The Secret Court of 1920 was a secret tribunal convened in 1920 at Harvard University to rid the university of homosexuals.

Headed by then president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the tribunal included acting Dean Chester N. Greenough, Assistant Dean Edward R. Gay, Professor of Hygiene Robert I. Lee, and Regent Matthew Luce. The "Court" met in secret, and held secret interrogations of students and one Assistant Professor suspected of being homosexual. Fourteen men were found "guilty": eight students, one Assistant Professor and PhD candidate, one recent graduate, and four men not associated with the university. All the students who were found guilty were expelled from the university, in most cases permanently.


On May 13, 1920, student Cyril Wilcox was found dead in his room, apparently of suicide, though the newspaper reports called the death accidental.

A Harvard undergraduate, Wilcox had been asked to withdraw from the university due to poor academic performance.[1]

File:Abbott Lawrence Lowell, by Sargent.jpg

The night before his death, Wilcox had confessed to his older brother, George Wilcox, that he had been having an affair with an older man, Harry Dreyfus, who lived in Boston. Shortly after his brother's death George intercepted two letters addressed to Cyril, both from homosexual friends, that convinced George that Cyril had been led astray by a group of students at Harvard who were involved in homosexual activities.[1]

Furious, George Wilcox located Dreyfus and beat him, extracting several names of homosexual students, and contacted Acting Dean Greenough, demanding that Harvard do something about the situation.

A day later, on May 23, 1920, the "Secret Court" was created.

Activities of the CourtEdit

The Court, which initially remained secret even from the university's Administrative Board, quickly named one student who they saw as the "ringleader": Ernest Weeks Roberts, son of Rep. Ernest William Roberts, who had represented Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives for eight years and was still an important political figure in Washington, D.C. and Boston.[2] The younger Roberts, who had hoped to enter Harvard Medical School, had served during World War I in the Harvard unit of the Students' Army Training Corps (SATC).[1]

A list of names of students who were known to be friendly with Roberts was compiled, and the Court proceeded to summon the accused for interviews. Curt notes were delivered to those involved. Roberts' read:

"I expect you, whatever your engagement may be, to appear at my office tomorrow, Friday, May 28th, at 2:45 P.M."[3]

Students were directed to appear even if appearing meant missing a final examination. On Thursday, May 27, 1920, Kenneth Day became the first accused to appear before the Court. The accused were asked intimate details of their personal and sexual lives, including whether, and how often, they masturbated. Some were summoned because they had been seen attending parties in Roberts' rooms; some had been accused by others.

The accusedEdit

Besides the eight undergraduates and one assistant professor expelled, at least four men not affiliated with Harvard were found "guilty" by the Court. In at least two cases, a letter detailing the man's "crimes" was sent to his employer.[3]

Douglas Clark

Douglas Clark, then twenty-four years old, was Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, and a PhD. candidate. Fluent in Italian, German and French, during WWI he served as a special agent in the U.S. Department of Justice. He received a master's 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. He was summoned after being accused by a student.

Clark was expelled from the university, and President Lowell personally crossed Clark's name off all Corporation records.[1] He taught for a while at Mills College and at the David Mannes School of Music, wrote a book of poetry, and published translations from Italian and German, then worked as a librarian at the National Jewish Hospital until his death from tuberculosis at age forty-seven in 1943.[3]

Eugene R. Cummings

Eugene Cummings, then twenty-three, was a dentistry student. He committed suicide at Harvard's Stillman Infirmary the day he learned he was being expelled, three weeks before graduation.[3]

Kenneth Day

Kenneth Day was expelled from Harvard. Despite being told that he might be considered for readmission, his repeated requests were dismissed, probably on the instructions of President Lowell.

In April 1926, Day married and moved to New York, where he worked as a bank teller. He had two daughters, and would marry two additional times.[3]

Stanley Gilkey

According to a letter sent to his father, Stanley Gilkey was expelled from Harvard because:

He has, by reading and conversation found out too much about homosexual matters. Secondly, he has been most indiscreet in saying in a public restaurant that a certain student looked to him like a man guilty of homosexual practices. In the third place, he has been too closely acquainted with the ringleader in these practices, and has visited his room too often.[3]

Gilkey, who was in fact homosexual, was readmitted to the university in 1921 and graduated in 1923. He lived in Paris for two years, then returned to the U.S., where he produced ten Broadway shows, some of them hits (one of them gave renowned dancer Gene Kelly his first speaking role). He remained active in the theatre world, and died in 1979.

