Secret societies at the University of Virginia

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The sign of the Seven Society outside of Maury Hall

Secret societies have been a part of University of Virginia student life since the first class of students in 1825. While the number of societies peaked during the 75 year period between 1875 and 1950, there are still six societies (Seven Society, Z Society, IMP Society, Eli Banana, T.I.L.K.A., The Thirteen Society) active that are over 100 years old, and several newer societies (the Purple Shadows, the A.N.G.E.L.S. Society, The 21 Society, P.U.M.P.K.I.N., the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, The Thursdays Society). The earliest societies, Eli and Tilka, functioned as social clubs; the Zs, IMPs, and Sevens have built a record of philanthropy and contribution to the University; and some of the later societies have focused on recognition or disapprobation of positive and negative contributions to the University.

Historical context[edit]

The earliest secret society at the University was probably the no-longer-secret Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, which at its 1825 founding was secret, with expulsion the penalty to any member who exposed the society's secrets.[1] Student society activity for the first period of the University appears to have been confined to similar literary societies, including the Patrick Henry Society, Philomathean Society, Parthenon Society, Columbian, and Washington Society, which were not secret societies; only the last is still active.[2]

At the same time, Greek organizations that were purely social in function (today's fraternities) began to play a role in student life. In 1853, students petitioned the Faculty to set up a "secret" colony of Delta Kappa Epsilon. (The UVA chapter was officially founded Nov. 26th, 1852). The first request was rejected by the Faculty, coming as it did on the heels of years of riotous behavior; according to University historian Philip Alexander Bruce, the faculty feared "orderly spirit of the student body acting as a whole or in segments, whether organized into secret fraternities or into Calathumpian bands"; in another session or two, the chapter became established, and other Greek fraternities followed.[3] It can be said generally about the early UVA fraternities that the only "secret" aspect of them was their operation and meeting location; the membership was not kept secret.

The growth of student organizations was interrupted by the Civil War, but resumed thereafter with the establishment of additional fraternities. A few secret societies are recorded during the years 1865 - 1878, of whom the only one of any note is the Dedils, most notable for being shut down by the Faculty after their minutes were found where they had been dropped by the drunken president of the organization.[4]

The sign of the Z society in black outside the steps to Old Cabel Hall

The Eli Banana Society, established in 1878, represented a new kind of secret society at the university. The new "ribbon society" tended to operate as an upperclass society, drew its members from the "upper class", and sought to exercise control of other student groups such as the Jefferson Society. Other ribbon societies included T.I.L.K.A., the Thirteen Club, the Lotus Society, the O.W.L. (a semi-secret society drawing its membership from the newspaper, magazine, and yearbook staff), the Zeta (later the Z Society), and O.N.E.[5]

The suppression of Eli Banana in 1894 and of the Hot Feet/IMP Society in 1908 coincided with the rise of academic societies, including the semi-secret Raven Society, whose members are initiated in a secret ceremony but is otherwise public. At around the same time, the Seven Society, a group so secret that its members are not made known until their death, appeared. The Seven Society established a new model for secret society operation on Grounds. While the ribbon societies were observed to draw their membership from the fraternities, and the IMPs and Zs from the ribbon societies,[6] the Seven Society's extreme secrecy meant that the society had no apparent formal connections to the social secret societies. At the same time, its exclusive focus on philanthropy meant that, unlike the Elis and Hot Feet, it functioned as an important contributor to the aims of the University.[7] The Sevens tap not only student leaders, but also University administrators and high-profile personnel. They take their secrecy so seriously that they only tap individuals for membership at locations off Grounds. It has been suggested that the IMP Society is composed of the Sevens underlings. The other societies founded after 1905 likewise define themselves in relation to supporting the University, whether through recognizing notable or notorious individuals (P.U.M.P.K.I.N.s, 21 Society, Sons of Liberty) or upholding University traditions (Purple Shadows). The A.N.G.E.L.S. Society both reaches out to students who may be struggling or simply those who display kindness or other laudable characteristics.

