History of the Secret Court

Please note that the following history provides details on violent homophobia and suicidality.

Additionally, our understanding of the importance of teaching this history is necessarily situated alongside the countless other forms of violence perpetrated by Harvard at this time—the systematic exclusion by President Lowell and others of Black and Jewish people, of women, of the working class. We highlight the Secret Court as one high-profile example of Harvard’s historical and ongoing replication of oppressive systems and as an occasion for organizing towards a safer and more affirming campus community and world.

Harvard Yard in 1920. Image via Oliver Knill and the Harvard Mathematics Department.

One hundred years ago, the suicide of undergraduate Cyril Wilcox marked the beginning of a University-wide witch hunt that quickly to the expulsion or removal of ten Harvard affiliates. Just before his death, Wilcox confessed to his elder brother that he had been involved in an affair with Harry Dreyfus, an older man in Boston. This information, as well as the content of several letters his brother later intercepted, revealed the presence of a thriving underground queer community at Harvard and set off a secret anti-queer witch hunt whose unearthing would rock the university nearly a century later.

President Lawrence Abbott Lowell.
Image via Encyclopedia Britannica.

Acting Dean Chester Noyes Greenough and University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell bypassed regular disciplinary mechanisms to form what is now known as the Secret Court of 1920: a clandestine disciplinary tribunal investigating the “suspected homosexual activity” taking place in Perkins Hall, one of Harvard’s student dorms. The Court performed extensive interviews with suspected participants, interrogating their behavior, sexual activity, overnight guests, and other personal details. Through this discrete investigation, the Court discovered a sizable network of queer students, graduate students, faculty members, and other residents of the Boston area.

In the end, ten suspects were found guilty of one offense or another, with punishment determined both by their status and the nature of their “violation.” Seven undergraduates and one graduate student were expelled, and only two were ever readmitted to eventually receive their Harvard degrees. In addition to Wilcox, two more of the expelled students—Keith Smerage and Eugene Cummings—would go on to die by suicide.

This history went unknown until 2002, when then-undergraduate Amit Paley discovered a box marked “Secret Court” in the University archives. Despite the administration’s best efforts to obscure this history by putting up barrier after barrier to Paley’s attempts to learn more about the contents of this box, he soon published the story in the Crimson, to national uproar. The revelation inspired multiple organizing initiatives, as well as a number of artistic works grappling with Harvard’s role in the destruction of these young queer lives.

The New York Times coverage of the Secret Court in 2002. Image via the New York Times.

Harvard has yet to meaningfully address this history. When this news came to the fore in 2002, then-President Lawrence Summers wrote to the Harvard community, “These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind.” We contend that Harvard has not left this history behind, but that the harm that diverse queer and trans Harvard affiliates face today falls directly within this painful lineage. To that end, we seek to formally recognize the victims of the Court, to underscore the importance of the University’s queer history, and to advocate for the well-being and inclusion of Harvard’s queer community today. Learn more about our demands.