Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals


In 2002, a researcher for The Harvard Crimson came across a restricted archive labeled "Secret Court Files, 1920." The mystery he uncovered involved a tragic scandal in which Harvard University secretly put a dozen students on trial for homosexuality and then systematically and persistently tried to ruin their lives.

In May of 1920,Cyril Wilcox, a freshman suspended from Harvard, was found sprawled dead on his bed, his room filled with gas—a suicide. The note he left behind ...

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Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals

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In 2002, a researcher for The Harvard Crimson came across a restricted archive labeled "Secret Court Files, 1920." The mystery he uncovered involved a tragic scandal in which Harvard University secretly put a dozen students on trial for homosexuality and then systematically and persistently tried to ruin their lives.

In May of 1920,Cyril Wilcox, a freshman suspended from Harvard, was found sprawled dead on his bed, his room filled with gas—a suicide. The note he left behind revealed his secret life as part of a circle of (cut "young") homosexual students.The resulting witch hunt and the lives it cost remains one of the most shameful episodes in the history of America's premiere university. Supported by legendary Harvard President Lawrence Lowell, Harvard conducted its investigation in secrecy. Several students committed suicide;others had their lives destroyed by an ongoing effort on the part of Harvard to destroy their reputations. Harvard's Secret Court is a deeply moving indictment of the human toll of intolerance and the horrors of injustice that can result when a powerful institution loses its balance.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In 1920, the suicide of a gay Harvard undergraduate sparked a secret purge of homosexuals on the Cambridge campus. Until the recent discovery of case documents by the staff of the Harvard Crimson, nothing was known about President Abbot Lawrence's closed-door panel and the expulsions and heartbreak that they caused. William Wright's Harvard's Secret Court rescues a suppressed chapter from Ivy League annals. Top-flight scholarship; engaging read.
From the Publisher
"An excellent book . . . a riveting account of a sordid episode in Harvard's history. For those who would like to see gay Americans pushed back out of public view, William Wright has provided a chilling glimpse of the horrors that lurk in the closet."—Barbara Ehrenreich, bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed

"Shocking . . . Only William Wright could have captured all the drama and irony of this long-buried story."—Alison Lurie, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Foreign Affairs

"This is a tale of vindictiveness and hate perpetrated over the years—and it is a cautionary tale told with concision and convincing detail."—Edmund White, author of A Boy's Own Story

"A first-rate writer absolutely in command of his material."—David Halberstam

"It takes an independent writer and free spirit to tell the story straight, and thank God Wright has done it."—Edward O. Wilson, author of Consilience

"A revelation and a pleasure . . . It presents the mysteries of human genetics and behavior in a way that leaves the reader enlightened, conversant, and entertained. A most rewarding book."—Robert Stone, author of Outerbridge Reach

Publishers Weekly
In this repetitive and somewhat melodramatic narrative, prolific biographer Wright (Born That Way, etc.) tells the astonishing story of a group of Harvard students who were expelled in 1920 for homosexual conduct. After the suicide of Cyril Wilcox, a gay student, Harvard's president authorized a "Secret Court" of deans and scholars to investigate the sexual life of a group of students who often hosted sailors, drag queens and "boys from town" in covert dorm-room dance parties. Fueled by a desire to rid Harvard of homosexuality entirely, the committee's harsh treatment led to the suicide of another student and permanently ruined the careers of a few others. Wright has gotten this story from the proceedings of the court, which-along with personal letters and other documents-survived untouched in a massive classified file in the Harvard archives until 2002, when a reporter from the Harvard Crimson discovered it. Wright's painstaking attention to each student interrogation, family history and Secret Court administrator, along with his distracting authorial commentary, may leave some readers wishing that he had confined this story to a magazine article. Nevertheless, Wright succeeds in compiling a drama that will satisfy readers thirsty for pop-historical scandals from our nation's unregenerate past. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A vibrant homosexual subculture thrived on Harvard's campus in the 1920s until a suicide prompted a witch-hunt, kept under wraps for 80 years. In 1920, an undergraduate at Harvard University, Cyril Wilcox, took his life. In the days thereafter, his brother came into possession of letters that made it plain Wilcox was part of a vigorous homosexual community. Wilcox's brother took the letters to the Harvard administration, demanding action. Wright (Born That Way, 1998) exposes the venom unleashed by the college. It is the "why" that vexes Wright. Here was Harvard's president Lowell-brother of renowned lesbian poet Amy Lowell-a man who could bring a cultured hand to the situation: calm, humane, discreet, experienced. Why did he act like an ox? Surely the secret court was not so naive as to believe homosexuality was a rare isotope. Homosexuality was part of Harvard campus life: undergraduates, grad students, faculty and staff. Wright is agog at the court's overreaction. The court, but Lowell in particular, treated the circumstances as if they were some contagious evil. Why would these urbane, well-traveled, educated men believe this poppycock? Wright suggests some sensible conjectures: that homosexuality was still considered depraved, if not a sin, and if Harvard was a bastion of rectitude, if it couldn't be quashed there, then where? And the burgeoning polyglot student body, did this too represent the status quo under siege? The consequences were dire; more suicides followed the inquisition, and Harvard continued to smear the accused for years thereafter. While some of the author's comments fail to mesh ("freshmen," he writes, "were cowed by the majestic university that had deigned toaccept them," though earlier he notes that "until the 1960s it was as easy to enter [Harvard] as any other college"), they don't take away from the narrative. Harvard betrays itself and Wright's restrained telling staples a condemnation square on the school's forehead.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312322724
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/31/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,433,977
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

