CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- What began in 1920 as an inquiry into a student's suicide ended in Harvard University's convening a secret tribunal that labeled 14 men "guilty" of homosexuality and forcing the students among them to leave not only the school, but also Cambridge.
The history of the body known only as "the court" remained hidden for more than eight decades. Then, this year, a student reporter searching the school's archives came across a file labeled "secret court."
The pages that file contained, first reported in a recent edition of the Harvard Crimson's weekend magazine, describe Harvard's desperate attempts 80 years ago to hide from public view a secret gay subculture on campus.
"These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind," Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote in response to the Harvard Crimson's questions about the case. "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."
The strange legacy began when a Harvard student, Cyril B. Wilcox, 21, committed suicide by inhaling gas in his Fall River, Mass., home in May 1920. He was having academic problems, as well as health problems that were attributed to nerves, and had been asked to withdraw from the college.
The death might have passed as simply a tragic end to the life of a dropout had he not told his brother, George, about a homosexual relationship he had with an older Boston man.
Shortly after the death, two letters arrived for Cyril Wilcox. The first left no doubt that he was part of a group of gay men at Harvard. The second was a cryptic letter full of codes and jargon.
Cyril's brother tracked down one of the men and beat him until he offered the names of three other gay men.
When George Wilcox informed the acting dean of the college, Chester N. Greenough, of Cyril's suicide, he passed on the names and mentioned the letters.
The next day, after consulting with President A. Lawrence Lowell, Greenough convened a group of administrators to gather evidence.
They called the five-person body "the court."
The court was so secretive that even the college's administrative board, which oversees student disciplinary matters, wasn't immediately aware of its existence.
When the board was informed, it "had no desire to touch the case and agreed that the matter should not go through the regular channels [board and faculty] but straight from the court to the president," according to the court's written summary of the case. The court then demanded that the men associated with the secret group testify.
Those associated with the secret group had gathered in dorm rooms to hold parties late into the night; one of the group was the son of a former congressman. One anonymous student who wrote to the court about the gay subculture said "the most disgusting and disgraceful and revolting acts of degeneracy and depravity took place openly in plain veiw [sic] of all present."