Joseph Lumbard

Although the court had been unable to prove that Joseph Lumbard had been involved in any homosexual activity (he had been the roommate of Edward Say, who was also found guilty and expelled), he was expelled from the university on the grounds that he had associated too closely with Say and others in the crowd. He was nineteen years old. In a letter to his father after his expulsion, Greenough wrote of Lumbard:

His difficulties are, in brief, as follows. A certain group of Harvard students, in connection with a group of older men in Boston, have been guilty of homosexual practices, and one of the men deeply involved is your son's roommate. Your son, though we believe him to be innocent of any homosexual act, is...too closely connected with those who are guilty of those acts.[3]

Lumbard had admitted to dancing with another boy at a party in Roberts' rooms, taking telephone messages for other boys whom he knew to be homosexual, and permitting friends of his roommate Say to stay overnight in their shared rooms.

Lumbard was invited to reapply at Harvard after a year, and was readmitted in 1921. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1925 and married in 1929.

Despite his readmission, Harvard twice divulged details of Lumbard's expulsion, once in 1931 when he was being considered by the U.S. Attorney's office and once more thirty-three years after his expulsion, in 1953, when President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower was considering him for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals.

During a long career, Lumbard sat on the New York Supreme Court, served as the United States Attorney in Manhattan, cofounded the Office of Strategic Services (which later became the Central Intelligence Agency), and was a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. He was also considered to sit on the United States Supreme Court. He served on the Special Court of Appeals, and turned down the position of judge in the Watergate scandal. In 1959 he was appointed, ironically, to the Board of Overseers at Harvard, and served for ten years.[3]

Harold Saxton

Harold Saxton had graduated and was no longer a Harvard student at the time the Court was convened, but was making a living tutoring Harvard students. He was banished from the university, which made a point of sending damning letters when asked by prospective employers for a recommendation. Nothing more is known of Saxton after his twenty-ninth year.[3]

Edward Say

Edward Say was twenty years old when he was expelled. He insisted he had never engaged in any homosexual activity (though others claimed that he had). After his expulsion he worked as a securities salesman.

Say was killed in a mysterious single-car crash on July 13, 1930.[3]

Keith Smerage

Keith Smerage was expelled from Harvard. He later claimed the Court had tricked him into confessing by lying about the evidence they had against him.[3] After being informed that Harvard would report fully on the circumstances surrounding his expulsion from the school if contacted by other universities, Smerage took a job in a tearoom, and then became assistant manager of his mother's inn.

He had some low-level jobs in the theater, followed by a stint as assistant manager at a Greenwich Village restaurant, where he lived with a man who may have been his lover.

He committed suicide on September 8, 1930 in the same manner as Cyril Wilcox had ten years previously, by turning on the gas and going to bed.[3]

Nathaniel Wollf

Nathaniel Wollf, who was probably homosexual, was expelled at the age of twenty-five, days before earning his bachelors degree, but the possibility of readmission was left open; his request would be denied. Because of unfavourable reports from Harvard, Wollf's application at McGill University was also denied.

Ultimately, Wollf graduated with a medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College. After studying psychiatry for a further three years, he spent the next ten years pursuing painting and academic interests, and briefly converted to Islam. He opened a nightclub in Barcelona in 1935.

During World War II he returned to the United States and he served as a psychiatrist for returning soldiers.

He died in 1959, having never married.[3]


In 2002 a researcher from student newspaper The Crimson came across a box of files labelled "Secret Court." Eventually five hundred documents relating to the Court were released by Harvard, and the story was broken in The Crimson's weekly magazine Fifteen Minutes.

Then-Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers said of the incident:

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.[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 The Harvard Crimson: "The Secret Court of 1920"
  2. 2.0 2.1 Washington "Harvard Secret Court Expelled Gay Students in 1920"
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 Wright, William. Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 0312322712 (Google Print)

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.