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Skull & Bones Society

A rare look inside Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society and sometime haunt of the presumptive Republican nominee for President

by Alexandra Robbins

ON High Street, in the middle of the Yale University campus, stands a cold-looking, nearly windowless Greco-Egyptian building with padlocked iron doors. This is the home of Yale’s most famous secret society, Skull and Bones, and it is also, in a sense, one of the many homes of the family of George W. Bush, Yale ’68.

Bush men have been Yale men and Bonesmen for generations. Prescott Bush, George W.’s grandfather, Yale ’17, was a legendary Bonesman; he was a member of the band that stole for the society what became one of its most treasured artifacts: a skull that was said to be that of the Apache chief Geronimo. Prescott Bush, one of a great many Bonesmen who went on to lives of power and renown, became a U.S. senator. George Herbert Walker Bush, George W.’s father, Yale ’48, was also a Bonesman, and he, too, made a conspicuous success of himself. Inside the temple on High Street hang paintings of some of Skull and Bones’s more illustrious members; the painting of George Bush, the most recently installed, is five feet high.

There were other Bush Bonesmen, a proud line of them stretching from great uncle George Herbert Walker Jr. to uncle Jonathan Bush to cousins George Herbert Walker IIIand Ray Walker. So when George W. was “tapped” for Skull and Bones, at the end of his junior year, he, too, naturally became a Bonesman — but, it seems, a somewhat ambivalent one.

New members of Skull and Bones are assigned secret names, by which fellow Bonesmen will forever know them. Some Bonesmen receive traditional names, denoting function or existential status; others are the chosen beneficiaries of names that their Bones predecessors wish to pass on. The leftover initiates choose their own names. The name Long Devil is assigned to the tallest member; Boaz (short for Beelzebub) 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. The name Magog is traditionally assigned to the incoming Bonesman deemed to have had the most sexual experience, and Gog goes to the new member with the least sexual experience. William Howard Taft and Robert Taft were Magogs. So, interestingly, was George Bush.

Click here to review a List of known Skull and Bones members.

George W. was not assigned a name but invited to choose one. According to one report, nothing came to mind, so he was given the name Temporary, which, it is said, he never bothered to replace; Temporary is how Bush’s fellow Bonesmen know him today. (In recent interviews I asked a number of Bush’s Bonesmen classmates about the name and elicited no denials.)

The junior George’s diffidence in the matter of his secret name seems to reflect a larger ambivalence toward Yale and its select, the most elite of whom are the members of Skull and Bones. The elder George holds his fellow Yalies — particularly his Bones brethren — in great esteem, and over the years has often gone to them for advice. George W., in contrast, has publicly made a point of his disdain for the elite northeastern connections that shaped his father’s world and, to some extent, his own. Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, who is a Bush family friend and himself the son of a Bonesman, says, “Young George is as unlikely a Bonesperson as I’ve ever met.” Young George has not attended a Yale reunion since he graduated.

Bush’s dismissal of Yale and all it stands for may be a response to the repeated charges of political opponents that he is not much more than a papa’s boy. Kent Hance, who trounced Bush in his 1978 congressional race, insinuated that Bush was not a true Texan and accused him of “riding his daddy’s coattails.”

If George W. truly wanted to detach himself from his father and from the traditions of a long line of ancestors, he chose a curious path — in effect, retracing his father’s footsteps.

SKULL and Bones is the oldest of Yale’s secret societies and by far the most determinedly secretive. As such, it has long been an inspiration for speculation and imagination. It still is. The society is, of course, the inspiration for the new Universal Pictures thriller The Skulls, about a nefarious secret society at an Ivy League school in New Haven. In 1968, when George W. Bush was in Skull and Bones, there were eight “abovegrounds,” or societies that met in their own “tombs,” and as many as ten “undergrounds,” which held meetings in rented rooms. In an article in the 1968 Yale yearbook Lanny Davis, a 1967 Yale graduate and a secret-society member who would go on to become a White House special counsel in the Clinton Administration, described how Bones, famous for its distinguished list of members, held more sway than the others.

