SKULL & BONES: A Dangerous Secret Society?


Skull and Bones is an undergraduate senior or secret society at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. It is a traditional peer society to Scroll and Key and Wolf’s Head, as the three senior class ‘landed societies’ at Yale. The society’s alumni organization, which owns the society’s real property and oversees the organization, is the Russell Trust Association, named for William Huntington Russell, who co-founded Skull and Bones with classmate Alphonso Taft. The Russell Trust was founded by Russell and Daniel Coit Gilman, member of Skull and Bones and later president of the University of California, first president of Johns Hopkins University, and the founding president of the Carnegie Institution. The society is known informally as “Bones”, and members are known as “Bonesmen”. Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 after a dispute among Yale’s debating societies, Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean Society, over that season’s Phi Beta Kappa awards; its original name was “the Order of Skull and Bones.” The only chapter of Skull and Bones created outside Yale was a chapter at Wesleyan University in 1870. That chapter, the Beta of Skull & Bones, became independent in 1872 in a dispute over control over creating additional chapters; the Beta Chapter reconstituted itself as Theta Nu Epsilon.

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 secrecy of Yale senior societies to the fact that underclassmen members of freshman, sophomore, and junior class societies remained on campus following their membership, while seniors naturally left. Skull and Bones owns an island in the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York named Deer Island: The 40 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. 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.” Once the pinnacle of the college’s social system, the society remained central to campus life through the 1950s, but since then some say it has lost much of its luster. Skull and Bones selects new members every spring as part of Yale University’s “Tap Day”, and has done so since 1879. Recent Tap Days were held on April 20, 2009, and April 15, 2010.

Every year, Skull and Bones selects fifteen men and women of the junior class to join the society. Skull and Bones traditionally “tapped” those that it viewed as campus leaders and other notable figures for its membership. The Tapping ceremony has always been a public event at Yale. The traditional form was followed for generations: Every year, … about 200 hopeful juniors gather on the grass in Branford College court (until 1933 they stood by the Fence in front of Durfee on the old campus). At the stroke of 5, senior members of the societies, wearing their pins, black ties and blue suits, march through the crowd, tap their men. A tappee hustles to his room, followed closely by his tapper, or shakes his head (refusal). Each society picks 15. Tapping usually ends when the Battell Chapel clock strikes 6, but in 1936 Wolf’s Head, turned down by 17 tappees, went on tapping long after dark to fill its quota. The process of Tapping, as an admission process for a university secret society, with wide variations, have been passed on to other universities, such as University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Missouri. The longest and most elaborate Tapping process is still Yale’s. The Skull & Bones Hall is otherwise known as the “Tomb”. The architectural attribution of the original hall is in dispute. The architect was possibly Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892) or Henry Austin (1804–1891).

Architectural historian Patrick Pinnell includes an in-depth discussion of the dispute over the identity of the original architect in his 1999 history of Yale’s campus. The building was built in three phases: in 1856 the first wing was built, in 1903 the second wing, and in 1911, Davis-designed Neo-Gothic towers from a previous building were added at the rear garden. The front and side facades are of Portland brownstone and in an Egypto-Doric style. The 1911 additions of towers in the rear created a small enclosed courtyard in the rear of the building, designed by Evarts Tracy and Edgerton Swartwout, Tracy and Swartwout, New York. Evarts was not a Bonesman, but his paternal grandmother Martha Sherman Evarts and maternal grandmother Mary Evarts were the sisters of William Maxwell Evarts (S&B 1837). Pinnell speculates whether the re-use of the Davis towers in 1911 was evidence suggesting that Davis did the original building; conversely, Austin was responsible for the architecturally similar brownstone Egyptian Revival gates, built 1845, of the Grove Street Cemetery, to the north of campus. Also discussed by Pinnell is the “tomb’s” aesthetic place in relation to its neighbors, including the Yale University Art Gallery.

New Hampshire landscape architects Saucier & Flynn designed the wrought-iron fence that currently surrounds a portion of the complex in the late 1990s. Yearbook listing of Skull & Bones membership for 1920. The 1920 delegation included co-founders of Time magazine, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce Skull and Bones has developed a reputation with some as having a membership that is heavily tilted towards the “Power Elite”. Regarding the qualifications for membership, Lanny Davis, writing in the 1968 Yale yearbook, wrote: 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 … “Like other Yale senior societies, for much of its history Skull and Bones membership was almost exclusively limited to white Protestant males. While Yale itself had exclusionary policies at various times during its history, the senior societies were even more exclusionary. Catholics had some success attaining membership in such groups; Jews less so. Sports was the means by which some of these excluded groups eventually entered Skull and Bones, through its practice of tapping standout athletes. Star football players were the first Jewish (Al Hessberg, class of 1938) and African-American (Levi Jackson, class of 1950, who turned down the invitation) students to be tapped for Skull and Bones.

