Massachusetts is known, among other things, for being home of the Salem witch trials, which took place in 1692 and 1693 and resulted in the executions of twenty people, including fourteen women, all but one by hanging.
Less well known is Harvard’s role in continuing that sporting tradition over the past four centuries. Space precludes a full discussion and, indeed, it’s difficult to even know where to begin. But since religion plays such a key role in witch hunts, perhaps the place to begin is with Harvard’s Memorial Church.
Memorial Church, not to be confused with Memorial Hall (although it often is), is an inter-denominational Protestant church located in Harvard Yard directly across from Widener Library. If the terms inter-denominational and Protestant seem a bit contradictory, my advice would be not to go there.
Although Morning Prayers have been held at Harvard since its founding in 1636, the first distinct building for worship at the college was Holden Chapel, built in 1744. The college soon outgrew the building, which was replaced by a chapel inside Harvard Hall in 1766; then still another chapel in University Hall in 1814; and finally by Appleton Chapel in 1858, a building dedicated solely to worship and located where Memorial Church now stands.
When Appleton Chapel was built, Morning Prayers attendance was still compulsory. It was only in 1888 that then University President Charles Eliot made them voluntary, sparking much controversy and branding the university as “Godless Harvard” for years to come.
Appleton Chapel was home to religious life at Harvard until 1932. Indeed, its memory is still preserved within Memorial Church where the Appleton Chapel portion of the building houses the daily Morning Prayers service.
The current Memorial Church was the brainchild of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, still held in high regard by many at Harvard for his fund-raising skills, educational reforms, and expansion of Harvard’s physical infrastructure.
The house system we’ve talked about previously is one of his legacies. Indeed, although one of them, Lowell House, is said to be named for the family, not President Lowell himself, an ornate “ALL” woven into the ironwork above the main gate discreetly alludes to the man who was Harvard’s president at the time of construction.
The subject of a fawning but factually unbalanced Wikipedia article, Lowell is a man better remembered as one of Harvard’s most notable bigots. It was Lowell who convened Harvard’s secret court in 1920 aimed at stamping out homosexuality at the college.
Over the course of two weeks the court held more than 30 interviews, even royally summoning some with no connections to the college at all. Following its inquisition, Harvard expelled and severed ties with eight students, a recent graduate, and an assistant professor.
Not content with this, Harvard ordered the young men to leave Cambridge immediately (as if the community was a mere appendage of Harvard), bitterly complained when at least one didn’t, outed them to their parents, and thereafter sent letters to other colleges and potential employers that resulted in the rejection of their applications for work or study.
The viciousness and vindictiveness of the campaign was such that one student committed suicide immediately after questioning by the court and another did so 10 years later, his life having been ruined by the experience.
Indeed, the Harvard Admissions Office was still sending out “no confidence” letters to prospective schools and employers about the individuals targeted in 1920 up to 33 years later; not surprising considering the Dean of Admissions at the time, Wilbur Bender, believed Harvard had too many pansies, decadent esthetes and precious sophisticates.
Bender concentrated on improving Harvard’s techniques for evaluating “intangibles” and, in particular, its “ability to detect homosexual tendencies and serious psychiatric problems.”
But that was more than thirty years after the original inquisition. By then Harvard had gone to great lengths to keep the whole thing secret; not even the existence of the secret court was revealed until 2002 and then only with the greatest reluctance by the powers that be at the University.
The original reporting from the Harvard Crimson exposing the court can be found here. You can also read more about this disgraceful episode here and here; or, better still, view a film dramatization entitled Perkins 28 based on testimony drawn from the actual records of the secret court.
Filmed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it features Harvard undergraduates portraying some of the main characters whose lives were destroyed by Lowell’s kangaroo court.
By the way, Lowell’s bigotry was not confined to gay students. He’s also notable for his ultimately failed effort to expel all African-American students from Harvard Yard’s residence halls in 1922 and his more successful effort to reduce the number of Jewish students admitted to Harvard.
Lowell also served on the special three man committee appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts that determined anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti received a fair trial, a judgment hardly anyone shares these days.
Referring to their 1927 execution in the electric chair, American journalist Heywood Broun famously asked: “What more can these immigrants from Italy expect? It is not every prisoner who has a President of Harvard University throw on the switch for him.”
And yet there are those, surprisingly, who see value in keeping Lowell’s memory alive rather than consigning him to the dustbin of history and honoring his victims instead. Perhaps a Queer Tea once a year makes everything better.
Personally, however, justice suggests that it might be more meaningful, at the very least, if that portrait of President Lowell that hangs in the dining hall at his House was surrounded by the pictures of the young men he persecuted and a written discussion of exactly what happened to them under Lowell’s depraved tutelage.
By the way, if you’re wondering by now what the point of this extended discussion is, perhaps it’s just to remind everyone why we need those religious liberty laws that keep popping up all over the United States to protect the right of good Christians to discriminate against queers.
Or, alternatively, possibly to show that even at Harvard, that cesspool of liberalism as Anderson would have it, life hasn’t always been a bed of roses for gay students and faculty.
Or even for ordinary young men engaging in a little sexual experimentation, as was the case with at least some of those Harvard chose to torment in 1920 and for years thereafter; and whose very existence Harvard still loves to sweep under the rug even today.
In any event, I’ll have a bit more to say about Memorial Church when I post Chapter 4 at the usual time later this evening.