A Gay Purge at Harvard, 1920

Published in: March-April 2003 issue.


IN MAY AND JUNE 1920, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell and Acting Dean of the College Chester N. Greenough, skirting the usual channels for investigating allegations of student wrong-doing, convened a secret five-member board—referred to in the College’s own records as The Court—to gather evidence concerning homosexual activities at Harvard. Thanks to the extraordinary reporting of Harvard Crimson staff writer Amit R. Paley, who persisted in a six-month effort to gain access to the 82-year-old secret files, we know that the investigation had been prompted by the May 13, 1920, suicide of Cyril B. Wilcox, Harvard Class of 1922.

It turns out that shortly before he took his own life, Wilcox had told his older brother George that he was having a homosexual affair with an older man who lived on Beacon Hill. As Paley retells the story, in the wake of the younger Wilcox’s suicide, George Wilcox “tracked down his brother’s former lover, Harry Dreyfus, who … after he was beaten by George Wilcox, denied responsibility for Cyril’s suicide but gave three names of other men involved…” Two of the men Dreyfus named were Harvard students; the third was not. Armed with these names, and armed too with names and details provided in two letters that had arrived for Cyril shortly after his suicide, George Wilcox contacted Greenough, who began the investigation that would turn into The Court.

Although the investigation had been prompted by Cyril Wilcox’s suicide, the five members of The Court seemed little interested in just what had led Wilcox to take his own life. Rather, The Court was intent on finding out who had done what in Harvard dormitories. That is, they wanted names and more names, not just of homosexuals at Harvard, but also of any men who knowingly associated with homosexuals. What’s more, The Court did not restrict its investigation to currently enrolled Harvard students or even to Harvard affiliates.

In the end, the Court found fourteen men “guilty” either of committing homosexual acts or of being, in the colorful language of Greenough, “too closely associated with those who have been guilty of these acts.” These fourteen men included seven currently enrolled Harvard College students, one student enrolled at Harvard’s dental school, one instructor, one alumnus, and four men not connected with Harvard in any way. These last four were beyond Harvard’s disciplinary reach. But the punishments meted out to those over whom The Court did have authority—namely, the currently enrolled students and the one faculty member—were swift and severe: the instructor was fired and the seven students were asked not only to leave campus but to quit Cambridge itself.

Despite the dubiousness of Harvard’s ability actually to enforce such a ban, the wish—get thee from Cambridge!—indicates that The Court saw homosexuality as a kind of moral contagion that must be contained before it spread yet further. We see this worry over homosexuality’s infectious power in the letters Greenough wrote to parents of students found guilty of associating with homosexuals: “The acts in question are so unspeakably gross that the intimates of those who commit these acts become tainted, and, though in an entirely different class from the principals, must for the moment be separated from the College.”

To no small degree, The Court’s proposed sanction—removal from campus and from Cambridge entire—recalls the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s 1637 trial and subsequent banishment of the troublesome “heretic” Anne Hutchinson from its Puritan midst. Notably, much of the danger posed by heretics comes from their supposed ability to “traduce” (this was the term used in Hutchinson’s heresy and sedition trial) or “seduce” others into their distorted or perverted worldview, thereby overturning the proper moral order of things and, with it, Western civilization as “we” know it.

These ways of thinking about homosexuality are hardly things of the past. As Janet R. Jakobsen and I argue in Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, this worry—that homosexuality can end western civilization as we know it—would be risible (Plato and Shakespeare anyone?) if not for the ways in which this accusation continues to prop up and justify discrimination and even violence against lesbians, gay men, and other sexual dissidents. Think, for example, of the federal government’s “Defense of Marriage Act,” or DOMA, which then-President Clinton signed into law in 1996. The legal effect of DOMA is to forbid federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and yet support for it was framed in public debates as a matter of defending traditional American values. So, it turns out that DOMA and the politicians supporting it were not “against” homosexuals; they were “for” good ol’ American values. Or, to take another example, in its ongoing and even accelerated practice of discharging homosexuals from the military, the U.S. government continues to administer its own version of Harvard’s 1920 secret court.

