Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jean Harris Case

The Discovery of Bongs

Jean Harris was the headmistress of the Madeira Girls' School, an exclusive all-female boarding high school.  She had recently been informed that pot parties were going on in South Dorm and the student housemother was believed involved.  Harris sent her dean of students to check things out.

Jean Harris (AP)
Jean Harris (AP)

As she waited for the woman to report back, Harris took care of a bit of personal business.  Pale and slim, with dark blonde hair that had just a slight wave at the ends, Jean Harris was a woman in her late fifties who looked her age and was still quite attractive.  She telephoned Herman Tarnower, her boyfriend of many years who was also her doctor.  The sixty-nine-year-old bespectacled Tarnower was a lifelong bachelor with a reputation as a Casanova despite his balding head, beak nose, and generally unprepossessing appearance.  When he answered the phone, Jean informed him that she was out of the medicine he had long prescribed to lift her chronic depression.  Tarnower promised to send more of the medication, then asked her about some books of his that were missing.  Harris interpreted the inquiry as an accusation of stealing but she bottled up a response while he told her that she would not be sitting beside him at an upcoming banquet in his honor.  Rather, she would be at a table with some of his friends.  The woman who was the major rival for his affections, Lynne Tryforos, would sit at another table with another group of friends.  Harris hung up the phone feeling both badly disappointed and rejected.

She soon picked the phone up again.  The Dean of Students had discovered "bongs," items to enhance the pleasure of smoking marijuana, along with seeds and stems of the outlawed weed.  The rooms in which the damning items were found were those of four of the school's most outstanding students.

It was Friday, March 7, 1980.  Spring Break began next week.  An emergency meeting of faculty, Student Council members, and the suspected girls was held.  The four girls said that they had not smoked marijuana on campus.  Rather, they only kept the legal paraphernalia there while enjoying the illegal activity at the home of one of their grandmother's.

Harris had earned the nickname "Integrity Jean" due to her strong concern for morality.  She found the explanations given by these girls brazen and hypocritical.  The meeting was extremely tense with faculty confronting students and students confronting other students, some saying, "Everybody does it," and others asking, "If you're not expelled for this, what do you have to do to get thrown out of this place?"

When a vote was taken, it was unanimous: all four teenagers were expelled.


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