Skull & Bones, New Haven

January, 2009 by Ray Bendici
skull_bones
Photo by Steve Frank

The Damned Story: Yale University boasts one of the most exclusive and enigmatic groups in the world, one that dates back approximately 175 years and features numerous U.S. presidents, senators and governors as well as some of the world's powerful elite among its members.

Considering it's a "secret society," quite a bit seems to be known about Skull & Bones, including its history and alumni, you know, how like Area 51 is the U.S. government's "secret" UFO and special aircraft testing ground that pretty much everyone on the planet knows about.

Essentially, Skull & Bones was formed in 1832 when Yale senior William Russell, upset with the rules of Phi Beta Kappa, organized a group of classmates into a new campus organization. Initially calling itself the Eulogian Club (in honor of the goddess of eloquence Eulogia), the group grew in stature, campus influence and wealth over the decades. In 1856, the club incorporated and moved into their current location at 64 High Street where a windowless Egyptian-style building called "The Tomb" was built. Additional wings were added to the original structure twice near the beginning of the 20th century. Accounts describe the interior as allegedly having a kitschy-goth vibe with plenty of skulls, skeletons and other spooky decor, plus all sorts of special rooms and chambers -- we're imagining Jekyll & Hyde, maybe with less animatronic characters. The building itself has been officially designated a New Haven landmark.

William Rusell's little social club has steadily continued to grow, featuring among its ranks such historical figures as Walter Camp, U.S. president William Howard Taft, Prescott Bush and William F. Buckley Jr. Recently prominent alumni include U.S. presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, as well as U.S. senator John Kerry.

Of course, as with any good secret society, what goes on inside its shrouded walls has been fodder for speculation. From various accounts, it appears that members -- or Bonesmen, as they refer to themselves -- meet there on Thursday and Sunday evenings during their senior years at Yale to participate in the group's long-held rituals and traditions, plus socialize and enjoy the trappings of being tapped to be in such an exclusive club. For some reason, I tend to doubt they whittle, practice the "Electric Slide," bake cookies or help each other with their calculus homework, but hey, you never know. It is a secret, after all.

Apparently, once a bonesman, always a bonesman, and the vow of silence taken at initiation about the society's activities is a lifelong commitment. Also part of the deal seems to be all the rights and privileges that come with membership, from political favors to influential recommendations to special rewards and financial windfalls.

Simply: It's good to be the king -- or a Bonesman.

If you're interested in learning more, Alexandra Robbins' Secrets of the Tomb offers many of the secrets of Skull & Bones, allegedly provided directly by anonymous Bonesmen. Or you can be totally lazy and go for a highly fictionalized and sensationally inaccurate route and just rent The Skulls.

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By the way, in researching Skull & Bones, we called one of our good friends who works at Yale who informed us about two other lesser-known secret societies on the campus: Wolf's Head and Scroll & Key, both of whom also have private buildings on Yale's campus in New Haven.

Scroll & Key came along in 1842, being formed by members who were dissatisfied with Skulls & Bones. "Keys" as they are known, also count themselves among the power elite, with notable alumni including Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Paul Mellon, A. Bartlett Giamatti, Stone Phillips, Gary Trudeau and Dr. Benjamin Spock (the baby doctor, not the vulcan). The Keys have their own Tomb at 484 College Street.

Wolf's Head was formed in 1883 when a number of students who were unhappy with Skulls & Bones' and other secret societies at Yale, joined together to form their own group. (See a pattern here?) "Grey Friars" as the members of this group are known, seem to not take themselves nearly as seriously as the other groups; prominent alumni include Charles Ives, Edward Harkness, William Wrigley, William Ford and Dick Jauron. Their New Hall is located at 210 York Street.

Our Damned Experience: We have been past The Tomb -- the windowless building on High Street that is the society's home -- numerous times through the years, including most recently in January 2009. Not unlike Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, we have never seen anyone going in or coming out. Ditto the Wolf's Head Hall and Scroll & Key Tomb.

Our source at Yale told us that when one of the Skull & Bones Tomb requires maintenance, the facilities workers are met at the door, escorted to the exact place in need of service, then escorted back out of the building. Not surprisingly, despite being a social organization, Bonesmen aren't so social with those outside the group.

If You Go: Unless your last name is Bush or Rockefeller, or you're a particularly well-connected Yale senior, you're not getting inside of Skull & Bones any time soon. Like the rest of us plebes, you can stare at the outside of the building, which is located on High Street in New Haven, just past the archway and directly behind the Yale Art Gallery, across the street from Dwight Hall.

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