Skull & Bones (Part I)
"Skull & Bones isn’t your typical fraternity. Within the Tomb there is a very strong death motif and a very strong war motif."
Josh Shore (GNN): Tell us about your book.
Alexandra Robbins: "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League and the Hidden Paths of Power" is an expose and analysis of Skull & Bones, probably the world’s most infamous secret society.
Tell us what drew you to this story? How did you come to write about this?
Skull & Bones presents a challenge for any reporter looking for a difficult story. It was almost like a dare. This is a society that has been secret for almost 200 years now. It’s constantly reminding its members to stay quiet, so of course this is something that any journalist wants to penetrate.
So what is the prevailing wisdom around Skull and Bones? What is some of the mythology?
People generally believe that Skull & Bones operates a secret world government, that it controls foreign policy, that it’s a wealthy landowner that guarantees its members power and financial security for life. They believe that members are associated with the Nazis, that they controlled the atomic bomb, and that they lead the nation into war every chance they get.
And so from your research did you find confirmation to these theories?
I was actually surprised because there was a lot more basis to these theories than I had expected. For example, members of the Skull & Bones did indeed oversee the deployment of the atomic bomb. They did choreograph the Bay of Pigs invasion. They did fund Hitler when they could. But it wasn’t the organization pulling the strings. It was the individual members. There are cliques within Skull & Bones that tend to gather together and elevate each other to power and then exert their control and influence… It’s not that Skull & Bones as an entity is specifically and directly pulling the strings. It’s that individuals within the secret society are pushing each other to positions of authority and working their influence from there.
As soon as Bush got into the White House, one of the first social gatherings he had was a reunion of his Skull & Bones members. Then almost immediately he started appointing other members of Skull & Bones into positions into the Justice Department and later the Office of Homeland Security.
And so isn’t that always the case with like groups – that people will share with one another… nepotism, you’ll hook your friend up - not necessarily because you want your friend to be in power, but because that’s the person you know and that’s the person who comes under your radar. So is this not a microcosm for what we often see playing out?
Sometimes that sort of nepotism happens by coincidence or casually, but Skull & Bones is different because really the purpose of Skull & Bones is to propel members to positions of prominence. And then it encourages - in fact it almost directs them once they are there in that position of power, to elevate other members into these high levels of influence. And that’s something that we’ve seen with George W. Bush. As soon as he got into the White House, one of the first social gatherings he had was a reunion of his Skull & Bones members. Then almost immediately he started appointing other members of Skull & Bones into positions into the Justice Department and later the Office of Homeland Security. With your usual networks you may have an entree at a law firm, or maybe a group of people working together at a university. But Skull & Bones is different in that it has had Presidents of the United States, Supreme Court Chief Justices, CIA officials and business tycoons. It’s sort of a realm of influence in America that a tiny club initiating 15 members each year shouldn’t have.
So tell us the history. What are its roots and how did it evolve into what it is today?
Sometime in the late 1820s or the early 1830s, a Yale student named William H. Russell went abroad to study in Germany. Over there, he must have been inspired by some German secret society that used the skull and crossbones logo. He may have come across some traces of the Illuminati, but in either case, when he came back to Yale he found that his secret society at the time, which was Phi Beta Kappa, the honor society, had suddenly been stripped of its secrecy in the face of the anti-Masonic fever. He was angry that his society was no longer secret and, inspired by his experiences in Germany, he decided to start a chapter of the German organization in America that eventually became known as Skull & Bones. One of the members of that founding class was Alfonso Taft, the Judge and the father of William Howard Taft, so Skull & Bones from the very beginning was a secret and prestigious organization.
You described anti-Masonic sentiment congealing at Yale. To what degree were the Freemasons involved in the secret societies up until that point, to your knowledge?
People have asked me about links between the Freemasons and the Skull & Bones. I don’t think there are any specific links between the organizations but of course there have always been overlaps in the members just as there have been overlaps with the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. For example Winston Lord, who was a prominent member of Skull & Bones, was also the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and George Bush, during the Reagan Bush administration, appointed him the ambassador to China. So you do see these kinds of overlaps and one interesting tidbit about Freemasons is that the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Yale, before Skull & Bones arrived on campus, was housed in a building said to be owned by the Freemasons.
Hmm… So once Skull & Bones was established at Yale, describe some of the milestones in its evolution that have enabled it to accrue so much power.
Skull & Bones began in 1832. In 1856, Daniel Coit Gilman, who was a member of Skull & Bones and became the first president of Johns Hopkins University, incorporated Skull & Bones as the Russell Trust Association. Their tomb was erected later on in the nineteenth century and it doubled in size by about 1908 or so. They got their private island at the turn of the 20th century – that’s Deer Island, which is about 350 miles from New York City in the St. Lawrence River on the Alexandria Bay – and that’s sort of their private retreat where they go to forge bonds between members. They may spend summers there and they have alumni reunions there as well…
Tell me – how is Skull & Bones any different from any typical fraternity that would seek to make its practices secret to non-members?
