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Skull and Bones

The Order of Skull and Bones, once known as The Brotherhood of Death, is a senior or secret society based at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. The society’s alumni organization, which owns its properties and oversees all the organization’s activity, is known as the Russell Trust Association (R.T.A.), and is named after one of Bones’ founding members. In conversation, the group is known as “Bones”, and members have been known as “Bonesmen”.

Skull and Bones is known for its secrecy. Mid-nineteenth century Yale enjoyed the presence of freshmen, sophomore and junior societies. Undergraduates then, with their fickle allegiances, would share the rights and practices of their class society upon elevation within the undergraduate ranks. When seniors departed campus, little verifiable information was left about the rites and practices of the senior or secret societies, particularly Bones, then Scroll and Key, and then Wolf’s Head. George W. Bush, in his autobiography, states “[in] My senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret, I can’t say anything more.” When asked what it meant that he and Bush were both Bonesmen, former presidential candidate, and current U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry said, “Not much because it’s a secret”.


Skull and Bones c1947, GHW Bush left of clock

History: “The Order” was formed in 1832 as an outcome of the old debating societies, Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and Calliope. The direct cause was a dispute over the Phi Beta Kappa awards. By reputation, “Bonesmen” tapped the current football and heavyweight rowing captains, as well as notables from the Yale Daily News, Yale Lit, and eventually the Yale Political Union. The group’s decision, after much dispute, to admit women helped diversify the membership to reflect current undergraduate demographics. Numerous undergraduate constituencies are better represented among the recently tapped membership compared to the Skull and Bones “cohorts”, or “delegations”, that included the 27th, 41st and 43rd Presidents of the United States.

Other notable members include: Benjamin Silliman Jr., the first to produce gasoline, and the first American oil company, Pennsylvania Rock Oil; Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Morrison R. Waite’s informal commentary regarding Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company was interpreted as legitimizing corporate personhood; members played a key role in founding and setting the direction for the Carnegie Institution, the Peabody Foundation, Slater Foundation, and Russel Sage Foundations, as well as the American Economic Association, the American Historical Association, and the American Psychological Association. The first president or chancellor of the University of California, Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University, and Washington University in Saint Louis were members.

On October 22, 1945, Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson created the Lovett Committee, chaired by Robert A. Lovett to develop a new U.S. intelligence apparatus. This resulted in the creation of the CIA, which has reputedly been an alumni association within the R.T.A.

Members meet in the “tomb” on Thursday and Sunday evenings of each week over the course of their senior year. As with other Yale societies, the sharing of a personal history is the keystone of the senior year together in the tomb. Members are assigned a nickname. More importantly, each new member continues a “line” named after a figure in Roman mythology.

The Skull and Bones tomb, 19th century, before adjacent Yale buildings and trees

The Skull & Bones tomb today


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