Jump to content

Skull and Bones

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Skull and Bones
The emblem of Skull and Bones
Founded1832; 192 years ago (1832)
Yale University
TypeSecret society
Members2,800+ lifetime
The Order
Order 322
The Brotherhood of Death
Headquarters64 High Street
New Haven, Connecticut 06511
United States

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.

Skull and Bones is considered one of the "Big Three" societies at Yale University; the other are Scroll and Key and Wolf's Head.[1] The society is known informally as "Bones", and members are known as "Bonesmen", "Members of The Order" or "Initiated to The Order".[2]


The tomb before the addition of a second wing
A 2009 view of the tomb from across High Street

19th century


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.[3] 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 thirteen other members.[5] Alternative names for Skull and Bones are The Order, Order 322 and The Brotherhood of Death.[6]

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]

In a 1974 book, 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]

Since its founding, Skull and Bones annually selects 15 members of the junior class to join the society.[10] Skull and Bones selects new members among students every spring as part of Yale University's "Tap Day", and has done so since 1879. It taps those that it views as campus leaders and other notable figures for its membership.

20th century


In the 1960s, secret societies adapted in response to criticism for elitism and discrimination. Skull and Bones admitted its first black member in 1965, and the president of Yale's gay student organization in 1975.[11]

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.[12]

The class of 1991 tapped seven female members for membership in the next year's class, causing conflict with the alumni association.[13] The trust changed the locks on the Tomb and the Bonesmen instead met in the Manuscript Society building.[13] 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.[13][14] 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.[13][15] A second alumni vote, in October 1991, agreed to accept the Class of 1992, and the lawsuit was dropped.[13][16][17]

21st century


In recent years, Skull and Bones, like other elite Yale institutions, "utterly transformed", according to The Atlantic. The society tapped its first entirely non-white class in 2020. Few descendants of alumni get in, and progressive activism is an asset. The class of 2021 admitted no conservatives.[11]

Symbols and traditions


The society's badge is gold and consists of a skull that is supported by crossed bones, with the number 322 on the lower jaw.[10] Its members worshipped Eulogia, a fictional goddess of eloquence.[18]

The number "322" appears in Skull and Bones' insignia and is widely reported to be significant as the year of Greek orator Demosthenes' death.[16][19][5] A letter between early society members in Yale's archives[20] suggests that 322 is a reference to the year 322 BC and that members measure dates from this year instead of from the anno domini. 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."[21]

One legend is that the number represents "founded in '32, 2nd corps", referring to a first Corps in an unknown German university.[22][23] Another possible reference of 322 is the Freemasonic Lodge of Virtue and Silence no. 322, in Suffolk, UK, signaling a fraternal but unspoken sponsorship between the two "secret society" organizations, regarding which silence is considered virtuous. Lodge 322 was founded in 1811,[24] 21 years before the creation of the Skull and Bones association in 1832.



Skull and Bones has a reputation for stealing keepsakes from other Yale societies or campus buildings; society members reportedly call the practice "crooking" and strive to outdo each other's "crooks".[25][26] The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of Martin Van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa.[27][28][17][26] In January 2010, Christie's auctioned a human skull with links to Skull and Bones.[29]





The Skull and Bones Hall, located at 64 High St. in New Haven, Connecticut, is otherwise known as the "Tomb". 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.[30] 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.

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 about its neighbors, including the Yale University Art Gallery.[30] In the late 1990s, New Hampshire landscape architects Saucier and Flynn designed the wrought iron fence that surrounds a portion of the complex.[31]

Deer Island


The society owns and manages Deer Island, an island retreat on the St. Lawrence River (44°21′33″N 75°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 allow Bonesmen 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."

William Huntington Russell, namesake of the Russell Trust Association

Bonesmen spend a week in the late summer getting to know each other at Deer Island.[11]

Russell Trust Association


The Russell Trust Association is the business name of Skull and Bones Society.[32][33][3] It was incorporated in 1856 by William Huntington Russell as president and Daniel Coit Gilman as treasurer.[33][32][34] The association holds the society's assets, including its endowment and property, and oversees property upkeep.[33][35]

According to its 2016 filing with the IRS, the Russell Trust Association, filing as RTA Incorporated, has assets of $3,906,458, including Deer Island and the Skull and Bones Hall.[36]

As of 2024, the organization had an endowment of $17 million.[11]

Notable members

Yearbook listing of Skull and Bones members for 1920, including Briton Hadden and Henry Luce, who co-founded Time magazine in 1923

