Gay History – May 23, 1920: Harvard University’s “Secret Court” Expels 10 Gay Students

On May 13, 1920 Cyril Wilcox, a Harvard undergraduate, committed suicide after telling his older brother, George, that he had been having an affair with another man. Shortly after Cyril’s death, George intercepted two letters from a Harvard student and a recent graduate.  George, a clerk at the granite mills in Fall River, decided to act. He tracked down his brother’s former lover, Harry Dreyfus, who lived in Boston. Dreyfus, after he was beaten by George Wilcox, denied responsibility for Cyril’s suicide but gave three names of other men involved: Roberts, Harvard Dental School student Eugene R. Cummings and Pat Courtney, a non-Harvard man living in Boston.

George took these letters to Harvard’s Acting Dean, Chester N Greenough, and shared with him what he knew. After consulting with Harvard President Abbot Lowell, Greenough formed a special five-man tribunal on this date in history which became known as the “Secret Court.”

The court launched a wide-ranging witch hunt, with Greenough summoning each witness one-by-one with a brief note. Thirty-seven men testified before the Court, including a tutor, an assistant professor, Harvard students, and several Boston men. 

The Court’s inquiry was exhaustive, posing questions about masturbation practices, sex with women or men, cross-dressing, overnight guests, parties, and reading habits. The scope of the inquiry soon expanded to area businesses, cafés and bars. Eight students were expelled, ordered to leave Cambridge and reported to their families. They were also told that Harvard would disclose the reasons for their expulsion if employers or other schools sought references. Four others unconnected to Harvard were also deemed “guilty.” The school couldn’t punish them directly, but they did pressure one café to fire a waiter.

In 2002, a researcher from Harvard’s daily newspaper, The Crimson, came across a box of files labeled “Secret Court” in the University’s archives. After pressure from the newspaper staff the University finally released five hundred documents related to the Court’s work, and The Crimson published its findings in November of that year. Harvard’s president Lawrence H. Summers responded to the revelations, expressing deep regret for the anguish the students and families experienced.

 Based on actual court documents, “Perkins 28” the video documentary below dramatizes the testimony from the Secret Court Files of 1920,  Filmed in Cambridge, MA, and starring Harvard undergraduates. 

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