Come “Tap Day” … if you’re a junior, despite the fact that you’ve banged your fist at the lunch table and said, “This is 1968,” and have loudly denounced societies as anachronisms, when the captain of the football team is standing by your door and when the tower clock strikes eight he rushes in and claps your shoulder and shouts, “Skull and Bones, accept or reject?” you almost always scream out, “Accept!” and you never, never, pound your fist at the lunch table, not for that reason ever again.

Fewer than a tenth of Yale’s 1,400 seniors are members of the university’s secret societies, which many undergraduates view as self-serving vehicles for real and aspiring aristocrats. Certainly this view seems to have some validity when it comes to Bonesmen. Until 1992, when it became one of the last two secret societies to admit women, Skull and Bones had a history of picking the same kinds of people over and over. Davis’s yearbook article explained,

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.

Indeed, George W.’s 1968 brethren slip easily into the desired slots: among them were the Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Don Schollander; a future Harvard Medical School surgeon, Gregory Gallico; a future Rhodes scholar, Robert McCallum; the Whiffenpoofs’ pitch, Robert Birge; Donald Etra, an Orthodox Jew; Muhammed Saleh, a Jordanian; a future deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Rex Cowdry; and the black soccer captain Roy Austin. Only George W. himself fell into none of the aforementioned categories. He was generally regarded as a legacy tap.

Given the society’s history as an incubator and meeting point for rising generational elites, it is not surprising that an especially susceptible kind of “barbarian” — the Bones term for a nonmember — has long seen the society as a locus of mystery, wealth, and conspiracy. One doesn’t need to scratch deeply to uncover accusations of sinister ties with the CIA, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Council on Foreign Relations, even the Nazis. It turns out that the Yale admissions committee that voted to admit George W., despite his poor record at Andover, included three members (out of seven) who were Bonesmen; those seeking evidence of malign influence will surely raise an eyebrow. (For the conspiracy-minded, the most useful omnium gatherum is the British writer Antony C. Sutton’s feverish 1983 tract An Introduction to the Order.) World domination aside, the most pervasive rumors about Bones are that initiates must masturbate in a coffin while recounting their sexual exploits, and that their candor is ultimately rewarded with a no-strings-attached gift of $15,000. Bonesmen, who are sworn to secrecy at initiation, have not publicly denied or confirmed these rumors; they have usually made a point of refusing to speak to the press about the society at all. As The Skulls was about to be released, and as George W.’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination looked increasingly certain to succeed, the society sent all members a memo reminding them of their vow of silence. Still, as I recently discovered in the course of looking into Skull and Bones, not all Bonesmen see the necessity of remaining tight-lipped about a society whose biggest secret may be that its secrets are essentially trivial.

THE story of Skull and Bones begins in December of 1832. Upset (according to one account) by changes in the Phi Beta Kappa election process, a Yale senior named William Russell and a group of classmates decided to form the Eulogian Club as an American chapter of a German student organization. The club paid obeisance to Eulogia, the goddess of eloquence, who took her place in the pantheon upon the death of the orator Demosthenes, in 322 B.C., and who is said to have returned in a kind of Second Coming on the occasion of the society’s inception. The Yale society fastened a picture of its symbol — a skull and crossbones — to the door of the chapel where it met. Today the number 322, recalling the date of Demosthenes’ death, appears on society stationery. The number has such mystical overtones that in 1967 a graduate student with no ties to Skull and Bones donated $322,000 to the society.

(The number 322 has also been a particular favorite of conspiracy-minded hunters for evidence of Skull and Bones’s global connections. It was the combination to Averell Harriman’s briefcase when he carried classified dispatches between London and Moscow during World War II. Antony C. Sutton claims that 322 doubles as a reminder of the society’s mother organization in Germany; the American group, founded in 1832, is the second chapter — thus 32-2.)

In 1856 Daniel Coit Gilman, who went on to become the founding president of Johns Hopkins University, officially incorporated the society as the Russell Trust Association, and Skull and Bones moved into the space it still occupies. The Bones tomb is forbidding only on the outside. Marina Moscovici, a Connecticut conservator who recently spent six years restoring fifteen paintings from the Skull and Bones building, describes the atmosphere inside as “funny spooky.” She says, “Sort of like the Addams Family, it’s campy in an old British men’s-smoking-club way. It’s not glamorous by any means.”

