Skull and Bones

Last updated

Skull and Bones
Formation1832;191 years ago (1832)
Type Secret society
Headquarters Yale University
Region served
United States
Parent organization
Russell Trust Association

Skull and Bones, also known as The Order, Order 322 or The Brotherhood of Death, is an undergraduate senior secret student society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The oldest senior class society at the university, Skull and Bones has become a cultural institution known for its powerful alumni and various conspiracy theories. It is one of the "Big Three" societies at Yale, the other two being Scroll and Key and Wolf's Head. [1]


The society's alumni organization, the Russell Trust Association, owns the organization's real estate and oversees the membership. The society is known informally as "Bones," and members are known as "Bonesmen," "Members of The Order" or "Initiated to The Order." [2]


Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 after a dispute among Yale debating societies Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean Society over that season's Phi Beta Kappa awards. William Huntington Russell and Alphonso Taft co-founded "the Order of the Skull and Bones". [3] [4] The first senior members included Russell, Taft, and 12 other members. [5] Alternative names for Skull and Bones are The Order, Order 322 and The Brotherhood of Death. [6]

The society's assets are managed by its alumni organization, the Russell Trust Association, incorporated in 1856 and named after the Bones' co-founder. [3] The association was founded by Russell and Daniel Coit Gilman, a Skull and Bones member.

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." [7] [8] Brooks Mather Kelley attributed the interest in Yale senior societies to the fact that underclassmen members of then freshman, sophomore, and junior class societies returned to campus the following years and could share information about society rituals, while graduating seniors were, with their knowledge of such, at least a step removed from campus life. [9]

Skull and Bones selects new members among students every spring as part of Yale University's "Tap Day", and has done so since 1879. Since the society's inclusion of women in the early 1990s, Skull and Bones selects fifteen men and women of the junior class to join the society. Skull and Bones "taps" those that it views as campus leaders and other notable figures for its membership.

The number "322" appears in Skull and Bones' insignia and is widely reported to be significant as the year of Greek orator Demosthenes' death. [10] [11] [5] A letter between early society members in Yale's archives [12] suggests that 322 is a reference to the year 322 BCE and that members measure dates from this year instead of from the common era. In 322 BC, the Lamian War ended with the death of Demosthenes and Athenians were made to dissolve their government and establish a plutocratic system in its stead, whereby only those possessing 2,000 drachmas or more could remain citizens. Documents in the Tomb have purportedly been found dated to "Anno-Demostheni." [13] Members measure time of day according to a clock 5 minutes out of sync with normal time, the latter is called "barbarian time."

One legend is that the numbers in the society's emblem ("322") represent "founded in '32, 2nd corps", referring to a first Corps in an unknown German university. [14] [15]



The Skull and Bones Hall is otherwise known as the "Tomb".

The tomb before the addition of a second wing Skull and Bones Kingsley.jpg
The tomb before the addition of a second wing

The building was built in three phases: the first wing was built in 1856, the second wing in 1903, and Davis-designed Neo-Gothic towers were added to the rear garden in 1912. The front and side facades are of Portland brownstone in an Egypto-Doric style. The 1912 tower additions created a small enclosed courtyard in the rear of the building, designed by Evarts Tracy and Edgerton Swartwout of Tracy and Swartwout, New York. [16] Evarts Tracy was an 1890 Bonesman, and his paternal grandmother, Martha Sherman Evarts, and maternal grandmother, Mary Evarts, were the sisters of William Maxwell Evarts, an 1837 Bonesman.

