Meet Yale University’s Secret Society,
The Skull and Bones
Skull and Bones is a senior or secret society based at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. The society’s alumni organization, which owns the society’s real property and oversees the organization’s activity, is known as the Russell Trust Association, and is named after General William Huntington Russell founding member of the Bones’ organization along with fellow classmate Alphonso Taft. In conversation, the group is known as “Bones”,
and members have been known as “Bonesmen”.
In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were alumni. George W. Bush writes 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.”
Skull and Bones was formed in 1832 as a result of a dispute among Yale’s debating societies, Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and Calliope over the Phi Beta Kappa awards.
It was once referred to as The Brotherhood of Death, but a more common alternative name was Eulogia. 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 emblem of Skull and Bones is a skull with crossed bones, over the number “322”. Some have speculated that 322 stands for “founded in ’32, 2nd corps”, referring to a first corps in some unknown German university which has never been found. Others suggest that 322 refers to the era of Demosthenes and that documents in the society hall have purportedly been found dated to “Anno-Demostheni”.
By reputation, “Bonesmen” tapped the current football and heavyweight rowing captains, as well as notables from the Yale Daily News, Yale Lit, and eventually the Yale Political Union. The group’s decision, after much dispute, to admit women helped diversify the membership to reflect current undergraduate demographics. Numerous undergraduate constituencies are better represented among the recently tapped membership.
Members meet in the “tomb” on Thursday and Sunday evenings of each week over the course of their senior year. As with other Yale societies, the sharing of a personal history is the keystone of the senior year together in the “tomb”.
Members are assigned a nickname. “Long Devil is assigned to the tallest member; Boaz (Either a short for Beelzebub or the name of one of the two detached columns of copper or bronze in King Solomon’s Temple, the other one being Jachin) 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 name, Sancho Panza, to the political adviser Tex McCrary. Averell Harriman was Thor, Henry Luce was Baal, McGeorge Bundy was Odin.” George H. W. Bush was Magog, a name reserved for a member considered to have the most sexual experience. George W. Bush, unable to decide, was temporarily called Temporary, and the name was never changed.
Skull and Bones does own a campground island in the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York named Deer Island. “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.'”
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.
The secrecy surrounding Skull and Bones has been a fertile ground for speculation, and all sorts of conspiracy theories include Skull and Bones. The society is supposed to have illicit connections to the CIA, Illuminati, Bilderbergers, Aliens, and/or Freemasons. These theories were the basis of the 2000 film The Skulls which concerns a highly elaborate secret society with clear parallels to Skull and Bones. Bones was also included, as well as the a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs, in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, about the Central Intelligence Agency.
Skull and Bones has also figured from time to time in the Doonesbury comic strips by Garry Trudeau; especially in 1980 and December 1988, with reference to George H. W. Bush, and again at the time that the society went co-ed. Probably the most famous fictional Bonesman among youngsters is Montgomery Burns, of The Simpsons, who attended Yale and was a member of Skull and Bones.
The Skull & Bones Hall, or “Tomb”, and its Architecture
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, (relocated from another Yale building), 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. Additional data can be seen here. New Hampshire landscape architects Saucier & Flynn designed the wrought-iron fence that currently surrounds a portion of the complex in the late 1990s.
Judy Schiff, Chief Archivist at the Yale University Library, has written: “The names of (S&B’s) members weren’t kept secret, that was an innovation of the 1970s, but its meetings and practices were. The secrecy seems to have attracted fascination and curiosity from the start.”
Notwithstanding that resourceful researchers could assemble member data from these original sources, renewed attention may have been paid to leading families in Skull and Bones because in 1985 an anonymous source leaked rosters to a private researcher, Antony C. Sutton, who wrote a book on the group titled America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones. This leaked 1985 data 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.
Bones and the U.S. Intelligence Community
In May 2007, CIA historians publicly released an article that rebutted inaccurate but enduring beliefs that Skull & Bones was an incubator of the U.S. intelligence community.
The CIA article noted that movies such as The Good Shepherd perpetuated in the public mind the notion that entry into CIA’s upper echelons hinged on membership in Bones. The historians depict a slightly different story, however. Referring to characters depicted in the film, CIA historians pointed out that CIA Counter-Intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton attended Yale, but was not a Bonesman. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), the main character in the film, was Scroll and Key member Tracy Barnes; Barnes is believed to have devised the Bay of Pigs invasion. Richard Bissell declined the offer of a Tap to join (he was an Elizabethan Club member, although his brother was a Bonesman). Richard Helms (DCI 1966–1973) attended Williams College. Allen W. Dulles (DCI 1953–1961) attended Princeton. McGeorge Bundy, senior adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and strong advocate for increased intervention in Vietnam was a Bonesman. Recent former CIA Director Porter Goss, Yale ’60, was a member of Book and Snake, and Goss and classmate John Negroponte, the first Director of National Intelligence, who was a member of the Elihu secret society, were both in Fence Club, Yale’s name for the Psi Upsilon fraternity. (For more on Yale graduates’ and faculty influences on the formation of the intelligence agencies, see the book Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939–1961 by historian Robin W. Winks.)
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