“Bones is like a college dorm room,” a 1980s Bonesman told me. “Ours was a place that used to be really nice but felt kind of beat up, lived in. There were socks underneath the couch, old half-deflated soccer balls lying around.” Dozens of skeletons and skulls, human and animal, dangle from the walls, on which German and Latin phrases have been chiseled (“Whether poor or rich, all are equal in death”), among moose heads, sconces, medieval armor, antlers, boating flags, manuscripts, statuettes of Demosthenes, and a pair of boots that one member wore throughout his active duty with American forces in France during World War II. The gravestone of Elihu Yale, the eponymous eighteenth-century merchant, was stolen years ago from its proper setting in Wrexham, Wales, and is displayed in a glass case, in a room with purple walls.

As noted, for many years the society has possessed a skull that members call Geronimo. In the 1980s, under pressure from Ned Anderson, a former Apache tribal chairman in Arizona, the society produced the skull in question. The skull didn’t match Anderson’s records, and it was returned to the society’s tomb. Anderson wasn’t finished. He reportedly took the issue up with his congressman, John McCain; McCain tried to arrange a meeting between Anderson and George Bush, who was then the Vice President. Bush wasn’t interested, and the matter was dropped. “We still call it Geronimo anyway,” a Bonesman says. The issue of Geronimo’s skull never surfaced in the public record during the bitter contest between McCain and George W. for the Republican nomination.

The most private room in the building, known as the Inner Temple, or (this will be no surprise) Room 322, is approximately fourteen feet square and guarded by a locked iron door. Inside, a case contains a skeleton that Bonesmen refer to as Madame Pompadour. Compartments in the case guard the society’s cherished manuscripts, including the secrecy oath and instructions for conducting an initiation.
Bronze Skull & Bones Ritual Tool

The initiation ceremony, held in April, involves as many alumni, or “patriarchs,” as possible, one of whom in each instance serves as the supervisor, known as Uncle Toby. The Inner Temple is cleared of furniture except for two chairs and a table, and Bonesmen past and present assemble: Uncle Toby in a robe; the shortest senior, or “Little Devil,” in a satanic costume; a Bonesman with a deep voice in a Don Quixote costume; one in papal vestments; another dressed as Elihu Yale; four of the brawniest in the role of “shakers”; and a crew of extras wearing skeleton costumes and carrying noisemakers. According to the initiation script, Uncle Toby “sounds like the only sane person in the room.”

As an initiate enters the room, patriarchs standing outside the Inner Temple shout, “Who is it?” The shakers bellow the initiate’s name, which the patriarchs echo. The shakers push the initiate toward the table, where the secrecy oath has been placed, and he is enjoined to “Read! Read! Read!” The shakers then half-carry the initiate to a picture of Eulogia, and the Bonesmen shriek, “Eulogia! Eulogia! Eulogia!” After another trip to the oath, the shakers fire the initiate toward a picture of a woman that Bonesmen call Connubial Bliss.

Rituals along these lines go on for quite some time, recalling a cross between haunted-house antics and a human pinball game — “like something from a Harry Potter novel,” in the words of one Bonesman, now an engineer. It is perhaps worth noting, in light of George W.’s controversial episode at Bob Jones University and the specter of anti-Catholicism, that at one point in the proceedings every initiate kisses the slippered toe of the “Pope.” At last the initiate is formally dubbed a Knight of Eulogia. Amid more raucous ritual he is cast from the room into the waiting arms of the patriarchs.

WITHIN the tomb students run on Skull and Bones time, which is five minutes ahead of the time in the rest of the world. “It was to encourage you to think that being in the building was so different from the outside world that you’d let your guard down,” a Bonesman (’72) explains. At 6:30 on Thursdays and Sundays the Bonesmen gather in the Firefly Room for supper. The room is dim and intimate; light shines through the gaping eyeholes of fixtures shaped like skulls. Bonesmen drink various refreshments from skull-shaped cups, but never alcohol. The dry-society rule, fervently enforced, was designed to keep members level-headed for discussions — a change of pace for George W., who drank heavily during his college years.

