Things Done in Secret

A new book recounts Harvard's purge of gay students in 1920.

September 22, 2005

Three years ago,The Harvard Crimson broke a story about a troubling series of events that had occurred on campus ... more than 80 years earlier. After months of effort, student reporters had received access to a set of documents cataloged in the university archives under the intriguingly vague heading "Secret Court Files, 1920." The dossier was massive and, even after so many years, shocking. It contained 500 pages of correspondence and memoranda from an inquiry conducted to investigate a gay social circle based in a dormitory.

The panel of five Harvard administrators -- including the president, A. Lawrence Lowell -- did its work with a kind of vindictive glee. Seven undergraduates were expelled. One instructor had been forced to resign and to end his doctoral work. Another Harvard graduate who worked as a tutor had to sever any ties to the university.

At least one of the men later died in circumstances suggesting suicide, as William Wright recounts in Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals, published next month by St. Martin's. Most of the others went on to lives that were blighted by the event. Administrators were not content to drive them from campus. In case a future employer inquired about the circumstances -- or should the students try to enroll in any other university -- Harvard was prepared to explain just exactly why their education had been interrupted.

Wright, a journalist and the author of several books, has picked up where The Crimson left off. He has reconstructed not just the proceedings of the secret court itself, but the circumstances leading up to it and the decades-long aftermath. The material itself is fascinating and troubling enough to hold one's attention in spite of the author's penchant for repetition, overstatement, and editorializing. (A few too many pages are written in a tone of "To think it happened at Harvard! At Harvard, I tell you!") The book is not long, yet seems padded, even so.

A good overview of how the Secret Court came into being is available in the original series published by the Crimson, and still available online. Wright has added to the story -- and, frankly, made the Harvard administration of 80 years ago look more vicious -- by digging out additional documentation beyond the records of the original hearings.

The hearings themselves sound like a cross between Franz Kafka and David Lynch. They were reportedly conducted in a darkened room. Those called before the inquest had no representation. They sat in front of the five administrators, who asked them, among other things, whether they had read the work of Sigmund Freud or Havelock Ellis. An affirmative answer was evidence, not of scholarship, but of probable deviancy. The panel then moved on to more personal matters, including questions about whether or not the subject masturbated. (Given that most of those called in were guys in their teens and early 20s, this must have produced a wealth of information.) All information about the students' sexual activity, of whatever kind, was recorded in detail that would have made Alfred Kinsey proud.

Of course, the old expression in loco parentis effectively put college administrators in the position of the superego on a daily basis. But this was acting it out with an almost perverse flair. Wright notes that one of the faculty members who helped get the inquest underway, an anthropologist named Earnest Albert Hooton, later published a book called Young Man, You Are Normal, which summed up (in his words) "a four year study of Harvard undergraduates ... to find out what 'well' men were like." In all, it seems as if defining "the normal" were a focus of exceptionally intense anxiety for some of the nation's presumed best and brightest.

The accounts of the later lives of the expelled students make for somewhat melancholy reading: Wright has unearthed the files containing the letters many of them sent trying to gain readmission or the clearing of their record, seldom with any success.

One of them, Keith Smerage, eventually quit playing nice and, in anger, began confronting the administrators with what must have been their worst fear. "Mother said she was warned never to send me to Harvard, but no specific reason was given," he wrote. "Now we know! Harvard has a reputation for this sort of thing that is nationwide. I have heard a most uncomplimentary song Princeton sings of Harvard along this theme."

The files for another student contain a letter from the dean of Brown University that Wright might have done well to ponder. Thanking his colleague at Harvard for information on why the student had been "requested" to leave the university, the Brown administrator sighs, "How frequently we uncover messes of this sort, and how disagreeable it is to deal with such matters!"

What are the implications of this comment? For one, it shifts the emphasis away from the particular scene of the event by reminding us that such investigations were, once upon a time, a normal if unwelcome fact of university life. The significant thing about the files of the Secret Court is not that the inquest was held at Harvard. Rather, what makes them important is that they survived. Other boxes of memoranda must have accumulated at other universities. Doubtless, most of them were eventually destroyed -- whether from a belated sense of respect for individual privacy, or just to make room.

And while digging out whatever traces remain of such hearings might be a worthy enterprise for scholars, the phenomenon itself isn't quite history. At religious and military schools, they continue -- a point made by the Equality Ride.  On the Web site of this group of gay-rights activists, you can find anonymous statements from gay students at colleges that would expel them if their sexuality became known -- and of students who were expelled not so very long ago at all.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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