Or so they say.
I need a break from all the depressing news about the food crisis, corruption scandals and all the other distressing events during these most interesting of times, and want to write about something of little relevance but has fascinated me for years.
While surfing the web for a recent post on Bataan Day, I came across the Wikipedia page of Henry L. Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War during the second world war and former Governor-General of the Philippines. It says that Stimson was a member of Skull and Bones, a Yale University secret society that is reputed to be the most wealthy and influential band of brothers (and since 1992, sisters) in the U.S.
This is the delicious stuff of conspiracy theories, and I’ve had an avid interest in secret brotherhoods and fraternities for decades. Few stories are more compelling than that of Skull and Bones.
The secret society, in a small and indirect way, is also intertwined with our history. Two American Governor-Generals, Stimson (1927-1929) and the popular William Howard Taft (1901-1903), were Bonesmen. Stimson, an unapologetic hawk and colonialist, was a strong opponent of granting independence to the Philippines, finding Fliipinos “not fitted for the responsibilities that go with independence and still less fitted for popular self-government” . On hindsight, he was not far off the mark.
And in as much as the direction of U.S. foreign policy is determined by the occupants of the White House, we are all affected in ways big and small by S & B members who became American Presidents, from William Howard Taft to George W. Bush.
I first heard of Skull and Bones in a 1977 article in Esquire magazine written by Ron Rosenbaum, a former Yalie who was never “tapped” or selected by any of Yale University’s famed secret societies and who, out of envy, spite or just plain curiosity, has made a lucrative career of exposing the dark conspiracies which forever threaten our cherished freedoms. Says Rosenbaum of his obsession with Skull and Bones:
I think there is a deep and legitimate distrust in America for power and privilege that are cloaked in secrecy. It’s not supposed to be the way we do things. We’re supposed to do things out in the open in America. And so that any society or institution that hints that there is something hidden is, I think, a legitimate subject for investigation.
Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 by Alphonso Taft (father of the pudgy Bonesman William Howard, 27th President of the United States) and William H. Russell, both of the class of 1833. The Order was incorporated in 1856 under the name “Russell Trust Association”, which continues to legally handle the society’s endowments running into the millions of dollars.
Skull and Bones is not a fraternity in the conventional sense, where members are free to join at any time during their college life, but a senior society. Only fifteen members of an incoming senior class are chosen or “tapped” for membership each year. The batch or “cohort” are brought as a group to the appropriately named Tomb, the imposing, windowless sepulchral structure that houses the society, for initiation rites cum bonding sessions.
Initiates are reportedly made to lie in a coffin where he/she is required to reveal to the members and their fellow neophytes their deepest, darkest secrets while masturbating. They are then chanted over, the traditional mumbo-jumbo of initiations everywhere, after which they are given robes with esoteric markings, symbolizing their “rebirth” into the society. They are plunged into a mud pile, probably symbolizing the unity of the cohort as one primordial unit. Effectively, each individual batch is a society within a society.
They are afterwards given their secret society names and , naturally, sworn to never reveal the secrets of Skull & Bones under pain of death or worse, like expulsion from the singular group which promises to open many doors of power and privilege to the select few. It is said each new member is also given US$15,000 as a gift and a Breitling watch.
Skull and Bones is the only secret society known to have a summer retreat in its own private island, Deer Island , in the St. Lawrence River between Canada and the United States.
Members meet every Thursday and Sunday night of their senior academic year at the Tomb, it is said, to confide with one another and bare everything to their bros and sis, including intimate sexual histories. Upon graduation, they become “patriarchs”- lifetime members of the ultimate old boys’ club. Tradition has it that, in order to be true to their oath of silence, whenever “Skull and Bones” is mentioned in a conversation, any true-blue Bonesman present would be obliged to leave the room.
Skull & Bones, like clandestine groups everywhere, revel in death symbolisms. This certainly adds to the drama of initiation and membership. The skull and crossed bones are a common image in Freemasonry and other secret orders, dating back to ancient times. So are knives, swords, hooded cloaks and other death images or implements. Even our own revolutionary Katipunan freely borrowed these and other Masonic symbols.
But Skull and Bones initiation rites appear to be a walk in the park in comparison to the Greek-letter fraternities, particularly in the Philippines . No brutal hazing for these preppies. Certainly, no one has ever died while under initiation in the Tomb. According to former Yalie and investigative journalist Alexandra Robbins, who wrote the book “Secrets of the Tomb”, in an interview with CBS’ Morley Safer, a typical initiation would involve a lot of shrieking and role playing, a scene right out of Harry Potter meets Dracula:
There is a devil, a Don Quixote and a Pope who has one foot sheathed in a white monogrammed slipper resting on a stone skull. The initiates are led into the room one at a time. And once an initiate is inside, the Bonesmen shriek at him. Finally, the Bonesman (to be) is shoved to his knees in front of Don Quixote as the shrieking crowd falls silent. And Don Quixote lifts his sword and taps the Bonesman on his left shoulder and says, ‘By order of our order, I dub thee knight of Euloga.’”