A 2009 view of the tomb from across High Street Yale Skull and Bones facade from angle.JPG
A 2009 view of the tomb from across High Street

The architect was possibly Alexander Jackson Davis 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 Yale campus history. Pinnell speculates that the re-use of the Davis towers in 1911 suggests Davis's role in the original building and, conversely, Austin was responsible for the architecturally similar brownstone Egyptian Revival Grove Street Cemetery gates, built in 1845. Pinnell also discusses the Tomb's esthetic place in relation to its neighbors, including the Yale University Art Gallery. [16] In the late 1990s, New Hampshire landscape architects Saucier and Flynn designed the wrought iron fence that surrounds a portion of the complex. [17]

Deer Island

The society owns and manages Deer Island, an island retreat on the St. Lawrence River ( 44°21′33″N75°54′34″W / 44.359063°N 75.909345°W / 44.359063; -75.909345 (Location of New Skull & Bones Society Lodge on Deer Island) ). Alexandra Robbins, author of a book on Yale secret societies, wrote:

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."


Yearbook listing of Skull and Bones membership for 1920. The 1920 delegation included co-founders of Time magazine, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce. Skull and Bones Class of 1920.jpg
Yearbook listing of Skull and Bones membership for 1920. The 1920 delegation included co-founders of Time magazine, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce.

Skull and Bones's membership developed a reputation in association with the "power elite". [18] Regarding the qualifications for membership, Lanny Davis wrote in the 1968 Yale yearbook:

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, Skull and Bones membership was almost exclusively limited to white Protestant males for much of its history. While Yale itself had exclusionary policies directed at particular ethnic and religious groups, the senior societies were even more exclusionary. [19] [20] While some Catholics were able to join such groups, Jews were more often not. [20] Some of these excluded groups eventually entered Skull and Bones by means of sports, through the society's practice of tapping standout athletes. Star football players tapped for Skull and Bones included the first Jewish player (Al Hessberg, class of 1938) and African-American player (Levi Jackson, class of 1950, who turned down the invitation for the Berzelius Society). [19]

Yale became coeducational in 1969, prompting some other secret societies such as St. Anthony Hall to transition to co-ed membership, yet Skull and Bones remained fully male until 1992. The Bones class of 1971's attempt to tap women for membership 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. [21] The class of 1991 tapped seven female members for membership in the next year's class, causing conflict with the alumni association. [22] The trust changed the locks on the Tomb and the Bonesmen instead met in the Manuscript Society building. [22] A mail-in vote by members decided 368–320 to permit women in the society, 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. [22] [23] Other alumni, such as John Kerry and R. Inslee Clark, Jr., spoke out in favor of admitting women. The dispute was highlighted on an editorial page of The New York Times . [22] [24] A second alumni vote, in October 1991, agreed to accept the Class of 1992, and the lawsuit was dropped. [22] [10]

Members are assigned nicknames (e.g., "Long Devil", the tallest member; "Boaz", a varsity football captain; or "Sherrife" prince of future). Many of the chosen names are drawn from literature (e.g., "Hamlet", "Uncle Remus") religion, and 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". [11]

Judith Ann Schiff, Chief Research Archivist at the Yale University Library, has written: "The names of its members weren't kept secretthat was an innovation of the 1970sbut its meetings and practices were." [25] While resourceful researchers could assemble member data from these original sources, in 1985, Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt provided Antony C. Sutton with rosters and records that had belonged to her father, a member of the organization. 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. He wrote a book on the group, America's Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull and Bones. The information was finally reformatted as an appendix in the book Fleshing out Skull and Bones, a compilation edited by Kris Millegan and published in 2003.

Among prominent alumni are former president and Chief Justice William Howard Taft (a founder's son); former presidents and father and son George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush; Chauncey Depew, president of the New York Central Railroad System, and a United States Senator from New York; Juan Terry Trippe, Founder & CEO, Pan American World Airways (Pan Am); Joseph Gibson Hoyt, the first chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis; Supreme Court Justices Morrison R. Waite and Potter Stewart; [26] James Jesus Angleton, "mother of the Central Intelligence Agency"; Henry Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War (1940–1945); Robert A. Lovett, U.S. Secretary of Defense (1951–1953); William B. Washburn, Governor of Massachusetts; and Henry Luce, founder and publisher of Time , Life , Fortune , and Sports Illustrated magazines.[ citation needed ]

John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator; Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of Blackstone Group; Austan Goolsbee, [27] Chairman of Barack 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.

