Skull and Bones, Yale University’s most famous and most secret society, has inspired sinister conspiracy theories since its founding in 1832. Some people believe Skull and Bones controls the CIA, while others think it’s a branch of the Illuminati, seeking a global totalitarian government. Still others blame it for the Kennedy assassinations.
Those theories got help from at least one of the society’s famous members James Jesus Angleton, who headed CIA counterintelligence for nearly two decades.
Skull and Bones also has a reputation as a club for future leaders. It so epitomized East Coast elitism in 1925 that F. Scott Fitzgerald had two of his main WASPy characters in The Great Gatsby belonging to it. Later, in the television series Batman, Bruce Wayne’s grandfather wears a Yale sweater in his portrait and was said to have founded Skull and Bones.
They meet in a crypt-like sandstone structure called the Tomb. Only Skull and Bones members may enter, and ghoulish objects like skeletons and the portraits of famous members decorate the walls.
Here, then, are seven fast facts about Skull and Bones.
1. Skull and Bones ‘322’
The number ‘322’ appears on the society’s insignia, and is said to refer to 322 B.C., when Athens lost the Lamian War and had to dissolve its democracy. A new, plutocratic government allowed only wealthy Athenians to remain citizens.
2. Beautiful Dump
Skull and Bones owns Deer Island in the St. Lawrence River in Alexandria, N.Y. The society uses it for get-togethers, and every new member visits it. Though servants once served catered meals in elegant cottages on the island, little is left of the old buildings. The 40-acre retreat had dense undergrowth, stone ruins and a small lodge. One Bonesman described it as a beautiful dump.
3. The Russell Trust
Alphonso Taft, founder of the political dynasty and father of President William Taft, co-founded Skull and Bones in 1832 with William Huntington Russell. Russell in 1856 incorporated the Russell Trust as the business arm of the society.
In 1943, the Connecticut Legislature passed an act granting a special exemption to the trustees. They wouldn’t have to file corporate reports with the secretary of state, normally required.
Both President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush belonged to Bones. So did Secretary of State John Kerry, the younger Bush’s opponent in the 2004 presidential election. Bush wrote in his autobiography, “[In my] senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society; so secret, I can’t say anything more.” A reporter once asked Kerry what it meant for two Bonesmen to run against each other for president. He replied, “Not much, because it’s a secret.”
5. Skull Thieves
Bonesmen have a reputation for stealing from other Yale societies. They’ve stolen the skulls of Martin Van Buren, Pancho Villa and Geronimo. In 2009, Geronimo’s descendants charged the society with the theft of his remains. Prescott Bush, George H.W. Bush’s father, supposedly broke into his grave during World War I and stole his skull and two bones. The court dismissed the case.
6. Not No. 1
Of Yale’s 41 secret societies, Bones is only the fifth richest, with $4,129,936 in assets in 2015, according to Business Insider.
7. He-Man Women Haters?
Bonesman William F. Buckley led a group that sued to block the admission of women to Skull and Bones in 1991. Though black men were admitted since 1965, the Russell Trust adamantly opposed women. When the class of ’91 tapped seven women for the ’92 class, the Russell Trust changed the locks on the Tomb. Members voted by mail, 368-320 to allow women. But then Buckley and his group got a temporary restraining order against the move. The lawsuit eventually fizzled out and the first women joined in 1992.
This story was updated in 2023.
Images: Deer Island By TravelJournalNetwork at English Wikipedia, CC BY 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9066842. John Kerry By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States – Senate Candidate John Kerry, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37632626. The Tomb (front facing) By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41750558.