuscript by writing:

He loved to take up unpopular causes. He loved freedom, fair play, work and boys with waist-sizes of 30” and under. He loved being a star and the center of attention. He loved Harvard. He loved New England. He was proud to be Prescott Townsend, a state of being that involved not only himself but also his ancestors. He felt this mattered.[25]

Contributed by Theo Linger, Park Guide


Footnotes

[1] Prescott Townsend, Harvard Class of 1918 40th Anniversary Report, 1958 (Cambridge: for the class, 1958), 211.

[2] Julius Klein, Letter to Dean H.A. Yeomans, February 25, 1915, Student Records, Pusey Library, Harvard University, UAIII 15.88.10 1890-1968 Box 5041.

[3] Adrian Cathcart, Queer for Justice: an Autobiographical Memoir by Prescott Townsend (Unpublished: private collection of Randy Wicker, 1995), 36.

[4] All information about Townsend’s military service found at: Prescott Townsend, Personal Service Record, War Records Office Personal Service Records, Pusey Library, Harvard University, UA V.874.269, Box 114, Folder 32.

[5] Townsend, 40th Anniversary Report, 211.

[6] Ibid. He also uses the same phrasing in his 35th and 45th anniversary class reports.

[7] Vern L. Bullough, Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2002), 45.

[8] Prescott Townsend, Harvard Class of 1918 45th Anniversary Report, 1963 (Cambridge: printed for the class, 1963), 193.

[9] Jim Lopata, “Prescott Townsend: one of the most influential Boston gay rights pioneers you’ve never heard of,” Boston Spirit magazine, September 3, 2013, http://archive.boston.com/lifestyle/blogs/bostonspirit/2013/09/prescott_townsend_one_of_most.html

[10] Bullough, Before Stonewall, 45.

[11] Curtis Dewees, Letter to Prescott Townsend, December 7, 1959, Prescott Townsend Papers and Photographs, Boston Athenaeum, Mss.L801, Box 1, Folder 7.

[12] Tony Giarraputo, Interview with John Mitzel, n.d., Prescott Townsend Papers and Photographs, Boston Athenaeum, Mss.L801, Box 1, Folder 11.

[13] Prescott Townsend, Snowflake Theory Leaflet, n.d., Prescott Townsend Papers and Photographs, Boston Athenaeum, Mss.L801, Box 1, Folder 6.

[14] Cathcart, Queer for Justice, 110.

[15] Joseph McGrath, 2020, oral history by Megan Linger, January 25, repository TBA.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Chadwick Moore, “I’m Not Psycho: John Waters’s 50th Summer in Provincetown,” Out magazine, July 31, 2014, https://www.out.com/entertainment/art-books/2014/07/31/i%E2%80%99m-not-psycho-john-waters%E2%80%99s-50th-summer-provincetown

[18] Prescott Townsend, Harvard Class of 1918 50th Anniversary Report, 1968 (Cambridge: printed for the class, 1968), 614.

[19] Cathcart, Queer for Justice, 176.

[20] McGrath, oral history.

[21] Cathcart, Queer for Justice, 264.

[22] Giarraputo, Interview with Mitzel.

[23] McGrath, oral history.

[24] Randolfe Wicker, 2020, oral history by Megan Linger, January 4, repository TBA.

[25] Cathcart, Queer for Justice, 269.

Boston National Historical Park, Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: June 1, 2022