At 7:55 barbarian time Uncle Toby rings a bell to summon the members to the session. When the knights are seated, they sing two sacred anthems before the Hearing of Excuses, during which members are assessed fines for errors, such as arriving late or using a society name outside the tomb. Uncle Toby then draws debate topics and an order of speakers from the Yorick, a skull divided into compartments. The ninety-minute period of debate can be frivolous or grave.

One of the standard pieces of lore about Skull and Bones is that each member must at some point give an account of his sexual history, known as the CB (for “Connubial Bliss”). “After the first one or two times it’s like guys listing their conquests, and that gets old,” one young Bonesman told me recently. “There’s just not that much to talk about” — and so CBs have evolved into relationship discussions. “It’s the kind of stuff a lot of guys do with their teammates,” says another Bonesman (’83). “There was nothing perverse or surreal or prurient — just an open exchange. It’s like TV’s Ricki Lake — there’s now a national mania for purging thoughts at large. This is a way of doing it in a very private, non-sensationalist way that benefits the people who are listening and the people who are telling.”

By mid-autumn, after each member has presented a CB, the time slot shifts to Life Histories, when Bonesmen spend one or more nights giving their autobiographies. George Bush’s autobiography focused on his military service but also looked ahead, a 1948 member told me. “He was talking about the future, first about his family and then about being able to have an impact in public service.” George W., in contrast, spoke often about his father. George W.’s fellow Bonesmen have been unwilling to elaborate.WHEN U.S. News & World Report asked President Bush in 1989 why he had chosen to attend Yale, he replied, “My family had a major Yale tradition.” Today George W. Bush distances himself from Yale (although supporters cite his alma mater to combat charges that he is a lightweight). He has criticized its “intellectual snobbery” and has maintained that the school epitomizes “a certain East Coast attitude” and an “intellectual arrogance.” George W.’s attitude toward Yale extends to its most elite society. Whereas George Bush returned to the tomb in 1998 to be the dinner speaker at the annual Skull and Bones commencement party, George W. has stayed away. In his 1999 campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush mentions his membership in Skull and Bones only in passing: “My senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can’t say anything more.”

Yet Skull and Bones was not relegated entirely to George W.’s past after he graduated. In 1971, having been rejected by the University of Texas Law School and needing a job, Bush called a Bonesman, Robert H. Gow. Gow, who later told The Washington Post that his Houston-based agricultural company had not been looking for anyone at the time, hired Bush as a management trainee. In 1977, when Bush formed Arbusto Energy, his first company, he once again applied to Skull and Bones for financial aid. With assistance from his uncle Jonathan Bush (Bones ’53), he lined up $565,000 from twenty-eight investors. One of them contributed $93,000 — the California venture capitalist William H. Draper III (Bones ’50). Twelve Bonesmen (including family members)and the son of a patriarch gave a total of $35,500 to Bush’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign. At least forty-six Bonesmen or sons of patriarchs have given approximately $1,000 apiece to his presidential campaign — the maximum allowed by law.

Not surprisingly, loyalty often flows in the other direction. In 1984 Bush flew to Tennessee to accompany the Republican Senate nominee and Bonesman (’67) Victor Ashe on a seven-city tour. Ashe lost to Al Gore.

That George W. keeps his Skull and Bones connections in repair is hardly a sign of anything insidious; it’s just business as usual in America. Compared with his family connections and his family’s Yale connections, the Skull and Bones network is just a sideshow. But in the eyes of the conspiracy-minded, interconnections of any kind, especially when cloaked in mystery and ritual, constitute virtual proof of dark doings. Skull and Bones will probably never rid itself of innuendo — innuendo that has not helped the Bonesmen Bushes in the pursuit of politics.

Conspiracy theories, which George W. has called “the kind of connect-the-random-dots charges that are virtually impossible to refute,” contributed to Bush’s defeat in his 1978 congressional campaign. Bill Minutaglio, in his biography of Bush, First Son, recalls an afternoon debate moderated by the radio talk-show host Mel Turner:

Turner … wanted to know if the young Bush was a tool of some shadow government; it was the same thing people had confronted his father with when they had called him a “tool of the eastern kingmakers.”

“Are you involved in, or do you know anybody involved in, one-world government or the Trilateral Commission?”

