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ITEM — Box: HUM 421 Identifier: HUM 421

Private Journal, Volume Third [of] James Mills Peirce Digital


James Mills Peirce (1834-1906), Perkins Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Harvard University, taught at Harvard University from 1861 until his death in 1906. The James Mills Peirce diary was written while Peirce was an undergraduate student at Harvard from 1849 to 1850. Peirce writes about his entrance to Harvard and various college examinations; many major life events, such as his fifteenth birthday; his religious beliefs and relationship to God; humorous anecdotes about his family; and accounts of various important historical and cultural events. Peirce also delves into the intricacies of various friendships, most notably with "Frank," from whom he appears to desire more than friendship.


  • Creation: 1849-1850


Researcher Access

Diary is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Diary is in poor physical condition; please handle with caution.


97 pages
0.05 cubic feet (1 flat box)

The James Mills Peirce diary was written while Peirce was an undergraduate student at Harvard from 1849 to 1850. This "third volume" of Peirce's private journal contains his accounts of important historical and cultural events, his social and academic activities at Harvard, family anecdotes, his religious beliefs, and the intricacies of various friendships, most notably with a man named "Frank," from whom Pierce appears to desire more than friendship.

Pierce speaks of Frank with great affection, recording his increasing fondness for his friend, his lament at their time spent apart, and his jealousy. This jealousy resurfaces each time the two young men are apart for more than a few days and whenever Frank is mentioned to be spending time with another man. Pierce also often regrets that Frank needs to return to his own home after an evening spent "studying." Some examples of Pierce's passages related to Frank include: “How could I have felt any jealousy towards Frank? I am more in love with him than ever” (page 9); “Oh! I am more and more fond of Frank” (page 10); “So delighted to see him again, so, so, so” (page 20); and, “I must confess that I am afraid of his forgetting me, and his affection for me, – for he does love me. I have excellent authority for saying so” (page 79). Additionally, Peirce often comments on the physical appearances of his Harvard professors and classmates. Scholars, most notably Jonathan Ned Katz and Hubert C. Kennedy, have hypothesized that Peirce was gay, and that he was responsible for anonymously penning one of the most notable defenses of homosexuality from the 19th century; this journal seemingly provides further evidence of that theory.

Beyond his feelings for Frank, Pierce also writes about his entrance to Harvard and college examinations, major life events, such as his fifteenth birthday, and more mundane activities, such as the purchase of a new toothbrush. Throughout the diary, Peirce also describes many current events, including the Astor Place Riot, the murder trial of Dr. John White Webster, the search for the missing ships of the Franklin Expedition, and the events leading up to the Compromise of 1850, as well as Pierce's thoughts on famous theatrical performances and actors, as he was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club. Throughout the narrative of the journal, a common theme is his devotion to God, evinced by long passages that read as either sermons or confessions, apologies to God for his boyish behavior, and expressions of amazement at God's generosity and love.

Biographical note on James Mills Peirce

James Mills Peirce (1834-1906), mathematician and educator, taught at Harvard University from 1861 until his death in 1906. He received his AB in 1853 and AM in 1859 from Harvard University, then worked as a tutor in mathematics from 1854 to 1858. While still a tutor, he entered the Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1859. After two years working as a minister, he returned to Harvard as an assistant professor of mathematics. In 1869, Peirce’s former classmate Charles W. Eliot became president of Harvard and immediately appointed Peirce as University Professor of Mathematics. In 1885, he became Perkins Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy.

While a student at Harvard, Peirce was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, and he remained a patron of the arts throughout his life. His obituary in The Cambridge Chronicle describes him as "an inveterate playgoer" who was "famed for his keen artistic perception and his aesthetic taste."

Professionally, Peirce is credited with helping to develop Harvard’s graduate education program. He served as secretary of the Academic Council from 1872 to 1889, then became Harvard’s first dean of the Harvard Graduate School, a position he held from 1890 to 1895. He then served as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1895 to 1898. In mathematics, his main fields of interest were quaternions, linear associative algebra, and higher plane cures; for many years gave popular lectures on these subjects, and published several works. Peirce was the grandson of Benjamin Peirce (1778-1831), Harvard librarian, and the son of Benjamin Peirce (1809-1880), AB 1829, Harvard professor of astronomy and mathematics.