Skull & Bones isn’t your typical fraternity. Within the Tomb, for example, there is a very strong death motif and a very strong war motif… There are dozens of skulls in the Tomb both human and animal, there is supposedly a mummy, there is the gravestone of Elihu Yale that was stolen from Rexom, Wales, sometime in the 20th century probably. I was told by a Bonesman that the idea of the death motif is to remind you that life is short and that there is an unspoken pressure to achieve, and to follow in the footsteps of all of the prominent alumni before you before you die. And that’s really what Skull & Bones is about. It’s about power. Your typical fraternity – I would think there is more of an element of fun. There is no alcohol in Skull & Bones, which is also another big difference between Skull & Bones and fraternities. You won’t see a kegger in the Tomb.
Skull & Bones has always had a distinguished roster of alumni, but we really see them coming into power in the early 20th century, first with William Howard Taft – the only man ever to be President of the United States and Supreme Court Chief Justice. At least two of the men he appointed to his eleven-man cabinet were members of the Skull & Bones. Then you see the Harrimans come in the early 1900s. The Harrimans had the largest private bank in the country, filled it with Bonesmen, and when W.A. Harriman merged with Brown Brothers, it was because of the Skull & Bones partners at each bank and then by 1972, more than 1/3 of the partners at Brown Brothers Harriman were members of Skull & Bones. Moving on you see members of Skull & Bones operating as directors on the boards of banks that did stowe money for Hitler. During WW II, Henry Stimson, a prominent Bonesman who believed that men weren’t really of quality unless they went to Andover, Yale and then through Skull & Bones, hired many members of Skull & Bones to work with him in the war department and ended up assigning the deployment of the atomic bomb to these members of Skull & Bones…
Really the classic cases of how power works in America as exemplified by Skull & Bones are the Bushes. You have George Bush and George W. Bush who both turned to Skull & Bones at various points throughout their lives, even though George W. Bush says very strongly that he doesn’t rely on his northeast connections. There have been 9 Bushes in Skull & Bones, and at the end of 2003, there will probably be 10 Bushes in Skull & Bones with George W. Bush’s daughter, Barbara.
Describe if you could the agenda of the Skull & Bones. In their closed meetings what are they actively trying to do and describe the process of how they bring new members in…
Fifteen Yale juniors are tapped for membership in Skull & Bones in April. A couple of weeks after being tapped, they are initiated into the society. Contrary to popular thought, there is no naked masturbation in coffins involved in Skull & Bones initiation, at least not these days. Soon after initiation, the new 15 members of Skull & Bones – they are called Knights once they are initiated – the Knights are sent to Deer Island, their private retreat, and there they are supposed to get to know each other and start to bond with the friendships that are supposed to last a lifetime, I guess. And then after that retreat, they go off for the summer and they scatter their various ways.
When they get back in September they first do a recap… I should say Skull & Bones meetings occur in what’s called the Tomb every Thursday and Sunday night for the entire academic year. Alumni can come back for parts of these meetings but not all. There’s always a huge dinner of about four courses, there are speeches, presentations, Averell Harriman used to come back to the Tomb to talk about national security issues, McGeorge Bundy used to come back to the Tomb and talk about national security issues, George Bush came to the Tomb as recently as 1998. I don’t know what he spoke about but he probably spoke about national security issues. So after they come back in September, they do a quick recap of what they did over the summer and then they go right into the sexual histories. Sexual histories in Skull & Bones are also referred to as Connubial Bliss, and that consists of one of the Knights standing up – he has an evening devoted to him – he stands up in a cozy dimly lit room in front of a painting of a woman that Skull & Bones also call Connubial Bliss. And then he or she is supposed to recount to the rest of the 14 knights, his or her entire sexual history – beginning with their masturbation days and moving on to times at Yale, which has not been appreciated by some of the girlfriends or boyfriends of the current members because they know their secrets are being spilled to 14 other members. That’s supposed to take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours a night. After the sexual histories come the autobiographies, also called life histories. And during that time, again, an evening is devoted to one knight at a time. The knight stands up in front of the other 14 members and delivers his or her autobiography. This takes hours, and during that time, the other 14 members are allowed to critique the speech, the life and probably most importantly, the character of the speaker. This has actually sent many a Bonesman into therapy because they find out things about themselves that they don’t want to know, and the thinking is that these criticisms can better the character of the Bonesman before he or she goes out into the real world, so that there is more of a chance of becoming a success.
After the life histories, that usually takes them almost to the end of the year and they come back after winter break and pretty much January to April is almost exclusively devoted to elections. That is when they sift through the entire junior class. They weed down the juniors trying to find the ones that will bring the most honor and prominence to the society and who won’t betray the society’s secrets, and then the cycle starts all over again. And during that entire year, Skull & Bones members are said to be encouraged to steal. They are supposed to go out of the Tomb and bring artifacts back in as gifts to the Goddess… In 1917, for example, Prescott Bush, who was a member of Skull & Bones, and a few other members of his club were stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. That’s where Geronimo’s grave was and there is a document in Skull & Bones (that looks to be authentic from what I know about how Skull & Bones codes its documents) that describes Prescott Bush and these other men going to Geronimo’s grave, taking out Geronimo’s skull and a few personal items, cleaning the skull with carbolic acid and eventually bringing it back to the Tomb. Almost 90 years later, that skull still sits in the Tomb. It sits in a glass case and the members still call it Geronimo. In the 1980s though, supposedly, one Bonesman got in touch with a member of an Apache tribe in Arizona, Ned Anderson and he sent him photos of Geronimo’s skull. He had heard that Ned Anderson was looking for the skull and said, “What you are looking for is not in Fort Sill. If you want Geronimo’s skull, you have to come to New Haven.” So Ned Anderson went to New Haven to try to find the skull.