Bush, who had been telling people he was tired of being hammered for having “connections” through his father to the eastern establishment, was fuming. “I won’t be persuaded by anyone, including my father,” he said, with a biting tone in his voice.

On the way out of the restaurant, Bush was still livid. He refused to shake hands with Turner. “You asshole,” Turner heard him hiss as he walked by.

George W.’s father has certainly felt that membership in Skull and Bones damaged him politically. When Fay Vincent made a consolation call to Bush after his 1980 loss of the Republican presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan, the weary candidate said, “Fay, let me tell you something. If you ever decide to run for office, don’t forget that coming from Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, and the Trilateral Commission is a big handicap. People don’t know what they are, so they don’t know where you’re coming from. It’s really a big, big problem.”

In The Skulls, members of the secret society murder a student journalist who is attempting to probe its mysteries. Real-life journalists have not met the same fate, so far as we know, although Ron Rosenbaum, the author of a 1977 Esquire article on Skull and Bones, wrote that a Bonesman warned him not to get too close: “The alumni still care,” the source warned.

“Don’t laugh. They don’t like people tampering and prying. The power of Bones is incredible. They’ve got their hands on every lever of power in the country. You’ll see — it’s like trying to look into the Mafia.”

When I read this excerpt to one young Bonesman, he laughed and said, “I really don’t think I’d be working nights as a paralegal while trying to be an actor if I had access to some golden key.”

SKULL and Bones doesn’t own an opulent island hideaway like the one depicted in The Skulls. It does own an island on the St. Lawrence River — Deer Island, in Alexandria Bay. 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 fading of Deer Island exemplifies the dwindling finances of Skull and Bones, which can no longer claim the largest society endowment at Yale. Unlike members of other societies, Bonesmen pay no dues, though patriarchs receive an annual letter requesting a “voluntary contribution to the Russell Trust Association.” In truth, Skull and Bones has never been wealthy.

The society’s accounts are much fatter in the ineffables department. A Skull and Bones document states,

The experience we have come to value in our society depends on privacy, and we are unwilling to jeopardize that life in order to solicit new members. The life which we invite you to share in our society is based on such intangible factors that we cannot meaningfully convey to you either its nature or quality.

Hardly a tool of Hades, but rather a staid wayside for students, its heyday past, its glory faded, Skull and Bones may have little more than this to conceal.

As for the $15,000 graduation gift, George W.’s contemporary Rex Cowdry says, “I’m still waiting for mine.”

Alexandra Robbins, a 1998 graduate of Yale University, is on the staff of The New Yorker’s Washington bureau

This article originates at and is listed here only to augment our material. Ms. Robbins has a book entitled “Secrets of the Tomb” that deals with the society in greater depth.

Obedience to Authority a now famous study done at Yale.
The Yale Presidential Race
Skull and Bones Society – Rosenbaum

June 13, 2004
Skull And Bones
Secret Yale Society Includes America’s Power Elite

By Rebecca Leung

Skull and Bones is an elite secret society at Yale University that includes some of the most powerful men of the 20th century. (60 Minutes/CBS)

(CBS) As opposite as George Bush and John Kerry may seem to be, they do share a common secret – one they’ve shared for decades, and one they will not share with the electorate.

The secret: details of their membership in Skull and Bones, the elite Yale University society whose members include some of the most powerful men of the 20th century.

Bonesmen, as they’re called, are forbidden to reveal what goes on in their inner sanctum, the windowless building on the Yale campus that is called the Tomb.

When 60 Minutes first reported on Skull & Bones last October, conspiracy theorists, who see Skull and Bones behind just about everything that goes wrong, and even right, in the world, were relishing the unthinkable – the possibility of two Bonesman fighting it out for the presidency.

Over the years, Bones has included presidents, cabinet officers, spies, Supreme Court justices, captains of industry, and often their sons and lately their daughters, a social and political network like no other.

And to a man and women, they’d responded to questions with utter silence until an enterprising Yale graduate, Alexandra Robbins, managed to penetrate the wall of silence in her book, “Secrets of the Tomb,” reports CBS News Correspondent Morley Safer. “I spoke with about 100 members of Skull and Bones and they were members who were tired of the secrecy, and that’s why they were willing to talk to me,” says Robbins. “But probably twice that number hung up on me, harassed me, or threatened me.”

