Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Today In 1920, Harvard Forms Secret Court to Investigate Homosexual Activity by Students

The Secret Court of 1920, which was an ad hoc disciplinary tribunal of five administrators at Harvard University formed today, May 23, in 1920. The Secret Court investigated charges of homosexual activity among the student population. During two weeks in May and June 1920, the Court headed by Acting Dean Chester Noyes Greenough conducted more than 30 interviews behind closed doors and took action against eight students, a recent graduate, and an assistant professor. They were expelled or had their association with the university severed, told to leave the city of Cambridge and were blacklisted. The affair went unreported until 2002.

On May 13, 1920, Cyril Wilcox (right), a Harvard undergraduate, completed suicide by inhaling gas in his parents' house in Fall River, Massachusetts.  At the time Wilcox had been warned about his poor academic performance and had withdrawn from school for reasons of health. The night before his death, Wilcox had confessed to his older brother, George Wilcox, himself a graduate of Harvard, that he had been having an affair with Harry Dreyfus, an older Boston man.

George, shortly after his brother's death, intercepted two letters to Cyril, one from Ernest Roberts, a Harvard student, and another from Harold Saxton, a recent graduate. Their candid and detailed gossip convinced him that Harvard was harboring a network of homosexual students. On May 22, George Wilcox located Dreyfus, extracted from him the names of three other men involved, and beat him. Later that day, he met with Harvard's Acting Dean Greenough and shared what he knew: his brother's admission, the contents of the letters, and what Dreyfus had told him.

Greenough promptly consulted with Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell and the decision was made to obviate the normal and relatively slow-moving student disciplinary process before the Administrative Board made up of faculty members and the Dean. Instead, just a day after listening to Wilcox, Greenough formed a special five-man tribunal which has come to be called the "Secret Court."

Acting Dean Greenough was to head the Court. Another senior member was Professor of Hygiene Robert I. Lee, the doctor responsible for the students' annual physical examinations, who had experience posing intimate questions about sexual activity. A third was Regent Matthew Luce, whose responsibilities included student discipline and conduct, especially housing and dormitory proctors. Two young Assistant Deans, Edward R. Gay and Kenneth Murdock, both just a little older than the undergraduates, filled out the Court's membership. The Court reported to President Lowell, and his rulings were final.

At this point Greenough could identify Ernest Roberts, the author of one of the letters to Cyril Wilcox, as the principal target of his inquiry. The same day the Dean formed the Court, he spoke to a graduate student in business, Windsor Hosmer. He expected Hosmer, as proctor of Perkins Hall, to be a source for information about Roberts, but he proved unhelpful, either because he was an inattentive proctor or because he preferred not to be candid. He told the Dean he knew that Roberts hosted parties, but caused no disturbance and broke no rules. He was given 3 days to monitor visits to Roberts' room and report both current and past visitors. On May 26, Hosmer gave Greenough a list including Kenneth Day and Keith Smerage, noted as frequent visitors, and Eugene Cummings and Nathaniel Wolff. 

An unsigned, typed letter dated May 26 now confirmed and enlarged upon what Greenough had learned from George Wilcox. It probably reached the Dean just as the Court began interviewing students. The author, identifying himself as a Harvard College junior, described how Cyril Wilcox in his first year fell in with a set of his classmates who "committed upon him and induced him to commit upon them 'Unnatural Acts'" and when he determined he lacked the "strength of character" to stop participating in such activity he completed suicide. Roberts was "the leader of this group and directly responsible" for the suicide, he continued:
"Roberts rooms at Perkins 28 where he and more of his type have, during the past year, conducted "parties" that beggar description and how in the World such parties "got by" the Proctor is quite beyond me. At these parties were sailors in uniform whom Roberts and friends of his type picked up in the streets of Boston and used for his dirty immoral purposes. At the parties were notorious young male degenerates such as Harold Hussey, and Ned Courtney and many others of the type and many of them dressed in womans [sic] clothes which they brought with them and appeared in public hallways and entrys [sic] of Perkins so dressed."
Then he named as regular participants three students—Kenneth Day, Edward Say and Eugene Cummings—as well as the tutor Saxton, who was already known to Greenough. He pressed home his point by describing the parties where "the most disgusting and disgraceful and revolting acts of degeneracy and depravity took place openly in plain view of all present." Finally he urged the Dean on with a rhetorical question: "Isn't it about time an end was put to this sort of thing in college?"

