The Lost Virtue of Skull and Bones - Palladium

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Gabriella Clare Marino/Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome

The following essay originally appeared in print in Palladium 04. To receive original content in future print editions, subscribe here.

During the final weeks of April in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale’s rising seniors spend their evenings wandering campus in costumes and masks. This is one of several elaborate initiation rituals intended to prepare students for membership in Yale’s secret societies. In recent years, the number of societies at Yale has ballooned. In 2021, 45 societies participated in the “Tap Letter,” an official declaration cosigned by outgoing society members in which they agree to best practices and an official timeline for the “tap” process. These newer, less prestigious societies with names like “Fork and Knife” or “Blood and Clown” have been established to meet undergraduate demand for society membership. But one society stands out for its absence on that document. While its name is missing from the list of the undersigned, there is no society at Yale more famous than Skull and Bones.

At the apex of the American century, alumni of Skull and Bones—commonly just called Bones—wielded substantial influence in law, industry, and foreign and domestic policy. They served as CIA directors, presidents, Supreme Court justices, and secretaries of state. However, as with many institutions from America’s mid-century ascendancy, Skull and Bones is a shell of its former self. Its influence has fared about as well as its 40-acre retreat on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, named Deer Island. Deer Island provides a space for society members to cultivate intimate personal bonds. It plays a similar role off-campus as the society’s “tomb,” or official clubhouse, does at Yale itself. The island was once home to a collection of stone-and-mortar hunting lodges, cabins, and recreational facilities for knights (current members) and patriarchs (alumni) to reconnect and enjoy old friendships away from the political and financial currents of the urban Northeast. Today, one large cabin remains. The rest burned in a fire decades ago and have not been restored.

In the mid-century, elites followed a social script defined by a sense of American destiny underpinned in part by patronage networks at Yale and elsewhere. This culture taught enterprising students to value tradition, hierarchy, and institutions with missions greater than the ambitions of any one individual. It is no surprise, then, that public service was such a common career path for Bonesmen. Yale’s best, brightest, and most well-connected students graduating from Bones were funneled into pipelines to work in the CIA and the State Department, institutions that valued intense loyalty, brotherhood, and hierarchy—virtues which Bonesmen shared in abundance.

But institutions only last as long as their members’ ability to achieve cultural succession. By contrast, today’s elite social script favors narrow ambition, risk aversion, and pre-programmed career choices. Societies like Bones have always selected students with a willingness to climb the social ladders available to them at an elite university like Yale. But at their height, they were also tremendously effective at preparing up-and-coming elites to wield power in a C-Suite, the Oval Office, or the halls of the U.S. Senate. In that respect, the remnants of the society’s compound on Deer Island might be the most representative symbol of its current state. While the remaining lodge is still a gathering place for current Bonesmen, the island’s reputation is as a beautiful “dump.

The lodge at Deer Island is still a gathering place for current Bonesmen and a unique asset for the society, but the decline of Bones extends beyond its antiquated meetinghouses. Today, it is an organization whose secrets and their power mean little in the national political and cultural landscape. It is inward-looking, controlled by students whose career ambitions are narrow and uncreative, whose understanding of the role of the society is limited at best, and even at odds with the perspectives of older alumni. It is tempting to romanticize organizations like Bones; their aura of secrecy explicitly encourages such illusions. But it is still susceptible to the same mechanical breakdowns as any other elite social space. This breakdown between generations of Bonesmen has led to conflict within the society itself as younger students apply activist techniques to an organization whose modus operandi is the cultivation and passing on of power through social hierarchies.

Presently, Bones’s greatest challenge is dealing with a generational elite monoculture that is simultaneously eager to capitalize on the elite privileges that come with membership and hostile to the values of hierarchy and patronage that sustained and justified it. Bones’s fall from glory offers important lessons for elite formation in America because it reflects the culture in which it finds itself. A political order lasts only as long as its institutions continue to function through the generations. Yale’s most infamous secret society existed to secure that generational succession and nurture the ambitions of young, aspiring elites. When such an institution is overcome by conflict and its members’ ambitions become de-linked from the political order, it becomes yet another signal of terminal elite decay. Such a political order will not survive.

