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
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
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
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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