George H. Bush (left of clock) with the Skull and Crossbones group at Yale University, New Haven, CT circa 1947
Sometime in the early 1830s, a Yale student named William H. Russell—the future valedictorian of the class of 1833- traveled to Germany to study for a year. Russell came from an inordinately wealthy family that ran one of America’s most despicable business organizations of the nineteenth century: Russell and Company, an opium empire. Russell would later become a member of the Connecticut state legislature, a general in the Connecticut National Guard, and the founder of the Collegiate and Commercial Institute in New Haven. While in Germany, Russell befriended the leader of an insidious German secret society that hailed the death’s head as its logo. Russell soon became caught up in this group, itself a sinister outgrowth of the notorious eighteenth-century society the Illuminati. When Russell returned to the United States, he found an atmosphere so Anti-Masonic that even his beloved Phi Beta Kappa, the honor society, had been unceremoniously stripped of its secrecy. Incensed, Russell rounded up a group of the most promising students in his class-including Alphonso Taft, the future secretary of war, attorney general, minister to Austria, ambassador to Russia, and father of future president William Howard Taft-and out of vengeance constructed the most powerful secret society the United States has ever known.
The men called their organization the Brotherhood of Death, or, more informally, the Order of Skull and Bones. They adopted the numerological symbol 322 because their group was the second chapter of the German organization and founded in 1832. They worshiped the goddess Eulogia, celebrated pirates, and plotted an underground conspiracy to dominate the world. Fast-forward 170 years. Skull and Bones has curled its tentacles into every corner of American society. This tiny club has set up networks that have thrust three members into the most powerful political position in the world. And the group’s influence is only increasing-the 2004 presidential election might showcase the first time each ticket has been led by a Bonesman. The secret society is now, as one historian admonishes, ” ‘an international mafia’. . . unregulated and all but unknown.” In its quest to create a New World Order that restricts individual freedoms and places ultimate power solely in the hands of a small cult of wealthy, prominent families, Skull and Bones has already succeeded in infiltrating nearly every major research, policy, financial, media, and government institution in the country. Skull and Bones, in fact, has been running the United States for years.
Skull and Bones cultivates its talent by selecting members from the junior class at Yale University, a school known for its strange, Gothic elitism and its rigid devotion to the past. The society screens its candidates carefully, favoring Protestants and, now, white Catholics, with special affection for the children of wealthy East Coast Skull and Bones members. Skull and Bones has been dominated by about two dozen of the country’s most prominent families—Bush, Bundy, Harriman, Lord, Phelps, Rockefeller, Taft, and Whitney among them—who are encouraged by the society to intermarry so that its power is consolidated. In fact, Skull and Bones forces members to confess their entire sexual histories so that the club, as a eugenics overlord, can determine whether a new Bonesman will be fit to mingle with the bloodlines of the powerful Skull and Bones dynasties. A rebel will not make Skull and Bones; nor will anyone whose background in any way indicates that he will not sacrifice for the greater good of the larger organization.
As soon as initiates are allowed into the “tomb,” a dark, windowless crypt in New Haven with a roof that serves as a landing pad for the society’s private helicopter, they are sworn to silence and told they must forever deny that they are members of this organization. During initiation, which involves ritualistic psychological conditioning, the juniors wrestle in mud and are physically beaten—this stage of the ceremony represents their “death” to the world as they have known it. They then lie naked in coffins, masturbate, and reveal to the society their innermost sexual secrets. After this cleansing, the Bonesmen give the initiates robes to represent their new identities as individuals with a higher purpose. The society anoints the initiate with a new name, symbolizing his rebirth and rechristening as Knight X, a member of the Order. It is during this initiation that the new members are introduced to the artifacts in the tomb, among them Nazi memorabilia—including a set of Hitler’s silverware-dozens of skulls, and an assortment of decorative tchotchkes: coffins, skeletons, and innards. They are also introduced to “the Bones *,” the tomb’s only full-time resident, who helps to ensure that the Bonesmen leave the tomb more mature than when they entered.