The Court began its interrogations on May 27, 1920. Dean Greenough summoned each witness with a brief note. Only the Court's notes survive, not transcripts, so it is difficult to ascertain the tenor of the exchanges, whether these were conversations, interviews, or interrogations, or perhaps changed in the course of each session. Clearly the Court pressed witnesses and challenged them with conflicting facts, since the Court's notes record admissions followed by attempts to recant, as well as denials followed by admissions. For example, the Court's note for Harold Saxton says "when pushed he practically confessed to one act, but later retracted." And Kenneth Day "confessed to H.S. [homosexual] relations with Roberts, after denial at first."

Many of those interrogated were never charged and have not been identified. That suggests that the Court, despite its secrecy, was prepared to reveal its mission to innocent students as it attempted to identify those more closely involved. As the Court proceeded, it had increasing amounts of information to use to question witnesses and challenge their statements. Some were called back for follow-up questioning. Nor did the Court restrict itself to people with a Harvard affiliation. At least two witnesses lacking a Harvard connection responded to its summons, though it is unclear whether they participated voluntarily or under some threat. One was Ned Courtney, a Boston boy whose name was mentioned in testimony as the "main annoyance" for his frequent telephone calls to Perkins. Another was Harry Dreyfus, who was connected through his relationship with Cyril Wilcox and his employment at the Café Dreyfus, a known homosexual gathering place.

No subject was too personal for the Court's inquiry. It posed questions about masturbation practices and engaging in sexual acts with women or men, cross-dressing and entertaining overnight guests. Less intrusive questions addressed friends and associates, parties attended and what was seen and who was present, reading habits and familiarity with homosexuality, theories about it as well as slang used to describe its practitioners and their activities ("faggoty parties," "tricks"). Soon the Court had a list of business establishments to inquire about as well, starting with the Café Dreyfus and adding The Lighted Lamp, The Golden Rooster, and Green Shutters.

Many witnesses found it difficult to lie effectively when the Court already had enough circumstantial evidence to use in probing their answers. Others may have decided that the best course was to answer honestly or with relatively honest answers that minimized their involvement. The Court's notes say that Kenneth Day "admits he is probably a little tainted. Mind poisoned." Ernest Roberts claimed he was "led astray" by Cyril Wilcox and that Kenneth Day, too, had been "led into it by Wilcox–but not of his own free will." 

Joseph Lumbard described parties where men danced together and others dressed in women's clothes. The Court noted: "some kissing witnessed." Asked why he did not leave such a party, he allowed that he "stayed because he was interested." He had not masturbated for 6 years. Nathaniel Wolff detailed mutual masturbation with Keith Smerage, but claimed to have ended such behavior. "He was fighting hard and felt that he had overcome the habit. Says he is 90 percent OK." Keith Smerage in turn said he had not masturbated in 9 months and in college "had not slept with men in the unnatural sense." Later the Court recorded that he said he had "'fooled' around with the homosexual business" once or twice at Harvard. Stanley Gilkey defended reading Havelock Ellis: "I think a man should know everything." 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Donald Clark "denied any connection with homosexualism, and he denied talking about it except to help some students to cure themselves." He later admitted to have propositioned a student, as the Court already knew from an earlier interview with the object of Clark's attentions.

Eugene Cummings was a 23-year-old student just 3 weeks from completing a program in dentistry. He was an active homosexual and thoroughly embedded in the group of students the Court was targeting. Soon after he faced the Court's questioning, he became ill and checked himself into Harvard's Stillman Infirmary. A few days later, on June 11, before being notified that he was expelled, he used his medical knowledge to commit suicide using drugs available there. 

