Starting in the early nineteenth century, Yale University has been home to a number of secret student societies, serving many of the same functions as student fraternities and sororities at other American universities. The oldest of these, the notorious Skull and Bones Society, was founded in 1832; its chief rival, Scroll and Key, came into being in 1842, and the third society, Wolf’s Head, appeared in 1883. By the end of the twentieth century there were approximately 18 secret societies active at Yale.

While each society has its own customs and traditions, the basic pattern set by Skull and Bones in its first decades remains common to all. Each year, a society selects a fixed number of new members – usually 15 – who are initiated before the beginning of their senior year. Membership was limited to male students until the second half of the twentieth century. The society initiations, like those of college fraternities elsewhere, combine nineteenth-century ritual melodrama and undergraduate pranks. Once initiated, members take part in regular meetings twice a week. The older and wealthier societies have buildings of their own – “tombs,” in Yale slang – where members dine before meetings and often spend much of their free time. After graduating, alumni are encouraged to remain involved with their society, network with other alumni, and assist them in their careers.

The societies’ secrecy, their exclusiveness, and the penchant of members for helping one another in business and politics, have long made the Yale secret societies a focus for secret society opponents and conspiracy theorists. Most of the rhetoric has been leveled at Skull and Bones, as the oldest and most prestigious of the societies, and the one with the largest number of alumni in politics. The connection between the Bush family and Skull and Bones – both George Bush Snr. (US president 1989–93) and his son, George W. Bush (US president 2000–), were Bonesmen during their time at Yale – has led some conspiracy theorists to claim that Skull and Bones is “America’s most powerful secret society,” a title it nonetheless shares with many other potential claimants.


  • Skull and Bones Society


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006


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