T.I.L.K.A.[edit]

The T.I.L.K.A. Society, commonly called Tilka, was founded in 1889 as a ribbon society after the model of Eli Banana. The name of the society is said to reference "five mystical words," though these are unknown.[8] The society rose in prominence after the Elis were suppressed in the late 1890s, capturing most of the student offices.[9]

Like Eli Banana, the Tilkas combined a focus on student leadership with a social function. Dabney notes that from the 1920s to the 1950s both organizations regularly sponsored formal dances at the university.[10] The organizations were sufficiently integrated into student life by the late 1940s that a Virginia Glee Club album of University songs included the Tilka anthem ("Come Fill Your Glasses Up for T.I.L.K.A.").[11]

Notable members of T.I.L.K.A. included founding member and UVA Law professor Raleigh C. Minor,[12] past UVA football quarterback and alumni association president Gilbert J. Sullivan;[13] and University president Frank Hereford.[14]

The Tilkas are still active at UVA; a 2004 article in the Cavalier Daily describes their "tapping" ceremony.[15]

Thursdays[edit]

The "Thursdays Society" was formed in the 1970s as a female counterpart to "The T.I.L.K.A. Society." With the first co-ed class at the University, a few women were admitted into T.I.L.K.A., however, the rule was shortly after reversed. Thursdays was created by the women who had briefly been in T.I.L.K.A.[16] Named after a popular going-out night at the University, the Thursdays society, composed of third and fourth year women, fosters female empowerment in a social function. As the Thursdays (as they are known in the vernacular and around Grounds) are not the most secretive of the secret societies, "if you're observant enough around Grounds, you may be fortunate enough to see a gaggle of giggling Thursdays"[17] on your walk to class. The Thursdays Society also succeeds in forging interpersonal relationships amongst a diverse group of young women.

Notable Alumnae

Purple Shadows[edit]

The Society of the Purple Shadows, named after a line from the poem "The Honor Men" that refers to the purple shadows of The Lawn,[18] was established in 1963.[19] The group's stated mission is "to contribute to the betterment of the University and to safeguard vigilantly the University traditions."[20] The group is notable for appearing in public in purple hooded robes that have drawn comparison to Ku Klux Klan attire.[21]

Past activities of the Purple Shadows have included anonymous political statements. In the 1970-1971 term, the society gave an ambiguous welcome to Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Annette Gibbs, whose responsibilities included the advising female undergraduate students at the newly coeducational university, by tying the doors to her office shut with a purple ribbon.[22] In 1982, following the decision of Dean of Students Robert Canevari to ban the traditional Easters celebration, the group left a letter and a dagger expressing their displeasure. The Dean filed charges against the group with the University Judiciary Committee, which were never answered.[23]

The principal contribution made by the Purple Shadows today is ongoing support of the honor system. The Shadows leave notecards for first year students during Convocation to formally welcome them to the Honor System; present the James Hay Jr. award for contributions to the honor system; and send letters in defense of the honor system when the existing single sanction system is challenged.[24] The group has taken other stands recently, including encouraging students to end the practice of chanting "not gay" when The Good Old Song is sung.[25]

P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Society[edit]

The P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Society appeared sometime prior to 1967, when the earliest known dated citation of the group was published in the Cavalier Daily.; its purpose is to recognize "meritorious service" to UVA.[26] The earliest account of the group takes a humorous tone, claiming a connection to a 14th-century "Societe de la Citrouillie" and establishing the society's secret "mystic" motto, "When The Corn Is In The Bin, The Gourd Is On The Vine." The group distributes actual pumpkins, along with letters of commendation, annually on the night of Halloween.[27] The society historically also presented a rotten gourd to an individual whom it felt deserving of criticism on Halloween night, but this practice was ended in 2000.[28] The practice was revived in 2012, with a rotten gourd being presented to Helen Dragas, after the Teresa Sullivan ouster of Summer 2012.