The Virtue of Secrecy

Bones is a secret society created by rising elites, for rising elites. William Huntington Russell, whose ancestry included numerous New England luminaries, seems to have drawn direct inspiration from German secret societies—called Burschenschaften—after spending time there. He eventually recruited fellow Yale student Alphonso Taft, who went on to set the standard for Bonesman career success as the only American to serve as both Attorney General and Secretary of War, in addition to ambassadorships to both Russia and Austria-Hungary. The club that would become Skull and Bones began its life in 1832 as the Eulogian Club—named for Eulogia, a purportedly Greek goddess created by the club’s founders, whose mythic life begins with the death of Demosthenes in 322 BC and who is said to have returned triumphantly to reside in the society’s residential “tomb.” After one member fixed a skull and crossbones to a public notice, the more well-known name became fixed in the campus’s imagination: the Order of the Skull and Bones. Its early members established both rituals and standards for entry that reflected commitments to setting aside political partisanship within the society and intentionally creating social bonds and brotherhood.

By the time Bones came into existence, its institutional form as a secret society was, ironically, well-known. It inherited both ritualism and secrecy from numerous predecessors among both American collegiate societies and the more traditional secret societies that functioned on both sides of the Atlantic. Such societies played an important social role from the early modern era in Europe through to the 20th century, bringing together ambitious and upwardly mobile men with those already established in the upper classes, and inheriting—or claiming to inherit—traditions and secret wisdom from earlier generations. These markers are shared by numerous similar societies, from the Freemasons to Phi Beta Kappa.

The practice of secrecy is not merely aesthetic, but functional. A society like Bones functions only insofar as members are willing to put external allegiances aside, devoting themselves entirely to the project of their organization. This is only possible with secrecy, as information flowing out of an organization allows external influence to come in. The sharp distinction between insider and outsider also contributes to a society’s mythos. It instantiates a reverence for tradition that might confuse the outsider—and sometimes, a purely absurd ritual or founding story exists solely for that reason. Bones, for example, has adopted the moniker “Barbarians” for members of the general public, a nod to the ancient Greek “βάρβαρος”—first used by Herodotus to refer to the invading armies of the Persian king Xerxes. Exclusivity also adds to a society’s allure; Bones taps only fifteen undergraduates each year and has done so since its inception in 1834. That fact has only made Bones more exclusive and thus more popular as Yale continues to expand its student population.

But the insider-outsider distinction and the barriers to crossing it also serve the practical purpose of warding off those who would use the club for their own ends. San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, widely considered a peer institution to Bones, is explicit about this commitment. Its motto, “Weaving Spiders Come not Here,” is emblematic of the society’s commitment to isolating members and the club itself from outside interference. To be an insider is to be vetted, trusted, and personally invested. Not only the direct network itself, but the skills necessary to build and maintain such networks, doubtless served members well in the worlds of business, politics, and military affairs that many Bones patriarchs entered.

In small societies like Bones, institutional memory is preserved through the careful selection and instruction of new classes of members. At the Bones induction ceremony, older alumni participate in and supervise the proceedings. For years, Bones was attractive to rising seniors because of its alumni network, forged in two six-hour-long meetings each week inside the windowless tomb on New Haven’s High Street. It maintained strong ties with the outside world and offered access to jobs, capital, and friends who were not to be found elsewhere. For these reasons, in addition to the secrecy that is the society’s most enduring characteristic, Bones became a uniquely prestigious and well-regarded elite social space for rising Yale seniors. Those benefits are built atop the secrecy that is the society’s most enduring characteristic.

By all accounts, the specifics of the Bones rituals and the decor of their headquarters are underwhelming, given their infamous and conspiratorial reputation. Members choose ritual names during initiations, sometimes passed down from prior generations. In addition to the skull that members name Geronimo, a skeleton dubbed Madame Pompadour resides in the tomb’s inner room along with important internal documents. From hazing rituals involving publicly recounting sexual exploits to the infamous practice of stealing prize objects, including tombstones and skulls, the club’s rituals are more or less the sort one would expect from ambitious undergraduates with a taste for brotherhood draped in occult aesthetics. Yet despite this campiness, the network that the Bonesmen created was not to be taken lightly.

Three presidents—William Howard Taft and both Bushes—have been members of Bones. Winston Lord, a director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, was a Bonesman. Its members span the political spectrum: both William F. Buckley, Jr., intellectual architect of modern American conservatism, and William Sloane Coffin, progressive activist and clergyman, were Bones patriarchs. The man behind Coffin’s tap was his friend George H. W. Bush; Coffin spent several years as a CIA case officer after Yale, while Bush later became its director. Scores of American diplomats with lesser reputations finished their Yale degrees with the Bones pedigree at their backs. But there is no better example of a Bonesman-turned-statesman than Henry Stimson, FDR’s Secretary of War and American strategic mastermind.

