The Secret Court of 1920, Cont.

Part II

For Part I of this article, click here. For an explanation of the reporting process behind this story, click here.

The trial was over. The purge had already begun a week earlier. On June 4, Greenough, at the direction of President Lowell, advised Roberts to withdraw from Harvard at once. Over the next two weeks, The Court handed down and recorded a verdict of “guilty” for a total of 14 men: seven college students; Cummings, the Dental School student; Clark, the Assistant in Philosophy; Saxton, the alumnus; and four men not connected with Harvard.

The college students were not just asked to leave campus, they were told to get out of Cambridge—immediately.

“Your son, Ernest, is still in Cambridge in spite of our instruction,” Greenough wrote Rep. Roberts on June 12. “Strongly urge that you send for him or come for him yourself at once. He has been ordered to leave Cambridge today. Consequences of disobedience of this order would be most serious.”

Greenough also sent a letter that week—a letter that would haunt the students for the rest of their lives—to the Alumni Placement Service: “Before making any statement that would indicate confidence in the following men, please consult some one in the Dean’s office. If they do not know what is meant, tell them to look in the disciplinary file in an envelope marked ‘Roberts, E.W. and others.’”

After that day, anyone asking for information about the students’ years at Harvard would be given some form of this cryptic sentence alluding to The Court. Since some of the students had left campus before the verdicts were handed down, Greenough began to contact their families about their orders to withdraw.

Eugene R. Cummings never found out he was judged “guilty.” On June 11, 1920, the 23-year-old dental-school student whose high-school motto was “Never say die!” committed suicide at Harvard’s Stillman Infirmary. The medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was “poisoning by corrosive sublimate taken with suicidal intent probably while mentally deranged.”

A week later, Harvard’s fear of exposure was realized when the news of the two suicides appeared in an article in the Boston American on June 19. “2 HARVARD MEN DIE SUDDENLY,” screamed the headline of the story about Cummings and Wilcox.

“According to friends of the two in Fall River, Cummings, who was said to have been mentally unbalanced, told a story of an alleged inquisition which he claimed was held in the college office following Wilcox’ [sic] death,” read the article. “He said that he was taken into the office, which was shrouded in gloom, with but one light dimly burning, and there questioned exhaustively. This story, which was denied by the college authorities, was said to have sprung from his disordered mind.”

Professor of Hygiene Roger I. Lee, a member of The Court, said in the article that Cummings “had been acting in a queer manner,” but mentioned nothing about homosexuality or the University’s investigation.

“Every effort has been made to prevent any knowledge of this affair from becoming public,” Greenough wrote to the father of one of the other boys.

In Greenough’s letters to the parents of some of the students, he makes clear that they were asked to withdraw solely because of their association with homosexuals. “Your son, though we believe him to be innocent of any homosexual act, is in the following ways too closely connected with those who have been guilty of these acts,” Greenough wrote to Lumbard’s father on June 15. “In the first place, he is guilty of attending a ‘party’ of a loathsome sort, although while your son was in the room, no homosexual act, he assures us, took place. The nature of this party was announced in advance in such a way that he must have known he was taking grave risks in being present. He pleads that curiosity took him there and kept him there for more than two hours.

“Secondly, he is seriously at fault in serving as a kind of intermediary by answering telephone calls and communicating them, thereby making himself a link the chain. He pleads ignorance of the exact nature of what was going, but here also he should have known that he was taking risks.

“Finally, he is seriously at fault in that certain grossly immoral men in Boston spent the night in his room, unquestionably at the invitation of your son’s roommate. Yet in the absence of any more vigorous protest from your son than any that he has told us about, we have to regard them as having been allowed to enjoy the joint hospitality of the room.”

Greenough concluded by saying: “We feel the boy to have been no worse than ignorant, over-curious, and careless…I hope that after the lesson sinks in he will ask for readmission.”