This is the first part of a two-part article. A link to the second part is at the end of this article. For an explanation of the reporting process behind this story, click here.
At about 6 a.m. on May 13, 1920, Mary Wilcox smelled gas. She immediately identified the source of the fumes: the bedroom of her son, Cyril B. Wilcox, Class of 1922.
Mary had reason to be worried about Cyril, who, unlike his older brother George L. Wilcox ’14, seemed constantly to get into trouble. Cyril was far from an academic success at Harvard. In April of his freshman year, the Administrative Board placed him on probation for a month. And then, after a miserable showing on his finals—five Es, two Cs, a B and a pass—he was suspended. After a grueling few months at summer school, though, Cyril convinced the Ad Board to readmit him.
Things began to fall apart again in the spring of Cyril’s sophomore year. “Wilcox seems to me to be a bright enough chap, but he doesn’t study apparently,” his adviser wrote to Assistant Dean of the College Edward R. Gay on March 3, 1920.
When Wilcox received a mid-year record of three Ds, a C and an E, Gay was direct in his threat. “This will, I fear, be your last opportunity to make good at Harvard,” he wrote to Wilcox on March 17, “for if your grades in April fail to meet the requirements, the Board could do nothing but request you to withdraw.”
His future hinged on the April examinations—but Cyril Wilcox never took them. At the beginning of April, right before the crucial tests, he showed up at the office of Professor of Hygiene Robert I. Lee, Class of 1902, with a bad attack of urticaria, commonly known as hives.
“It is apt particularly to occur in nervous people, and in people who are under a nervous strain,” Lee wrote to Gay on April 13. “Wilcox tells me that after his urticaria was largely over he rather went to pieces nervously, and had what may be best described as an hysterical attack. That fits in with the picture very well. He lost his hour examinations and is quite upset about his work. His mother wants to take him home for a rest. I certainly agree that he should go home and get himself straightened out nervously.”
Later that day the Ad Board allowed Cyril Wilcox to withdraw from Harvard College due to “ill health.” He never returned to Cambridge.
From his family home in Fall River, Mass., Cyril wrote several letters to Gay, trying to determine the best possible way to salvage his academic career at Harvard. “Would it be possible for me to return this year, as Dr. Lee suggested, in case I feel equal to it?” his April 15 letter begged Gay. “If not, what stand would I have to take on reentering in September? Is any of my work this year to count?”
Gay responded flatly: “I hardly feel that I ought to encourage you to try to come back this year.”
After Wilcox wrote another letter asking for credit for the 1919-1920 academic year, Gay told him that he could only receive credit for half of French I—and only if he took the second half of French I the following year.
The academic woes of her son must have been on the mind of Mary Wilcox as she headed towards 21-year-old Cyril’s bedroom, wondering why the room reeked of gas. Then she opened the door. Cyril B. Wilcox was dead.
The local paper, The Herald News, reported the next day that he was “asphyxiated by illuminating gas…the gas jet in the room was found partly open, and it had evidently been partly open the greater part of the night.” In the early part of the century, inhaling the gas from the lights used at the time was one of the most common ways to commit suicide.
Although the medical examiner wrote in his report that Wilcox’s death was “most probably accidental, change of pressure in gas pipe extinguishing light, allowing raw gas to fill bed room,” his family and friends, as well as Harvard administrators, knew that his death was self-inflicted. Four days after the death, Lee wrote to Gay that Wilcox “committed suicide by inhalation of gas.”
Cyril’s suicide would have seemed the tragic result of too much academic pressure at Harvard were it not for a conversation Cyril had with his older brother George shortly before he committed suicide, during which Cyril told George about his homosexual relationship with Harry Dreyfus, an older man who lived in Boston.