A look inside Yale’s secret societies — and why they may no longer matter
Padlocks secure the front doors of the Skull and Bones society’s meeting hall, known as the “Tomb,” on Yale’s campus in New Haven, Conn. (DAVID ROBERTS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
By Helen Andrews September 28
Helen Andrews is a 2017 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and has worked as an editor and a think tank researcher.
The younger brother of the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote a letter to his fiancee in 1917 complaining about how depressed and humiliated he felt at having been passed over by all of Yale’s secret societies. He had not even been tapped by Skull and Bones, where, through Archie, he was a legacy. “It almost kills me,” he wrote. “I want to get to France and forget the whole thing.”
It was a fateful choice of words. Kenneth MacLeish left school to join the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, deployed to France as a pilot and was shot down over Belgium on Oct. 14, 1918, less than a month before World War I ended. He was 24.
What is it about Yale’s secret societies that makes otherwise sensible people so awestruck? Why did young men like Kenneth MacLeish feel it was a matter of life and death whether they were admitted to the clubs? Strictly speaking, the Yale senior societies are not fundamentally different from the exclusive social clubs found at every other Ivy League school. But no one ever based a horror movie franchise around the Princeton dining clubs.
If it is the secrecy of these groups that you find appealing, “Skulls and Keys” is the wrong book for you. David Alan Richards admits at the beginning that “there will be no ‘secrets’ here that have not already, somehow and somewhere, been revealed at least once in print.” Richards is a Bonesman himself, so he could divulge hidden secrets if he wanted to, but apparently he decided that his book didn’t need to be spiced up with juicy insider details.
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Alas, without the juicy details, “Skulls and Keys” amounts to little more than a succession of anecdotes, some more interesting than others. Conservative readers will be gratified to learn that William F. Buckley Jr. refused to join the Fence Club if it continued to blackball his friend Thomas Guinzberg for being Jewish. But even the original Bonesmen of the 1830s would probably agree that their dirty jokes (“How did Demosthenes have such numerous progeny when he carried his stones in his mouth?”) did not need to be entered into the historical record.
The bagginess of this 800-plus-page tome is made worse by the fact that Richards is not a natural storyteller. (He is a lawyer by profession.) The fight that led to women finally being let into Skull and Bones in 1991 makes a gripping saga: keys to the tomb confiscated, lawsuits threatened, top-secret memos leaked and printed in the Wall Street Journal. Richards fumbles what should be the climax of his book. He waits until nearly the end of the book to mention that one of the undergraduate ringleaders in favor of admitting women was future Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee.
Richards’s microscopic view of his subject obscures the larger fact that Yale’s secret societies have long been in decline. They no longer have the cultural cachet they enjoyed in the days of John O’Hara and Dink Stover. Undergraduates walk past the brownstone tomb on High Street with no more interest than they walk past Yorkside Pizza. Membership is still sought after by the ambitious for networking purposes, but the secret societies have lost their glamor.
Their decline coincided with the increasingly meritocratic policies of the 1960s. That much is clear. Less clear is what precisely about that seismic cultural shift proved fatal. Mere egalitarianism was never the problem, since left-wing political commitments rarely stopped anyone from accepting admission to a society, even when outsiders accused them of hypocrisy. In 1971 a student columnist noted with indignation that the students inducted that year included “one black militant, a leading spokesman of last spring’s Mayday activities, [and] one of the organizers of the charity drive for New Haven.” How, he asked, can some of the “most outspoken defenders of the community last spring now be a member of a society that does nothing for the community?”
Old-timers would say things started going downhill when the clubs let women in. Resistance to going coed persisted surprisingly late. The first two times Skull and Bones considered admitting women, in 1971 and 1986, alumni committees voted against it unanimously. To give the fuddy-duddies their due, most secret societies throughout history, since the days of the first Freemasons, have been all male. Perhaps women are less easily impressed by silly costumes and creepy chanting.
Bart Giamatti, who served as president of Yale from 1978 to 1986, believed that the declining prestige of secret societies was an unavoidable consequence of diversity. “What a freshman in 1914 had heard of societies from his preparatory school masters and a freshman in 1944 might hear from one of his numerous classmates whose relatives had attended Yale, a freshman in 1974, more likely than not from a public high school, with no previous Yale ties, would not hear at all,” he wrote in 1978 in a history of his own secret society, Scroll and Key. “That ingrained consciousness of societies, that shared sense of what they meant . . . disappeared like smoke in the late sixties.”
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Even after those public-school upstarts learned what secret societies were, they still were unfamiliar with conventions that were second nature to legacies: whether you were allowed to lobby societies in advance (no), how seriously to take the code of secrecy (very), even something as simple as the procedure for Tap Night, the traditional evening of robes and rituals when all the societies induct their new members. Seniors had to spell everything out to the juniors in advance, which rather diminished the mystique.
Harvard recently announced that it was considering barring students from joining fraternities, sororities and exclusive single-gender groups known as “final clubs.” Members of such clubs are already subject to penalties, including ineligibility for certain grants and fellowships. In July, the Committee on Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations officially recommended a total ban.
Yale partisans may be tempted to take delight in the fact that their school has not taken such a humorless stand against a venerable form of undergraduate socializing. But the sad truth may be that, after a long slide into irrelevance, Yale secret societies are not important enough to be worth banning.
SKULLS AND KEYS
The Hidden History of Yale’s Secret Societies
By David Alan Richards
Pegasus. 821 pp
Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 after a dispute among Yale debating societies Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean Society over that season's Phi Beta Kappa awards. William Huntington Russell and Alphonso Taft co-founded "the Order of the Scull and Bones".
The society's assets are managed by the society's alumni organization, the Russell Trust Association, incorporated in 1856 and named after the Bones co-founder. The association was founded by Russell and Daniel Coit Gilman, a Skull and Bones member.
The first extended description of Skull and Bones, published in 1871 by Lyman Bagg in his book Four Years at Yale, noted that "the mystery now attending its existence forms the one great enigma which college gossip never tires of discussing." Brooks Mather Kelley attributed the interest in Yale senior societies to the fact that underclassmen members of then freshman, sophomore, and junior class societies returned to campus the following years and could share information about society rituals, while graduating seniors were, with their knowledge of such, at least a step removed from campus life.
Skull and Bones selects new members among students every spring as part of Yale University's "Tap Day", and has done so since 1879. Since the society's inclusion of women in the early 1990s, Skull and Bones selects fifteen men and women of the junior class to join the society. Skull and Bones "taps" those that it views as campus leaders and other notable figures for its membership.
The tomb before the addition of a second wing
The building was built in three phases: the first wing was built in 1856, the second wing in 1903, and Davis-designed Neo-Gothic towers were added to the rear garden in 1912. The front and side facades are of Portland brownstone in an Egypto-Doric style. The 1912 tower additions created a small enclosed courtyard in the rear of the building, designed by Evarts Tracy and Edgerton Swartwout of Tracy and Swartwout, New York. Evarts Tracy was a 1890 Bonesman, and his paternal grandmother, Martha Sherman Evarts, and maternal grandmother, Mary Evarts, were the sisters of William Maxwell Evarts, an 1837 Bonesman.
The architect was possibly Alexander Jackson Davis or Henry Austin. Architectural historian Patrick Pinnell includes an in-depth discussion of the dispute over the identity of the original architect in his 1999 Yale campus history. Pinnell speculates that the re-use of the Davis towers in 1911 suggests Davis's role in the original building and, conversely, Austin was responsible for the architecturally similar brownstone Egyptian Revival Grove Street Cemetery gates, built in 1845. Pinnell also discusses the "Tomb's" aesthetic place in relation to its neighbors, including the Yale University Art Gallery. In the late 1990s, New Hampshire landscape architects Saucier and Flynn designed the wrought iron fence that surrounds a portion of the complex.
The society owns and manages Deer Island, an island retreat on the St. Lawrence River. Alexandra Robbins, author of a book on Yale secret societies, wrote:
The forty-acre retreat is intended to give Bonesmen an opportunity to "get together and rekindle old friendships." A century ago the island sported tennis courts and its softball fields were surrounded by rhubarb plants and gooseberry bushes. Catboats waited on the lake. Stewards catered elegant meals. But although each new Skull and Bones member still visits Deer Island, the place leaves something to be desired. "Now it is just a bunch of burned-out stone buildings," a patriarch sighs. "It's basically ruins." Another Bonesman says that to call the island "rustic" would be to glorify it. "It's a dump, but it's beautiful."
Skull and Bones's membership developed a reputation in association with the "Power Elite".Regarding the qualifications for membership, Lanny Davis wrote in the 1968 Yale yearbook:
If the society had a good year, this is what the "ideal" group will consist of: a football captain; a Chairman of the Yale Daily News; a conspicuous radical; a Whiffenpoof; a swimming captain; a notorious drunk with a 94 average; a film-maker; a political columnist; a religious group leader; a Chairman of the Lit; a foreigner; a ladies' man with two motorcycles; an ex-service man; a negro, if there are enough to go around; a guy nobody else in the group had heard of, ever ...
— Lanny Davis, quoted by Alexandra Robbins
Like other Yale senior societies, Skull and Bones membership was almost exclusively limited to white Protestant males for much of its history. While Yale itself had exclusionary policies directed at particular ethnic and religious groups, the senior societies were even more exclusionary. While some Catholics were able to join such groups, Jews were more often not. Some of these excluded groups eventually entered Skull and Bones by means of sports, through the society's practice of tapping standout athletes. Star football players tapped for Skull and Bones included the first Jewish player (Al Hessberg, class of 1938) and African-American player (Levi Jackson, class of 1950, who turned down the invitation for the Berzelius Society).
Yale became coeducational in 1969, yet Skull and Bones remained fully male until 1992. The Bones class of 1971's attempt to tap women for membership was opposed by Bones alumni, who dubbed them the "bad club" and quashed their attempt. "The issue", as it came to be called by Bonesmen, was debated for decades. The class of 1991 tapped seven female members for membership in the next year's class, causing conflict with the alumni association. The Trust changed the locks on the Tomb and the Bonesmen instead met in the Manuscript Society building. A mail-in vote by members decided 368-320 to permit women in the society, but a group of alumni led by William F. Buckley obtained a temporary restraining order to block the move, arguing that a formal change in bylaws was needed. Other alumni, such as John Kerry and R. Inslee Clark, Jr., spoke out in favor of admitting women. The dispute was highlighted on an editorial page of The New York Times. A second alumni vote, in October 1991, agreed to accept the Class of 1992, and the lawsuit was dropped.
Judith Ann Schiff, Chief Research Archivist at the Yale University Library, has written: "The names of its members weren't kept secret—that was an innovation of the 1970s—but its meetings and practices were." While resourceful researchers could assemble member data from these original sources, in 1985, an anonymous source leaked rosters to Antony C. Sutton. This membership information was kept privately for over 15 years, as Sutton feared that the photocopied pages could somehow identify the member who leaked it. He wrote a book on the group, America's Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull and Bones. The information was finally reformatted as an appendix in the book Fleshing out Skull and Bones, a compilation edited by Kris Millegan and published in 2003.
Among prominent alumni are former President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft (a founder's son); former Presidents and father and son George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush; Supreme Court Justices Morrison R. Waite and Potter Stewart; James Jesus Angleton, "mother of the Central Intelligence Agency"; Henry Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War (1940-1945); U.S. Secretary of Defense (1951-1953) Robert A. Lovett, William B. Washburn, Governor of Massachusetts; and Henry Luce, founder and publisher of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines.
John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator; Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of Blackstone Group; Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers; Harold Stanley, co-founder of Morgan Stanley; and Frederick W. Smith, founder of FedEx, are all reported to be members.
In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were alumni. George W. Bush wrote in his autobiography, "[In my] senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society; so secret, I can't say anything more." When asked what it meant that he and Bush were both Bonesmen, former Presidential candidate John Kerry said, "Not much, because it's a secret."
A document in Yale's archives suggests that 322 is a reference to the year 322 BC and that members measure dates from this year instead of from the common era. In 322 BC, the Lamian War ended with the death of Demosthenes and Athenians were made to dissolve their government and establish a plutocratic system in its stead, whereby only those possessing 2,000 drachmas or more could remain citizens. Documents in the Tomb have purportedly been found dated to "Anno-Demostheni". Members measure time of day according to a clock 5 minutes out of sync with normal time, the latter is called "barbarian time".
One legend is that the numbers in the society's emblem ("322") represent "founded in '32, 2nd corps", referring to a first Corps in an unknown German university.
Members are assigned nicknames (e.g., "Long Devil", the tallest member, and "Boaz", a varsity football captain, or "Sherrife" prince of future). Many of the chosen names are drawn from literature (e.g., "Hamlet", "Uncle Remus"), religion, and myth. The banker Lewis Lapham passed on his nickname, "Sancho Panza", to the political adviser Tex McCrary. Averell Harriman was "Thor", Henry Luce was "Baal", McGeorge Bundy was "Odin", and George H. W. Bush was "Magog".
Skull and Bones has a reputation for stealing keepsakes from other Yale societies or from campus buildings; society members reportedly call the practice "crooking" and strive to outdo each other's "crooks".
The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of Martin Van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa.
The group Skull and Bones is featured in conspiracy theories, which claim that the society plays a role in a global conspiracy for world control. Theorists such as Alexandra Robbins suggest that Skull and Bones is a branch of the Illuminati, having been founded by German university alumni following the order's suppression in their native land by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria with the support of Frederick the Great of Prussia, or that Skull and Bones itself controls the Central Intelligence Agency.