Skull and Bones' membership developed a reputation in association with the "power elite".[37] 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-serviceman; 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's membership was almost exclusively limited to white Protestant men for much of its history. While Yale had exclusionary policies directed at particular ethnic and religious groups, the senior societies were even more exclusionary.[38][39] While some Catholics were able to join such groups, Jews were more often not.[39] Some of these excluded groups eventually entered Skull and Bones using 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), although Jackson declined the tap, instead electing to join Berzelius.[38]

Judith Ann Schiff, Chief Research Archivist at the Yale University Library, has written: "The names of its members weren't kept secret‍—‌that was an innovation of the 1970s‍—‌but its meetings and practices were."[40] While resourceful researchers could assemble member data from these 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 fifteen 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 presidents William Howard Taft (a founder's son), George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.[29] In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were members of Skull and Bones. When asked what it meant that he and George W. Bush were both Bonesmen, former presidential candidate John Kerry said, "Not much, because it's a secret."[41][42]

Members are assigned nicknames. Examples include "Long Devil", the tallest member, "Boaz", a varsity football captain, or "Sherrife", prince of the 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".[19]


Literature and print

  • Tom Wolfe mentions Skull and Bones in his 1976 book, The Me Decade, writing, "At Yale the students on the outside wondered for 80 years what went on inside the fabled secret senior societies, such as Skull and Bones. On Thursday nights one would see the secret society members walking silently and single file, in black flannel suits, white shirts, and black knit ties with gold pins on them, toward their great Greek Revival temples on the campus, buildings whose mystery was doubled by the fact that they had no windows."[43]
  • Skull and Bones have been satirized from time to time in the Doonesbury comic strips by Garry Trudeau, Yale graduate and Scroll and Key member. There are overt references, especially in 1980 and December 1988, concerning George H. W. Bush, and again when the society first admitted women.[44]
  • 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."[45]


  • The Skulls (2000) and The Skulls II (2002) films are based on the conspiracy theories surrounding Skull and Bones.[46] A third film, The Skulls III (2004), is based on the first woman to be "tapped" to join the society.
  • In The Good Shepherd (2006) the protagonist becomes a member of Skull and Bones while studying at Yale.[47]
  • In Baz Luhrmann's 2013 film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway calls Tom Buchanan Boaz. Tom in turn calls Nick Shakespeare. Nick said earlier that he met Tom at Yale. It is thereby implied that they were in Skull and Bones together.[26] In the novel, Yale is not explicitly mentioned (rather, they were at college in New Haven together) and it is only stated that they were in the same senior society.[48]


  • In Season 1, Episode 33 of the 1966 Batman TV series, "Fine Finny Fiends" there is a gathering at Wayne Manor during which one guest points out a portrait of Bruce Wayne's great-grandfather wearing a Yale sweater. He asks if it is true that Bruce's ancestor was tapped for Skull and Bones, to which Aunt Harriet replies that he was not tapped for it, but "he founded Skull and Bones!"[49][26]
  • In The Simpsons season 8 episode "The Canine Mutiny" (1997), after doing a secret handshake with a dog, Mr. Burns says: "I believe this dog was in Skull and Bones".
  • In Family Guy episode, "No Chris Left Behind", (2007) when Chris Griffin is being bullied by the richer students at Morningwood Academy, Lois Griffin asks her father, Carter Pewterschmidt, to help Chris. So Carter invites Chris to join Skull and Bones with the other students, who begin to accept him. As part of his initiation, Carter and Chris adopt an orphan and lock him out of the car, which is filled with toys and a puppy, and then drive away when he is unable to get in. At the initiation ceremony, Carter tells Chris that he must spend "Seven minutes in heaven" with their most senior member, Herbert. Chris feels uncomfortable about joining and convinces Carter to help him get back into his old school.
  • On Meet The Press, Tim Russert asked both President George W. 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?"[50][51]
  • In The Simpsons season 28 episode "The Caper Chase" (2017), Mr. Burns visits the Skull and Bones society to meet with Bourbon Verlander about for-profit universities.
  • In Gossip Girl season 2 episode "New Heaven Can Wait" (2008), Chuck Bass is kidnapped by Skull and Bones members while visiting Yale. They make him pass a series of tests to assess his loyalty as they think Chuck is the ideal Skull and Bones candidate. Chuck eventually declines the offer and tricks them into performing illegal acts while filming them in order to have blackmail leverage in case he ever needs something from them in the future.

