The Secret Court of 1920, Cont.

This is the second part of "The Secret Court of 1920," a tribunal designed to investigate alleged homosexual activity at Harvard College.
By Amit R. Paley

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.”

In September, Lumbard’s father road to Dean Henry A. Yeomans, “I feel that Joseph has received extremely unjust treatment in being forced to withdraw.” Joseph Lumbard applied to other schools and wrote he had been requested to leave Harvard because he was “the room-mate of a student implicated in a very serious affair.”

Harvard contacted the deans of the other schools and blocked Lumbard’s application. “You have given me just the information which we needed, and it goes without saying that we shall inform Mr. Lumbard that we do not care to consider his application for admission to Brown,” Dean of Brown University Otis E.. Randall wrote to Greenough. “I feel that your action in the matter was wise and just, and that you deserve the support of the colleges to which young Lumbard may make application for admission. How frequently we uncover in the undergraduate life messes of this sort, and how disagreeable it is to deal with such matters!”

The deans at Amherst College and the University of Virginia also received letters from Harvard about Lumbard.

He spent his year off in New York City working at a law firm while studying law at night.

After he returned to Harvard, he quickly completed his undergraduate courses and then entered the Law School. He soon embarked on a meteoric rise in the legal world, though The Court files came back to haunt him twice. Before his appointment as chief of the criminal division of the United States Attorney’s office in New York, Assistant US Attorney Haven Parker wrote to Harvard on April 1,, 1931 on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice to discover the cause of Lumbard’s suspension from Harvard. He said it would be irresponsible to entrust any immoral person with such great responsibility.

Then the Federal Bureau of Investigation got involved. Harvard registrar Sargent Kennedy made a note on Jan. 8, 1953 about FBI Agent Quinn’s attempt to discover the reason for Lumbard’s withdrawal. Harvard cooperated and informed agent Quinn that he was required to withdraw solely because of social association with the group. The note ends abruptly, “Quinn says this information will be buried.”

Lumbard eventually rose to serve on the Harvard Board of Overseers. But he never mentioned the reason for his year off to anyone, according to his grandson Joseph E. Lumbard, who lived with him for a year-and-a-half at the end of his life. “That would be the time of thing about which my grandfather would not say anything,” he said. “When it came to things like people having different sexual preferences, he felt like that was other people’s business.”

Keith P. Smerage’s mother Grace was perhaps the most determined and persistent parent in trying to get her son back into Harvard, despite the decision of The Court not even to consider him for re-admission. Before his withdrawal, she wrote to Greenough, “the disgrace would kill me, or all my happiness at least.” She tried to persuade Greenough by inspiring pity for her son, describing his childhood illnesses and poor relationship with his father. The dean was not swayed.

After The Court required Smerage to withdraw, the boy wrote a vicious letter on June 15 to Greenough alleging that Harvard was infamous for its homosexuality. “Harvard has a reputation for this sort of thing, that is nation wide. I have heard a most uncomplimentary song Princeton sings of Harvard and along this theme,” he wrote.

“Through Roberts I met the leader of a similar group to his at Dartmouth. When I asked an acquaintance of mine there if he knew the lad, he said yes, and added, ‘he and his gang should have gone to Harvard.’”

Smerage also questioned the sexual orientation of Harvard professors. “In town they say, in speaking of this dismissal of but eight—for it has leaked out through some source—‘tell them to look to their faculty,” he wrote. “I know a lad who was in September a member of the University who heard in town of one of your professors, from a ‘queer one’ pretending to have lived with said professor last summer, and in consequence he took that professor’s course.”

Smerage added: “I very much regret now, in after-thought, that I gave any names whatsoever….I realize that to give you names means to get confessions of one case of guilt, and then expulsion….I know of lads still in the University going wrong. To tell would expel them, while a word of warning, a helping hand, without the ‘jolt’ of ruining their life careers, could help them out.”

Striking perhaps at the greatest fear of the homophobic administrators, Smerage wrote, “A human streak in me makes me feel rather sore at being one of eight expelled when I am one of at least ten times that number.”

His mother also wrote a letter to Greenough the same day equally as dramatic in tone. “This is indeed a stricken home,” she wrote. “No home where even death has entered can compare with a case like this.” Particularly difficult for Smerage’s mother was the fact that her son had just recently begun pulling together his life. His academic work was improving, he was elected to the Dramatic Club on May 24, and Smerage said he had given up homosexuality. “I think that thro’ this carcass emanates a very different boy than did therefrom such a few months ago,” he wrote to his mother the night of his election.”If only I could find a girl, now,” he continued.