When the government justifies policies that actively discriminate against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals as being in the national interest, we should not wonder, then, that those who commit brutal acts of violence against homosexuals, people of color, members of religious minorities, and other Others so often understand themselves to be acting not out of hatred, but out of defense. They are only acting to protect themselves or their communities or their values from those “outsiders” who threaten all that they hold dear. This is not about hate, and tolerance is not the solution. Tolerance, that cherished American value, to the extent that it holds in place an us-versus-them relation in which “we” are asked to tolerate “them,” may even be part of the problem.

Jakobsen and I take up the problem of hateful and eradicating violence and why tolerance is an inadequate response to such violence in the second chapter of Love the Sin. For now, and in the place of a conclusion, I want to mark what is, to me, the most fascinating feature of the hidden homosexual history recently uncovered in the pages of the Harvard Crimson, how contemporary readers have reacted to it. For the most part, people have responded with outrage at Harvard’s past behavior, to be sure, but also with relief that Harvard today is a more open and tolerant place. Current Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ response to the revelations exemplifies the tendency I am describing. In a prepared statement, Summers expressed his “deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago. Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then, persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is 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.”

Such expressions of regret acknowledge the past with one hand only to push it away with another. We are not “them.” “We” know better. Where they were judgmental and biased, we are tolerant; we have progressed. But, have we? In structural terms—an American landscape so often divided into “us” and “them,” and in which those at the dominant center mistake legalized discrimination for “fairness” and “national defense”—how far are “we” really from 1920—or even 1637?


Ann Pellegrini is co-author of Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (NYU Press 2003). Currently associate professor of drama at UC-Irvine, she previously taught at Harvard.


From: “The Secret Court of 1920”

Amit R. Paley


Excerpted from The Harvard Crimson, Nov. 21, 2002. “The Secret Court of 1920,”

Part 1.

At about 6 a.m. on May 13, 1920, Mary Wilcox smelled gas. She immediately identified the source of the fumes: the bedroom of her son, Cyril B. Wilcox, a sophomore at Harvard College.

Mary had reason to be worried about Cyril, who, unlike his older brother George L. Wilcox, seemed constantly to get into trouble. Cyril was far from an academic success at Harvard. His suicide would have seemed the tragic result of too much academic pressure at Harvard were it not for a conversation Cyril had with his older brother George shortly before it occurred, during which Cyril told George about his homosexual relationship with Harry Dreyfus, an older man who lived in Boston.

What else Cyril told his brother, if anything, is unclear, as are any plans George might have had to deal with the information. But then, almost immediately after the suicide, two letters addressed to Cyril arrived at the Wilcox residence. A nine-page handwritten letter from Ernest Weeks Roberts—postmarked the day before Cyril’s suicide—left no doubt that Cyril was part of a group of Harvard students involved in homosexual activities. “I haven’t made Bradlee yet, but my dear wait, when I do it will last for 2 days and 2 nights without talking it out,” Roberts wrote to Cyril. “‘Ken’ [Kenneth B. Day] is being sucked foolish by anyone and everybody he can lay hands on… I do him for it once in a while, for diversion. You know since you left I have been chaste not chased.” In other parts of the letter he refers to “faggoty parties” in his room and the names of non-Harvard-affiliated Boston men who were involved in the gay scene.

A strange letter postmarked the day of Cyril’s suicide arrived soon after from Harold W. Saxton, a recent Harvard grad, filled with code and jargon. Saxton referred to Cyril as “Salomé’s Child” and someone else as “Dot.” He referred to Roberts’ “campaign,” raids against clubs, “tricks” and a “souse” party, apparently in reference to a party with alcohol that would have been in illegal in 1920, the first year of Prohibition.

Cyril’s older brother 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.

About May 22, George Wilcox called on Acting Dean of the College Chester N. Greenough to inform him of Cyril’s suicide. He presented to Greenough the names he had extracted from Dreyfus and mentioned the two letters from Roberts and Saxton. The next day, after consulting with Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, Greenough asked Lee, Regent Matthew Luce, Gay and Assistant Dean Kenneth B. Murdock to gather evidence on the case to be submitted to the President. They called this five-person body “The Court.”

The Court was so secretive that even the Ad Board wasn’t aware of its existence for more than a week after it was formed. When the Board was informed on June 1, 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. But, at least at first, it was far from clear how The Court should proceed. Cyril was already dead, Saxton had graduated the year before, and the other two men were not connected with the University at all.

The only actual Harvard student named was Roberts—and he was the one person no one would accuse without great confidence in the charges. Ernest Weeks Roberts was the son of Rep. Ernest William Roberts, a man who had represented Massachusetts in Congress for eight years and was still an important political figure in Washington and Boston. There would need to be strong proof to accuse a congressman’s son of being homosexual. The proof came on May 25, when George Wilcox wrote to Greenough and, more importantly, enclosed Roberts’ letter to Cyril.

“By carefully reading this letter, I think you will obtain all the information you desire,” Wilcox wrote. But for some reason, in George Wilcox’s own letters to Greenough he chose to refer to several of the men involved not by their real names, but by a strange cipher. Dreyfus was referred to as Parker, Cyril Wilcox as Potter, Saxton as Preston, Roberts as Putnam, Cummings as Pope and Courtney as Piper. George Wilcox also discovered that the “Ken” mentioned in Roberts’ letter was Cyril’s freshman roommate, Kenneth Day. Referring to all the evidence in the letter, he concluded: “It will be enough anyhow to put Putnam [Roberts] out of business if you choose to do so.”

In order to proceed methodically, The Court asked Roberts’ proctor in Perkins Hall, code-named “S27,” to compile a list of all the students seen in Roberts’ room, or in the company of the men connected with that room. On May 26, the proctor wrote Greenough that Day and Edward A. Say were “often” found in that room. He also mentioned that Cummings and two other students were somehow involved, although two days later he asked to have the other two students removed from investigation.

The case became even more mysterious when Greenough received an unsigned letter dated May 26 from someone who identified himself only as a member of the Class of 1921. The anonymous student knew all the details of Cyril Wilcox’s suicide and informed the Acting Dean how Cyril first got involved with the underground gay group.


While in his Freshman year he met in college some boys, mostly members of his own class, who committed upon him and induced him to commit on them “Unnatural Acts” which habit so grew on him that realizing he did not have strength of character enough to brake [sic]away from it concluded suicide the only course open to him. The leader of these students guilty of this deplorable practice and the one directly responsible for Cyril Wilcox’s suicide is Roberts, 2C. Roberts’ rooms at Perkins 28 where he and more of his type have, during the past college 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 these 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 of Perkins so dressed.


The anonymous student also identified Day, Say, Saxton, and Cummings by name as students who attended parties in Roberts’ room, where, he wrote, “the most disgusting and disgraceful and revolting acts of degeneracy and depravity took place openly in plain view of all present.” “Isn’t it about time an end was put to this sort of thing in college?” he asked. “If you will look into the above you will find the charges based on facts.” The following day, The Court called its first witness.

[The article then offers a detailed summary of The Court’s proceedings, which turned up an array of admissions, denials, and accusations, but all within a limited cast of characters.]

Just as the investigation appeared to be winding down, a seemingly innocent conversation initiated a whole new investigation—one filled with even more backstabbing and finger-pointing, as the accused students desperately attempted to curry favor in order to remain at Harvard. While Nathaniel S. Wollf chatted with Assistant Dean Gay one day, he happened to mention that he knew the circumstances of Cyril Wilcox’s death. Immediately, he was summoned before The Court.

Wollf entered Harvard intending to become a doctor. He worked for two months at the Medical School and had spent the year before working at the Dental School, where he met Cummings. He said Cummings talked about the need for wider sex education and hinted at the existence of an undergraduate homosexual group.

Under pressure from The Court, Wollf admitted to participating in homosexual acts himself. He said he had “begun the habit” as a twelve-year-old in school. The practice increased, he told The Court, when at the age of sixteen he attended a prestigious boarding school, which was “permeated with homosexuality” and “mutual masturbation.” Since he had been at Harvard, though, Wollf said he had had only two homosexual encounters—until he met Keith P. Smerage at the Dramatic Club. The two had supper together and, because of Smerage’s constant allusions to homosexuality, Wolff realized that his dining companion was a homosexual, he told The Court.

