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Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals

3.59  ·  Rating Details ·  124 Ratings  ·  27 Reviews
In 2002, a researcher for The Harvard Crimson came across a restricted archive labeled "Secret Court Files, 1920." The mystery he uncovered involved a tragic scandal in which Harvard University secretly put a dozen students on trial for homosexuality and then systematically and persistently tried to ruin their lives.

In May of 1920,Cyril Wilcox, a freshman suspended from Ha
Paperback, 304 pages
Published October 31st 2006 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published 2005)
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One lesson I gleaned in thinking about the events related in this book is: When in Rome, lie your fucking ass off. Especially if you happened to be a gay student at Harvard in 1920.

In the wake of the expulsion and suicide of gay undergraduate, Cyril Wilcox, in spring 1920, his infuriated older brother, Lester, blamed Harvard and its permissiveness in allowing a gay subculture that he claimed corrupted his young brother, leading to the tragedy. To quickly quell any scandal and purge the campus of
Laura Hughes
Sep 08, 2014 Laura Hughes rated it it was ok
The story of the "secret court" that attempted to purge Harvard of the homosexual blight in 1920 is totally up my alley as an connoisseur of early-20th-century college gays. The story is interesting but I found the writing hard to like. I can't tell if it's because of the writer himself or because I don't really "get" academic historical writing, but to me, Wright seems to try to take a middle-ground approach where a choice would have worked better:

* Present the story, or the story of uncovering
Jan 18, 2016 Hannah rated it liked it
The topic of this book is really interesting--why did Harvard form a committee to investigate a homosexual student clique, and how did their disciplinary actions affect the lives of the students?

Unfortunately, the writing is terrible: it's not ungrammatical, just speculative, horribly repetitious, and full of hyperbole. As least half the book is repetition. And while I agree that getting kicked out of Harvard for being too queer is horribly unfair, I disagree that it is like the Inquisition and
Kate O'Hanlon
Jan 26, 2011 Kate O'Hanlon rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 07, 2013 Geoff rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I’ve wanted to read this since a book group I was in when I first moved to Boston read it. They read it before I joined and I thought it sounded interesting. So keeping with my theme of expanding my reading (and apparently reading a lot more nonfiction) I requested it from the local library.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed. This book felt more like a really well written undergraduate research paper than a book than a published book (and they were typos too). Part of this I believe comes from th
Sep 10, 2007 Nathan rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Wow. Just... wow.
This book made me bitterly aware of how only hindsight can really prove how backwards and cruel even our most liberal and forward-thinking institutions can be. A perfect lesson on why group-thought is bad, infectious and even murderous, and a perfect microcosmic prequel to McArthyism and Patriot Acts and detention camps. A virtual inquisition took place in one of America's higher institutions of class, virtue and education, and it resulted in suicides, beatings, ruined lives and a story with pre ...more
It's an account of the purges of gay students from the campus after the suicide of one of them that occurred in the nineteen-twenties. Very shocking, especially considering that the purges themselves led to more suicides and completely ruined the lives of the students in question. Not only did Harvard purge their names from the permanent records, they also sent out letters to explain why they dismissed this students if they chose to associate themselves with the university in any CV they wrote f ...more
May 27, 2016 Highjump rated it really liked it
If the chatty bartender at my local gay bar wrote a book about some hot goss I think it would read something like this. With lines like "there was something sad about America's preeminent university losing what surely must have been one of the country's preeminent queens" how could I give it less than four stars?

This is not a serious academic work on homosexuality or academia or the way the two have interacted. The later chapters that discuss genetics and religion were clearly written by someon
Jan 14, 2012 Teniell rated it liked it
Shelves: read-higher-ed
This book is a very compelling and detailed account of the interrogation and expulsion of seven gay Harvard students in 1920. The book gives some information as to the broader treatment of gay men in the early 20th century, but I would like to have seen more about the larger social context for gay men during this time period.

My biggest critique is that the author attempts to fill in many of the gaps in his research with details that make me question the validity of some descriptions. Also, the b
Diane Schneider
Sep 19, 2014 Diane Schneider rated it really liked it
This is a sad story, but unfortunately not one that is incredibly shocking. The author does a good job of balancing the narration with historical context and also relating events to the current climate. He focuses on the people involved and demonstrates the impact on the expelled students, which is, I think, more interesting and heartbreaking than the actual events of the court's proceedings. The best part of the book is the chapter in which the author discusses homophobia throughout history and ...more
Nov 13, 2011 Russell rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-history
Story needs to be told... But by a different author. Poorly written; nothing but speculation and spinning out single facts for multiple pages of gloss. Most of the time, alternate explanations seem more reasonable to me than the author's "opinion" about what probably happened. This book could have been a quarter the size and contain only facts, not judgments based on no more information than you have as the reader.
Jul 10, 2008 Catherine rated it really liked it
Harvard has always seemed to be a bastion of liberal thought and human rights study. So I was quite understandably scandalized when I saw this book!

