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How the Secret Societies Got That Way

Every year, 15 juniors are tapped by Yale’s best-known secret society, Skull and Bones, for lifetime admittance to its windowless and forbidding tomb on High Street. John Kerry ’66 got the call in 1965; George W. Bush ’68, who comes from a long line of Bonesmen, was welcomed into the fold in 1967. The fact that both candidates are members of this mysterious organization, coupled with persistent rumors that Skull and Bones is more than just a highly selective college fraternity (some have even suggested darkly that its members are part of a clandestine cabal attempting to rule the world) has thrust it and other secret societies into the national spotlight.


The first exposé of Skull & Bones was published in 1871.

Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, which was founded in 1780, was actually the first secret society at the university. In the 1820s, however, national sentiment turned against secrecy and PBK dropped its closed-door policy. But for some, secret societies retained their appeal. In 1832, William H. Russell ’33 and his classmate Alphonso Taft (father of William Howard Taft ’78, the 27th U.S. president) founded Skull and Bones. The names of its 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. The first expose 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.”

Bagg, a member of the Class of 1869 who published his book anonymously, wrote that “some injustice in the conferring of Phi Beta Kappa elections” led to its establishment “as a sort of Burlesque convivial club.” Sorting the rumors of the time from the facts, he explained that Bones was not transplanted from a German university; that it was privately called the Eulogian Club, or Eulogia, for the goddess of eloquence; and that the reason Bones places heavy significance on the number 322 stems from either Alexander or Demosthenes, and the year 322 BC.

In 1841, Scroll and Key, the second senior society, was founded. Wolf’s Head followed in 1883. By the late nineteenth century, the prestige of membership in a senior society was reaching its zenith. Societies had sprung up for each of the younger classes; they were important stepping-stones to selection as a senior. But the freshman societies that recruited from the prep schools were abolished in 1880, and in 1900 President Hadley shut down the sophomore societies. The junior societies, which remained as fraternities, were prestigious in their own right as well as for entree into the right senior society.

Much of the mystique grew up around the only ritual secret societies performed semi-publicly: the selection of the next year’s members. At first, members of Bones and Scroll and Key assembled at midnight and went as a group to the room of each junior elected. But along the way, other students so insulted and teased them that they dropped the custom. Instead, Bones would send a single senior (Scroll and Key sent two) to call quietly at an early hour at a student’s room to ask, “I offer you an election to the so-called Skull and Bones. Do you accept?”

In the late 1870s, the juniors revolted. Instead of waiting alone in their rooms on election night, they gathered outside on the steps of the Old Campus dormitories to see which societies their friends would accept. But the seniors didn’t want to announce the elections publicly, so they simply tapped each selected junior and said only, “Go to your room.” Thus Tap Day was born.


Little is known about the “underground” societies.

In his 1899 history of Yale, Lewis Welch called Tap Day “a peculiar custom” that could be viewed as somewhere “between the most impressive and the most ludicrous exhibition.” Held at five o’clock on a Thursday afternoon late in May on the northern end of the Old Campus, the event drew huge crowds from “all parts of Yaledom” and New Haven. No one has described the tense tapping ceremony better than Owen Johnson in Stover at Yale. Stover had dropped his exclusive circle and did not expect to be tapped. But “above the broken, fitful cheers, suddenly came a last swelling roar. ‘Bones … Last man.’ … It was Le Baron. He came like a black tornado … and suddenly switching around almost knocked [Stover] to the ground with the crash of his blow. ‘Go to your room!’ … [Stover] began to move mechanically towards his room, seeing nothing, hearing nothing … He heard them cheering, then he saw hundreds of faces, wild-eyed, rushing past him; he stumbled and suddenly his eyes were blurred with tears, and he knew how much he cared, after the long months of rebellion, to be no longer an outsider, but back among his own with the stamp of approval on his record.”

In 1903, Elihu, the first non-secret senior society, was founded. With the merging of the Sheffield Scientific School into Yale College, Sheff fraternities—Berzelius, Book and Snake, and St. Elmo (Delta Phi)—became senior societies. St. Anthony Hall (Delta Psi) became a combined fraternity and senior society called a “final society.” (Since 1832, short-lived societies have come and gone, and there are also “underground” societies, but little is known about them.)

When the residential colleges opened in 1933, the juniors decided not to come out for the public spectacle and stayed in their rooms. A year later, however, Tap Day was resurrected—in the Branford College courtyard, where the gates were closed and admission was only by ticket. Over the years various students and societies expressed their disapproval of Tap Day, but it was held annually in Branford College until 1953, when the elections reverted to the rooms of the juniors for good. The annual lists of members were published in this magazine, the Yale Daily News, and even the New York Times, and appeared in the Banner through 1970. Thereafter, perhaps because of the anti-elitist mood of the campus, members shunned the limelight.

Writing about the society system has been a minor cottage industry in more recent decades. Scroll and Key members Maynard Mack, professor of English, and literature professor and, later, president A. Bartlett Giamatti both published official histories of their society. Loomis Havemeyer’s book Go To Your Room, an overview of the society system, came out in 1960. In 2002, with Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power, Alexandra Robbins ’98 provided a rich context on the societies and a detailed study of Skull and Bones.

All the societies have become coed and more diverse in their membership in recent years. In May the New York Times reported that Barbara Bush ’04 had broken the Bush family tradition of Bones membership and was a member of “a newer secret society called Sage and Chalice.”

Not all students have felt obliged to accept a tap. Lanny J. Davis ’67, ’70JD, wrote in the 1968 Banner: “To this day, students speak with puzzled admiration of Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster Jr. As an undergraduate in the Class of 1941, he was considered a prize catch, being the chair of the Yale News. Instead of making himself available for tap, the story goes, he was ensconced in a cubicle of his dormitory bathroom when the tower clock struck. A senior Bonesman yanked the door and shouted the awesome words.

“‘Reject,’ said Brewster calmly, which may explain why students today refer to their president very simply as ‘stud.’”  the end





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