The Secret Court
May 13, 1920: Cyril Wilcox, Class of 1922, on temporary withdrawal from Harvard College due to nervous illness, is found dead from asphyxiation by gas in his childhood bedroom in Fall River, Massachusetts. His family discovers letters from friends, including Ernest Weeks Roberts, also Class of ‘22 and the son of a prominent former MA congressman, implicating Cyril in an underground homosexual community at Harvard.
May 21, 1920: Cyril’s older brother, George Lester Wilcox (’14), tracks down Harry Dreyfus, the owner Café Dreyfus and a recent lover of Cyril’s, and violently extracts from him the names of known homosexuals at Harvard.
May 22, 1920: Lester visits Acting Dean of the College Greenough with the letters and a list of names, demanding that Harvard take some action. The following day, Dean Greenough and President A. Lawrence Lowell, along with three other deans, covertly form “The Court.”
May 26 – June 2, 1920: The proctor of Perkins Hall delivers to The Court a list of frequent attendees at “bitch parties” held in Perkins 28, the room of Ernest Weeks Roberts. The first round of trials begins, including Roberts, Kenneth Day (’22), a track star and Cyril’s former roommate, Eugene Cummings (’22), a dentistry student and family friend of the Wilcoxes, and Joseph Lumbard (’22), speaking in defense of his effeminate roommate Edward Say who had been much named in the letters and interrogations.
June 3 – 10, 1920: An informal conversation between Assistant Dean Edward R. Gay and med student Nathaniel Wollf (’19-’23) triggers a second wave of trials. Among those interrogated are Wollf, his sometime-lover Keith Smerage (’21), a newly-minted member of the Harvard Dramatic Club, Stanley Gilkey (’22-’23), who admitted an interest in homosexuality, but solely through the lens of criminology.
June 11, 1920: Cummings commits suicide by poison at Harvard’s Stillman Infirmary just before The Court hands down its verdicts. The “guilty”—including Roberts, Day, Say, Cummings, Wollf and Smerage et al—are forced to leave Cambridge immediately.
August 1921: Gilkey and Lumbard, deemed guilty by association, are readmitted to Harvard.
March – June, 2002: A box marked “Secret Court” is found in the University Archives. After much bureaucratic wrangling, the University releases to the Harvard Crimson a redacted version of the records.
November 21, 2002: Staff writer Amit Paley publishes in the Harvard Crimson an article entitled “The Secret Court of 1920.”
December 1, 2002: Then-Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers is quoted by the Washington Post: “These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind. 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. 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.”
2010: Their Day in the Yard: A group of Harvard students forms an organization called Their Day in the Yard with the mission of granting the expelled Harvard students posthumous degrees. For more information on Their Day in the Yard, and to sign a petition to further its cause, please visit SecretCourt.org.