In addition to distributing pumpkins, the society annually prepares and distributes pumpkin pies, along with letters of commendation, for those staff at UVA who often go unrecognized. The society annually distributes letters of commendation at the end of Spring semester to recognize fourth year students who have served the UVA community silently and selflessly.

A banner with a scripted "P", representing the P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Society, hangs from a pavilion at the University of Virginia.

A.N.G.E.L.S.[edit]

The Angels society is one of the newer societies, possibly founded as recently as 1998. A.N.G.E.L.S. have been known to reach out to individuals within the community who may be grieving or struggling, as well as encourage those who display kindness or other laudable characteristics by presenting them with a white rose and a letter of recognition or encouragement.

Society of the Dawn[edit]

The Society of the Dawn, speculated to have formed in 1984, is a philanthropic society that seeks to bring attention to incidents within the University community through public recognition and dialogue. Acts by the society have included distributing letters of recognition to faculty members deemed examples of high quality service during fiscal difficulty[29] and the construction of small displays of flowers to bring attention to sexual assault at the University and promote increased administrative combat of sexual crime.[30] Most recently, the Society of the Dawn has issued public statements recognizing dedicated student organizations that diversify the University's public image.[31]


The Thirteen Society[edit]

The Thirteen Society was founded February 13, 1889. It seeks to recognize students "for unselfish service to the University and outstanding achievement in their respective fields of activity". Each year on Thomas Jefferson's birthday The Thirteen Society publishes their new members' names around Grounds. Not much is known about the society except that it is highly selective. Unlike many societies on Grounds, The Thirteen Society is formally recognized by the University.[32]

Recent societies[edit]

Other secret societies have appeared on Grounds in the last ten years, including the 21 Society and the Sons of Liberty. The 21 Society announced its founding on June 21, 1999, citing "direct challenge(s) to student self-governance" and claiming an intention to "unify the politically active students of the University."[33] The society has subsequently contributed to the University of Virginia Center for Politics.[34]

The Sons and Daughters of Liberty were established in the early 2000s, and are said to pursue liberty while decrying tyranny. Though the judgements passed by the SDL are done in secrecy, it is well known and documented that they stand firmly against the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, the most notable debating society of The University. The SDL began when the Sons of Liberty were founded in the early 2000s. Shortly after, the Daughters of Liberty were founded, and the two combined in 2011 to form the Sons and Daughters of Liberty. The group appears to mimic the ideals of the original Sons of Liberty, a group of well-known rebels during the American Revolution. They are known to write and speak with the dialect of the 1700s, and date their writings 1773. Once every year, on the eve of Thomas Jefferson's birthday, the SDL post lists of 13 individuals they deem "Rebels", and a limited number of individuals or organizations they deem "Tyrants". These lists are posted around the University. Short explanations accompany the list of Tyrants, and the Jefferson Society is always listed as a Tyrant. The SDL are also known to march down the Lawn on George Washington's birthday, placing a wreath and letter by his statue on the south end of the Lawn.

When spotted in public, the members of the SDL can be easily identified by their clothes. They garb themselves in colonial dress, and typically wear the American flag around their necks. Though the outfits differ between individuals, they all wear colonial tricorns, as well as white masks to conceal their identities. It is not clear how many members are in the society.

The SDL are known to carry out pranks and stunts around The University, a notable prank being the dumping of tea down the chimney of a lawn room in 2008. The lawn room belonged to a member of the Jefferson Society, and the act was sternly looked down upon by members of The University, prompting an apology from the SDL. Since then, the group appears to have maintained its devious nature on a less damaging scale, and acts against the Jefferson Society may be witnessed throughout the year. In April 2012 the SDL gifted the Jefferson Society with a cake containing a whole, uncooked fish. On the same night, a well-known member of the Jefferson Society was coaxed from his lawn room, only to have what appeared to be flour dumped on him from the balcony above. Previously, the SDL have entered the debate hall of the Jefferson Society and rearranged furniture, placed the pedestal in a bucket of tea, and carried out other harmless pranks. In the fall of 2011 there was an incident where artwork and furniture in the Hall was damaged, but it has since been confirmed that the SDL played no part in this. Though the SDL commonly poke fun at the Jefferson Society, they have also been known to bring lightheartedness to the student body by interrupting meetings, streaking libraries, and raucously decrying tyranny to any who may listen.