The Court punished 10 it found guilty of some offense and the punishments varied with their status and their degree of culpability. It expelled seven College students (Day, Gilkey, Lumbard, Roberts, Say, Smerage, Wolff) and one student in dentistry (Cummings). 

Four students (Day, Gilkey, Lumbard, Wolff) were invited to reapply to Harvard in a year or two. The Court also told those expelled to leave Cambridge promptly and complained to the families of those who did not move quickly. All were told that Harvard would reply frankly to requests for recommendations or for explanations for their separation from the school. Refusing to provide a positive reference was all the Court could do to Saxon, the tutor, and Clark, the young professor. It identified four others unconnected to Harvard as "guilty" but could not directly punish them. It would try to see that one would lose his job as a waiter at the Café Dreyfus.

Dean Greenough also ordered a letter placed in the files of those it punished to prevent the college's Alumni Placement Service from "making any statement that would indicate confidence in these men." The Placement Service proved efficient in following those instructions. Lumbard found himself blocked by negative responses from Harvard when he applied to Amherst, the University of Virginia, and Brown. Dean Otis Randall of Brown even replied sympathetically to praise Harvard's actions: "I feel your action in the matter was wise and just and that you deserve the support of the colleges to which young Lumbard may make application. How frequently we uncover messes of this sort, and how disagreeable it is to deal with such matters." 

The Court warned the students not to delay contacting their families because the Court was going to write them promptly. Dean Greenough wrote to Roberts: "The letter that I am sending to your father this morning, although it does not tell him everything, necessitates your telling him everything." To Kenneth Day he wrote: "It would be better for them to hear it from you than from me." The Dean's letters about students who had committed no overt act explained the circumstances at length and provided the Court's rationale for expulsion in such cases: "The acts in question are so unspeakably gross that the intimates of those who commit these acts become tainted." He made a clear distinction by not criticizing such a student's character, but his judgment, calling him "no worse than ignorant, over-curious, and careless." When it came to those who had engaged in homosexual sex, Greenough withheld details yet tried to underscore the significance of the violation. To Roberts' father, Greenough wrote that his son "has promised to tell you all about the matter, and I hope he will tell you the whole truth. His offense has nothing to do with low scholarship; it is not gambling, or drink or ordinary sexual intercourse. If he does not confess to something worse than these things, he will not have told you the whole story."

The students' parents were troubled, supportive, and forgiving. Responses to Greenough, while always respectful, varied from pleading to polite challenges to the Court's judgment. Lumbard's father protested his son's "extremely unjust treatment." Gilkey's father hoped his son would be readmitted to erase the impact of a "penalty out of proportion to his delinquency," Roberts' father noted "how this dreadful news has upset me" and sought assurances from Greenough that his son had terminated his "evil practices" some months before. Others engaged in protracted correspondence and had employers send testimonials. In Day's case, since he was an orphan, his cousin undertook a long correspondence detailing his cousin's work habits and social contacts. Say's father, a Connecticut grocer, asked to see the evidence against his son, and Greenough replied that he could not send "the great mass of evidence" through the mail, though the actual evidence against Say consisted of a few sentences of testimony that mentioned him. Say's mother wrote as well and indicated she felt that others of greater means like Lumbard were not being treated as harshly as her son: "My son's father is not a doctor, but he is a good, honest working father."

Smerage's mother learned of her son's expulsion when she opened Greenough's letter and the next day initiated a yearlong series of letters on his behalf. She spoke of her "stricken home" and her son's history of illness. Ultimately, she questioned the Court's entire approach: "I feel now that you men could have done much good had you perhaps had a little less sense of justice and a little more of the spirit of Jesus in your hearts." 

Wolff's father asked the Dean to recognize that helping his son to reform was more important than punishment: "I am taking the liberty of appealing to you, not in your official capacity, but as a man, to do what you can to assist him. You know all are subject to mistakes, and the blessing is in those who can aid and advise in correcting and saving rather than otherwise."

