Revisiting the 1933 police raid on Sun Sports League nudist camp, and Fred Ring's enduring legal legacy
Ninety years ago this week, the quiet of Swan Creek was shattered by the sound of boots and the clatter of camera shutters as a posse of deputies led by Sheriff Fred Miller descended on the Sun Sports League of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The fledgling nudist camp, run by a local dance instructor named Fred C. Ring and his wife, Ophelia, was spied on by authorities after a neighbor of the property, a social worker named Mary Angier, filed an official complaint against the nudists. The raid set the stage for Fred and Ophelia Ring to become the first individuals successfully prosecuted for nudism in the U.S., laying the groundwork for future battles over body freedom and personal liberties.
Clothed for court
On Labor Day of 1933,1 about two dozen naked people recreating at Sun Sports League were covertly photographed by deputies from a viewpoint on an adjacent property, giving them cause to enter the premises and take names. Two days later, Fred and Ophelia were officially charged with indecent exposure; eighteen other nudist attendees were listed in the accompanying warrant.2
At the Rings’ arraignment on September 9th, 1933, charges were dismissed against the eighteen attendees listed on the warrant by the request of the prosecutor, but their names were made public and picked up by the press, a blot on their otherwise fine reputations. New indecent exposure charges were issued against the Rings themselves as proprietors of the club.
A couple months later, at a county courthouse in Allegan, Michigan, two tumultuous days of testimony and argument ensued. There to offer testimony for the defense was the charismatic Executive Secretary of the International Nudist Conference, Rev. Ilsley Boone, who spoke on the benefits of nudism. The defense argued that the "evidence" used by the prosecution—photos of the nudist group taken by a member of the raiding posse—was a clear invasion of privacy.
However, the prosecutor, Welbourne Luna, delivered a fiery closing argument against nudism, and the judge's charge left little room for a "not guilty" verdict. The jury, consisting of twelve middle aged men, deliberated just 50 minutes before finding Fred Ring guilty as charged.3 The judge, Fred T. Miles, levied a fine of $300 against Ring, and sentenced him to sixty days in prison.4 Tried several weeks later, Ophelia was also convicted and fined $50, and sentenced to two years probation.5
The Rings became the first convictions against nudists for practicing nudism in the United States;6 a historic case that framed the growing movement as a public enemy. The case was remarkable for centering solely on the question of social nudism, not on the side issues that often cloud such matters like trespassing, public nuisance, or local grievances.7
Whether he knew it or not, Fred Ring wasn't just fighting for his freedom; he was challenging deep stigmas society held about nudity, staking the claim that nudism is not inherently obscene. Despite considerable public opposition, his case spotlighted his argument, and raised the question: Is nudity a crime, or a civil right?
The Rings’ convictions ignited a media frenzy. Newspapers from Chicago, Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids covered the trial, with many employing panic-inducing rhetoric equating nudists with amoral cultists.
Over the next few years, more police raids were carried out by various agencies against nudist gatherings around the country, and anti-nudist legislation was introduced (albeit defeated) in Michigan and other states, successfully passing in New York in 1935.
These challenges forced nudists to get more organized. Nudist communities learned valuable lessons from these early losses, specifically how to carefully choose locations and cultivate positive relationships with neighbors to avoid similar legal confrontations.
Over time, the press has largely stopped framing nudism as a menace, though their tendency to use diminishing language in reference to nudists has never slacked. The Rings were veritable martyrs for the nudism movement, and found support among nudists who came to their defense. They continued practicing and advocating for nudism.
90 years later, Fred Ring’s case serves as a historical turning point, a moment that galvanized the nudist community and stimulated critical discussion. More attempts to stymie the nudism movement followed, in Michigan and many other surrounding states. Most were unsuccessful, but some stuck. Many battles have been fought since, yet the echoes of the early moral panic still reverberate.
Today, we witness similar episodes of panic-whipping by the press, and nudity is often weaponized against the “folk devils” who are the subjects of these media panics. Whether it’s related to LGBTQ+ rights, alternative lifestyles, or the simple choice of wearing a protective mask, the media plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion. The case of Fred Ring reminds us that media narratives can evolve, and communities that once were demonized can find their space under the sun.
Looking back nine decades along, we can see the Rings’ case not as a defeat but a catalyst. It pushed nudism into the public consciousness and laid the foundation for the legal battles and societal shifts that would come. And while the fight is far from over, we can look back at this case as an example of how far we've come—and how far we still have to go—in the struggle for body freedom. 🪐
The Nudist Idea
“Clothes - The Nudists Want to Be Free of It, Disregarding Burrs and Gnats” Daily News (New York, New York) · 24 Sep 1933, Sun · Page 8
“Nudists Lose Opening Round” Kingsport Times (Kingsport, Tennessee) · 5 Nov 1933, Sun · Page 11
“Ring Sentenced” Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois) · 20 Nov 1933, Mon · Page 5
“Jailed Nudist's Wife is 'Free' But On Probation” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County (Valparaiso, Indiana) · 22 Jun 1934, Fri · Page 7
Boone, Ilsley. “Nudism on Trial in Allegan” December 1933. The Nudist.
Shaw, Elton R. “Fair Trial or Persecution?” October, 1934. The Nudist, 8.