There is no known way to contact the SDL, though some claim to know select members. The SDL have no known enemies besides the Jefferson Society, and no clashes with other secret societies have taken place. The tapping rituals and processes, like those of other societies, is not known. The group appears to have no connection to the student-organized company of volunteer soldiers, also called the Sons of Liberty, who conducted training drills on the Lawn in 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Rotunda Burning Society is a secret organization, presumably founded sometime after 1974 and before 1993,[35][36] that commemorates the 1895 burning of the Rotunda by burning an effigy of the building each year at the base of the south steps.[37]

Little is known about the Order of the Claw and Dagger, save their contribution to the recent capital campaign for the McIntire School of Commerce; their logo is now found on the side of Rouss Hall on The Lawn next to that of the IMP Society.[38]

Similarly, little is known about the Six Column Society - the only visible remnant of the supposedly-active group are faded white symbols on a number of buildings around the lawn.

The O.W.L. Society, long dormant on Grounds, announced its reorganization through a letter on October 19, 2013, saying "We resurrect the O.W.L. to support, cultivate and enrich literary culture at the University of Virginia."[39]

In addition, The Yellow Journal, the University's humor publication, functions as a secret society in that it is published anonymously and members are publicly unknown. Historically, the publication has always been published anonymously though throughout the 1980s and 1990s the nature of the paper and its members were not secretive.

List of societies[edit]

The following is a list of some of the known secret societies at the University of Virginia. Much of the information has been paraphrased from information compiled by University Guide Service alumni and former University Guide Service historian Charles Irons.

This list includes societies that are well attested by reliable sources. It excludes some societies, such as the Raven Society, that have public membership and therefore are not secret societies by definition.

Name Year Established Type Status
Philomathean Society[2] 1849 Semisecret Inactive
Eli Banana[40] 1878 Semisecret Active
O.W.L. 1887 Secret Active
The Thirteen Society February 13, 1889 Semisecret Active
T.I.L.K.A. 1889 Semisecret Active
Thursdays mid-1970s Semisecret Active
Z Society 1892 Secret Active
Seven Society[41] 1905 Secret Active
IMP Society (Hot Feet) 1913 Semisecret Active
Purple Shadows[42] 1963 Secret Active
P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Society[27][43] ca. 1967 Secret Active
Rotunda Burning Society[35][37] betw. 1974 and 1993 Secret Active
Society of the Dawn[30] speculated 1984 Secret Active
A.N.G.E.L.S. Society[44] 1998 Secret Active
21 Society[33][34] 1999 Secret Active
The Six Column Society[45] 2001 Secret Active
Sons and Daughters of Liberty[46] bef. 2005 Secret Active
Order of the Claw and Dagger[38] bef. 2007 Secret Active
The Order[47] 2010 Secret Active
Children of the Quad[48] 2013 Secret Active

See also[edit]

References[edit]