Secret or not, Skull and Bones is as essential to Yale as the Whiffenpoofs, the tables down at a pub called Mory’s, and the Yale mascot – that ever-slobbering bulldog.

Skull and Bones, with all its ritual and macabre relics, was founded in 1832 as a new world version of secret student societies that were common in Germany at the time. Since then, it has chosen or “tapped” only 15 senior students a year who become patriarchs when they graduate — lifetime members of the ultimate old boys’ club.

Skull and Bones is so tiny. That’s what makes this staggering,” says Robbins. “There are only 15 people a year, which means there are about 800 living members at any one time.”

But a lot of Bonesmen have gone on to positions of great power, which Robbins says is the main purpose of this secret society: to get as many members as possible into positions of power.

“They do have many individuals in influential positions,
” says Robbins. “And that’s why this is something that we need to know about.”

President Bush has tapped five fellow Bonesmen to join his administration. Most recently, he selected William Donaldson, Skull and Bones 1953, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Like the President, he’s taken the Bones oath of silence. Ron Rosenbaum, author and columnist for the New York Observer, has become obsessed with cracking that code of secrecy.

“I think there is a deep and legitimate distrust in America for power and privilege that are cloaked in secrecy. It’s not supposed to be the way we do things,
” says Rosenbaum. “We’re supposed to do things out in the open in America. And so that any society or institution that hints that there is something hidden is, I think, a legitimate subject for investigation.”

His investigation is a 30-year obsession dating back to his days as a Yale classmate of George W. Bush. Rosenbaum, a self-described undergraduate nerd, was certainly not a contender for Bones. But he was fascinated by its weirdness.

“It’s this sepulchral, tomblike, windowless, granite, sandstone bulk that you can’t miss. And I lived next to it,” says Rosenbaum. “I had passed it all the time. And during the initiation rites, you could hear strange cries and whispers coming from the Skull and Bones tomb.”

Despite a lifetime of attempts to get inside, the best Rosenbaum could do was hide out on the ledge of a nearby building a few years ago to videotape a nocturnal initiation ceremony in the Tomb’s courtyard.

“A woman holds a knife and pretends to slash the throat of another person lying down before them, and there’s screaming and yelling at the neophytes,
” he says.

Robbins says the cast of the initiation ritual is right out of Harry Potter meets Dracula: “There is a devil, a Don Quixote and a Pope who has one foot sheathed in a white monogrammed slipper resting on a stone skull. The initiates are led into the room one at a time. And once an initiate is inside, the Bonesmen shriek at him. Finally, the Bonesman is shoved to his knees in front of Don Quixote as the shrieking crowd falls silent. And Don Quixote lifts his sword and taps the Bonesman on his left shoulder and says, ‘By order of our order, I dub thee knight of Euloga.’”

It’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo, says Robbins, but it means a lot to the people who are in it.

Prescott Bush, George W’s grandfather, and a band of Bonesmen, robbed the grave of Geronimo, took the skull and some personal relics of the Apache chief and brought them back to the tomb,” says Robbins. “There is still a glass case, Bonesmen tell me, within the tomb that displays a skull that they all refer to as Geronimo.”

“The preoccupation with bones, mortality, with coffins, lying in coffins, standing around coffins, all this sort of thing I think is designed to give them the sense that, and it’s very true, life is short,” says Rosenbaum. “You can spend it, if you have a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or you can spend it making a contribution.

And plenty of Bonesmen have made a contribution, from William Howard Taft, the 27th President; Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine; and W. Averell Harriman, the diplomat and confidant of U.S. presidents.

“What’s important about the undergraduate years of Skull and Bones, as opposed to fraternities, is that it imbues them with a kind of mission for moral leadership,” says Rosenbaum. “And it’s something that they may ignore for 30 years of their life, as George W. Bush seemed to successfully ignore it for quite a long time. But he came back to it.”

Mr. Bush, like his father and grandfather before him, has refused to talk openly about Skull and Bones. But as a Bonesman, he was required to reveal his innermost secrets to his fellow Bones initiates.