Yale became coeducational in 1969, yet Skull & Bones remained all-male until 1992. An attempt to tap women for membership by the Bones class of 1971 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 their own alumni association, the Russell Trust. The Trust changed the locks on the “Tomb”; the Bonesmen had to meet at the building of Manuscript Society. A mail-in vote by members decided 368-320 to permit going co-ed, 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, and the dispute even ended up on The New York Times editorial page. A second vote of alumni in October 1991 agreed to accept the Class of 1992, and the lawsuit was dropped. Like its counterparts, Bones has diversified further its membership, similarly with the other six landed societies at Yale. Although, members have noted that no longer do they simply represent the strongest leaders on campus. As one member of the 1991 class wrote to alumni, “Being a part of Bones is often an embarrassment, a source of ridicule and occasionally a good way to lose a friend … Very rarely is the Bones still seen as an honor, and never is it seen to represent the mainstream of Yale.” 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, who wrote a book on the group titled America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones. 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. The information was finally reformatted as an appendix in the book Fleshing out Skull and Bones, a compilation edited by Kris Millegan, published in 2003.

Among prominent alumni are former President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft (son of a founder of the society); former Presidents George H. W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush; Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart; James Jesus Angleton, “mother of the Central Intelligence Agency”; Henry Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War (1940-1945); and United States Secretary of Defense, Robert A. Lovett, who directed the Korean War. Senator John Kerry; Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of Blackstone; Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of President 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. One legend is that 322 in the emblem of the society stands for “founded in ’32, 2nd corps”, referring to a first Corps in an unknown German university. Others suggest that 322 refers to the death of Demosthenes and that documents in the society hall have purportedly been found dated to “Anno-Demostheni”. There is an ongoing rumor that there is some form whereby new members recite to the society their sexual history, and although there has been no corroboration of this by any reliable source, the rumor lives on. Members are assigned nicknames. “Long Devil” is assigned to the tallest member; “Boaz” goes to any member who is a varsity football captain. Many of the chosen names are drawn from literature (“Hamlet”, “Uncle Remus”), from religion and from 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”. 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.” Each Skull and Bones class meets every Thursday and Sunday night during the senior year. 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, but this has never been proven. Skull and Bones members supposedly stole the bones of Geronimo from Fort Sill, Oklahoma during World War I. In 1986, former San Carlos Apache Chairman Ned Anderson received an anonymous letter with a photograph and a copy of a log book claiming that Skull & Bones held the skull. He met with Skull & Bones officials about the rumor; the group’s attorney, Endicott P. Davidson, denied that the group held the skull, and said that the 1918 ledger saying otherwise was a hoax. The group offered Anderson a glass case with what he believed was not the skull of Geronimo, but rather a skull of a ten-year-old boy, but Anderson refused it. In 2006, Marc Wortman discovered a 1918 letter from Skull & Bones member Winter Mead to F. Trubee Davison that claimed the skull was “exhumed” from Fort Sill by the club and was “safe” in the club’s headquarters. In 2009, Ramsey Clark filed a lawsuit on behalf of people claiming to be Geronimo’s descendants, against, among others, Barack Obama, Robert Gates, and Skull and Bones, asking for the return of Geronimo’s bones. An article in The New York Times states that Clark “acknowledged he had no hard proof that the story was true.” Alexandra Robbins, author of a book on Skull and Bones, says this is one of the more plausible items said to be in the organization’s Tomb. Cameron University history professor David H. Miller notes that Geronimo’s grave was unmarked at the time. Investigations conducted by journalists such as Cecil Adams and Kitty Kelley have concluded this story is wrong. A Fort Sill spokesman told Adams, “There is no evidence to indicate the bones are anywhere but in the grave site.” Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache tribe of Oklahoma, also calls the story a hoax. The 1918 letter “adds to the seriousness of the belief that the theft took place, certainly,” says Judith Schiff, the chief research archivist at Sterling Memorial Library, who has written extensively on Yale history. “It has a very strong likelihood of being true, since it was written so close to the time.” She points out that Members of a secret society were required to be honest with each other about its affairs. The yearbook entries for Haffner, Mead, and Davison say that they were all Bonesmen. (The membership of the societies was routinely published in newspapers and yearbooks until the 1970s.) Haffner’s entry says that he was at the artillery school at Fort Sill some time between August 1917 and July 1918. Pancho Villa’s skull has been alleged to have been stolen shortly after his death. While Robbins originally wrote in her book that the Bonesmen had the skull, she has since retracted the claim, saying that the story that the Bonesmen paid $25,000 for it in the 1920s is implausible. Writer Mark Singer, a Yale graduate, also rejects the story in a New Yorker article about the myth. Skull & Bones is a regular feature in many conspiracy theories, which claim that the society plays a role in a global conspiracy for world domination. It is true that some prominent families had one or more members as Bonesmen. The theorists such as Alexandra Robbins suggest that Skull & Bones is a branch of the Illuminati, or that Skull & Bones itself controls the Central Intelligence Agency the conspiracy theorists relying on supposed personal connections and coincidences[citation needed]. Others who have written about Skull & Bones were economist Antony C. Sutton, who wrote a book on the group titled America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones.