What began as an inquiry into a student's suicide in 1920 ended in Harvard University convening a secret tribunal that labeled 14 men "guilty" of being gay and forcing the students among them to leave not only the school but the city of Cambridge, Mass.
The hidden history of the tribunal, known as "the court," first reported by the Harvard Crimson newspaper on Thursday, describes Harvard's desperate efforts, which were kept secret for more than eight decades, to hide from public view a secret gay subculture on campus.
"These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind," Harvard president Lawrence Summers wrote in a statement to the Crimson. "I want to express our 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."
The strange legacy began when Harvard student Cyril B. Wilcox, 21, committed suicide in his Fall River, Mass., home in May 1920 by inhaling gas. He was having academic problems as well as health problems that had been chalked up to nerves, and he had been asked to withdraw from the college a short time before.
The death might have passed as simply a tragic end to the life of a dropout had he not told his brother, George, about a gay relationship he had with an older Boston man.
Shortly after the death, two letters arrived for Cyril Wilcox, the first leaving no doubt that Wilcox was part of a group of gay men at Harvard, and the second a cryptic letter full of codes and jargon. Cyril's brother tracked down one of the men and beat him until he offered up the names of three other gay men.
George Wilcox contacted the acting dean of the college, Chester N. Greenough, and informed him of Cyril's suicide, passing on the names of the three gay men and mentioning the two letters. The next day, after consulting with school president A. Lawrence Lowell, Greenough convened a group of administrators, including regent Matthew Luce and assistant dean Kenneth B. Murdock, to gather evidence on the case. They called this tribunal "the court."
The court was so secretive that even the college's administrative board, which oversaw student disciplinary matters, wasn't aware of its existence for more than a week after it was formed.
The court demanded that men associated with the secret group of carousers--including the son of a congressman--who gathered in dorm rooms to hold parties late into the night, sometimes in women's clothing, to come and testify before the court and tell them what they knew of gay parties on campus.
When the "trial" ended, the court handed down verdicts of guilty for 14 men: seven college students, a dental school student, a teacher, a recent graduate, and four men not associated with Harvard. The college students were asked not only to leave campus but also to get out of Cambridge--immediately. In letters to the parents of some of the students, Greenough made clear that their sons were asked to withdraw solely because of their association with gays.
Summers called the episode "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."