Members of Skull and Bones must make some sacrifices to the society—and they are threatened with blackmail so that they remain loyal—but they are remunerated with honors and rewards, including a graduation gift of $15,000 and a wedding gift of a tall grandfather clock. Though they must tithe their estates to the society, each member is guaranteed financial security for life; in this way, Bones can ensure that no member will feel the need to sell the secrets of the society in order to make a living. And it works: No one has publicly breathed a word about his Skull and Bones membership, ever. Bonesmen are automatically offered jobs at the many investment banks and law firms dominated by their secret society brothers. They are also given exclusive access to the Skull and Bones island, a lush retreat built for millionaires, with a lavish mansion and a bevy of women at the members’ disposal. The influence of the cabal begins at Yale, where Skull and Bones has appropriated university funds for its own use, leaving the school virtually impoverished. Skull and Bones’ corporate shell, the Russell Trust Association, owns nearly all of the university’s real estate, as well as most of the land in Connecticut. Skull and Bones has controlled Yale’s faculty and campus publications so that students cannot speak openly about it. “Year by year,” the campus’s only anti-society publication stated during its brief tenure in 1873, “the deadly evil is growing.”
The year in the tomb at Yale instills within members an unwavering loyalty to Skull and Bones. Members have been known to stab their Skull and Bones pins into their skin to keep them in place during swimming or bathing. The knights (as the student members are called) learn quickly that their allegiance to the society must supersede all else: family, friendships, country, God. They are taught that once they get out into the world, they are expected to reach positions of prominence so that they can further elevate the society’s status and help promote the standing of their fellow Bonesmen.
This purpose has driven Bonesmen to ascend to the top levels of so many fields that, as one historian observes, “at any one time The Order can call on members in any area of American society to do what has to be done.” Several Bonesmen have been senators, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and Cabinet officials. There is a Bones cell in the CIA, which uses the society as a recruiting ground because the members are so obviously adept at keeping secrets. Society members dominate financial institutions such as J. P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and Brown Brothers Harriman, where at one time more than a third of the partners were Bonesmen. Through these companies, Skull and Bones provided financial backing to Adolf Hitler because the society then followed a Nazi-and now follows a neo-Nazi—doctrine. At least a dozen Bonesmen have been linked to the Federal Reserve, including the first chairman of the New York Federal Reserve. Skull and Bones members control the wealth of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford families.
Skull and Bones has also taken steps to control the American media.
Two of its members founded the law firm that represents the New York Times. Plans for both Time and Newsweek magazines were hatched in the Skull and Bones tomb. The society has controlled publishing houses such as Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In the 1880s, Skull and Bones created the American Historical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Economic Association so that the society could ensure that history would be written under its terms and promote its objectives. The society then installed its own members as the presidents of these associations. Under the society’s direction, Bonesmen developed and dropped the nuclear bomb and choreographed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Skull and Bones members had ties to Watergate and the Kennedy assassination. They control the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission so that they can push their own political agenda. Skull and Bones government officials have used the number 322 as codes for highly classified diplomatic assignments. The society discriminates against minorities and fought for slavery; indeed eight out of twelve of Yale’s residential colleges are named for slave owners while none are named for abolitionists. The society encourages misogyny: it did not admit women until the 1990s because members did not believe women were capable of handling the Skull and Bones experience and because they said they feared incidents of date rape. This society also encourages grave robbing: deep within the bowels of the tomb are the stolen skulls of the Apache chief Geronimo, Pancho Villa, and former president Martin Van Buren.
Finally, the society has taken measures to ensure that the secrets of Skull and Bones slip ungraspable like sand through open fingers. Journalist Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote a long but not probing article about the society in the 1970s, claimed that a source warned him not to get too close.
“What bank do you have your checking account at?” this party asked me in the middle of a discussion of the Mithraic aspects of the Bones ritual.I named the bank. “Aha,” said the party. “There are three Bonesmen on the board. You’ll never have a line of credit again. They’ll tap your phone. They’ll. . . ”
. . .The source continued: “The alumni still care. Don’t laugh. They don’t like people tampering and prying. The power of Bones is incredible. They’ve got their hands on every lever of power in the country. You’ll see—it’s like trying to look into the Mafia.”
In the 1980s, a man known only as Steve had contracts to write two books on the society, using documents and photographs he had acquired from the Bones crypt. But Skull and Bones found out about Steve. Society members broke into his apartment, stole the documents, harassed the would-be author, and scared him into hiding, where he has remained ever since. The books were never completed. In Universal Pictures’ thriller The Skulls (2000), an aspiring journalist is writing a profile of the society for the New York Times. When he sneaks into the tomb, the Skulls murder him. The real Skull and Bones tomb displays a bloody knife in a glass case. It is said that when a Bonesman stole documents and threatened to publish society secrets if the members did not pay him a determined amount of money, they used that knife to kill him. This, then, is the legend of Skull and Bones.
