Known as “the Order” to its initiates and housed in a windowless crypt known as “the Tomb,” the Skull and Bones is the oldest and most prestigious of Yale’s secret societies. Each year since its founding by William H. Russell and Alphonso Taft in 1832, fifteen juniors are selected, or “tapped,” to become members in their senior year.
Given its almost frighteningly elite honor roll of members, and its long trail of rumors and exposés, the Skull and Bones has been said to run everything from the Bavarian Illuminati and the New World Order, to the CIA and the East Coast establishment.
But whatever conspiratorial designs one wishes to believe about this quite real secret society, the Skull and Bones has long fulfilled its critical role of, in Ron Rosenbaum’s words, “converting the idle progeny of the ruling class into morally serious leaders of the establishment.”
Secrets of “the Order”
It is said that members are required to leave the room if they are ever asked about the Skull and Bones. Nevertheless, lists of its most illustrious members are readily available. They include political leaders such as the only president to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, William Howard Taft; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Henry Lewis Stimson; and three members of the Bush clan: Prescott, George, Sr., and George W. Bush.
Yale has long been the center of CIA recruitment, and a large segment of America’s foreign policy and intelligence establishment has been shaped by Bonesmen, including Kennedy’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy and his brother William, who was a leader of both the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations; Hugh Cunningham, former director of Clandestine Services for the CIA; and Dino Pionzio, the CIA station chief in Chile during the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Skull and Bones members continue to be connected to every “insider” and potentially sinister international society, including the Bilderberg group and the Trilateral Commission.
In the world of business, the Skull and Bones not only operates several major investment and law firms including Brown Brothers Harriman, but their members include Averell Harriman, Dean Witter, Harold Stanley, and Thomas Daniels, founder of ADM (a large agricultural company). Other prominent Bonesmen include TimeLife founder and media tycoon Henry Luce and conservative pundit William F. Buckley.
Although its membership has been overwhelmingly of a WASP-Republican type, the Skull and Bones was openminded enough to tap its first African American member in 1949; its first Jewish members in the 1950s; and includes among its members the gay, socialist literary critic F. O. Mathiessen, anti-Vietnam activist William Sloane Coffin, and novelist John Hersey (author of Hiroshima and The Conspiracy).
The rites of membership are among the Skull and Bones’ most coveted secrets. It remains largely a matter of conjecture whether or not the tapped are forced to lie naked in a coffin, or what lies behind the “Mystery of 322” (322 is supposedly the society’s magic number, and also the number of the room that forms the inner sanctum). Yet stories of the confessional and intensely intimate nature of the initiation rituals have been widely confirmed.
Initiation is said to consist of marathon sessions in which members tell their new brothers their life stories and provide, in excruciating detail, a complete record of their most private sexual experiences. The contents of the Tomb itself are also a source of mystery: it is widely believed that Skull and Bones possesses the skulls of Geronimo (procured by Prescott Bush) and Pancho Villa, both of which have caused public controversy.
Among the rumored perks of membership is a $15,000, no-strings-attached gift, plus a promise that members will receive an income for life. For fun and relaxation of the most exclusive kind, the Skull and Bones maintains a members-only island resort in the St. Lawrence River that is the site of their annual retreats.
But more than their undergraduate bonding in the crypt, the real benefits of membership in the Order come after graduation, through the society’s vast network of connections and contacts within the U.S. ruling class. It is, of course, here that the Skull and Bones ceases to be an old and silly college fraternity and transmogrifies into what many believe to be a nearly omnipotent conspiracy.
Barbarians at the Gates
The Skull and Bones may have many traditions that remain secret, but this is not due to a lack of trying by curious and rebellious outsiders (referred to as “barbarians” by Bonesmen). The first “raid” of the Skull and Bones tomb occurred on 29 September 1876 when a small group, mockingly calling itself the “Order of the File and Claw,” managed to break into the “sanctum sanctorum.”
Inside they found occult symbols, plenty of skulls and bones, portraits of the founders, and strange German slogans about death and such (from which John Birch Society types have concluded that the Skull and Bones is, in fact, the second house of the Bavarian Illuminati).
The second major rash of break-ins occurred nearly a century later as waves of radicalism and feminism swept over the Yale campus, leaving the impression that the Skull and Bones was simply a WASPish boys’ club irreparably in decline. John Pogue, the writer and producer of the 2000 film The Skulls, claimed to have infiltrated the Tomb during his days as a Yale student in the 1980s.
And in the latest violation of its sacred rituals, a team of students armed with a night-vision camera and climbing equipment managed to capture videotape footage of the Skull and Bones’ melodramatic initiation rites, filled with shrieking and mock violence in which a member dressed up as George W. Bush can be heard saying, “I’m gonna kill you like I did Al Gore!”
During George H. W. Bush’s run for the presidency in 1988, Bob Woodward (a member of competing Yale secret society Book and Snake) managed to find several of Bush’s fellow Bonesmen who were willing to talk openly about “the Order,” including several (nonsexual) details of Bush’s life-story confessions.
These members revealed that one of the two men who were killed when Bush’s plane was shot down in World War II was a member of Skull and Bones, and that Bush grieved deeply for years with this knowledge.
As the first oil baron turned CIA director to become president, Bush could not shake the establishment aura of Yale and the Skull and Bones, and during his reelection bid in 1992, the reactionary-populist Pat Buchanan accused Bush of “running a Skull and Bones presidency.”
However, no such slights or loose lips could be found when it came time for the New Haven–born Texan George W. Bush to make his bid for the White House. In one campaign interview, George W. refused to publicly admit that he was a member and claimed not to know if the society still existed.
However, it is widely rumored around the Yale campus that George W. had his 1968 class of Skull and Bones as guests in the White House shortly after the inauguration to thank them for their assistance and their silence. One can only imagine what they might recall from his “bright college years.”
In 1991 another break-in of sorts occurred when the Skull and Bones engaged in a semipublic debate over the admission of women. Given the highly sexualized nature of the initiation rituals and the masculine bonding that members believe gives the Order its cohesion and loyalty, many members bitterly opposed the inclusion of women. However, the Bonesmen finally voted to admit women, with an as yet unknown modification to their rites and rituals.
At the start of the twenty-first century, with a member in the White House, the Skull and Bones continues to recruit a mix of the well-bred (George W.’s daughter Barbara is certain to be tapped) with the most forward thinking and brightest campus leaders, thereby continuing to fulfill its self-ascribed mission of reproducing the U.S. ruling class.