Harvard's Response to the Secret Court of 1920

Harvard Yard in 1905
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, on May 23, 1920, just a day after listening to Wilcox, Greenough formed a special five-man tribunal which has come to be called the "Secret Court," because its files were stored under that name in the University Archives. The participants themselves called it "The Court" to distinguish it from the usual Administrative Board. The unspecific name also disguised the subject of its investigations.

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. They were all roughly forty years old or more. 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 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 three days to monitor visits to Roberts' room and report both current and past visitors. On May 26, Hosmer gave Greenough a list beginning with Roberts himself, followed by the names of Kenneth Day and Keith Smerage, noted as frequent visitors, then Eugene Cummings and Nathaniel Wolff, and then two more of whom he was "inclined to think that neither is part of the group that has centered around Perkins." A few days later, Hosmer returned to report that the last two boys had objected to his inclusion of their names.

First anonymous letter
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 clothes which they brought with them and appeared in public hallways and entrys 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, for example: "I expect you, whatever your engagement may be, to appear at my office tomorrow, Friday, May 28th, at 2:45 P.M." Another even said: "If necessary you are directed to cut a final examination in order to keep this appointment." 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% 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.

Disposition of cases
The Court punished ten 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 (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." Wolff was treated similarly when applying to McGill. The Placement Office's standard reply said "Harvard cannot show any confidence in this individual." To a request for Saxon's credentials it spoke of "moral turpitude."

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."

The Court told four students to consider applying for admission in a year or more. Initially Lowell opposed all such applications. Greenough expressed frustration with his stance and eventually won readmission for Gilkey and Lumbard. He expressed especial frustration that Lowell would not readmit Day. Informing Day that he could not return to Harvard, Greenough could only offer personal reflections and assurances: "Two points, however, I beg you to bear in mind. First, the chief thing in this world is to do right and be of service, whether at Harvard or outside. I know that you will keep on trying wherever you are. Secondly, please remember that if there is ever anything I can personally do to help you, I shall be glad to know it and to do it."

Public awareness
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. At least twice the Court was told that Ernest Weeks was threatening to make public his opposition to the Court and its methods, but nothing came of that. 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.

Second anonymous letter
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. On commencement day, June 22, less than 4 weeks after the Court began interviewing students, the senior class exercises in Sanders Theatre were followed by another ceremony at the stadium. "The usual spreads and dances at clubs and fraternity houses were arranged....Rain fell at frequent intervals during the evening, putting a damper on the outdoor program."

In July, in a somewhat different context, Dean Greenough claimed the Court did all it could with the evidence it extracted from its witnesses. Grace Smerage, the mother of expelled student Keith Smerage, had complained to Greenough that Harvard had just graduated others her son said were as guilty as he or more so. Greenough replied on behalf of the Court: "We certainly cannot be held responsible for not acting on evidence we did not possess, especially when we have asked all the boys we have summoned if they had anything further to tell us. If boys choose to shield those who are guilty they must accept the incomplete results of a Board acting upon information which is inadequate because the boys themselves have chosen to let it be inadequate."