It is astonishing that so many people continue to believe, even in twenty-first-century America, that a tiny college club wields such an enormous amount of influence on the world’s only superpower. The breadth of clout ascribed to this organization is practically as wide-ranging as the leverage of the satirical secret society the Stonecutters introduced in an episode of The Simpsons. The Stonecutters theme song included the lyrics:
Who controls the British crown? Who keeps the metric system down? We do! We do. . .
Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do! We do.
Certainly, Skull and Bones does cross boundaries in order to attempt to stay out of the public spotlight. When I wrote an article about the society for the Atlantic Monthly in May 2000, an older Bonesman said to me, “If it’s not portrayed positively, I’m sending a couple of my friends after you.” After the article was published, I received a telephone call at my office from a fellow journalist, who is a member of Skull and Bones.He scolded me for writing the article—”writing that article was not an ethical or honorable way to make a decent living in journalism,” he condescended —and then asked me how much I had been paid for the story. When I refused to answer, he hung up. Fifteen minutes later, he called back.
“I have just gotten off the phone with our people.” “Your people?” I snickered.
“Yes. Our people.” He told me that the society demanded to know where I got my information.
“I’ve never been in the tomb and I did nothing illegal in the process of reporting this article,” I replied.
“Then you must have gotten something from one of us. Tell me whom you spoke to. We just want to talk to them,” he wheedled. “I don’t reveal my sources.”
Then he got angry. He screamed at me for a while about how dishonorable I was for writing the article. “A lot of people are very despondent over this!” he yelled. “Fifteen Yale juniors are very, very upset!” I thanked him for telling me his concerns.
“There are a lot of us at newspapers and at political journalism institutions,” he coldly hissed. “Good luck with your career”—and he slammed down the phone.
Skull and Bones, particularly in recent years, has managed to pervade both popular and political culture. In the 1992 race for the Republican presidential nomination, Pat Buchanan accused President George Bush of running “a Skull and Bones presidency.” In 1993, during Jeb Bush’s Florida gubernatorial campaign, one of his constituents asked him, “You’re familiar with the Skull and Crossbones Society?” When Bush responded, “Yeah, I’ve heard about it,” the constituent persisted, “Well, can you tell the people here what your family membership in that is? Isn’t your aim to take control of the United States?” In January 2001, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd used Skull and Bones in a simile: “When W. met the press with his choice for attorney general, John Ashcroft, before Christmas, he vividly showed how important it is to him that his White House be as leak-proof as the Skull & Bones ‘tomb.’”
That was less than a year after the Universal Pictures film introduced the secret society to a new demographic perhaps uninitiated into the doctrines of modern-day conspiracy theory. Not long before the movie was previewed in theaters—and perhaps in anticipation of the election of George W. Bush—a letter was distributed to members from Skull and Bones headquarters. “In view of the political happenings in the barbarian world,” the memo read, “I feel compelled to remind all of the tradition of privacy and confidentiality essential to the well-being of our Order and strongly urge stout resistance to the seductions and blandishments of the Fourth Estate.” This vow of silence remains the society’s most important rule. Bonesmen have been exceedingly careful not to break this code of secrecy, and have kept specific details about the organization out of the press. Indeed, given the unusual, strict written reminder to stay silent, members of Skull and Bones may well refuse to speak to any member of the media ever again.
But they have already spoken to me. When? Over the past three years. Why? Perhaps because I am a member of one of Skull and Bones’ kindred Yale secret societies. Perhaps because some of them are tired of the Skull and Bones legend, of the claims of conspiracy theorists and some of their fellow Bonesmen. What follows, then, is the truth about Skull and Bones. And if this truth does not contain all of the conspiratorial elements that the Skull and Bones legend projects, it is perhaps all the more interesting for that fact. The story of Skull and Bones is not just the story of a remarkable secret society, but a remarkable society of secrets, some with basis in truth, some nothing but fog. Much of the way we understand the world of power involves myriad assumptions of connection and control, of cause and effect, and of coincidence that surely cannot be coincidence.
Skull & Bones Society
A rare look inside Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society and sometime haunt of the presumptive Republican nominee for President
by Alexandra Robbins
ON High Street, in the middle of the Yale University campus, stands a cold-looking, nearly windowless Greco-Egyptian building with padlocked iron doors. This is the home of Yale's most famous secret society, Skull and Bones, and it is also, in a sense, one of the many homes of the family of George W. Bush, Yale '68.
