Search of Harvard archives reveals details of secret court convened to remove gays from campus

November 30, 2002

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – What began in 1920 as an inquiry into a student's suicide ended in Harvard University convening a secret tribunal that labeled 14 men "guilty" of being homosexual, and forcing the students among them to leave not only the school, but the city of Cambridge.

The history of the body known only as "The Court" remained hidden for more than eight decades. Then, this year, a student reporter searching the school's archive came across a file labeled "secret court".

The pages that file contained, first reported in a recent edition of the Harvard Crimson's magazine, describe Harvard's desperate attempts 80 years ago to hide from public view a secret gay subculture on campus.

"These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of past that we have rightly left behind," Harvard President Lawrence Summers wrote in response to the Harvard Crimson's questions about the case. "I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago."

The strange legacy began when a Harvard student, Cyril B. Wilcox, 21, committed suicide in his Fall River home in May of 1920 by inhaling gas. He was having academic problems, as well as health problems chalked up to nerves, and had been asked to withdraw from the college.

The death might have passed as simply a tragic end to the life of a dropout had he not told his brother, George, about a homosexual relationship he had with an older Boston man.

Shortly after the death, two letters arrived for Cyril Wilcox, the first leaving no doubt that he was part of a group of gay men at Harvard, and the second a cryptic letter full of codes and jargon.

Cyril's brother tracked down one of the men and beat him until he gave him the names of three other gay men.

When George Wilcox informed the acting dean of the College, Chester N. Greenough, of Cyril's suicide, he passed on the names and mentioned the letters.

The next day, after consulting with President A. Lawrence Lowell, Greenough convened a group of administrators to gather evidence.

They called the five-person body "The Court."

The Court was so secretive that even the college's Administrative Board, which oversees student disciplinary matters, wasn't immediately aware of its existence.

When the board was informed, it "had no desire to touch the case and agreed that the matter should not go through the regular channels (Board and Faculty) but straight from the Court to the President," according to The Court's written summary of the case.

The court demanded that men associated with the secret group of carousers – including the son of a congressman – who gathered in dorm rooms to hold parties late into the night testify before The Court.

One anonymous student who wrote to the court about the gay subculture said "the most disgusting and disgraceful and revolting acts of degeneracy and depravity took place openly in plain veiw (sic) of all present."

The Court files noted that one man questioned "admits he is probably a little tainted. Mind poisoned."

When the "trial" ended, The Court handed down verdict of guilty for 14 men: seven college students; a dental school student; a teacher; a recent graduate; and four men not connected with Harvard.

The college students were told to leave campus – and Cambridge – immediately.

"Your son, Ernest, is still in Cambridge, in spite of our instruction," a court member wrote former U.S. Rep. Ernest William Roberts on June 12. "Strongly urge that you send for him or come for him yourself at once. He has been ordered to leave Cambridge today. Consequences of disobedience of this order would be most serious."

Eugene R. Cummings, 23, never even found out about his verdict. He committed suicide at Harvard's infirmary in June.

News of the two suicides appeared in the Boston American on June 19 with the headline "2 HARVARD MEN DIE SUDDENLY," referring to Cummings and Wilcox.

"Every effort has been made to prevent any knowledge of this affair from becoming public," one member of The Court wrote to the father of one of the boys. In letters to parents of some of the students, Greenough made clear that their sons were asked to withdraw solely for their association with gays.

Summers, in his recent statement to the Crimson, called the episode "abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university."

"We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have," he said.



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