Skull and Bones is a secret society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Skull & Bones operates as a peer society with Scroll and Key and Wolf's Head.
The society's alumni organization, which owns the society's real property and oversees the organization, is the Russell Trust Association, named for General William Huntington Russell, who co-founded Skull and Bones with classmate Alphonso Taft.
The Russell Trust was founded by Russell and Daniel Coit Gilman, member of Skull and Bones and later one of the earliest Presidents of the University of California and also the first President of Johns Hopkins University, and later the founding President of the Carnegie Institution. The society is known informally as "Bones", and members are known as "Bonesmen".
Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 after a dispute among Yale's debating societies, Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and Calliope, over that season's Phi Beta Kappa awards; its original name was "the Order of Skull and Bones."
The only chapter of Skull and Bones created outside Yale was a chapter at Wesleyan University in 1870. That chapter, the Beta of Skull & Bones, became independent in 1872 in a dispute over control over creating additional chapters; the Beta Chapter reconstituted itself as Theta Nu Epsilon.
Yale became coeducational in 1969, but Skull & Bones remained all-male at the behest of the Russell Trust Association. The Class of 1991 disregarded the Trust and tapped seven female members for membership in the next year's class.
The Trust responded by changing the locks on the "Tomb"; the Bonesmen had to meet at the building of Manuscript Society.A mail-in vote by living members decided 368-320 to permit going co-ed, but a group of alumni led by William F. Buckley obtained a temporary restraining order to block the move, arguing that a formal change in bylaws was needed.
Every year, Skull and Bones selects fifteen men and women of the junior class to join the society. Skull and Bones traditionally "tapped" those that it viewed as campus leaders and other notable figures for its membership.
Traditionally, groups such as the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, Yale Political Union, and Yale Daily News were well represented. In addition, captains of various athletics teams are also considered. Bones began tapping Jewish students in the early fifties and African-Americans in 1949.
Like its counterparts, Bones has diversified further its membership, typically with leaders of undergraduate ethnic and racial affinity groups, since the 1980s.
Skull and Bones has developed a reputation with some as having a membership that is heavily tilted towards the "Power Elite". Barack Obama's economic adviser Austan Goolsbee was initiated into the club in 1991, the same year the club elected to let women into the society.
The first extended description of Skull and Bones, published in 1871 by Lyman Bagg in his book Four Years at Yale, noted that "the mystery now attending its existence forms the one great enigma which college gossip never tires of discussing."
Brooks Mather Kelley attributed the secrecy of Yale senior societies to the fact that underclassmen members of freshman, sophomore, and junior class societies remained on campus following their membership, while seniors naturally left.
One legend is that 322 in the emblem of the society stands for "founded in '32, 2nd corps", referring to a first Corps in an unknown German university. Others suggest that 322 refers to the death of Demosthenes and that documents in the society hall have purportedly been found dated to "Anno-Demostheni".
There is an ongoing rumor that there is some form whereby new members recite to the society their sexual history, and although there has been no corroboration of this by any reliable source, the rumor lives on.
Members are assigned nicknames. "Long Devil" is assigned to the tallest member; "Boaz" goes to any member who is a varsity football captain. Many of the chosen names are drawn from literature ("Hamlet", "Uncle Remus"), from religion and from myth. The banker Lewis Lapham passed on his nickname, "Sancho Panza", to the political adviser Tex McCrary. Averell Harriman was "Thor", Henry Luce was "Baal", McGeorge Bundy was "Odin", and George H. W. Bush was "Magog".
Skull and Bones has a reputation for stealing keepsakes, from other Yale societies or from campus buildings; society members reportedly call the practice "crooking" and strive to outdo each other's "crooks."
Skull and Bones members supposedly stole the bones of Geronimo from Fort Sill, Oklahoma during World War I. In 1986, former San Carlos Apache Chairman Ned Anderson received an anonymous letter with a photograph and a copy of a log book claiming that Skull & Bones held the skull. He met with Skull & Bones officials about the rumor; the group's attorney, Endicott P. Davidson, denied that the group held the skull, and said that the 1918 ledger saying otherwise was a hoax. The group offered Anderson a glass case with a skull of a ten-year-old boy, but Anderson refused it. In 2006, Marc Wortman discovered a 1918 letter from Skull & Bones member Winter Mead to F. Trubee Davison that claimed the theft was "exhumed" from Fort Sill by the club and was "safe" in the club's headquarters.
In 2009, Ramsey Clark filed a lawsuit on behalf of people claiming to be Geronimo's descendants, against, among others, Barack Obama, Robert Gates, and Skull and Bones, asking for the return of Geronimo's bones. An article in The New York Times states that Clark "acknowledged he had no hard proof that the story was true." Alexandra Robbins says this is one of the more plausible items said to be in the organization's Tomb. But Cameron University history professor David H. Miller notes that Geronimo's grave was unmarked at the time.
Investigations ranging from Cecil Adams to Kitty Kelley have rejected the story. A Fort Sill spokesman told Adams, "There is no evidence to indicate the bones are anywhere but in the grave site." Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache tribe of Oklahoma, also calls the story a hoax.
The 1918 letter “ adds to the seriousness of the belief [that the theft took place], certainly,” says Judith Schiff, the chief research archivist at Sterling Memorial Library, who has written extensively on Yale history. “It has a very strong likelihood of being true, since it was written so close to the time.” She points out that Members of a secret society were required to be honest with each other about its affairs. The yearbook entries for Haffner, Mead, and Davison say that they were all Bonesmen. (The membership of the societies was routinely published in newspapers and yearbooks until the 1970s.) Haffner’s entry says that he was at the artillery school at Fort Sill some time between August 1917 and July 1918.
Pancho Villa's skull was indeed stolen shortly after his death. While Robbins originally wrote in her book that the Bonesmen had the skull, she has since retracted the claim, saying that the story that the Bonesmen paid $25,000 for it in the 1920s is implausible. Writer Mark Singer, a Yale graduate, also rejects the story in a New Yorker article about the myth.
Skull and Bones' place in popular culture is significant, since, although it is a "secret society," it is probably the best known college secret society in America, as can be seen from the recurring references to it in all kinds of media.
Skull and Bones has featured from time to time in the Doonesbury comic strips by Garry Trudeau; especially in 1980 and December 1988, with reference to George H. W. Bush, and again at the time that the society went co-ed.
In The Simpsons, Montgomery Burns is both a Yalie and a Bonesman.
The 2000 film The Skulls concerns a highly elaborate secret society with clear parallels to Skull and Bones at a university beginning with a "Y".
A portrayal of Bones also played a substantial role in Robert De Niro's 2006 film The Good Shepherd, about the Central Intelligence Agency.