Bush men have been Yale men and Bonesmen for generations. Prescott Bush, George W.'s grandfather, Yale '17, was a legendary Bonesman; he was a member of the band that stole for the society what became one of its most treasured artifacts: a skull that was said to be that of the Apache chief Geronimo. Prescott Bush, one of a great many Bonesmen who went on to lives of power and renown, became a U.S. senator. George Herbert Walker Bush, George W.'s father, Yale '48, was also a Bonesman, and he, too, made a conspicuous success of himself. Inside the temple on High Street hang paintings of some of Skull and Bones's more illustrious members; the painting of George Bush, the most recently installed, is five feet high.
There were other Bush Bonesmen, a proud line of them stretching from great uncle George Herbert Walker Jr. to uncle Jonathan Bush to cousins George Herbert Walker IIIand Ray Walker. So when George W. was "tapped" for Skull and Bones, at the end of his junior year, he, too, naturally became a Bonesman -- but, it seems, a somewhat ambivalent one.
New members of Skull and Bones are assigned secret names, by which fellow Bonesmen will forever know them. Some Bonesmen receive traditional names, denoting function or existential status; others are the chosen beneficiaries of names that their Bones predecessors wish to pass on. The leftover initiates choose their own names. The name Long Devil is assigned to the tallest member; Boaz (short for Beelzebub) 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 name, Sancho Panza, to the political adviser Tex McCrary. Averell Harriman was Thor, Henry Luce was Baal, McGeorge Bundy was Odin. The name Magog is traditionally assigned to the incoming Bonesman deemed to have had the most sexual experience, and Gog goes to the new member with the least sexual experience. William Howard Taft and Robert Taft were Magogs. So, interestingly, was George Bush.
George W. was not assigned a name but invited to choose one. According to one report, nothing came to mind, so he was given the name Temporary, which, it is said, he never bothered to replace; Temporary is how Bush's fellow Bonesmen know him today. (In recent interviews I asked a number of Bush's Bonesmen classmates about the name and elicited no denials.)
The junior George's diffidence in the matter of his secret name seems to reflect a larger ambivalence toward Yale and its select, the most elite of whom are the members of Skull and Bones. The elder George holds his fellow Yalies -- particularly his Bones brethren -- in great esteem, and over the years has often gone to them for advice. George W., in contrast, has publicly made a point of his disdain for the elite northeastern connections that shaped his father's world and, to some extent, his own. Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, who is a Bush family friend and himself the son of a Bonesman, says, "Young George is as unlikely a Bonesperson as I've ever met." Young George has not attended a Yale reunion since he graduated.
Bush's dismissal of Yale and all it stands for may be a response to the repeated charges of political opponents that he is not much more than a papa's boy. Kent Hance, who trounced Bush in his 1978 congressional race, insinuated that Bush was not a true Texan and accused him of "riding his daddy's coattails."
If George W. truly wanted to detach himself from his father and from the traditions of a long line of ancestors, he chose a curious path -- in effect, retracing his father's footsteps.
SKULL and Bones is the oldest of Yale's secret societies and by far the most determinedly secretive. As such, it has long been an inspiration for speculation and imagination. It still is. The society is, of course, the inspiration for the new Universal Pictures thriller The Skulls, about a nefarious secret society at an Ivy League school in New Haven. In 1968, when George W. Bush was in Skull and Bones, there were eight "abovegrounds," or societies that met in their own "tombs," and as many as ten "undergrounds," which held meetings in rented rooms. In an article in the 1968 Yale yearbook Lanny Davis, a 1967 Yale graduate and a secret-society member who would go on to become a White House special counsel in the Clinton Administration, described how Bones, famous for its distinguished list of members, held more sway than the others.
Come "Tap Day" ... if you're a junior, despite the fact that you've banged your fist at the lunch table and said, "This is 1968," and have loudly denounced societies as anachronisms, when the captain of the football team is standing by your door and when the tower clock strikes eight he rushes in and claps your shoulder and shouts, "Skull and Bones, accept or reject?" you almost always scream out, "Accept!" and you never, never, pound your fist at the lunch table, not for that reason ever again.Fewer than a tenth of Yale's 1,400 seniors are members of the university's secret societies, which many undergraduates view as self-serving vehicles for real and aspiring aristocrats. Certainly this view seems to have some validity when it comes to Bonesmen. Until 1992, when it became one of the last two secret societies to admit women, Skull and Bones had a history of picking the same kinds of people over and over. Davis's yearbook article explained,
If the society had a good year, this is what the "ideal" group will consist of: a football captain; a Chairman of the Yale Daily News; a conspicuous radical; a Whiffenpoof; a swimming captain; a notorious drunk with a 94 average; a film-maker; a political columnist; a religious group leader; a Chairman of the Lit; a foreigner; a ladies' man with two motorcycles; an ex-service man; a negro, if there are enough to go around; a guy nobody else in the group had heard of, ever.Indeed, George W.'s 1968 brethren slip easily into the desired slots: among them were the Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Don Schollander; a future Harvard Medical School surgeon, Gregory Gallico; a future Rhodes scholar, Robert McCallum; the Whiffenpoofs' pitch, Robert Birge; Donald Etra, an Orthodox Jew; Muhammed Saleh, a Jordanian; a future deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Rex Cowdry; and the black soccer captain Roy Austin. Only George W. himself fell into none of the aforementioned categories. He was generally regarded as a legacy tap.