As Joyce Carol Oates said, this book is "disturbing and illuminating... reads like a tragic mystery from an era uncomfortably close to our own."

I loved reading this book -- if for no other reason that it provided insight into the queer underground of 1920s Cambridge/Boston. Excellent for summer reading!
Richard Jespers
Nov 19, 2014 Richard Jespers rated it really liked it
Scary scary tale of young men and faculty members at Harvard who were purged by a “court” of administrators including Laurence Lowell (heir to family of Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts). I don’t know why this fascinated me except that it seems our country is so ripe to go there once again. The author believes, though does little by way of logical argument, to propose that homophobia is due to genetic make-up—as is homosexuality itself (an idea which is supported by scientific study).
Jun 17, 2012 Bill rated it liked it
The topic was interesting but Wright struggles to craft the story by finding ways to inform the reader about the historical nonfiction facts of Harvard's secret court. And yet, he understands the need to make the story more captivating and personal and yet it is in his telling of the narratives of the many students involved that he fails to find his voice. It feels forced and disconnected at times and I struggled to connect with the characters and stories at several points in the book.
Mark Brown
Jun 22, 2008 Mark Brown rated it it was ok
I mean, trash talking Harvard is always fun in my book. This was interesting to read -sometimes a bit redundant but still I got the information on the time period. It was interesting to read about it but I wish it had more original sources in the material rather than his opinion of the resources. Read if you have some free time but its not pressing.
Jared Della Rocca
Dec 05, 2012 Jared Della Rocca rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
Poorly written, the secret court is covered in only the first third of the book. The second third is devoted to the after-effects and continual harassment of the students by Harvard. The final third are biographies of some of the individual students. It's a compelling story, but only in the hands of a better author.
Aug 14, 2007 CMolieri rated it really liked it
This was enthralling and fascinating. In 1920 a young man on medical leave from Harvard committed suicide after telling his brother he was gay. His brother began hunting down and 'investigating' the circle of friends his brother had at Harvard which instigated a university investigation and purging.
Russell Sanders
Feb 25, 2014 Russell Sanders rated it liked it
While this book was fascinating and informative, I found that I got weary, perhaps of the journalistic style. By the time I got to the last 40 pages, where the author decided to write a lengthy diatribe on homophobia, I gave up and just skimmed--and not too thoroughly at that. After that chapter, I returned to read--a bit more thoroughly--the account of how the scandal came to light in 2002.
Timothy Lankford
Mar 15, 2012 Timothy Lankford rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Richard Wright does a phenomenal job of uncovering a secret long-held by Harvard's elite about the prestigious university's past. Wright explores Harvard's Secret Court from its origins to its after effects. Not only does he expand on the court, but he takes in-depth looks into the lives of those students, faculty, and community members affected by the court as well.
Great history of a different time for gay men. Well-written and easy to follow the story of the different men impacted by this "witch-hunt" and how it was handled by the "gentlemen" of Harvard University.
Rebbecca Caya
Mar 20, 2008 Rebbecca Caya rated it it was amazing
I loved this book because it chronicles the life of some of the men who's lives were totally disrupted by being expelled from Harvard in the 1920's for being involved in a "Homosexual Ring" or "Epidemic."
Nov 20, 2008 Denis rated it really liked it
A shocking true account of the purge that took place at Harvard in the twenties and whose purpose was to eliminate gay men - with tragic consequences. A cautionary tale about intolerance, ignorance in high places, and the misuse of power.
Oct 15, 2008 Jon rated it really liked it
Excellent book for anyone interested in the sad history of the homosexual during American modernism.
Bob Haberski
Jan 27, 2011 Bob Haberski rated it really liked it
Very scary to think Harvard was like this at one time. A very sad piece of history
Rick Folker
Dec 08, 2016 Rick Folker rated it it was amazing
In the Ivory Tower of the Academy an horrific past is exposed in this heart-wrenching piece of previously unknown history - Bravo, Bravo, Bravo Mr. Wright
Sep 07, 2009 Cory rated it liked it
I liked it but very slow to get through, a lot more historical than I originally thought.
Jul 01, 2014 Ronald rated it really liked it
A black mark on the history of Harvard. Fascinating and yet tragic to see the abuse of power. Only part I didn't enjoy was toward the end with theories and observations on homophobia,
Chloe Cable
Chloe Cable rated it really liked it
Aug 24, 2014
Debbie rated it it was amazing
Apr 30, 2013
Rebecca rated it liked it
Jun 11, 2010
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