Given the number of interviews, and the consequent expulsions, the undergraduate population must have become aware of the Court's work in a matter of days. Yet the Court's work escaped public attention. The Court itself in its communications with the students' parents and guardians gave assurances that "Every effort has been made to prevent any knowledge of this affair from becoming public."

Yet a few students must have spoken with a reporter. On June 19, the Boston American ran a news story that connected the few public facts: two Harvard students, friends, both from Fall River, Massachusetts, had died within a month of one another: Cyril Wilcox "accidentally killed by gas" at home on May 13 and dentistry student Eugene Cummings a suicide in the infirmary on June 11. Cummings, the story went on, had told friends about "an alleged inquisition, which he claimed was held in the college following Wilcox' death." He had been taken to a room "shrouded in gloom" and "questioned exhaustively." College authorities denied his story and said it was the product of his "disordered mind." Finally, Court member Dr Roger I. Lee put an end to further inquiries. Cummings, he told the Boston American, "had been acting in a queer manner," using an adjective that indicated Cummings' underlying condition was not fit for public discussion. Contemporary press coverage ended with that one article.

A second anonymous letter reached the Court as it concluded its work. The author upbraided the Court for failing to identify "most, if not all" of those students guilty of homosexual activity. The Court, according to the author, mishandled its investigation by concentrating on the Roberts group, which encompassed only half of the 50 students the Court should have identified. The others disliked the Roberts set and had "little cliques of their own." They now "continued their practices within the student body and continued spreading it." The letter also said that the Court's methods, such as the grilling Cummings described and using expulsion as its consistent punishment, were not well considered. It argued that offering more lenient treatment like "probation, etc." in return for additional names of associates would have accomplished more. The identity of the letter's author remains unknown. The Court took no action in response to this critique.

In 2002, a researcher from The Crimson, the school's undergraduate daily newspaper, came across a box of files labeled "Secret Court" in the University Archives. After a protracted campaign on the part of the paper's staff, the university released 500 documents relating to the Court's work. An article by Amit R. Paley in The Crimson's weekly magazine Fifteen Minutes reported the 1920 events on November 21, 2002. Though the University insisted on redacting the names of those under investigation, six researchers at the paper were able to identify most through research in other records.

A book-length study of the Court's work Harvard's Secret Court (St. Martin's Press, 2005) was written by William Wright. More of a popular dramatization than a history, the book recounts the Court's work in considerable detail, but also includes imagined conversations and considerable speculation. Where only the notes of an interrogation survive, the author reconstructs the questions and even characterizes the tone of voice of the questioners.

In 2008, Michael Van Devere wrote, produced, and directed a different kind of dramatization: a film based on the Court's work called Perkins 28: Testimony From the Secret Court Files of 1920. The film consists of re-enactments of nine of the Court's interrogation sessions and uses a cast of Harvard undergraduates. The screenplay uses the Court's documents as its starting point. The film can be accessed online here.

In 2010, a movement called "Their Day in the Yard," aiming to petition Harvard University to grant posthumous honorary degrees to the expelled students, launched a Facebook page and a website. On February 28, 2012, the University said in a statement that it "does not award posthumous degrees except in the rare case of a student who completes all academic requirements for the degree but dies before the degree has been conferred." The Harvard Crimson reported that at least 28 posthumous degrees were granted to former students who did not complete their academic requirements before dying in World War I.
Still from the play "Unnatural Acts" (photograph by Joan Marcus, Classic Stage Company)
Two stage works dramatizing the Court and the affected students have been presented in New York. In 2010, VERITAS, by Stan Richardson, was presented at the New York International Fringe Festival, and in 2011 Classic Stage Company presented Unnatural Acts: Harvard's Secret Court of 1920, conceived by Tony Speciale and created by members of the Plastic Theatre.

1 comment:

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Well that certainly defines the term witch hunt. Thankfully things are changing.