Stimson not only oversaw the development of America’s wartime industrial power—he led the Manhattan Project and was a staunch proponent of the Marshall plan and Nuremberg trials, as he foresaw the inclusion of a strong and refashioned Germany in the postwar order. He also advocated for and approved the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, as well as advising collaboration with the Soviet Union and United Nations after the war to prevent any future conflict. Stimson relied on Bones connections at important moments during his career. Two of the three private-sector aides he recruited upon becoming Secretary of War—Wall Street banker Robert A. Lovett and State Street lawyer Harvey H. Bundy—were fellow Bonesmen. Near the end of his life, Stimson put his memoirs into a book titled On Active Service in Peace and War. His assistant during its writing was another Bonesman: McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to JFK, a historian by training and diplomat by vocation. Stimson died in 1950, only five years after retiring in 1945, and only three years after finishing his autobiography with Bundy’s help. His Bones ties ran deep, through life and until death.

Nearly two decades later, in the spring of 1967, George W. Bush received his own Bones tap. His election into Bones was hardly a surprise in an organization that tends to adhere to intergenerational legacies. Like the military, in which all three Bush men served before working in politics, Bones had a reputation for being a tight-knit brotherhood in which class and upbringing were secondary to the social bonds formed within the society. All that was assumed of members was a respect for the club’s traditions and a devotion to the secrecy which preserved them. For this reason, Bones and its peer societies were extremely dependent upon each initiate’s loyalty to their own cadre of Bonesmen, as well as to the alumni who came before them.

But the network and internal culture that made Bones powerful has withered and changed. Two anecdotes, both confirmed to me by a Bones alumnus and consistent with broader rumors about the decline of Skull and Bones as an institution, illustrate the new divide.

In 2019, the graduating Bones class took their annual trip to Dallas, Texas, where they met with George W. Bush over dinner. Bush had a tradition of hosting Bonesmen for dinners, conversation, and bonding of the kind that he likely enjoyed during his time in the society. But, during a private discussion one evening at Bush’s office, the questioning reportedly devolved into accusations and prodding about racism and war crimes. Afterward, Bush put a stop to the retreats.

That same year, the Bones alumni reunion occasioned something of an official inquiry into the antics of that year’s class. Returning patriarchs discovered that paintings of former Bonesmen had been taken down—in the spirit of broader removals of statues recently deemed problematic—and now lay haphazardly facing the society’s walls. This compounded a breakdown that had already begun the previous year, when current knights accosted Bones alumni with demands for donations to fund a public-facing charity project. “Public-facing” is not the de facto procedure for a secret society.

Such a stark contrast between the Bones of Bush’s memories and the Bones that turned up at his Dallas office cannot be ignored. The dispute even has financial implications: Bones has not made dues compulsory for many years. Instead, the Russell Trust Association, Bones’s financial entity, puts out a yearly solicitation for alumni donations. Bush’s fellow Bonesmen in the 1968 class would not have been remotely interested in questioning or disrespecting the alumni whose support sustains the society. So what has happened within the institution?

What Is Bones For?

Until the 1970s, the pattern of Bonesmen entering government at some point in their lives was relatively constant. Bones patriarchs leveraged their collegiate relationships, forged through hours of mandatory society meetings throughout the academic year, to enhance their position as members of a power elite. Like most small-scale forms of social organization, the secret society landscape functions through patronage, mentorship, and a quid pro quo economy that allows participants to gain advantages in politics, business, and diplomacy through the token of a secret handshake, a turn of phrase, or the flash of a lapel pin.

Bones monopolized the social scene at Yale by becoming the thing that everyone wanted to be. Bones was a symbol of American power and a conduit to the elite circles and informal corridors which wielded that power. But while it aimed to be a powerful and valuable network within Yale and among American elites, it necessarily drew its values from the culture around it. Learning from elder members with an eye to succeeding them and expressing ambition through public service were valued by Bonesmen because they were valued by the families, culture, and institutions they came from. Each Bones class is created by the outgoing members, all of whom are allotted a fixed number of “taps” for the rising senior class. The society interviews many students and elects few to membership.

But the relatively small and unpiloted culture of an old secret society depends on the health of the surrounding culture. If elite culture shifts out from under it, not even Skull and Bones can survive. What distinguishes the Bones of today is that the elite culture it is embedded in has radically departed from that of Russell, Taft, Stimson, and the Bushes. Bones itself has not changed. Rather, the students who form its membership have.

The notion of generational succession among elites and the legitimacy of expressing ambition by integrating into an already-existing elite culture has itself become illegitimate. A conscious approach to generational succession is only viable if the larger society in which it occurs sees it as legitimate and desirable. With its recent anti-elite and anti-privilege ideological fashions, Yale, like the Ivy League more generally, has not succeeded in abolishing elites or the existence of a distinct culture and set of networks among American elites. Instead, it has developed and institutionalized an elite double-consciousness. While still enforcing norms like respectability, exclusion of the wrong social mores, and certain hierarchies, it falsifies its beliefs around these practices and disowns the very position it occupies. It is a mark of elite status to play this game, to decry privilege while exploiting it, and to purport to dismantle institutions while actively striving for power within them.

