Yale University’s Skull and Bones Society

SKULL AND BONES SOCIETY

The most notorious college fraternity in America, the Skull and Bones Society was founded in 1832 at Yale University by valedictorian William H. Russell and 14 other undergraduates. Russell had taken time off from his Yale studies to travel in Germany, and apparently encountered a college society there that he used as a model for his new fraternity. Originally called the Eulogian Club, after its invented patron Eulogia, goddess of eloquence, the fraternity in 1833 took the pirate skull and crossbones flag as its symbol, and so became known as Skull and Bones. Like other college fraternities, it has an initiation ceremony consisting of roughly equal parts nineteenth-century melodrama and undergraduate pranks. Skull and Bones came out of a long history of similar organizations at Yale. The oldest known Yale student society, a literary society called Crotonia (after the location of Pythagoras’s school in ancient Italy), was in existence before 1750. Skull and Bones, however, was the first to limit its membership. Each year, 15 members of the incoming senior class were (and are) selected for admission by vote of the existing members. Membership was restricted to male students until 1991, when the first female members were initiated.

The society’s headquarters, or “tomb” in Yale slang, was built in 1856 in the location it still occupies, on High Street in New Haven, Connecticut. Current members, or “knights,” meet there on Thursday and Sunday nights for dinner and society activities; former members, or “patriarchs,” are welcome to attend when in town, and several annual events attract large numbers back to Yale and events at the tomb. The society also owns Deer Island in the St Lawrence River, used as a vacation spot by knights, patriarchs, and their families.

As the oldest and most prestigious student society at one of America’s top universities, Skull and Bones has attracted its share of members who went on to become important figures in politics and business, and three US presidents – William Howard Taft (president 1909–13), George Bush (president 1989–93), and George W. Bush (president 2000–) – were members during their time at Yale. All this is business as usual for upper-class college fraternities, and can easily be exceeded by other secret societies. The society’s total of presidents measures up poorly, for example, next to the 14 presidents who have been Freemasons, or even the 5 who have been Elks. See Freemason.

In the eyes of some recent conspiracy theorists, however, the two Bush presidencies made Skull and Bones “America’s most powerful secret society.” One popular book on secret societies claims that Skull and Bones forms the inner circle of the Council on Foreign Relations, an elite think-tank that is among the most popular targets for American conspiracy theorists. The Bush family connection to Skull and Bones has also brought the fraternity to center stage in many accounts of the New World Order. This sinister reputation doubtless delights the society’s undergraduate members. See Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); New World Order.

Further reading: Robbins 2002, van Helsing 1995.