Skull and Bones is a
secret society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
The logo of Skull and Bones
The society's alumni
organization, which owns the society's real property and oversees
the organization, is the Russell Trust Association
for General William
, 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 a university president. The society is known
informally as "Bones", and members are known as "Bonesmen".
President George H. W. Bush
his son President George W. Bush
, and the latter's 2004 Presidential
opponent Senator John Kerry
of Skull and Bones.
The Skull and Bones "tomb" between 1903 and 1911, before the rear
and Bones was founded in 1832 after a dispute among Yale's debating
, Brothers in Unity, and
Calliope, over that season's Phi Beta
awards; its original name was "the Order of Skull and
chapter of Skull and Bones created outside Yale was a chapter at
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
For most of its history, Skull & Bones operated as a peer
society with Scroll and Key
later, Wolf's Head
of Yale's other property-owning senior societies.
Bones owns a campground island in the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York
named Deer Island.
"The 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.
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
Yale became coeducational
in 1969, but
Skull & Bones remained all-male at the behest of the Russell
Trust Association. The Class of 1991, however, disregarded the
Trust and tapped seven female members for membership in the next
year's class. The Trust responded by changing the locks on the
"Tomb"; the Bonesmen had to meet at the building of Manuscript Society
. A mail-in vote by
living members decided 368-320 to permit going co-ed, but a group
of alumni led by William F.
obtained a temporary restraining order
block the move, arguing that a formal change in bylaws was needed.
Other alumni, such as John Kerry
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. Wolf's Head
Society was the last all-male society at Yale.
Skull and Bones selects new members every spring as part of Yale
University's "Tap Day." The most recent Tap Day was held on April
16, 2009. 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. Traditionally, groups
such as the Delta Kappa Epsilon
, Yale Political
, and Yale Daily News
well represented. The president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon
fraternity is strongly considered for membership every year (George
W. Bush is the most famous example). In addition, captains of
various sports teams (football, basketball, crew) are also
considered. In recent years, leaders in various Yale cultural
organizations have also merited consideration.
Skull and Bones has developed a reputation with some as having a
membership that is heavily tilted towards the "Power Elite
". Barack Obama's economic adviser
was initiated into
the club in 1991, the same year the club elected to tap women into
Bones "tomb" showing A.
Davis' towers, north facade
The first extended description of Skull and Bones, published in
1871 by Lyman Bagg in his book Four Years at Yale
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
junior class societies remained on campus following their
membership, while seniors naturally left.
The emblem of Skull and Bones is a skull with crossed bones, over
the number "322". One legend is that 322 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".
During the senior year each Skull and Bones class meets every
Thursday and Sunday night. The goal of the activities is to develop
deep friendship and connections with your fellow members and to
explore ideas that allow for personal and collective growth.
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
passed on his name,
"Sancho Panza," to the political adviser Tex
. Averell Harriman
"Thor," Henry Luce
was "Baal," McGeorge Bundy
was "Odin." George H. W. Bush
," 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.Alexandra
, The Atlantic Monthly May, 2000
Alleged stolen artifacts
Skull and Bones has a reputation for stealing, often from each
other or from campus buildings; society members reportedly call the
practice "crooking" and strive to outdo each other's
The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of
Martin Van Buren
, and Pancho
, but this has never been proven.
Bones members supposedly stole the bones of Geronimo from Fort Sill, Oklahoma during World War
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 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 theft was
"exhumed" from Fort Sill by the club and was "safe" in the club's
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."
says this is one
of the more plausible items said to be in the organization's Tomb.
But Cameron University
professor David H. Miller notes that Geronimo's grave was unmarked
at the time. Investigations ranging from Cecil Adams
have rejected the story. 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. However, 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. Moreover, the yearbook entries for
Haffner, Mead, and Davison confirm that they were all Bonesmen.
(The membership of the societies was routinely published in
newspapers and yearbooks until the 1970s.) Haffner’s entry confirms
that he was at the artillery school at Fort Sill some time between
August 1917 and July 1918.
's skull was indeed 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
article about the myth.
Skull & Bones Hall
The Skull and Bones "Tomb" in
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
(1803–1892) 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 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
towers from a previous
building were added at the rear garden. The front and side facades
are of Portland brownstone
and in an
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
, 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
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
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 a
private researcher, Antony C.
, 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.
Among prominent alumni are Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart
, "mother of the Central Intelligence Agency
James Jesus Angleton
David L. Boren
, and economic adviser Austan Goolsbee
In popular culture
Skull and Bones' place in popular culture is significant, since,
although it is a "secret society," it is probably the best known
college secret society in America, as can be seen from the
recurring references to it in all kinds of media. Skull and Bones
has featured 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. In The
, Montgomery Burns
is both a Yalie and a Bonesman. 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"; A portrayal of Bones also played
a substantial role in Matt Damon
film The Good
, about the Central Intelligence Agency
subplot involves the
main character, Rory (a student at Yale), associating with a Skull
and Bones-like group called Life and Death Brigade. The 2000
political-economic novel Crashmaker
(see Victor Sperandeo
) centers around Skull and
Bones-like societies. In the Gossip Girl
episode New Haven Can Wait
gets abducted by Skull and Bones. At the next meeting, he
brings three prostitutes, for each member, with hidden cameras on
them, which provide him incriminating material against Skull and
Bones. When Skull and Bones finds out, he shows some pictures and
states that he from thereon 'owns' the Skull and Bones Society.
Additionally, in an episode of Family
, Lois' father, Carter
, is a member of the Skull and Bones (whose
initiation is satirized) and offers Chris membership.
- Begin, Jeremy. Fighting for G.O.D. (Gold, Oil, and
Drugs). Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2007. ISBN
- Millegan, Kris, ed. Fleshing Out Skull and Bones:
Investigations into America's Most Powerful Secret Society.
Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2003. ISBN 0-9720207-2-1.
- Robbins, Alexandra. Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones,
the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. Back Bay Books,
2003. ISBN 0-316-73561-2.
- Sutton, Antony C. America's Secret Establishment: An
Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones. Walterville,
OR: Trine Day, 2003. ISBN 0-9720207-0-5.
- Tedford, Cody. Powerful Secrets. Hannover, 2008. ISBN