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." [28] 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." [29] [30] Tim Russert on Meet The Press asked both President Bush and John Kerry about their memberships to Skull and Bones, to which the president replied, "It's so secret we can't talk about it." Kerry replied, "You trying to get rid of me here?" [31] [32]


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". [33]

The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of Martin Van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa. [34] [35]

Conspiracy theories

The group Skull and Bones is featured in books and movies which claim that the society plays a role in a global conspiracy for world control. [36] There have been rumors that Skull and Bones is a branch of the Illuminati, having been founded by German university alumni following the order's suppression in their native land by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria with the support of Frederick the Great of Prussia, [14] [ dubious ] or that Skull and Bones itself controls the CIA. [37]

References in fiction

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prescott Bush</span> U.S. Senator

Prescott Sheldon Bush was an American banker and politician.After working as a Wall Street executive investment banker, he represented Connecticut in the United States Senate from 1952 to 1963.A member of the Bush family, he was the father of former Vice President and President George H. W. Bush, and the paternal grandfather of former Texas Governor and President George W. Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yale College</span> Undergraduate college of Yale University

Yale College is the undergraduate college of Yale University. Founded in 1701, it is the original school of the university. Although other Yale schools were founded as early as 1810, all of Yale was officially known as Yale College until 1887, when its schools were confederated and the institution was renamed Yale University. It is ranked as one of the top colleges in the United States.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Berzelius (secret society)</span> Secret society at Yale University

Berzelius is a secret society at Yale University named for the Swedish scientist Jöns Jakob Berzelius, considered one of the founding fathers of modern chemistry. Founded in 1848, 'BZ', as the society is called often, is the third oldest society at Yale and the oldest of those of the now-defunct Sheffield Scientific School, the institution which from 1854 to 1956 was the sciences and engineering college of Yale University. Berzelius became a senior society in the tradition of Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Wolf's Head in 1933 when the Sheffield Scientific School was integrated into Yale University. Book and Snake and St. Elmo, also societies from Sheffield, followed suit. Skull and Bones, founded in 1832, Scroll and Key, founded in 1841, and Wolf's Head, founded in 1883, catered to students in the Academic Department, or liberal arts college.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Scroll and Key</span> Secret society at Yale University

The Scroll and Key Society is a secret society, founded in 1842 at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. It is one of the oldest Yale secret societies and reputedly the wealthiest. The society is one of the reputed "Big Three" societies at Yale, along with Skull and Bones and Wolf's Head. Each spring the society admits fifteen rising seniors to participate in its activities and carry on its traditions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Russell Trust Association</span>

The Russell Trust Association is the business name for the New Haven, Connecticut-based Skull and Bones society, incorporated in 1856.

John Prescott Ellis is a former American journalist and media consultant, and is now a partner in the venture-capital firm Sand Hills Partners. He is a nephew of former President of the United States George H. W. Bush and a first cousin of former President George W. Bush and former Governor of Florida John Ellis "Jeb" Bush.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">William H. Donaldson</span>

William Henry Donaldson was the 27th Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), serving from February 2003 to June 2005. He served as Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs in the Nixon Administration, as a special adviser to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, and Chairman, President and CEO of Aetna. Donaldson founded Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elihu (secret society)</span>

Elihu, founded in 1903, is the fourth oldest senior society at Yale University, New Haven, CT. While similar to Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key and Wolf's Head societies in charter and function, Elihu favors privacy over secrecy. It was founded as "the first non-secret senior society". The society's building, located at 175 Elm Street, has windows, though they are blinded. Like the other societies, the organization's building is typically closed to non-members. It takes its name from Elihu Yale.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wolf's Head (secret society)</span> Secret society headquartered at Yale University

Wolf's Head Society is a senior society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The society is one of the reputed "Big Three" societies at Yale, along with Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key. Active undergraduate membership is elected annually with sixteen Yale University students, typically rising seniors. Honorary members are elected.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Herbert Walker Jr.</span> American baseball team owner (1905–1977)

George Herbert Walker Jr. was an American businessman and an uncle of President George H. W. Bush.

