On the morning of May 14, 1920 Cyril Wilcox, a Harvard University sophomore at home on academic probation, was found dead in his bedroom from gas asphyxiation, having blocked the space beneath his door and allowing gas from the light fixtures to fill his bedroom as he fell asleep. According to documents in the Harvard Archives, he previously had a conversation with his elder brother Lester, confessing to a homosexual relationship with a Boston gentleman, Harry Dreyfus. Days following his death, two envelopes arrived at the Wilcox residence addressed to Cyril. They had been previously posted by a couple of his friends in Cambridge, one of whom was school chum Earnest Roberts, a Congressman’s son who had served as pall-bearer at Cyril’s funeral. After reading the enclosed letters, which contained graphic language pertaining to the activities of a group of Cyril’s friends at the college, Lester decided to track down Mr. Dreyfus, extract by force the names of as many “deviants” he could gather, and finally alert the University’s then Acting Dean, C. N. Greenough, of his lost brother’s hidden connection to a seemingly widespread homosexual subculture on campus.
On May 23rd, one day following Lester’s meeting, the Acting Dean consulted Harvard’s then president A. Lawrence Lowell, who appointed a “Court” of 5 administrators to convene in secret, gather evidence, and report back its findings.
According to a summary of the Court’s proceedings: “The Administration Board was consulted on June 1, after the sessions of the Court had begun. The Board had no desire to touch the case and agreed that the matter should not go through the regular [disciplinary] channels (Board and Faculty) but straight from the Court to the President.”
“Sessions of the court were immediately begun, the men mentioned in the various documentary evidence&dagger being summoned first. It appeared that there was a nest of perverts centering at the room of Ernest Roberts, 28 Perkins Hall, and the students who had intimate relations with Roberts and his group were advised by the Acting Dean, at the instruction of the President, to withdraw from the University at once. In addition, there were several comparatively involved cases of perversion brought to light by accident.”
&dagger[i.e. the two letters, names from Harry Dreyfus given by Lester Wilcox to Dean Greenough, and a list of men seen visiting Robert’s room from the Proctor of Perkins Hall.]
The inquiry that began as an investigation into a student’s suicide soon became an inquisition. In total, thirty-eight men were questioned by the Court, that ultimately convicted 14 men of “homosexualism,” including eight students, an assistant professor, a recent graduate and four men unaffiliated with the institution. Not only were students asked to leave the college, all men found “guilty” were forced out of the city of Cambridge. Sadly, one of the young men, a student about to receive his degree from the graduate Dental School, upon learning his verdict but before receiving any sentence, painfully killed himself in the school’s infirmary by ingesting ether and mercury.
No one will ever know the precise truth behind Cyril Wilcox’s decision to end his own life, and in that sense his sorrow will remain forever private. But if his self-forfeit was an attempt to confine the blame and penance for some perceived personal defeat, he decidedly failed. The Harvard Dean’s office continually thwarted the efforts of these promising young men to find education and employment elsewhere, until the institution’s memory of the proceedings apparently faded, and at least one other of the expelled students eventually committed suicide. Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920 helped turn Cyril Wilcox’s suicide into a tragedy that ultimately compounded itself for more than 50 years.