Preventive Detention at Harvard: An Idea Whose Time Has Come


Saturday night dinner, before the ballet. Looking forward to a program performed to music of Rachmaninoff, Schubert and Haydn. The dark, congenial restaurant is just a short walk to the theater, the patrons are quiet and civilized, none more so than the threesome next to us; an older couple, a younger woman with them, apparently their daughter. From their conversation we can tell that they’re going to the ballet too. In a word or three–how . . . freaking . . . civilized.

I’m about to order the calamari when I hear a curse, turn and see an Old Fashioned glass–the heavy tumbler type–go flying across the room and shatter on the floor. The older woman has stood up, shouts “That’s it!” and storms out.

Weapon of choice.

I’ve been in a lot of rough bars in my time: redneck buckets-of-blood in Missouri, blues clubs on the South Side of Chicago, Irish bars in the Main South neighborhood of Worcester, Mass. filled with desperate men like a casting call for a Eugene O’Neill play, but I’ve never actually seen somebody throw a glass at another person, excepts in westerns and noir detective films. What is it, I wonder, that makes this place so violent?

And then it hits me–the answer, not the glass. Of course–Harvard’s right across the street!

Violence among the genteel crowd is harder to prepare yourself for than that you expect to find in more traditional high-crime areas. The high-toned conversation and self-consciously shabby clothing can lull you into a false sense of security, while street smarts and phone apps help you avoid harm in what the kids now call “sketchy” neighborhoods.

You pick up a newspaper in this part of the country and yawn at what passes for news: another day, another Harvard graduate sentenced to life without parole for murder. One skims the story and turns the page. What’s Garfield up to these days?

Amy Bishop: Nice job on the bangs!

My experience last night recalled for me the case of Amy Bishop–Harvard Ph.D., Unitarian Universalist peacenik and do-it-yourself bangs cutter—convicted of shooting three academic colleagues after she was denied tenure–the most recent (as best as I recall) Harvard-affiliated murder. And it gave new life to a question that surfaces in my mind from time to time, like a menacing German U-Boat. To wit: Is it time for preventive detention of the Harvard community–for the protection of the rest of us?

Garfield: Didn’t go to Harvard, and didn’t kill anybody.

Consider the numbers. Harvard has 22,750 students and faculty, while the town of Wellesley, Mass. has a population of 26,600. When Dr. Dirk Greineder murdered his wife in Wellesley in 1999, there hadn’t been a homicide there in thirty years, and there hasn’t been one since.

I forgot to mention—Greineder was a professor at Harvard.

Dirk Greineder: I . . . (gulp) . . . I’ve walked around Morse’s Pond!

As for Harvard, before Bishop there was the Unabomber, Harvard Class of ’62, who killed three people. In 1995 a Harvard junior murdered her roommate. In 2003 a Harvard graduate student killed a Cambridge teenager with a four-and-one-half inch knife. Dr. Richard Sharpe, a cross-dressing wife-killer, was a resident at the medical school. And these are just the cases in living memory.

Ted Kaczynski, a/k/a The Unabomber

In 1906 Erich Muenster, a Harvard instructor, took out a life insurance policy on his wife, who suspiciously died of arsenic poisoning shortly thereafter. In 1900, Harvard instructor Charles Eastman shot his brother while the two were practicing with firearms; Eastman claimed it was an accident, but five witnesses testified they heard the dying man say he’d been murdered.

The grandaddy of all Harvard killings was perpetrated in 1849 by John Webster, a Harvard professor who couldn’t repay a loan from George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin physician. The two men quarreled, and Parkman’s charred remains were found in a locked vault at the Medical School.

The murder of George Parkman

What is it that drives Harvard-types to kill? William F. Buckley famously said that he’d “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University,” but this was not for reasons of public safety.

It may be a matter of Sayre’s Law, to wit: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low,” an aphorism often attributed to Henry Kissinger, holder of three degrees from, and a former faculty member of the school. Kissinger has had many opportunities to properly credit the author of this witticism, Wallace Stanley Sayre of Columbia, but has failed to do so, a form of casual plagiarism that is practiced in more formal terms by both Harvard faculty and students, such as Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life” was apparently traced rather than written.

Leopold and Loeb, the kittens, and Leopold and Loeb, the murderers: Coincidence–or something more sinister?

Of course, an institution of higher learning can use a reputation as a dangerous place as a recruitment tool, what rappers call “street cred.” There are more students at the University of Chicago who know of Leopold and Loeb, two students who murdered a young boy in the 20’s, than Jay Berwanger, a halfback on the school’s football team who won the first Heisman Trophy. (Full disclosure: During my senior year at Chicago I had a pair of cats named Leopold and Loeb, but to my knowledge they were unrelated to the killers.)

But, you protest, internment—the imprisonment of people in large groups without trial—is unfair. To the contrary, it is a halfway measure; there is no finding of guilt, and inmates are released once the group to which they belong has ceased hostilities. Where we have later come to regret its use, such as the confinement of Asian-Americans during World War II, selection was based on obnoxious racial distinctions. The Harvard community is a diverse one, and no suspect criteria would be used to confine them.

Harvard Graduate School of Hamburgers

I’m not talking ticky-tacky offenses, like Professor Elizabeth Warren’s practice of law without a license. No, a minor offense like that, punishable by six months in jail for the first offense, a year for each subsequent violation, is penny ante stuff. And we’d let Harvardians go off-campus for brief periods to have their dissertations copied at Kinko’s–with ankle monitors or other appropriate security devices so that they could be tracked down if they didn’t return from furlough, a la Willie Horton.

Harvard does the city of Boston a great deal of good. The Harvard Gardens, a bar at the base of Beacon Hill that is apparently affiliated with the university, serves a mean hamburger. But there’s an old saying: You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.

Is it too much to ask the Ten Thousand Men of Harvard to lay down their arms, pick up their books and study homicide no more?

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “The Veritas About Harvard.”

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