They’re supposed to recount their entire sexual histories in sort of a dim, a dimly-lit cozy room. The other 14 members are sitting on plush couches, and the lights are dimmed,” says Robbins. “And there’s a fire roaring. And the, this activity is supposed to last anywhere from between one to three hours.” What’s the point of this?

I believe the point of the year in the tomb is to forge such a strong bond between these 15 new members that after they graduate, for them to betray Skull and Bones would mean they’d have to betray their 14 closest friends,” says Robbins.

One can’t help but make certain comparisons with the mafia, for example. Secret society, bonding, stakes may be a little higher in one than the other. But everybody knows everything about everybody, which is a form of protection.

“I think Skull and Bones has had slightly more success than the mafia in the sense that the leaders of the five families are all doing 100 years in jail, and the leaders of the Skull and Bones families are doing four and eight years in the White House,” says Rosenbaum.

Bones is not restricted to the Republican Party. Yet another Bonesman has his eye on the Oval Office: Senator John Kerry, Democrat, Skull & Bones 1966.

“It is fascinating isn’t it? I mean, again, all the people say, ‘Oh, these societies don’t matter. The Eastern Establishment is in decline.’ And you could not find two more quintessential Eastern establishment, privileged guys,” says Rosenbaum. “I remember when I was a nerdy scholarship student in the reserve book room at, at the Yale Library, and John Kerry, who at that point styled himself ‘John F. Kerry’ would walk in.”

There was always a little buzz,” adds Rosenbaum. “Because even then he was seen to be destined for higher things. He was head of the Yale Political Union, and a tap for Skull and Bones was seen as the natural sequel to that.”

David Brooks, a conservative commentator who has published a book on the social dynamics of the upwardly mobile, says that while Skull & Bones may be elite and secret, it’s anything but exciting.

“My view of secret societies is they’re like the first class cabin in airplanes. They’re really impressive until you get into them, and then once you’re there they’re a little dull. So you hear all these conspiracy theories about Skull and Bones,
” says Brooks.

And to me, to be in one of these organizations, you have to have an incredibly high tolerance for tedium ’cause you’re sittin’ around talking, talking, and talking. You’re not running the world, you’re just gassing.”

Gassing or not, the best-connected white man’s club in America has moved reluctantly into the 21st Century.

“Skull and Bones narrowly endorsed admitting women,”
says Robbins. “The day before these women were supposed to be initiated, a group of Bonesmen, including William F. Buckley, obtained a court order to block the initiation claiming that letting women into the tomb would lead to date rape. Again more legal wrangling; finally it came down to another vote and women were admitted and initiated.”

But Skull & Bones now has women, and it’s become more multicultural.

It has gays who got the SAT scores, it’s got the gays who got the straight A’s,” says Brooks. “It’s got the blacks who are the president of the right associations. It’s different criteria. More multicultural, but it’s still an elite, selective institution.”

On balance, it may be bizarre, but on a certain perspective, does it provide something of value?

You take these young strivers, you put them in this weird castle. They spill their guts with each other, fine. But they learn something beyond themselves. They learn a commitment to each other, they learn a commitment to the community,” says Brooks. “And maybe they inherit some of those old ideals of public service that are missing in a lot of other parts of the country.”

And is that relationship, in some cases, stronger than family or faith?

says Robbins. “You know, they say, they say the motto at Yale is, ‘For God, for country, and for Yale.’ At Bones, I would think it’s ‘For Bones.’”



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.”[3][4]

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.[5][6][7]

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.”[8] 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.[9]
Deer Island lodge.

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.”
—Alexandra Robbins,

Yale became coeducational in 1969, but Skull & Bones remained all-male. The Class of 1991 tapped seven female members for membership in the next year’s class, this caused some public conflict with their own alumni association, the Russell Trust.[10] The Trust responded by changing the locks on the “Tomb”; the Bonesmen had to meet at the building of Manuscript Society.[10] A mail-in vote by living 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.[10][11] Other alumni, such as John Kerry, spoke out in favor of admitting women, and the dispute even ended up on The New York Times editorial page.[10][12] A second vote of alumni in October 1991 agreed to accept the Class of 1992, and the lawsuit was dropped.[10][13]