Two weeks later, he was back before The Court. “To think that just as my prayers seemed answered and he had got started right that he should be ‘kicked out’ and left hopeless,” his mother wrote to Greenough. “I felt then and I feel now that you men could have done much good had had perhaps a little less sense of justice and a little more of the spirit of Jesus in your hearts when dealing with this case.”

The family attempted to get the incident behind them. Smerage met weekly with a “wonderful man of godly influence” who tried to help him overcome his homosexual impulses. The Smerages set their sights on having him apply to Rutgers. But when Greenough informed Smerage that he would tell Rutgers the circumstances of his withdrawal, Smerage decided not to apply and soon left the ivory tower for the world of the performing arts. He took the stage name of Richard Keith and took a singing role in the traveling show Blossom Time. Smerage, a pianist and baritone, appeared in many companies in the Boston area. At home in Topsfield he was soloist in the Congregational Church Choir.

He moved to New York in the late 1920’s, where he found work as an assistant manager in a Greenwich Village café. But on Sept. 8, 1930, Smerage became the third member of the circle to commit suicide.

The New York Times reported that he was found dead of gas asphyxiation in an apartment he shared with Philip Towne, a government clerk. “Towne, who works at night, found the cracks about the doors and windows stuffed with paper and four jets open in the kitchen stove.” According to the Salem Evening News, the police listed the case as a suicide.

Another tragedy had struck two months earlier, when 29-year-old Edward A. Way, already a successful securities salesman well-known in financial circles, was killed in a car crash in Connecticut. “The car descending a steep hill at unsafe speed ploughed through a fence and dropped down a 10 foot embankment, Mr. Say’s skull being fractured and a lung punctured,” The Waterbury American reported. “He was thrown from the car and later it rolled on him.”

Because Kenneth Day’s parents had both died before he was ten years old, ordinary college reports were sent to his grandmother. However, Greenough sent the letter explaining the cause of Kenneth’s withdrawal to his cousin, Homer G. Day, who was also raised by the same grandmother. “The loss of a year to a boy in ordinary conditions, with his parents to fall back upon, might not be so serious a matter,” Homer Day wrote to Greenough on June 17, “but in the present case it seems a very high price to pay, as it will mean I fear the end of his education.”

Homer asked Greenough to clarify what Harvard would say to other colleges if Kenneth tried to transfer. Greenough said, Harvard would be required to give other schools an honest impression. “That impression, as you know, is in this case of mixed good and evil,” he wrote to Homer.

Kenneth spent the next year taking classes at the New York University School of Commerce, Accounts and Finance. He lived in the same room with his cousin. “I have known where he has been every minute of the time and know his friends,” Homer wrote to Greenough on August 22, 1921. “I know that the offence which cause him to leave College has never since then occurred.”

Homer told Greenough that he even resorted to spying on his cousin to make sure he wasn’t involved with homosexuals. “After leaving his office, he spent an hour or more practically every night at the West Side branch of the YMCA gymnasium in boxing and other physical exercise, where I have made it a point to join him whenever possible at unexpected times,” he wrote.

Except for twice dining at the house of the Lumbard family, Homer said Kenneth had no communication with anyone involved in the case.

In August of 1921, Kenneth tried to reapply to Harvard. “More than thing else in my life, I want to go back to college and show it, and my cousin Homer and myself that I am not the cur I might have turned out to be,” he wrote. Homer agreed to support him financially. But Kenneth never returned to Cambridge. “I am very sorry to have to tell you that we do not see how you can return to Harvard,” Greenough wrote to Kenneth on Sept. 28, 1921. “The matter has been very thoroughly gone into and taken up with the President, whose position in the matter is embodied in this ruling.”

Greenough, in fact, disagreed with Lowell’s refusal to allow Kenneth to be readmitted to Harvard. He had argued that Wollf, Gilkey, Day and Lumbard could potentially be readmitted in the fall of 1920, but that certainly those four should be allowed to come back eventually. In a Sept. 17, 1920 letter to Yeomans, he indicates that Lowell was strongly against readmitting any of the four. “I do not concur with Mr. Lowell:’ he wrote to Yeomans.

Although Lowell eventually agreed to readmit three of the four students, Kenneth Day never finished college.

He never mentioned to anyone—even his family—why he left Harvard.

“Good Lord!” said his daughter, Nancy Day, when told the real reason he left. “I never heard that. I’ll stake my life on it that my father was not a homosexual. My father was a skirt-chaser, he liked women,” said Day, who asked that only her maiden name be used. “I just don’t think that homosexuals have the enjoyment of women like he had."