Sage and Chalice is the name of a secret society at Yale University. It is also known as YPSRT, or the Yale Potato Sack Relay Team. According to an article in The New York Times, Barbara Bush, the daughter of U.S. President George W. Bush, joined the society in preference to Skull and Bones, another secret senior society. Other notable alumni include professional hockey player Rob O'Gara, and Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, who won the women's singles in figure skating at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Deer Island (Thousand Islands)</span>

Deer Island is one of the American Thousand Islands. It lies between mainland Canada and United States, within the Saint Lawrence River, in the Town of Alexandria, close to Alexandria Bay, New York. It is owned entirely by the Russell Trust Association and is used as a Skull and Bones retreat.

Manuscript Society is a senior society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Toward the end of each academic year 16 rising seniors are inducted into the society, which meets twice weekly for dinner and discussion. Manuscript is reputedly the "Arts and letters" society at Yale.

There are many collegiate secret societies in North America. They vary greatly in their level of secrecy and the degree of independence from their universities. A collegiate secret society makes significant effort to keep affairs, membership rolls, signs of recognition, initiation, or other aspects secret from the public.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexandra Robbins</span> American journalist and author

Alexandra Robbins is a journalist, lecturer, and author. Her books focus on young adults, education, and modern college life. Five of her books have been New York Times Bestsellers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Roy L. Austin</span> American diplomat

Roy Leslie Austin is a former United States Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago October 2001 to December 2009.

Alexander B. Ellis III, formerly an executive with alternative energy companies, and now a partner in the venture-capital firm Rockport Capital Partners. He is a nephew of former President of the United States George H. W. Bush and a first cousin of former President George W. Bush and the former Governor of Florida John Ellis "Jeb" Bush.

The Torch Honor Society was founded on March 8, 1916 in order to recognize merit and achievement on the part of undergraduate students of Yale College. Each Spring, the society elected ten juniors on the basis of outstanding achievement in University activities and scholarship, irrespective of society or fraternity affiliation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spade and Grave</span> Secret society headquartered at Yale University

Spade and Grave (S&G) is a senior society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Founded in 1864, S&G is one of Yale's oldest societies. The society meets in its tomb near Yale's campus.