William Wright graduated from Yale University in 1952. He is a New York Times bestselling author who has contributed to Vanity Fair, Town and Country, and the New York Times.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix
Prologue: A Dark Place 1
Part 1 The Students
1 A Death on High Street 9
2 Shaken Harvard 21
3 A Walk Along the Charles 35
4 A Rare Outbreak of Evil 45
5 Harvard and the Homosexual 61
6 America's Gay Dossier 79
7 A Party in Perkins 87
8 The Court in Session 95
9 The Cunning and the Damned 107
10 Farce to Tragedy 119
11 Enduring Wrath 137
Part 2 Surviving Harvard
12 Settling Dust 153
13 The Kenneth Day Story 163
14 The Joe Lumbard Story 175
15 The Keith Smerage Story 187
16 Survival Struggles 203
17 The Nathaniel Wollf Story 215
18 The Lester Wilcox Story 223
19 Homophobia's Long March 243
20 Loose Ends 263
Epilogue: Discovering Secrets 275
Acknowledgments 281
Select Bibliography 283
Index 285
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2005

    Harvard's Secret Court

    Power corrupts. Common theme. We are seeing it in the media everyday. The arrogance of power leads to the suffering of individuals. In 1920, the suicide of a Harvard student led to a secret court that set about purging the campus of the harmful effects of homosexuality. The court, convened by President A. Lawrence Lowell, blazed through a small community of students ignited by the distraught and angry brother of the dead youth. William Wright narrates the story of this event hidden for 82 years in his book Harvard¿s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals. Cyril Wilcox¿s suicide was the first domino that resulted indirectly with 2 more suicides and numerous life aspirations of families and students being destroyed. Wright attempts to uncover the motivation behind this court. Was Lowell¿s flamboyantly lesbian sister a fuel for the fire. Was it fueled by the courts view that homosexuality, despite quickly changing views and the influence of homosexuality on a rich culture, had no place in an institution that took its job of creating the men of a nation serious. Wright looks at this and offers his own insights and opinions. It was not enough that students were expelled from Harvard. Harvard expected them to get far from Cambridge. The expelled students were informed that any attempt to reference their time at Harvard would lead to letters describing explicitly their crimes. This in effect ended the college careers of promising young men. Men whose immediate and extended families had invested much in these youth¿s future. Joe Lumbard, one student expelled, was allowed to return the following year. If Lumbard is an example of the caliber of futures lost, it is truly sad. Joe Lumbard had legal career that spanned 8 decades. He won glory as a federal prosecutor. He sat on the New York supreme court. He was cofounder of the OSS, which later became the CIA. He conclude his career as a senior judge on the US Court of Appeals. In 1967 Lumbard was close to a seat on the Supreme Court but in the end, Lyndon Johnson selected another lawyer in Lumbard¿s firm, Thurgood Marshall. Lumbard was even elected to the Board of Overseers of Harvard. Lumbard¿s opinion was that 'the legal system was in place to help people resolve conflicts, but not to impose anything on anyone'. What would Joe Lumbard say about the current discrimination issues rampant in communities today? Wright shows the reader how the entire country benefited from Lumbard¿s work. As late as 1953, his expulsion from Harvard turned up during an FBI background search. Lumbard¿s crime? He was not gay, but simply was too friendly to the campus homosexuals. Wrights book is powerful both in its content and warning. The tides of public opinion can be unpredictable, and the vindictiveness of those in power can have long term effects. Humanity deserves better.

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