Conspiracy theories


Skull and Bones is featured in books and movies which claim that the society plays a role in a global conspiracy for world control.[18] 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,[22][dubiousdiscuss] or that Skull and Bones controls the CIA.[52]

See also



  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. ^ a b c "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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b Baird, Wm. Raimond, ed. (1883). American College Fraternities (2nd ed.). New York: Frank Williams. p. 196. hdl:2027/hvd.hn4g6y – via Hathi Trust.
  11. ^ a b c d Horowitch, Rose (January 11, 2024). "Skull and Bones and Equity and Inclusion". The Atlantic. Retrieved January 12, 2024.
  12. ^ Robbins, pp. 152–159
  13. ^ a b c d e Andrew Cedotal, Rattling those dry bones, Yale Daily News, April 18, 2006.
  14. ^ "Yale Alumni Block Women in Secret Club". New York Times. September 6, 1991. Retrieved February 28, 2009.
  15. ^ Semple, Robert B. Jr. (April 18, 1991). "High Noon on High Street". New York Times. Retrieved February 28, 2009.
  16. ^ a b Hevesi, Dennis (October 26, 1991). "Shh! Yale's Skull and Bones Admits Women". New York Times. Retrieved February 28, 2009.
  17. ^ a b Leuing, Rebecca (October 2, 2003). "Skull And Bones". CBS News. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  18. ^ a b Stephey, M. J. (February 23, 2009). "A Brief History of the Skull & Bones Society". Time. Archived from the original on February 26, 2009.
  19. ^ a b Robbins, Alexandra (May 2000). "George W., Knight of Eulogia". The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved November 5, 2017.
  20. ^ "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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ a b Robbins, Alexandra. Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. Back Bay Books, 2003.
  23. ^ "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.
  24. ^ "Provincial Grand Lodge of Suffolk - Lodge of Virtue and Silence 332". www.suffolkpgl.org.uk. Retrieved February 14, 2024.
  25. ^ Lassila; Branch (2006). "Whose skull and bones?" (PDF). Yale Alumni Magazine: 20–22.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  26. ^ a b c d Landrigan, Leslie (September 17, 2018). "Skull and Bones, or 7 Fast Facts About Yale's Secret Society". New England Historical Society. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ Citro, Joseph A. (2005). Weird New England (illustrated ed.). Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. pp. 270–71. ISBN 1-4027-3330-5.
  29. ^ a b "Skull linked to secret Yale society to be sold". NBC News. January 5, 2010. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  30. ^ a b Yale University 1999 Princeton Architectural Press, ISBN 1-56898-167-8 Google Books
  31. ^ "Scull and Bones". Saucierflynn.com. Archived from the original on September 18, 2007.
  32. ^ a b Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League, and The Hidden Paths To Power Alexandra Robbins, published in 2002 by Little, Brown and Company ISBN 0-316-72091-7, p. 56
  33. ^ a b c "Collection: Russell Trust Association Records". Archives at Yale University. Retrieved September 7, 2023.
  34. ^ "Skull and Bones". Britannica. August 22, 2023. Retrieved September 7, 2023.
  35. ^ Reynolds, Bruce L. (July 2015). "More secrets of the Tomb". Yale Alumni Magazine. Retrieved September 7, 2023.
  36. ^ RTS Incorporated IRS Form 990: Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax, 2016. February 1, 2018. via GuideStar.
  37. ^ Leung, Rebecca (June 13, 2004). "Skull And Bones: Secret Yale Society Includes America's Power Elite". CBS News. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
  38. ^ a b 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.
  39. ^ a b Karabel, Jerome (2005). The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 53–36.
  40. ^ Yalealumnimagazine.com Archived April 4, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  41. ^ 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.
  42. ^ Meet the PressGoogle Video
  43. ^ Wolfe, Tom (August 23, 1976). "The "Me" Decade and the Third Great Awakening". New York Magazine.
  44. ^ Soper, Kerry (2008). Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 25, 42. ISBN 978-1-934110-89-8.
  45. ^ Bush, George W. (1999). A Charge to Keep. William Morrow and Co. ISBN 0-688-17441-8.
  46. ^ Ebert, Roger. (July 10, 2013) The Skulls Movie Review & Film Summary (2000) | Roger Ebert. Rogerebert.suntimes.com. Retrieved on 2013-07-15.
  47. ^ Beaupre, Mitchell (December 22, 2021). "This Is America: How The Good Shepherd Examined the Rot at the Core of a Country". Paste Magazine. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  48. ^ "The Great Gatsby". Publicbookshelf.com. Archived from the original on April 7, 2014.
  49. ^ Kidd, Chip (March 2011). "Holy Eli, Batman!". Yale Alumni Magazine. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  50. ^ NBC News (February 13, 2004). "Transcript for Feb. 8th". msnbc.com. Retrieved January 21, 2020.
  51. ^ NBC News (April 18, 2004). "Transcript for April 18". msnbc.com. Retrieved January 21, 2020.
  52. ^ 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.

Further reading