  1. Jacobs, Peter (October 8, 2015). "Yale is revamping its secret society system so students don't feel left out". Business Insider. Retrieved April 10, 2020.
  2. Stevens, Albert C. (1907). Cyclopedia of Fraternities: A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origin, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More Than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States. E. B. Treat and Company. p. 338. ISBN   978-1169348677. OCLC   2570157.
  3. 1 2 "Change In Skull And Bones; Famous Yale Society Doubles Size of Its House – Addition a Duplicate of Old Building" (PDF). The New York Times. September 13, 1903. Retrieved November 5, 2011.
  4. Niarchos, Nicolas; Zapana, Victor (December 5, 2008). "Yale's secret social fabric". Yale Daily News . Retrieved November 5, 2017.
  5. 1 2 Richards, David (May 2015). "The Origins of the Tomb". Yale Alumni Magazine . Retrieved November 5, 2017.
  6. Blakely, Rhys (March 2, 2013). "John Kerry and the 'Brotherhood of Death' Yale secret society". The Times. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  7. Schiff, Judith Ann. "How the Secret Societies Got That Way". Yale Alumni Magazine (September/October 2004). Archived from the original on April 4, 2005. Retrieved November 5, 2011.
  8. Bagg, Lyman Hotchkiss (1871). Four Years at Yale. New Haven, C.C. Chatfield & Co. ISBN   978-1425569372. OCLC   2007757.
  9. Yale: A History, Brooks Mather Kelley, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, Ltd.), 1974.
  10. 1 2 Hevesi, Dennis (October 26, 1991). "Shh! Yale's Skull and Bones Admits Women". New York Times . Retrieved February 28, 2009.
  11. 1 2 Robbins, Alexandra (May 2000). "George W., Knight of Eulogia". The Atlantic Monthly . Retrieved November 5, 2017.
  12. "Letter from a member of Skull and Bones Society to another member". Yale Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database. Yale University Library. March 23, 1860. Retrieved November 5, 2017.
  13. Stevens, Albert C. (1907). Cyclopedia of Fraternities: A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origin, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More Than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States. E. B. Treat and Company. p. 340. ISBN   978-1169348677. OCLC   2570157.
  14. 1 2 Robbins, Alexandra. Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. Back Bay Books, 2003.
  15. "German postcard included in a Skull and Bones photograph album originally owned by Chester Wolcott Lyman, BA 1882" [Photograph albums of the Skull and Bones Society]. Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives. 1882.
  16. 1 2 Yale University 1999 Princeton Architectural Press, ISBN   1-56898-167-8 Google Books
  17. "Scull and Bones". Archived from the original on September 18, 2007.
  18. Leung, Rebecca (June 13, 2004). "Skull And Bones: Secret Yale Society Includes America's Power Elite". CBS News. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
  19. 1 2 Oren, Dan A. (1985). Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale . New Haven: Yale University Press. pp.  87–88. ISBN   0-300-03330-3.
  20. 1 2 Karabel, Jerome (2005). The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton . Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp.  53–36.
  21. Robbins, pp. 152–159
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 Andrew Cedotal, Rattling those dry bones, Yale Daily News, April 18, 2006.
  23. "Yale Alumni Block Women in Secret Club". New York Times . September 6, 1991. Retrieved February 28, 2009.
  24. Semple, Robert B. Jr. (April 18, 1991). "High Noon on High Street". New York Times . Retrieved February 28, 2009.
  25. Archived April 4, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  26. Barron, James (July 25, 1991). "Male Fortress Falls at Yale: Bonesmen to Admit Women". New York Times . Retrieved February 28, 2009.
  27. Bray, Aaron (October 12, 2007). "Goolsbee '91 puts economics degree to use for Obama". Yale Daily News. Archived from the original on October 3, 2012.
  28. Bush, George W. (1999). A Charge to Keep . William Morrow and Co. ISBN   0-688-17441-8.
  29. Oldenburg, Don (April 4, 2004). "Bush, Kerry Share Tippy-Top Secret". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on August 12, 2018. Retrieved November 5, 2011.
  30. Meet the Press Google Video
  31. NBC News (February 13, 2004). "Transcript for Feb. 8th". Retrieved January 21, 2020.
  32. NBC News (April 18, 2004). "Transcript for April 18". Retrieved January 21, 2020.
  33. Lassila;Branch (2006). "Whose skull and bones?" (PDF). Yale Alumni Magazine: 20–22.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  34. Greenburg, Zach O. (January 23, 2004). "Bones may have Pancho Villa skull". The Yale Herald . Archived from the original on December 20, 2008. Retrieved November 5, 2011.
  35. Citro, Joseph A. (2005). Weird New England (illustrated ed.). Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. pp.  270–71. ISBN   1-4027-3330-5.
  36. Stephey, MJ (February 23, 2009). "A Brief History of the Skull & Bones Society". Time. Archived from the original on February 26, 2009.
  37. Dempsey, Rachel (January 18, 2007). "Real Elis inspired fictional 'shepherd'". Yale Daily News . Archived from the original on October 22, 2012. Retrieved April 5, 2012.
  38. Soper, Kerry (2008). Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 25, 42. ISBN   978-1-934110-89-8.
  39. Ebert, Roger. (July 10, 2013) The Skulls Movie Review & Film Summary (2000) | Roger Ebert. Retrieved on 2013-07-15.
  40. "The Great Gatsby". Archived from the original on April 7, 2014.
  41. Holy Eli, Batman!

Further reading