The result is that the beliefs and behaviors on which a healthy elite culture relies continue to erode. In place of the aspirational elite status of early Bonesmen, Yale students now follow more or less the same careerist social scripts of the middle class. Students who theoretically have access to the most valuable and exclusive networks in America end up in high-paying, low-creativity, high-replaceability jobs on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.

Skull and Bones is not immune from this disorder. The walls of its Egyptian Revival tomb on New Haven’s High Street may be thick, but they are not impenetrable. Secret societies in elite circles are no stronger than the bonds formed by their members and the culture they are embedded in. Especially at one-year university societies, which proliferated to the University of Virginia, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Cornell in the 19th and 20th centuries, the class is the essential social unit. A dysfunctional class ruins the experience.

Like the university in which it was founded, Bones has fallen victim to the generational succession failure that is tearing the institutional inheritance of the 20th century apart. It adopts the narratives of the broader Yale campus because it is ultimately part of the Yale fabric. One of Yale’s satire magazines—the Rumpus—traditionally publishes the names of members in all of Yale’s societies in their final issue each year. As a result of these public lists, Bones has acquired a reputation for attracting students with the longest resumes of activist political affiliations. In that light, the events of 2019 and the rifts between current and former Bonesmen are an unsurprising development.

Only by excluding all but fifteen undergraduates each year, only by keeping traditions, customs, and rituals sealed to the public, and only by embracing hierarchy has Bones been able to maintain its hold on Yale’s student body over nearly two centuries. The cult of secrecy and exclusivity produced a self-fulfilling myth of power and influence. But in doing so, it has become exactly the kind of institution that an ambitious Yale student is better off denouncing than praising, even—or especially if—the denunciation comes from within. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Bones selects for activist prestige. So goes the Yale social script; Bones can be no different.

During its heyday, Bones was powerful not just because it was extremely well-connected to the CIA or the Federal Reserve, but because of its institutional design. Secret societies like Bones were especially good at training aspirational elites in the attitudes and relationship-building skills required to effectively manage hierarchical bureaucracies like the CIA, which both granted them success and helped them maintain that culture for future generations. These societies also structured the non-academic pursuits of Yale students, channeling their ambition towards useful ends and enabling them to situate themselves socially amongst their peers. Societies allowed students to organize their own hierarchies, separate from those of the college. Many students felt more comfortable in their society tombs, able to build trust and discuss sensitive topics that may have courted controversy if aired on the campus at large.

Like the military, Bones aimed to produce a specific type of person. That person would be scholarly, charitable, compassionate, and devoted to the political community. Foundational elements of Bones, such as the Eulogia mythos and references to the Greek orator Demosthenes, speak to this quality. They suggest that Bones’s original purpose—to give undergraduates an opportunity to seek intellectual stimulation and personal relationships outside of college structures—supported a mission focused on public service.

While it is still considered an honor to receive a Bones “tap,” many students also recognize that the organization is no longer what it once was. Bones’s prestige has declined, in part, due to the proliferation of copycats. Settling for a lesser society, even one of the seven that do not have “tombs,” is socially acceptable and even desirable. Bonesmen gather twice a week for debates, dinners, and to give a narrative of their life histories to fellow members. But this tradition is commonplace at all of Yale’s newer societies, as mimicry of the older and more prestigious ones has been a recipe for sustained popularity.

With these imitators, the experience of Bones is no longer unique. Some students have even been known to turn down offers of membership. Barbara Bush, daughter of George W., is one such example. In the last decade, Bones’s stock crashed. Members are reticent about their own organization. Alumni are disenchanted and reactionary. Students are less eager to regard Bones as a credible or even important institution than they once were.

To say that secret societies once held hegemony in the social environment at Yale is not far from the truth. In Stover at Yale, a serialized novel that ran in McClure’s magazine in the early 20th century, American author Owen Johnson—himself a Yale alumnus—offered a sardonic take on Yale’s societies. One of the principal antagonists, aristocratic sophomore Le Baron, provides freshman protagonist Dink Stover with an appraisal of the society system:

You’ll hear a good deal of talk inside the college, and out of it, too, about the system. It has its faults. But it’s the best system there is, and it makes Yale what it is to-day. It makes fellows get out and work; it gives them ambitions, stops loafing and going to seed, and keeps a pretty good, clean, temperate atmosphere about the place.