After he was forced to withdraw from Harvard, Donald Clark continued to lead the life of an academic. He next headed to the University of California’s Mills College campus, where he taught for several years, and in the fall of 1927 he helped the David Mannes School create a new department of cultural studies. In 1933 he published a book of poetry, The Single Glow, under the name Axton Clark. He also composed music and published a translation of the letters of Christopher Columbus from Italian and a translation of Heinrich Mann’s In the Land of Cockaigne from the German. He later moved to Denver, Colo. where he was librarian at National Jewish Hospital. His obituary in the Rocky Mountain Herald said that he died of tuberculosis.

The Court only wanted Stanley Gilkey to take one year off. “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 Gilkey’s father on June. 15. “First, he has, by reading and conversation found out too much about homosexual matters. Secondly, he has been most indiscreet in saying in a public restaurant that a certain student looked to him like a man guilty of homosexual practices. In the third place, he has been too closely acquainted with the ringleader in these practices, and has visited his room too often. Your son knew perfectly well what kind of a man this ringleader was, but partly through curiosity, and partly through a desire not to impair a relationship which permitted him to borrow the other man’s clothes, had allowed matters to drift along.

“The acts in question are so unspeakably gross that the intimates of those who commit these acts become tainted, and, though in an entirely different class from the principals, must for the moment be separated from the College.

“At the same time we feel the boy to have been no worse than overcurious and careless,” Greenough wrote. “I hope…he will ask us for readmission.”

After a year off, Gilkey was readmitted to the college. Following his graduation, he worked for two years at the Bankers Trust Company in Paris before returning to New York to pursue theater. Over the course of his four-decade career, Gilkey produced more than a dozen Broadway shows. He also produced a show for Martha Graham’s dance company and was the first general manager of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, where he worked under Academy Award-winning director Elia Kazan.

Gilkey never married. After his retirement, he moved to San Francisco. In his 50th reunion report, he invited all his classmates to visit him: “I am hale and hearty, and swing, too.” He died on Nov. 3, 1979 at the age of 79.

Harold W. Saxton had trouble getting a job as a teacher after his appearance before The Court. When he applied for a teaching position at the Hallock School in Great Barrington, Mass. in 1922, Dean Gay advised the school not to hire him. “In the spring of 1920 Saxton became involved with certain undergraduates in offences of such moral turpitude that the undergraduates were removed from the university immediately,” Gay wrote. “Saxton, of course, was beyond our reach, but it is regarded as highly undesirable that he should be recommended for any position, especially that of teaching in a boys school.”

Later that year, Saxton applied for a position at the Massachusetts Department of Education, but Gay wrote: “It is impossible for us to recommend Harold W. Saxton for any position whatsoever. It is my personal opinion that he should never be appointed as a teacher.”

Saxton eventually found employment as a teacher in South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and then Martha’s Vineyard, according to a 1923 class report that he composed from his job at Hebron Academy in Maine.

On June 23, 1924, Saxton applied for a job as a French or math teacher at a country day school through the Harvard alumni appointment office. He appeared at the office and “in his talk he made a favorable impression,” according to notes from the appointment office. But after Saxton left, a staffer at the office looked through the files and found the June 15, 1920 letter from Greenough that said, “I strongly suggest that your office make no statement implying that Harvard College in…H.W. Saxton ’19.” The alumni appointment did not recommend Saxton for any jobs.

One June 24, Saxton wrote to Greenough, “I wish to see you at your earliest convenience in regard to a serious charge you have made against my character.” According to his student folder, the two met on June 26. Four days later, he wrote to Greenough: “I wish you to know that you are justified.”

As the publications office began compiling the 25th anniversary report in 1943, the Dean of the College wrote to the publication staff: “I have now gone over the sordid details regarding Harold Winfield Sexton 19 in the confidential disciplinary files. The case was a most serious one but he had already graduated at the time disciplinary action was taken in the case of the various young men involved. It would seem to be the best thing to do would be to give up trying to locate his whereabouts and either omit his name entirely or just include a brief statement: No information in recent years.”

His entry in the 25th anniversary report read: “No information about him has come to hand in recent years.”

Less than a year after Ernest Weeks Roberts was forced to withdraw from Harvard because of his homosexual activities, he married Helen Gay Smith on Feb. 13, 1921. After the wedding, they moved in with Helen’s family in Brookline and on Dec. 24, 1921, Ernest Weeks, Jr. was born.

Roberts Sr. was an interior decorator and a staunch Republican who wrote in the class 25th-anniversary report that he and Helen had been “blessed with the happiest of marriages.”

In a statement to FM, University President Lawrence Summers reflected on The Court of 1920 more than 80 years after the fact: “These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind.

“I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago.

“Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then, persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university. We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have.”