Book of Revelation

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M aybe you’ve noticed them. Maybe you haven’t. Their facades often seem intended to blend with their ivied surroundings. You can pass by many times before you realize something odd: most have no windows, and you’ve rarely if ever seen anyone entering or leaving.

They’re the “tombs” of Yale’s senior societies, better known as secret societies. Bearing provocative names—Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Wolf’s Head and others—they’re often portrayed in melodrama or myth. But a recently published history promises a deeper dig into their “hidden world,” to explore how these elite organizations “have fundamentally shaped America’s cultural and political landscapes” and to bring to light a surprising “progressive side… that we rarely hear about,” according to the jacket copy.

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David Alan Richards’s Skulls and Keys: The Hidden History of Yale’s Secret Societies (2017), available via Amazon and Barnes & Noble, is an exhaustive 821-page tome that may seem as impenetrable as Skull and Bones’s brownstone fortress on High Street near Chapel. (Richards apparently had even more to say; his “director’s cut” of the text is housed in the Manuscripts and Archives area of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.) For outsiders who might press their noses against the societies’ windows—if only more of them had windows—here’s a brief chronology and other tidbits:

• The idea to found a secret society was inspired by a college prank. William Huntington Russell, class of 1833, scared some classmates by appearing “draped to personate a ghost with a white sheet closely wrapped around his head and body,” as quoted from the memoir of one of those classmates.

• The first secret society, Skull and Bones, was founded in 1832 when Phi Beta Kappa (imported from the College of William and Mary) shed its own mantle of secrecy.

• The second, Scroll and Key, was founded in 1842 after members of two rival junior fraternities refused to come together as “brothers” when elected to Skull and Bones.

• A “mock society” known as Bull and Stones was active mid-century with the sole aim of disrupting the business of Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key by, among other pranks, breaking into the Bones tomb, stealing their food deliveries, “[stretching] wires across the known path by which the Keys members returned to their rooms, to make them stumble and fall” and generally provoking them.

• Membership is offered in the spring on “Tap Day,” which has taken on many different forms and rituals. Early on, juniors waited in their rooms for an offer of membership. Later, elections were held “in an open college courtyard where spectators could see not only the winners in the process, but the losers at their moment of disappointment and humiliation.” Both methods were controversial and led to numerous“reforms” in the 20th century.

• A 1912 “riot” on campus featured juniors locking “the Vanderbilt Hall gates against the members of the three societies returning after midnight from their regular Thursday meetings, forcing them to gain entry to their rooms by clambering over the gates, which had been slathered with glue.”

• “Underground” societies were formed after World War II to allow more students to participate. They kept the names of their members private, took no public moniker and minimized ritual.

• A bomb was set off in front of the Bones tomb just before Tap Day, 1950. No one was injured, and no one ever claimed responsibility.

• Secret societies reportedly lost some of their cachet amid the tumult of the late 1960s. Richards quotes a Yale professor in the Yale Daily News asking whether “those who would save Biafra, help the Hill, reorganize the curriculum, resist the draft, stop the war, feed the migrant fruit pickers, get rid of neckties in the dining halls and parietal hours, bring in coeds and enshrine Che… would also like to join a secret society?”

• Alumni of Yale’s secret societies include both Bush presidents, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, six secretaries of state, two Supreme Court justices, three attorneys general and six presidents of Yale. Richards also claims that “at least into the early twentieth century,” some 80 percent of Yale faculty were Skull and Bones alumni.

Though these societies are sometimes viewed as mere social clubs, they were originally founded, Richards writes, with the purpose of “self-education.” Meetings focused on subjects not taught in the classroom such as “extemporaneous speech,” “European science” and “sessions of personal revelation and examination, [which remain] the primary thematic program of most of them today.”

There was also plenty of “drinking, smoking, card-playing or singing” and the infamous “crooking,” which involved stealing important college memorabilia for display in the society’s rooms. Throughout their history, the societies’ element of secrecy—maintained via “codes and ciphers,” election methods, places of meeting, initiation traditions and so on—was commonly seen as “childish,” Richards notes, by those on the outside.

But Richards gives the secret societies credit for diversifying their populations far ahead of the university and the world at large. “They tapped for their exclusive groups social castes barred from entry into the uppermost reaches of American society, long before their elders in the Yale administration—and similarly in the United States—elevated Jews, blacks, gays and women to similar positions of prominence,” he writes. Richards also defends the secret societies from contemporary criticisms he deems unfair: “Their detractors in the post-1960s hammered the societies for their small membership, their private tombs, their accumulated wealth and their refusal to admit guests, demanding the fulfillment of purposes of social service, philanthropy and public entertainment to which the societies never aspired, and which none of them had ever promised to anyone.”

Readers looking for details of dark secrets or mysterious rituals won’t find them in the pages of Skulls and Keys. Rather, Richards records a sort of public-interest history of these organizations from the time of their founding to what he calls the “decline of elites” in the 1970s and ’80s. He’ll be speaking about his book and the topic of secret societies at the New Haven Museum on April 24 at 6 p.m.

Though once known for their exclusivity, today the secret societies—Richards counts 47—are populated with more than half of the seniors in Yale College. Nine of the societies have their own tombs, but by and large, Yale seems mostly unimpressed. During an afternoon visit, the sidewalk in front of Scroll and Key, striped in light and dark stone next to Woolsey Hall, was teeming with passersby, chatting as they walked, lingering for a shuttle bus, hurrying across the street. Not one of them seemed to notice the strange, imposing building.

Which may be just as the societies prefer it.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Images 1 and 6 depict Scroll and Key; images 2, 4 and 5 depict Wolf’s Head; and image 3 depicts Skull and Bones.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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