Historian Jonathan Ned Katz first posited in his 1976 book, Gay American History, that one of the 19th century’s most significant defenses of homosexuality, though signed anonymously, was probably written by Peirce. Further evidence backing this theory was provided in a 1978 academic paper published in the Journal of Homosexuality by Hubert C. Kennedy.

The letter, which was published in the first English edition of Sexual Inversion by sexologist Havelock Ellis and poet John Addington Symonds in 1897, is introduced as follows: “Prof. X., in a letter to Symonds (who described him as ‘an American of eminence, who holds a scientific professorship in one of the first universities of the world’), has carried to the furthest extent the theory of the sexual indifference of the genital impulse, and the consequently normal nature of homosexuality” (Ellis & Symonds, 1897, p. 273). The letter itself begins: “I have considered and enquired into this question for many years; and it has long been my settled conviction that no breach of morality is involved in homosexual love; that, like every other passion, it tends, when duly understood and controlled by spiritual feeling, to the physical and moral health of the individual and the race, and that it is only its brutal perversions which are immoral.” (Ellis & Symonds, 1897, p. 273; reprinted in Katz, 1976, p. 375–376).

Peirce never married and died of pneumonia in 1906, one week after submitting his resignation from his faculty position at Harvard.


Purchased from Yesterday’s Gallery, December 2021; Accession 2022.0952.

Online access

This diary has been digitized and is available online.

Related Materials

The Harvard University also holds:

  1. J. M. Peirce [photographic portrait, ca. 1880?] ca. 1880? (HUP Peirce, James Mills (6b))
  2. James Mills Peirce personal archive, 1879, 1885-1990 (HUM 281)
  3. Scrap book, [ca. 1845-1847?] Attribution compiled mostly by James M. Peirce, the first few pages by S.M. Peirce (HUG 1680.620)
  4. The character and philosophy of Malebranche, 1856 (HUG 1680.608 F)
  5. Catalogue of the valuable private library of the late Prof. J.M. Peirce of Harvard University (HUG 1680.611)
  6. The elements of logarithms with an explanation of the three and four place tables of logarithmic and trigonometric functions (HUG 1680.622)
  7. Notes of Mr. Cole's lectures [on the theory of functions], 1885-1886 (HUC 8885.253.13)
  8. General outline of a first course in quaternions : Mathematics 6 (HUC 8903.153.6)
  9. An outline of the elements of plane analytic geometry, for the use of students in Mathematics C, 1887-88 (HUC 8887.153.3)
  10. A text-book of analytic geometry; on the basis of Professor Peirce's treatise (HUC 8857.253, HUC 8857.253.2)
  11. Remarks at the dinner of the Harvard Club of New York, 20 February 1891 (HU 269.51)
  12. Mathematical tables chiefly to four figures. First series (HUG 1680.621)
  13. Papers of Benjamin Peirce, 1846-1925 (inclusive) (HUG1680.1xx)
In Widener Library:
  1. Sex & math in the Harvard yard : the memoirs of James Mills Peirce, a fictional biography, by Hubert Kennedy (HQ76.3.U5 K46 2000)
In Houghton Library:
  1. Benjamin Peirce papers, ca. 1835-1880 (MS Am 2368)


  • Hubert C. Kennedy PhD (1979). The Case for James Mills Peirce, Journal of Homosexuality, 4:2, 179-184.
  • James Mills Peirce. (1906, March 24). The Cambridge Chronicle., p. 20.
  • Jonathan Ned Katz, (1976). Gay American History. Plume.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2023 April 11.

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Processed by Olivia Mandica-Hart in August 2022.

Peirce, James Mills, 1834-1906. Private Journal, Volume Third [of] James Mills Peirce, 1849-1850 : an inventory
Harvard University Archives
August 23, 2022
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Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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