Skip to main content

Missing heads and red faces: Charges against secret society embarrass school

  • Author:
  • Updated:

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Macabre stories about the ultra-secret Skull and Bones senior society have always struck the vast majority of Yale University's ivy-encrusted campus as either an embarrassment or a joke.

But no one is finding much humor in the latest round of reports that the windowless headquarters of this self-described elite holds the skulls of Apache leader Geronimo and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

Reaction on campus is developing slowly, possibly because most students simply haven't heard the national reports. But at least one student publication is researching the story and local opinion might become more aroused.

In the meantime, spokesmen for the University give a stock answer. One sighed heavily when asked about it and said, "Skull and Bones is an independent student society that is not part of Yale. We have no knowledge about what goes on there."

The handful of Native students at Yale is well aware of the story, which has surfaced periodically in the 90-odd years since Geronimo's resting place was allegedly robbed by a group of "Bonesmen" led by a young army lieutenant named Prescott W. Bush, grandfather of the current President. According to one Native student leader, the Association of Native Americans at Yale (ANAAY) has a policy of refusing to deal with Skull and Bones, and at least one Indian declined an invitation to join the secret society because of the alleged desecration.

But even though a banner featuring the AIM flag, the visage of a chief imposed on the Stars and Stripes, was recently flying over the entrance to the central Cross-Campus, the Native presence at Yale is low these days. The banner was left over from Indigenous People's Day, ANAAY's answer to Columbus Day, which was the group's main effort for the school year. Its annual pow wow in the spring will be on hiatus this year, said ANAAY president Nicole Willis, a junior, because of a financial loss from the year before. Willis is Nez Perce, Yakima and Oglala Lakota from Pendleton, Ore. ANAAY has eight members ranging from Alaska Native to South American Indian.

The one Native on the faculty, Religion professor Jace Weaver, left last year to head the American Indian studies program at the University of Georgia, said Willis. The wife of the dean of admissions, Richard Shaw, is the noted Lakota writer Delphine Red Shirt, but Willis said she was spending less time with Native undergraduates than she used to.

Indigenous People's Day passed without protest about Skull and Bones, even though the Geronimo story, recently reported at length in these pages, reached a national audience on the same weekend in a segment on the CBS TV newsmagazine "60 Minutes."

Students might be more blas? about the 170-year-old society in a reaction to some of the overheated conspiracy theories popular in the outside world. "A lot of the stories circulating about Skull and Bones are myths," said Willis.

What's known fairly surely is that the society was founded in 1832 by a Yale student named Alfred Russell who was traveling in Germany and fell in with members of a secret student society obsessed with deaths-head imagery. The U.S. at the time was in the middle of a hysteria directed against the supposedly anti-democratic secrecy of the Freemasons. Russell was said to be disgusted that the Phi Beta Kappa honor society had yielded to popular pressure and revealed its secrets, so he gathered some Yale students to live out the worst fantasies of the anti-Masonic movement.

The society attaches great importance to the number 322, referring alternatively to the year of its founding, 1832, and its status as the second chapter of the German society, or to the date, B.C., of the suicide of the Greek orator Demosthenes. In a possibly garbled campus legend, Bonesman Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in World War II, once ordered an offensive to start at 3:22 a.m. in homage to his society.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Skull and Bones selects, or taps, 15 student leaders in the April of their junior year and subjects them to an intense initiation ritual designed to produce close psychological bonding. All of its living members, possibly 800 or so, are sworn to complete secrecy, if only to avoid revealing how ludicrous an experience they had.

The membership has included prominent figures in American finance and politics, who are said to have generously endowed the corporate parent of the group, formerly the Russell Trust Association and now RTA, Inc. Three Bonesmen have been President of the U.S., William Howard Taft, George Herbert Walker Bush (son of the alleged grave-robbing Prescott, who was later U.S. Senator from Connecticut), and his son George W. Bush. A leading Democratic candidate for president U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was in Skull and Bones in 1966, two years ahead of George W.

Some greatly exaggerate this undoubted influence and claim that Skull and Bones is the nucleus of a world government conspiracy. This claim overlooks the fact that no Bonesman has ever been re-elected as President. It also ignores the structure of the senior society system at Yale.

Bones is only one of about 15 of these honor societies, both above and under-ground. The above-ground societies own their own buildings, called tombs, which range in style from 19th century sandstone quasi-Egyptian to colonial frame-house to modern split level. Their approaches are equally varied. Some go in for mumbo-jumbo. Others, like Elihu, the society of U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn, promote political good works.

This system has recruited at least one prominent American Indian figure, as well as WASP elitists. Philip Sam DeLoria, head of the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico, is a graduate of Yale College and member of Berzelius, one of the oldest societies.

Each group has two meetings a week, one on Thursday night devoted to the personal interest or autobiography or psychotherapy of a member of the current class, and a more general Sunday night dinner in which an alumnus might give a presentation.

If Skull and Bones is the would-be nucleus of the new world order, than it faces more than a dozen competing conspiracies, at Yale alone.

The Bones tomb may be unique in its fascination for would-be raiders, however, possibly because of the rumors about the gruesome displays behind the high Egyptian style fa?ade nestled against the Yale Art Museum. Very few attempts to penetrate have been successful, but one is a legend in itself, the all-girl break-in team of the late '70s. This crew of Lara Croft precursors brought out pictures of the crypt interior, including grandfather clocks, skulls and, incongruously, a wall covered with stolen license plates, all bearing the sacred number 322.

The New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum, a non-Bones Yale graduate frankly obsessed with the society, published an account of the raid and elicited a further account from another female intruder, this time the girl-friend of a Bones member. She reported seeing mantel-pieces lined with skulls and one in particular that she was told belonged to a famous Indian chief. It was enclosed, reported Rosenbaum, in a kind of "aquarium-like glass case filled with what looked like turquoise chips." Although for years this lady remembered the name as Cochise, she told Rosenbaum it could very well have been Geronimo.

Repeated accounts like hers, and like Apache leader Ken Anderson's report of contacts with Bones lawyers raise the question of the responsibility of Bonesmen to repatriate the remains. Yale University acknowledges that it is subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Its Peabody Museum of Natural History has returned several sets of Native remains, both to Hawaii and to the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut. But as a private institution, Skull and Bones presumably escapes the reach of NAGPRA.

Yet common decency, and possibly the federal RICO conspiracy statute, would require Bonesmen to correct any past atrocities on indigenous remains. Since two members of this order are now competing for the presidency, it will be instructive to see if they are called on to account for the skull of Geronimo.