Skull and Bones, The Order, Order 322 or The Brotherhood of Death is an undergraduate senior secret student society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The oldest senior class society at the university, Skull and Bones has become a cultural institution known for its powerful alumni and various conspiracy theories. The society’s alumni organization, the Russell Trust Association, owns the organization’s real estate and oversees the membership. The society is known informally as “Bones”, and members are known as “Bonesmen”, “Members of The Order” or “Initiated to The Order”.
Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 after a dispute among Yale debating societies Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean Society over that season’s Phi Beta Kappa awards. William Huntington Russell and Alphonso Taft co-founded “the Order of the Skull and Bones”. The first senior members included Russell, Taft, and 12 other members. Alternative names for Skull and Bones are The Order, Order 322 and The Brotherhood of Death.
Skull and Bones’s membership developed a reputation in association with the “power elite”. Regarding the qualifications for membership, Lanny Davis wrote in the 1968 Yale yearbook:
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 …
Judith Ann Schiff, Chief Research Archivist at the Yale University Library, has written: “The names of its members weren’t kept secret—that was an innovation of the 1970s—but its meetings and practices were.” While resourceful researchers could assemble member data from these original sources, in 1985, an anonymous source leaked rosters to Antony C. Sutton. This membership information was kept privately for over 15 years, as Sutton feared that the photocopied pages could somehow identify the member who leaked it. He wrote a book on the group, America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull and Bones. The information was finally reformatted as an appendix in the book Fleshing out Skull and Bones, a compilation edited by Kris Millegan and published in 2003.
Among prominent alumni are former president and Chief Justice William Howard Taft (a founder’s son); former presidents and father and son George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush; Chauncey Depew, president of the New York Central Railroad System, and a United States Senator from New York; Supreme Court Justices Morrison R. Waite and Potter Stewart; James Jesus Angleton, “mother of the Central Intelligence Agency”; Henry Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War (1940–1945); Robert A. Lovett, U.S. Secretary of Defense (1951–1953); William B. Washburn, Governor of Massachusetts; and Henry Luce, founder and publisher of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines.
John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator; Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of Blackstone Group; Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers; Harold Stanley, co-founder of Morgan Stanley; and Frederick W. Smith, founder of FedEx, are all reported to be members.
In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were alumni. George W. 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.” When asked what it meant that he and Bush were both Bonesmen, former presidential candidate John Kerry said, “Not much, because it’s a secret.”
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”.
The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of Martin Van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa.
The society owns and manages Deer Island, an island retreat on the St. Lawrence River (44.359063°N 75.909345°W). Alexandra Robbins, author of a book on Yale secret societies, wrote:
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.”