Bones is just one small part of a much broader elite culture. Insofar as a generational and institutional rupture exists in the society, it reflects one that runs through the broader culture as well. Yale students inherit a set of institutions established by previous generations for the purpose of governing society, but lack both the ideological frame and the political education to use them. Moreover, the institutions—including Yale itself—are in serious disrepair. Such a decline isn’t just unsustainable and unproductive, or relevant merely as an academic cautionary tale. These social networks ultimately undergird U.S. power. The decline in these networks is ultimately a decline in the competence of America’s elite and their ability to govern our political order. This decay bodes poorly for the survival of our social institutions and our society.

The Secrets of Society

In early 19th-century Prussia, Burschenschaften became popular outlets for student extracurricular activity at German universities. Their initial memberships consisted primarily of students whose shared service in the Napoleonic wars made them German nationalists. Ultimately, the purpose of these student associations was to improve the cohesion of German students and to advocate for a liberal and national conception of the German state. A few years after the appearance of the Burschenschaften, their devotion to the nationalist cause had antagonized the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich enough to result in their prohibition under the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819. Although they regained some degree of prominence in the latter half of the 19th century, they never again enjoyed as high a degree of political influence. What made them powerful enough to be dangerous was their clandestine character.

In its heyday, Skull and Bones flourished by maintaining institutional power through connections in government, industry, and diplomacy. Membership further elevated Yale graduates who had already been elevated by their Yale diplomas. Undergraduates lucky enough to receive election were tacitly acknowledged by their peers as ambitious scholars, representatives of a pedigree detached from family rank, but indicative of future potential. These traits, once assumed to be good heuristics for competent elite status, signaled creativity and entrepreneurship that translated into success in bureaucracies like the CIA or State Department. Skull and Bones still selects for students that are ambitious and smart, but their career goals and elite aspirations are now far decayed from their mid-century predecessors.

Skull and Bones is now isolated from alumni. Its political power and stature on campus have waned. It has become a hollow institution because the elite culture around it is just as hollow. Bones cannot rise above its role as a reflection of that culture. Its buildings have become mere meeting places for resume-stacking by up-and-coming investment bankers and consultants. Its traditions are meaningless if the social networks that they support have lost the social mandate to act as elites, rather than alienated careerists who fake being broke. Without functional social institutions—secret societies or otherwise—that truly prepare elites to wield power and place them in a position to do so effectively, America is left staggeringly unprepared to staff its federal agencies, major corporations, and political offices with individuals whose commitment extends beyond their resumes to society as a whole.

Bones itself is probably dead and will not be reformed. But if a secret society like Bones were to re-emerge as a live player in American elite formation, it would have to do so by doubling down on secrecy, hierarchy, and intra-organizational loyalties. These are the principles that allow a secret society to maintain a productive distance from the mainstream of elite society, form tight bonds and a tradition of institutional loyalty, and shape its network for higher callings. Doing so would produce a space that is less sensitive to the demands of a few students and more conducive to the project of elite formation. The secrets of such a society are tantamount to both its longevity and its influence. However facile they may be, secrets are nevertheless armor against prying eyes and smears. Rumors always begin from a grain of truth. Societies that aim to shape elites must above all be based on militant secrecy and avoid the internal controversy that comes at the cost of public reputation.

But even that would likely not be enough, as it could only get back to good cultivation of the apex of the surrounding elite culture. But the surrounding elite culture is itself hollowed out, so a new live-player secret society, or network of such societies, would have to innovate new ways to set themselves apart from and actively terraform surrounding elite culture. It may have to be truly secret and underground in a way that Bones never was, to enable it to act at odds with the will of campus administration and consensus. To generate a healthy cultural center of gravity against the decayed background, it would have to not just maintain small quirky traditions, but a focused norm-production machine of culture and ideology. This may be beyond the efforts of any one student organization. But who knows what could be accomplished by the future true successors of Russell and Taft, who are surely now considering the problem?

The core practice of a secret society like Skull and Bones is intellectual formation, but that is not its ultimate purpose. Bonesmen and members of similar societies are being trained to wield power in the real world. Societies that cultivate social bonds and loyalties that transcend the average college relationship prove durable and useful in the conduct of business, statecraft, and law. The ability to keep secrets, to protect relationships, and to build loyalty and faith in an organization are all traits that are highly useful to members of the intelligence community, staff in a Congressional office, or advisors in the West Wing. Bones had success in making ambitious elites understand these facts of power. Its decline has resulted from abandoning that core project.

It will take a lot more than a renaissance of truly secret societies to rebuild a productive, public-spirited subculture in today’s elite environment. But such a refounding would be a good start for those who could then go on to accomplish the rest.