Stupid Question ™
Oct. 5, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: What are the gory details of the secret Skull & Bones Society that George W. Bush, his father and his grandfather belonged to at Yale? Is it true they dress like popes and stole Geronimo’s skull?
A: Skull & Bones is one of 17 secret societies at Yale, and also the oldest, dating to 1832.
Fifteen members are “tapped,” or selected, in April of their junior year. Membership is lifelong; alumni are called Patriarchs. The group was all-male until 1991.
Also in 1991, Skull & Bones began offering membership to students at other colleges. Famous members include William F. Buckley Jr. and William Howard Taft.
Skull & Bones incorporated in 1856 as the Russell Trust Association (RTA), the same year it built a windowless, Greek-mausoleum-style building on campus. The RTA controls $1.4 million in real estate assets, plus its Deer Island resort in upstate New York.
The Phi Beta Kappa honorary society—which used to be a secret society itself—inspired William Russell and Alphonso Taft to found Skull & Bones. Like Phi Beta Kappa, Skull & Bones started as a debate society and used Masonic ritual as a model.
A still-unidentified German student group may be another model—and the origin of Skull & Bones’ secret number, 322. Skull & Bones’ building, or “tomb,” contains skeletons, velvet-covered rooms and a symbolic painting of the skulls of a beggar, king, wise man and fool. All clocks inside are set five minutes ahead of real-world time.
Skull & Bones’ own history—pure legend, the group says—reports that George W.’s grandfather Prescott stole Geronimo’s skull in 1918 as a trophy. In the 1980s, the Apaches tried to get it back, but gave up when Skull & Bones offered up a child’s skull.
Initiation stories vary. In most, the candidate is carried in a coffin to a hall where he faces members dressed as Don Quixote, the pope, the devil and skeletons. After being sworn to secrecy, he kisses the fake pope’s foot and gets dunked in mud.
New members reportedly get $15,000 and a grandfather clock. Initiates are dubbed Knights of Eulogia (a fictional goddess of eloquence) and get a club name.
The biggest stud is called Magog (President Bush was a Magog). George W. got to choose his own name, but was too lazy—he’s still called Temporary.
Later, initiates must divulge their sexual history, a rite called Connubial Bliss. This is serious, soul-baring group therapy, as is the life history they must also tell. (The claim they lie naked in coffins while doing this is hogwash.)
Bonesmen meet every Thursday and Sunday for dinner and debates on topics randomly drawn from a skull.
Skull & Bones used to produce CIA agents, and many Patriarchs are powerful Yale chiefs. But it appears to be struggling to get members and keep up donations (many Patriarchs are angry over women members). But secrecy remains important; I was just contacted by someone at the RTA, who wanted to know who I work for.
For the record, they were very polite. But I’m having my skull cremated just in case.