Given the society's history as an incubator and meeting point for rising generational elites, it is not surprising that an especially susceptible kind of "barbarian" -- the Bones term for a nonmember -- has long seen the society as a locus of mystery, wealth, and conspiracy. One doesn't need to scratch deeply to uncover accusations of sinister ties with the CIA, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Council on Foreign Relations, even the Nazis. It turns out that the Yale admissions committee that voted to admit George W., despite his poor record at Andover, included three members (out of seven) who were Bonesmen; those seeking evidence of malign influence will surely raise an eyebrow. (For the conspiracy-minded, the most useful omnium gatherum is the British writer Antony C. Sutton's feverish 1983 tract An Introduction to the Order.) World domination aside, the most pervasive rumors about Bones are that initiates must masturbate in a coffin while recounting their sexual exploits, and that their candor is ultimately rewarded with a no-strings-attached gift of $15,000. Bonesmen, who are sworn to secrecy at initiation, have not publicly denied or confirmed these rumors; they have usually made a point of refusing to speak to the press about the society at all. As The Skulls was about to be released, and as George W.'s quest for the Republican presidential nomination looked increasingly certain to succeed, the society sent all members a memo reminding them of their vow of silence. Still, as I recently discovered in the course of looking into Skull and Bones, not all Bonesmen see the necessity of remaining tight-lipped about a society whose biggest secret may be that its secrets are essentially trivial.
THE story of Skull and Bones begins in December of 1832. Upset (according to one account) by changes in the Phi Beta Kappa election process, a Yale senior named William Russell and a group of classmates decided to form the Eulogian Club as an American chapter of a German student organization. The club paid obeisance to Eulogia, the goddess of eloquence, who took her place in the pantheon upon the death of the orator Demosthenes, in 322 B.C., and who is said to have returned in a kind of Second Coming on the occasion of the society's inception. The Yale society fastened a picture of its symbol -- a skull and crossbones -- to the door of the chapel where it met. Today the number 322, recalling the date of Demosthenes' death, appears on society stationery. The number has such mystical overtones that in 1967 a graduate student with no ties to Skull and Bones donated $322,000 to the society.
(The number 322 has also been a particular favorite of conspiracy-minded hunters for evidence of Skull and Bones's global connections. It was the combination to Averell Harriman's briefcase when he carried classified dispatches between London and Moscow during World War II. Antony C. Sutton claims that 322 doubles as a reminder of the society's mother organization in Germany; the American group, founded in 1832, is the second chapter -- thus 32-2.)
In 1856 Daniel Coit Gilman, who went on to become the founding president of Johns Hopkins University, officially incorporated the society as the Russell Trust Association, and Skull and Bones moved into the space it still occupies. The Bones tomb is forbidding only on the outside. Marina Moscovici, a Connecticut conservator who recently spent six years restoring fifteen paintings from the Skull and Bones building, describes the atmosphere inside as "funny spooky." She says, "Sort of like the Addams Family, it's campy in an old British men's-smoking-club way. It's not glamorous by any means."
"Bones is like a college dorm room," a 1980s Bonesman told me. "Ours was a place that used to be really nice but felt kind of beat up, lived in. There were socks underneath the couch, old half-deflated soccer balls lying around." Dozens of skeletons and skulls, human and animal, dangle from the walls, on which German and Latin phrases have been chiseled ("Whether poor or rich, all are equal in death"), among moose heads, sconces, medieval armor, antlers, boating flags, manuscripts, statuettes of Demosthenes, and a pair of boots that one member wore throughout his active duty with American forces in France during World War II. The gravestone of Elihu Yale, the eponymous eighteenth-century merchant, was stolen years ago from its proper setting in Wrexham, Wales, and is displayed in a glass case, in a room with purple walls.