That night he spent several hours in Smerage’s room. The two “took off all their clothes,” he said, and “mutual masturbation took place—one each.” The same thing happened on one other occasion, he said. Wollf told The Court that his second fling with Smerage was his last. “He was fighting hard and felt that he had overcome the habit,” read the Court records. “Says he is 90% OK.”

As a result of Wollf’s testimony, The Court summoned Smerage to appear for questioning. Smerage said he was first introduced to homosexuality by an older boy in high school and confessed to having had many homosexual relationships. He confessed to knowing “the jargon” and what a “queer” was, although he didn’t know what the word “faggot” meant. He also admitted to rouging his nails and knowing the work of Havelock Ellis, a psychologist whose 1897 book, Sexual Inversion, described the prevalence of homosexuality in American cities. He told The Court that he had “not slept with men in unnatural sense” since entering college and that he had conquered masturbation more than nine months before. He later admitted he had “‘fooled’ around with the homosexual business” one or two times at Harvard.

And then Smerage began naming names. He told The Court about a student Roberts had introduced him to who “has reputation of being queer”: Stanley Gilkey. Smerage added: “Gilkey got rather gay last semester.” He also named eight other students as probable homosexuals. Nonetheless, Smerage wouldn’t cooperate fully. “Said he knows fifty names—but won’t tell,” according to the files. On June 6, Gilkey appeared before The Court. His defense? He was “interested in homo-sexuality as part of interest in criminology.” Gilkey said he had read parts of Havelock Ellis’ multi-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex and a great deal of Sex Inversion as well as studying Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. The following year, Gilkey said, he planned to take Anthropology 3: “Criminology.” “I think a man should know about everything,” he told The Court to explain his interest in homosexuality. “I want to know all I can.”

Although The Court had heard testimony from others that Gilkey often “boasted of being able to tell ’queer’ people,” he denied the charge. Gilkey told the inquisitors that while he masturbated, he “does not think it as dangerous as homo-sexuality.” He denied any homosexual behavior and said he “went with a woman summer before last.” Although Gilkey admitted to discussing homosexuality with several students, he stressed that he “probably has brought homosexual knowledge to no one who was innocent.”

The Court continued to examine the students that Smerage had implicated, and eventually “S14,” whose real name was redacted, appeared in Greenough’s office. Although he admitted that he had masturbated when younger, The Court quickly concluded that he was innocent. In the course of his testimony, though, the student told The Court he had twice been “approached” by Assistant in Philosophy Charles B. Clark, his section leader in Pyschology A: “General Introduction to Psychology.”

Clark was an erudite man. The 24-year-old was born in Rome and spoke Italian, German and French fluently. At Wesleyan College he was Phi Beta Kappa and during World War I he served as a special agent in the U.S. Dept. of Justice. He received a masters’ degree in Philosophy at Harvard in 1918 and was in the third year of his Ph.D. program when he was summoned before The Court. Altogether, Clark taught about 100 students in his sections.

The news that a Harvard teacher might be a homosexual led President Lowell to join a special secret session of The Court on June 10 that the two Assistant Deans did not attend. At first, Clark “denied any connection with homosexualism, and he denied talking about it except to help some students to cure themselves.” Court records note that his memory was poor and he seemed nervous. He eventually broke down and confessed to approaching “S14” hoping for homosexual relations. Clark told The Court he had “been lying to cure himself and thought he was succeeding.”

President Lowell told Clark he could not be reappointed or given a Ph.D., and Clark agreed to withdraw his candidacy for the degree. Later, President Lowell himself crossed Clark’s name off all Corporation records. Apparently worried about the teaching staff at Harvard, Lowell and Greenough both met separately with the head instructor of Psychology A, Professor Herbert S. Langeld, who assured them that he had never delivered a lecture on homosexuality. “[I]deas on entire perfectly sound,” concluded The Court.

But the purge had already begun a week earlier. On June 4, Greenough, at the direction of President Lowell, advised Roberts to withdraw from Harvard at once. Over the next two weeks, The Court handed down and recorded a verdict of “guilty” for a total of 14 men: seven college students; Cummings, the Dental School student; Clark, the Assistant in Philosophy; Saxton, the alumnus; and four men not connected with Harvard. The college students were not just asked to leave campus, they were told to get out of Cambridge—immediately.


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