Skull & Bones

Open Secrets

Can you keep a secret?

Known, or at least imagined, for covert initiation rites, ultra-selective membership and close connections throughout the upper echelons of government and industry, Yale’s secret societies—clubs with lifelong members, and many notable public figures among them—have long been subjects of speculation. What goes on behind the heavy, locked doors of their “tombs” scattered around campus, from which you’re unlikely to see anyone enter or exit?

Hollywood asked the same question around the turn of the century. The Skulls, released in 2000, was a fictional account of a young man’s descent into the creepy grips of one such exclusive membership organization, clearly modeled after Yale’s Skull and Bones club. The film captured enough of the public’s imagination to spawn a couple of direct-to-DVD sequels despite being panned by critics.

The Skulls portrays its secret society rather sensationally, but it got the upper-crustiness right. Real-life Skull and Bones members include many of the country’s most influential politicians and businessmen at any given time, including Presidents William Howard Taft and, not coincidentally, both George H.W. and George W. Bush. John Kerry, George W.’s 2004 general election opponent, is also a member.

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They’re called secret societies for a reason—they don’t exactly mount public relations efforts—but secrecy invites a special kind of scrutiny. Especially with such prominent members, they were always bound to attract the attention of knowledge-seekers determined to pierce the mystique.

Some curious historians and journalists have written articles in publications like The Atlantic and Yale Alumni Magazine. Then there are the annual stories and blog posts on the society’s new recruits, as well as their antics and other gossip, featured most notably in The Yale Herald and self-described “tabloid” Rumpus. A search for “secret societies” on the Herald’s site yields a surprising amount of information, including names, photographs and tongue-in-cheek qualifications of inductees.

Current induction lists read like admissions pamphlets celebrating student diversity, suggesting that modernity has changed these organizations despite a public image of good ol’ boy preferences. Once open to men only (of course, Yale was once an all-male university), all societies are now co-ed.

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The active societies that continue to meet in their various dedicated buildings, known as the “landed” societies, include the “Big Three”—Skull and Bones (founded in 1832), Scroll and Key (founded in 1842) and Wolf’s Head (founded in 1883), which are considered the most prestigious—as well as Manuscript, Book and Snake, Berzelius and Elihu, says Brian Hughes, a Yale alumnus who led a walking tour of the tombs last year for the New Haven Preservation Trust.

But newer societies, often referred to as “undergrounds,” Hughes says, have emerged over the years to embrace fleet-footedness over real estate. They reportedly meet in members’ apartments, bars, dorm rooms—anywhere, really. As a result, these new secret societies are in some ways even better at keeping their secrets than the ones with a lot more practice.

As for the more traditional clubs’ homes, their unique architecture is well worth planning a walking tour. The Preservation Trust’s guided outing won’t be repeated this year, but planning your own is as easy as a walk across campus.

There’s the windowless, stark, foreboding tomb of the Skull and Bones society (pictured above) located at 64 High Street, and the Scroll and Key tomb at 444 College Street: a marbled tan structure with striped brickwork arches. The stonework “hall” of Wolf’s Head can be found at 210 York Street. The Berzelius secret society, named for the Swedish scientist Jons Jakob Berzelius (considered one of the founders of modern chemistry), meets in an imposing white structure with a large black door at 78 Trumbull Street.

Researching the societies is easier these days thanks to the internet—you can find building addresses and photos, and names and photos of the members themselves. But you won’t have much luck finding pictures of what those members do inside those buildings.

Some traditions are more telegraphed than others, though. “Tap Night,” usually held around the second week in April, is when society members officially choose their newest recruits. The selection processes of today’s societies appear, on the whole, to be intricate and sometimes lengthy affairs involving weeks of pre-interviews and other vetting attempts.

Yet the night itself—often marked by strange costumes and wild activity on campus, as well as, you might have guessed, plenty of alcohol—remains a hallmark of the Yale calendar year, and seems a far cry from Yale’s societies’ earliest incarnations, when new members were chosen in secret, with a tap on the shoulder.

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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