As noted, for many years the society has possessed a skull that members call Geronimo. In the 1980s, under pressure from Ned Anderson, a former Apache tribal chairman in Arizona, the society produced the skull in question. The skull didn't match Anderson's records, and it was returned to the society's tomb. Anderson wasn't finished. He reportedly took the issue up with his congressman, John McCain; McCain tried to arrange a meeting between Anderson and George Bush, who was then the Vice President. Bush wasn't interested, and the matter was dropped. "We still call it Geronimo anyway," a Bonesman says. The issue of Geronimo's skull never surfaced in the public record during the bitter contest between McCain and George W. for the Republican nomination.
The most private room in the building, known as the Inner Temple, or (this will be no surprise) Room 322, is approximately fourteen feet square and guarded by a locked iron door. Inside, a case contains a skeleton that Bonesmen refer to as Madame Pompadour. Compartments in the case guard the society's cherished manuscripts, including the secrecy oath and instructions for conducting an initiation.
As an initiate enters the room, patriarchs standing outside the Inner Temple shout, "Who is it?" The shakers bellow the initiate's name, which the patriarchs echo. The shakers push the initiate toward the table, where the secrecy oath has been placed, and he is enjoined to "Read! Read! Read!" The shakers then half-carry the initiate to a picture of Eulogia, and the Bonesmen shriek, "Eulogia! Eulogia! Eulogia!" After another trip to the oath, the shakers fire the initiate toward a picture of a woman that Bonesmen call Connubial Bliss.
Rituals along these lines go on for quite some time, recalling a cross between haunted-house antics and a human pinball game -- "like something from a Harry Potter novel," in the words of one Bonesman, now an engineer. It is perhaps worth noting, in light of George W.'s controversial episode at Bob Jones University and the specter of anti-Catholicism, that at one point in the proceedings every initiate kisses the slippered toe of the "Pope." At last the initiate is formally dubbed a Knight of Eulogia. Amid more raucous ritual he is cast from the room into the waiting arms of the patriarchs.
WITHIN the tomb students run on Skull and Bones time, which is five minutes ahead of the time in the rest of the world. "It was to encourage you to think that being in the building was so different from the outside world that you'd let your guard down," a Bonesman ('72) explains. At 6:30 on Thursdays and Sundays the Bonesmen gather in the Firefly Room for supper. The room is dim and intimate; light shines through the gaping eyeholes of fixtures shaped like skulls. Bonesmen drink various refreshments from skull-shaped cups, but never alcohol. The dry-society rule, fervently enforced, was designed to keep members level-headed for discussions -- a change of pace for George W., who drank heavily during his college years.
At 7:55 barbarian time Uncle Toby rings a bell to summon the members to the session. When the knights are seated, they sing two sacred anthems before the Hearing of Excuses, during which members are assessed fines for errors, such as arriving late or using a society name outside the tomb. Uncle Toby then draws debate topics and an order of speakers from the Yorick, a skull divided into compartments. The ninety-minute period of debate can be frivolous or grave.
One of the standard pieces of lore about Skull and Bones is that each member must at some point give an account of his sexual history, known as the CB (for "Connubial Bliss"). "After the first one or two times it's like guys listing their conquests, and that gets old," one young Bonesman told me recently. "There's just not that much to talk about" -- and so CBs have evolved into relationship discussions. "It's the kind of stuff a lot of guys do with their teammates," says another Bonesman ('83). "There was nothing perverse or surreal or prurient -- just an open exchange. It's like TV's Ricki Lake -- there's now a national mania for purging thoughts at large. This is a way of doing it in a very private, non-sensationalist way that benefits the people who are listening and the people who are telling."
By mid-autumn, after each member has presented a CB, the time slot shifts to Life Histories, when Bonesmen spend one or more nights giving their autobiographies. George Bush's autobiography focused on his military service but also looked ahead, a 1948 member told me. "He was talking about the future, first about his family and then about being able to have an impact in public service." George W., in contrast, spoke often about his father. George W.'s fellow Bonesmen have been unwilling to elaborate.
WHEN U.S. News & World Report asked President Bush in 1989 why he had chosen to attend Yale, he replied, "My family had a major Yale tradition." Today George W. Bush distances himself from Yale (although supporters cite his alma mater to combat charges that he is a lightweight). He has criticized its "intellectual snobbery" and has maintained that the school epitomizes "a certain East Coast attitude" and an "intellectual arrogance." George W.'s attitude toward Yale extends to its most elite society. Whereas George Bush returned to the tomb in 1998 to be the dinner speaker at the annual Skull and Bones commencement party, George W. has stayed away. In his 1999 campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush mentions his membership in Skull and Bones only in passing: "My senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can't say anything more."