Once the pinnacle of the college’s social system, the society remained central to campus life through the 1950s, but since then has lost much of its luster.[14]

Skull & Bones also has different competition from newer societies than its old rivals Scroll & Key and Wolf’s Head, such as the Elihu Society.
[edit] Tapping

Skull and Bones selects new members every spring as part of Yale University’s “Tap Day”, and has done so since 1879.[15] Recent Tap Days were held on April 20, 2009.[16], and April 15, 2010.[17] 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.[18] The Tapping ceremony has always been a public event at Yale.[19] 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.
—Time Magazine, [4]

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. But the longest and most elaborate Tapping process is still Yale’s.
[edit] The Tomb
Exterior view of Skull and Bones, 64 High Street, New Haven, early 20th century

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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22] New Hampshire landscape architects Saucier & Flynn designed the wrought-iron fence that currently surrounds a portion of the complex in the late 1990s.[23] Coordinates: 41.30857°N 72.930092°W
[edit] Bonesmen
Main article: List of Skull and Bones members
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”.[24] 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…”
—Lanny Davis, quoted by Robbins,

Bones began tapping Jewish students in the early fifties and African-Americans in 1949.[25] 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.[26] 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.”[27]

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.”

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.[28] 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 President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft (son of a founder of the society). President George H. W. Bush, his son, President George W. Bush, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart,[29] “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.
[edit] Lore

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.[30][31] 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”.[32]

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.[33]

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”.[34]

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.”[35] 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.”[36][37]

During the senior year, each Skull and Bones class meets every Thursday and Sunday night.[38]
[edit] Crooking

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.”[39]

The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of Martin Van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa, but this has never been proven.[40][41][42]
[edit] Geronimo
Main article: Geronimo#Alleged theft of skull

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.[43] 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.[44] In 2006, Marc Wortman discovered a 1918 letter[45] 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.[46]

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.[43] An article in The New York Times states that Clark “acknowledged he had no hard proof that the story was true.”[47] 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.[48] But Cameron University history professor David H. Miller notes that Geronimo’s grave was unmarked at the time.[46] Investigations conducted by journalists such as Cecil Adams and Kitty Kelley have concluded this story is wrong.[49][50] A Fort Sill spokesman told Adams, “There is no evidence to indicate the bones are anywhere but in the grave site.”[49] Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache tribe of Oklahoma, also calls the story a hoax.[44]

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.[39]
[edit] Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa’s skull has been alleged to have been stolen shortly after his death.[40] 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.[40] Writer Mark Singer, a Yale graduate, also rejects the story in a New Yorker article about the myth.[51]
[edit] Conspiracy Theories

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. Despite the implausibility of a small circle of Yale undergraduates controlling anything, it is true that some prominent families had one or more members as Bonesmen. The theorists suggest, such as Alexandra Robbins, that Skull & Bones is a branch of the Illuminati,[30] or that Skull & Bones itself controls the Central Intelligence Agency.[52] Obviously, no actual proof of any of these accusations or anything like them, has been provided; the conspiracy theorists relying on supposed personal connections and coincidences. Other conspiracy theorists that have written about Skull & Bones were Antony C. Sutton, who wrote a book on the group titled America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones.[53] and Kris Millegan, who wrote a book on the society in 2003.[54][55]

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.[56]
[edit] In popular culture

Skull and Bones has been satirized from time to time in the Doonesbury comic strips by Garry Trudeau, Yale graduate and member of Scroll and Key; especially in 1980 and December 1988, with reference to George H. W. Bush, and again at the time that the society went co-ed.[57]

Probably the most famous fictional Bonesman among young people is Montgomery Burns, of The Simpsons, who attended Yale and was a member of Skull and Bones.[58]

The 2000 film The Skulls concerns a highly elaborate secret society with clear parallels to Skull and Bones at a university beginning with a “Y”.[59] A portrayal of Bones also played a substantial role in Robert De Niro’s 2006 film The Good Shepherd, about the Central Intelligence Agency.[52] An episode of American Dad! that depicts George W. Bush includes him doing a dance he calls “the Skull and Bones”.

A Gossip Girl subplot involves a character’s attempt to infiltrate Skull and Bones.[4]

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