It’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo but it means a lot to the people who are in it.
The Skull and Bones Tomb is rumored to hold the skull of the famous Apache chief, Geronimo, which inspired Native American activist and Apache leader Ned Anderson to try to force a search and a DNA test. He faced many obstacles. The skull, and other items, including Geronimo’s prized silver bridle, was stolen in 1918 by then Yale student Prescott Bush, former Connecticut Senator, father of President George H. W. Bush and grandfather to President George W. Bush, from its federal burial ground at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and presented it as a gift to the society. The stolen items are supposedly used in rituals practiced by the group, one of which is said to be kissing the skull of Geronimo as an initiation. The Tomb is rumored to hold the skulls of Pancho Villa and Che Guevara as well.
But is Skull and Bones at the heart of a secret cabal out to rule the world ?
Certainly, the society has more than its share of connections within the American power elite. If you’re a Rockefeller, Bush, Buckley, Pillsbury or have the surname of any one of the few dozen families that comprise the old American establishment and you study in Yale, you’re definitely S & B material. And its members have consistently risen to positions of great power, most recently and notably, father and son George H.W. Bush (’48) and George W. Bush (’68). Others have become cabinet officers, top-level spies (it’s no coincidence that the term “spook” for a clandestine operative is also the term for members of Yale’s secret societies) , Supreme Court justices, captains of finance and industry, and often their sons and lately their daughters, an unparalleled social and political network. In 2004, the world saw the U.S. presidency being fought over by two Bonesmen, Democrat John Kerry (’66) and the eventual winner, George W. Bush. Notable S & B alumni include W. Averell Harriman, diplomat, statesman and confidant of U.S. presidents, publisher Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, cold warriors William Bundy and McGeorge Bundy, author and conservative journalist William F. Buckley and Doonsebury creator Garry Trudeau. Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s top financial adviser, Austan “the Ghoul” Goolsbee (’91), is a Bonesman.
Despite its unquestionable clout, Skull and Bones is not quite at the vortex of an insidious plot for world domination, as conspiracy theorists would like to believe. As it turns out, it’s just another college fraternity trying to propagate itself. And its days as a conduit of power and privilege may well be numbered.
The Eastern establishment, the core community from which S & B draws its members, is in decline. The power and money which drives the U.S. has shifted to the West, and the new center of the universe is not Wall Street but Silicon Valley. New technologies, a new social order and a new power elite has risen just south of San Francisco. Like the old movie, the “The Revenge of the Nerds”, but for real.
And in the age of information technology, a secret society is an anachronism. There are no secrets which will not be revealed, sooner or later. Pretty soon, there will be no secrets worth keeping.
Skull and Bones, in particular, has been slow to adjust to the changing times, a possibly fatal flaw to its long-term survival. It had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century and has still not quite caught up with the 21st.
While it began admitting Jews in the early Fifties and tapped its first blacks in 1949, and added gay members in the Seventies, it refused to admit women until well into the Nineties, shutting out the abilities and potential contributions of half the population. Recounts Alexandra Robbins:
Skull and Bones narrowly endorsed admitting women. The day before these women were supposed to be initiated, a group of Bonesmen, including William F. Buckley, obtained a court order to block the initiation claiming that letting women into the tomb would lead to date rape. Again more legal wrangling; finally it came down to another vote and women were admitted and initiated.
Even now, women will be hard-pressed to adjust to the Order’s misogynist traditions. How can any self-respecting woman, for example, go through the initiation rites and the requisite confessions of past sexual experiences to a bunch of strange guys, without feeling violated ? This may be why presidential daughter Barbara Bush (’04), a 4th generation legacy from what is arguably the most powerful political family in the U.S., rejected Skull and Bones for a newer and obscure secret society called Sage and Chalice.
And there’s the backlash against the elitism and snobbery that characterizes the secret society system. Globalization has made New Haven much less parochial, and Yale’s present multiculturalism is less enamored of a predominantly white old boys’ club.
As expressed by Niko Bowie, a Yale undergrad writing for the Yale Daily News:
I’ve learned from Yale’s more cultured set to look for groups that don’t “self-segregate”. I may go to Yale, but that doesn’t mean I need be programmed to seek out hierarchies, cocktail parties and dead white guys. One day, something socially beneficial might come out of that trifecta. Until then, I’ll try to share my power, not just my secrets, by working for good causes in open, egalitarian environments.
Because if you really want to make new friends, I don’t think the first place you should look is in a tomb. You may, unfortunately, have to go outside.
Of course, the best and the brightest, like former Yale president (1963-77) Kingman Brewster, Jr., really have little need for the exclusivity and weirdness of a secret society. As was said of Brewster:
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, “Skull and Bones, do you accept ?”
“‘Reject,’ said Brewster calmly, which may explain why students today refer to their president very simply as ‘stud.'”