General references[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Patton (1906), 235.
  2. ^ a b Patton (1906), 237.
  3. ^ Bruce, III:167.
  4. ^ Bruce, IV:95-96.
  5. ^ Bruce, IV:99-100.
  6. ^ Theta Delta Chi, ed. (1897). The Shield: Official Publication of the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity. Theta Delta Chi. p. 209. 
  7. ^ Domagal, Jennifer (2002). "Keeping Secrets: Student Secret Societies in Historical Context". The Vermont Connection 23: 62–70. 
  8. ^ Dabney, 37-38.
  9. ^ Bruce, IV:99, 339-340.
  10. ^ Dabney, 89-90, 305.
  11. ^ "Virginia U. Band and Glee Club Put Songs 'On the Record'". Washington Post. 1951-04-22. pp. L7. 
  12. ^ Dabney, 123.
  13. ^ Dabney, 398.
  14. ^ Dabney, 595.
  15. ^ Meeks, Brett (2004-11-23). "Ribbons and Trashcans". Cavalier Daily. 
  16. ^ http://uvamagazine.org/articles/wrapped_in_mystery
  17. ^ http://wuvaonline.com/bananas-back-town-secret-societies-making-comeback/
  18. ^ Hay, Jr., James (1915). "The Honor Men". In Patton, John S.; Doswell, Sallie J.; Crenshaw, Lewis D. Jefferson's University: Glimpses of the Past and Present of the University of Virginia. Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company. p. 98. 
  19. ^ Dabney, 501.
  20. ^ Steer, Jay (1968-09-11). "Noted For Eccentricity, Mysteriousness: Societies Beneficial to University". Cavalier Daily. 
  21. ^ "One-Horned Purple Trust Eaters". Cavalier Daily. 2007-04-23. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  22. ^ Kyle, Patti (1971-10-26). "Whatever Happened To The Dean Of Women?". Cavalier Daily. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  23. ^ Lee, Patrick (2007-10-29). "Illuminating the Shadows". Cavalier Daily. 
  24. ^ Breece, Jon (2004). "Traditional Changes". Cavalier Daily. Archived from the original on 2007-10-16. 
  25. ^ Martinez, Patrick (2007-11-05). "People Power (letter)". Cavalier Daily. Archived from the original on 2008-04-19. 
  26. ^ "Pumpkins Planted". Cavalier Daily. 1967-11-01. 
  27. ^ a b "P.U.M.P.K.I.N.'s To Make Yearly Roll". Cavalier Daily. 1970-10-30. 
  28. ^ "P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Power". Cavalier Daily. 2000-11-01. 
  29. ^ "Letter of Recognition Sent to Professor Mark Sherriff". 
  30. ^ a b Bower, Jordan (2013-04-26). "Sevens and IMPs and Zs, oh my!". Cavalier Daily. p. 6. 
  31. ^ Mason, Margaret (2014-04-27). "Best New CIO: Futures in Fashion Association". Cavalier Daily. p. 5. 
  32. ^ http://uvamagazine.org/articles/wrapped_in_mystery
  33. ^ a b Strassler, Doug (1999-07-08). "21 Society debuts at University in secrecy". Cavalier Daily. 
  34. ^ a b "An inspired gift". Cavalier Daily. 2005-02-14. Archived from the original on 2008-07-09. 
  35. ^ a b Fuchs, Michael (October 1993). "Quotes III". loQtus. Retrieved 2008-05-16. 
  36. ^ Dates for the Rotunda Burning Society: the organization did not mention a merit in Dabney's Mr. Jefferson's University, covering the University's history to 1974, but is cited in the form of a quotation from its "assistant fire marshall" in the Fuchs source from 1993.
  37. ^ a b Cooper, Patricia (2003-09-04). "A Mark to Remember". Cavalier Daily. 
  38. ^ a b "CommerceUVA". Fall 2007. p. 32. Retrieved 2010-10-04. 
  39. ^ Rourke, Sarah (2013-10-21). "Secret O.W.L. Society sends letter, revives society for first time in decades". Cavalier Daily. Retrieved 2013-10-22. 
  40. ^ Bruce, IV:97-99, 338.
  41. ^ Dabney, 305-306.
  42. ^ Barron, James (2005-01-16). "Keeping Secrets". New York Times. 
  43. ^ Dabney, 502.
  44. ^ "Rethink Lawn selection, end application process". Cavalier Daily. 2001-11-13. 
  45. ^ "Secrets and Lies". Cavalier Daily. 2002-11-07. 
  46. ^ Hoffman, Laura (2008-04-17). "Sons of Liberty will issue apologies for recent prank". Cavalier Daily. Retrieved 2008-04-17. 
  47. ^ "About The Order". 
  48. ^ "The Bananas are Back in Town: Are Secret Societies Making a Comeback?".