CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Henry Vinson’s story begins much like the stories from many other children of West Virginia. He grew up in Nolan, a tiny, unincorporated community along the Tug Fork in Mingo County. His father was a coal miner. His mother drove a school bus. He owned a pet pig, Arnold. Arnold lived in the basement.
And like many young men and women of the Mountain State, Vinson found himself departing his birthplace. The first time, he left to study at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. Then he returned home to work.
The second time he left, it was to take a job as a funeral director in Washington, D.C.
But that’s where the story veers sharply from the traditional “country boy makes it in the big city” plot line.
Only a few years after moving to D.C., Vinson found himself facing a 43-count federal indictment — along with three other men — for his leading role in operating the largest male prostitution ring in the nation’s capital.
In his recently released book, “Confessions of a D.C. Madam: The Politics of Sex, Lies, and Blackmail,” Vinson, with the help of co-author Nick Bryant, recounts how a shy, gay man from Mingo County found himself operating “the largest gay escort service in Washington, D.C.” and recounts the events that led to his incarceration.
He still seems a bit mystified about how exactly it happened, but his account paints the picture of a sheltered, possibly gullible, young gay man trying to find himself and embrace his sexuality while spiraling into the seedy, dark underworld of the world’s most powerful city.
“I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I was going to be in the escort business. I didn’t know what an escort was when I went to DC. … I truly thought that [escorts] just took people around the city,” he said during a recent phone interview.
TrineDay — “the publisher of suppressed works,” according to owner Kris Millegan — a small publishing company based in Waterville, Oregon, published the book in March.
After initially pleading not guilty in 1990, Vinson accepted a plea agreement from the federal government. He pleaded guilty to “conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and credit card fraud.” He served 63 months in prison at the minimum-security Federal Correctional Institution in Morgantown.
After his release, he earned a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications at West Virginia University. He currently resides in Cincinnati and works as an independent consultant in integrated marketing. Vinson said he has also completed his first year at Taft Law School.
Almost 30 years after first entering the escort business, Vinson admits that he still thinks about the decisions that he made as a young twenty-something.
“I never intended to get into that business. … It’s just a very strange twist of life.”
Vinson realized he was gay in high school, and — as a resident of rural, conservative West Virginia in the late 1970s — said growing up there was tough.
“When I was growing up, many people thought homosexuals were sick. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to grow up. My teachers would say, ‘You’re too pretty to be a boy.’”
He added, “I really tried to blend in. I tried to be like anyone else. I always sort of felt like I was from a different planet.”
Before moving to D.C., Vinson worked as a funeral director in multiple funeral homes — including his own — in the town he graduated from, Williamson. He was appointed Mingo County coroner shortly after starting his professional career.
While there, he faced multiple controversies. He was charged with making harassing phone calls to a competing funeral home. He was charged with a second misdemeanor for “obtaining state monies under false pretenses.”
Those two incidents — along with a report that he left a body lying in an unrefrigerated vault for 42 days — were often cited in media reports when the escort business came to light.
Naturally, Vinson’s version varies greatly from the many reports about his early activities as a funeral director and his later activities as a “D.C. Madam.”
“I tried to get on with my life and put it behind me, but it just wasn’t behind me.”
He decided to tell his side of the story after what he calls a “25-year character assassination by the media.”
After moving to the city in 1985, Vinson was hired by Chambers Funeral Homes, which had multiple locations in the greater D.C. area. He began frequenting gay bars during his evenings off — and that’s where the wheels began spinning.
The series of events is surprisingly simple: Vinson meets an escort, Jimmy, in a gay bar. Vinson befriends Jimmy. Jimmy introduces Vinson to his employer. The employer, dying of AIDS, is looking to sell the service business, and Vinson buys it for $10,000.
“I didn’t have any hesitation. I was fascinated with the business. … I think it’s not unrealistic to make the assumption if something is in the Yellow Pages it’s probably OK.”
In a very short amount of time, Vinson had over 40 phone lines streaming into his apartment, located in the upper northwest of the city, while he maintained his full-time position with Chambers Funeral Homes.
Vinson employed up to 20 escorts on a given night in this “extremely lucrative” business.
“The business was very successful.” Not wanting to pin down a number to his profits, Vinson did mention a frequent customer who would spend $20,000 a month on his escorts. “Of course, in the ’80s that was a lot of money.”
Rich in the kind of sordid drama one might expect, Vinson’s book names names. Then-U.S. Rep. Larry Craig of Idaho, he writes, “became a frequent flier of my escort service” and “preferred escorts who were quite masculine.”
Although he claims he received many threats of blackmail from many of his powerful clients, Vinson’s business was in full operation until the Secret Service raided his home, his sister’s home and his mother’s home in 1989.
And the rest is history.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Vinson sighed during the phone interview. “But what doesn’t kill you often hurts like hell.”
A quarter of a century later, the details of Vinson’s activities in the nation’s capital plays over and over in his mind like a bad dream.
He asked, “When does someone become OK again?
“I’m not so sure I know that answer.”
Reach Anna Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4881.