Yet Skull and Bones was not relegated entirely to George W.'s past after he graduated. In 1971, having been rejected by the University of Texas Law School and needing a job, Bush called a Bonesman, Robert H. Gow. Gow, who later told The Washington Post that his Houston-based agricultural company had not been looking for anyone at the time, hired Bush as a management trainee. In 1977, when Bush formed Arbusto Energy, his first company, he once again applied to Skull and Bones for financial aid. With assistance from his uncle Jonathan Bush (Bones '53), he lined up $565,000 from twenty-eight investors. One of them contributed $93,000 -- the California venture capitalist William H. Draper III (Bones '50). Twelve Bonesmen (including family members)and the son of a patriarch gave a total of $35,500 to Bush's 1998 gubernatorial campaign. At least forty-six Bonesmen or sons of patriarchs have given approximately $1,000 apiece to his presidential campaign -- the maximum allowed by law.
Not surprisingly, loyalty often flows in the other direction. In 1984 Bush flew to Tennessee to accompany the Republican Senate nominee and Bonesman ('67) Victor Ashe on a seven-city tour. Ashe lost to Al Gore.
That George W. keeps his Skull and Bones connections in repair is hardly a sign of anything insidious; it's just business as usual in America. Compared with his family connections and his family's Yale connections, the Skull and Bones network is just a sideshow. But in the eyes of the conspiracy-minded, interconnections of any kind, especially when cloaked in mystery and ritual, constitute virtual proof of dark doings. Skull and Bones will probably never rid itself of innuendo -- innuendo that has not helped the Bonesmen Bushes in the pursuit of politics.
Conspiracy theories, which George W. has called "the kind of connect-the-random-dots charges that are virtually impossible to refute," contributed to Bush's defeat in his 1978 congressional campaign. Bill Minutaglio, in his biography of Bush, First Son, recalls an afternoon debate moderated by the radio talk-show host Mel Turner:
Turner ... wanted to know if the young Bush was a tool of some shadow government; it was the same thing people had confronted his father with when they had called him a "tool of the eastern kingmakers."George W.'s father has certainly felt that membership in Skull and Bones damaged him politically. When Fay Vincent made a consolation call to Bush after his 1980 loss of the Republican presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan, the weary candidate said, "Fay, let me tell you something. If you ever decide to run for office, don't forget that coming from Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, and the Trilateral Commission is a big handicap. People don't know what they are, so they don't know where you're coming from. It's really a big, big problem."
"Are you involved in, or do you know anybody involved in, one-world government or the Trilateral Commission?"
Bush, who had been telling people he was tired of being hammered for having "connections" through his father to the eastern establishment, was fuming. "I won't be persuaded by anyone, including my father," he said, with a biting tone in his voice.
On the way out of the restaurant, Bush was still livid. He refused to shake hands with Turner. "You *," Turner heard him hiss as he walked by.
In The Skulls, members of the secret society murder a student journalist who is attempting to probe its mysteries. Real-life journalists have not met the same fate, so far as we know, although Ron Rosenbaum, the author of a 1977 Esquire article on Skull and Bones, wrote that a Bonesman warned him not to get too close: "The alumni still care," the source warned.
"Don't laugh. They don't like people tampering and prying. The power of Bones is incredible. They've got their hands on every lever of power in the country. You'll see -- it's like trying to look into the Mafia."When I read this excerpt to one young Bonesman, he laughed and said, "I really don't think I'd be working nights as a paralegal while trying to be an actor if I had access to some golden key."
SKULL and Bones doesn't own an opulent island hideaway like the one depicted in The Skulls. It does own an island on the St. Lawrence River -- Deer Island, in Alexandria Bay. The forty-acre retreat is intended to give Bonesmen an opportunity to "get together and rekindle old friendships." A century ago the island sported tennis courts and its softball fields were surrounded by rhubarb plants and gooseberry bushes. Catboats waited on the lake. Stewards catered elegant meals. But although each new Skull and Bones member still visits Deer Island, the place leaves something to be desired. "Now it is just a bunch of burned-out stone buildings," a patriarch sighs. "It's basically ruins." Another Bonesman says that to call the island "rustic" would be to glorify it. "It's a dump, but it's beautiful."
The fading of Deer Island exemplifies the dwindling finances of Skull and Bones, which can no longer claim the largest society endowment at Yale. Unlike members of other societies, Bonesmen pay no dues, though patriarchs receive an annual letter requesting a "voluntary contribution to the Russell Trust Association." In truth, Skull and Bones has never been wealthy.
The society's accounts are much fatter in the ineffables department. A Skull and Bones document states,
The experience we have come to value in our society depends on privacy, and we are unwilling to jeopardize that life in order to solicit new members. The life which we invite you to share in our society is based on such intangible factors that we cannot meaningfully convey to you either its nature or quality.Hardly a tool of Hades, but rather a staid wayside for students, its heyday past, its glory faded, Skull and Bones may have little more than this to conceal.
As for the $15,000 graduation gift, George W.'s contemporary Rex Cowdry says, "I'm still waiting for mine."
A Brief History Of The Skull & Bones Society
By M.J. Stephey Monday, Feb. 23, 2009
On Feb. 17, the 100th anniversary of Geronimo's death, descendants of the Apache warrior filed a federal lawsuit against the secretive Skull and Bones society of Yale University demanding that the group — which it claims is in possession of Geronimo's remains — return them to his family. "I believe strongly from my heart that his spirit was never released," Geronimo's great-grandson Haryln Geronimo, 61, told the National Press Club.
As legend has it, Prescott S. Bush — the father of President George H.W. Bush and grandfather to President George W. Bush — dug up Geronimo's grave in 1918 with the help of several other "Bonesmen," as members of the society are known, and stole the warrior's skull, two bones and some riding gear from his grave at Fort Sill, Okla. The society allegedly put the remains on display at the "The Tomb," an imposing, windowless crypt in New Haven, Conn. that has served as the group's headquarters since its founding in 1832.
Conspiracy theories about the Skull & Bones Society are almost as old as the society itself. The group has been blamed for everything from the creation of the nuclear bomb to the Kennedy assassination. It's been aped in bad teen horror films and satirized — along with fellow conspiracy-group targets the Freemasons and the Illuminati — in The Simpsons. Even CNN has done a segment on the Prescott grave-robbery saga.
Minus the trappings of wealth, privilege and power, Skull and Bones could be a laughably juvenile club for Dungeons-and-Dragon geeks. But its rumored alumni have made up a disproportionately large percentage of the world's most powerful leaders. (One historian has likened the society's powers to that of an "international mafia," for as another writer put it, "the mafia is, after all, the most secret of societies.") Bonesmen have, at one time, controlled the fortunes of the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford families, as well as posts in the Central Intelligance Agency, the American Psychological Association, the Council on Foreign Relations and some of the most powerful law firms in the world.
During the 2004 presidential election, the Republican and Democratic candidates were both former Bonesmen, though neither would say much about the subject. "It's a secret," John Kerry said when asked about his membership; "So secret, I can't say anything more," George W. Bush wrote in his autobiography, as if to complete Kerry's sentence.
A young Yale junior named William Russell founded the group after spending a year in Germany among members of some of the most mystical and elite clubs in the world, including organizations that mimicked the Enlightenment-era Illuminati. Russell returned to the U.S. determined to found a secret society of his own and "tapped" Alfonso Taft, whose son would later become President William H. Taft, to be among the first members of "The Brotherhood of Death," or as it was more formally known, "The Order of the Skull and Bones." Members worshipped Eulogia, a fake goddess of eloquence, glorified pirates and reportedly hatched schemes of world domination at the "Tomb" — which is rumored to have a landing pad on the roof for the society's private helicopter.
Skull and Bones formed at Yale University, the third-oldest school in the U.S. and an institution "known for its strange, Gothic elitism and its rigid devotion to the past," according to journalist (and Yale secret society alumnae) Alexandra Robbins, who published Secrets of the Tomb in 2002. Skull and Bones is not the only secret society at the school either: others include the Scroll and Key, Wolf's Head, Berzelius and Book and Snake, all of which like keeping tabs on one another, some in the form of dossiers that include "reliability ratings." Each group picks its members in a highly confidential manner and subjects them to rounds of occult hazing rituals — what pledging a fraternity might be like, perhaps, at Hogwarts.
But whether a young Henry Luce (founder of Time magazine) actually laid naked in a coffin and told the tales of his early sex life during his Skull and Bones initiation, or if William F. Buckley jumped into a mud pie as part of his hazing, or whether any of the three Bush Bonesman (Prescott, H.W., and W.) really received a gift of $15,000 and the guarantee of a lifetime of financial security upon being selected — all these rumors, publicized over the years by Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and numerous independent book authors, might never be known.
The group has remained silent about the lawsuit from Geronimo's descendants. But in a time when the Internet is opening up previously private information to the world and even Swiss banks are spilling their secrets, the activities of the Skull & Bones society might not be able to stay so clandestine for long.