Eventually he got in touch with Jonathan Bush, and Jonathan Bush had him into his office in New York and said to him, “We will help you find what you’re looking for.” But Bush put him off for a couple of days and Ned had to go back to Arizona. Eleven days later, Jonathan Bush called Ned back so Ned came back to meet with Jonathan Bush and this time, the lawyer for Skull & Bones and another Bonesman were also in the conference room. There, the Bonesmen presented to Ned Anderson and said, “This is the skull we believe is Geronimo.” And Ned Anderson said, “No it’s not - that’s the skull of a child.” Jonathan Bush apparently said to Ned, “You should take this skull and take it back home…” and then he produced a document, and said, “Sign these papers.” And the papers said that Ned would promise not to reveal anything about the conversation and not to speak to the press about this whole ordeal about Geronimo’s skull ever again. Ned Anderson refused the skull, he refused the papers, he went back home and still nobody knows if that skull is Geronimo or not… I would say that it is probably likely that the skull in there is Geronimo. Skull & Bones is also rumored to have Martin van Buren’s skull, which I think is unlikely, but Geronimo I think is a good bet.
Did they ever find out who the guy was that contacted Anderson?
No, Anderson wouldn’t tell.
Because why would someone contact him but not want to give him the skull?
Well it wasn’t a member of the society at the time. It was a graduate. So he sent him documents and he sent him photos, and I’m sure he didn’t have access to go back into the Tomb… plus it’s locked in a glass case. It’s not like he could just go in and swipe the skull and bring it back to Arizona. Anderson tried to lobby through Senator McCain, he tried to get McCain to lobby through then Vice President Bush to get the skull back but there was nothing doing. He never got Geronimo’s skull…
The thing about Geronimo that gets me is whoever it was that wrote that letter to Anderson – it wasn’t someone who was trying to tease him, was it? I mean was it an ex-Bonesman or someone who wasn’t even a Bonesman, who wanted people to know about it?
No, the man who sent the letter to Ned Anderson, Anderson says, was a member of Skull & Bones who was scared… He would never call Anderson up directly and they never had direct contact. He invited Ned Anderson to Yale because he said that there were engravings all around the Yale campus of Skull & Bones, and of Satanic links to Skull & Bones, and so he took Ned on a tour of Yale. But he wouldn’t walk with Ned. He walked about 60 feet in front of him, and he would make a little sign of a gun whenever he saw something that he thought Ned should see. So it was all done very surreptitiously and Ned Anderson is convinced that the Bonesman feared for his life…
- and just had a guilty conscience and wanted to give it back.
I guess so. I couldn’t confirm that. Ned said he would not reveal the name of the Bonesman because the Bonesman was truly scared for his life, but I don’t know if that’s true or not…
Now I’ll tell you why Skull & Bones is supposed to steal… According to Skull & Bones lore, in 322 BC Demosthenes died, and when Demosthenes died, Eulogia, who was the Goddess of eloquence ascended to the Heavens and didn’t come back down again until 1832, when she happened to take up residence with Skull & Bones. Eulogia is Skull & Bones’ muse. There is sort of a shrine to her in the building. They sing songs to her. They call their songs sacred anthems and they sing about Eulogia. Their programs on Thursday and Sunday nights are devoted to Eulogia and the reason they are supposed to go out and steal things is because they are called gifts to the Goddess. They have to bring things back as a tribute to Eulogia. It’s almost sacrificial…
What are some of the internal laws once you become a Bonesman?
Skull & Bones doesn’t really have a constitution per se. They know they are supposed to keep their secrets away from outsiders, or barbarians as they call them… You are not allowed to drink any alcohol in the Tomb – that’s so the Knights can stay level-headed during their discussions and debates and critiques. When entering and exiting the Tomb, members of Skull & Bones are not allowed to make eye contact with outsiders or say a word. They have to silently file in and out and if they know that someone is watching, they are supposed to try not to enter or exit the Tomb because that’s something they don’t want anybody to see.
Describe to us how it has evolved from something that seemed like a literary, philosophical society to what it can be construed as now, which seems like more of a networking society.
Before Skull & Bones began, Yale had many other societies. They were mostly literary or philosophical or scholarly. But when Skull & Bones started up it was immediately different. It was immediately about power. From its beginning it was about something that Yale really hadn’t seen before. It was the most exclusive kind of club that Yale had ever had, and it started a whole wave of other secret societies, other imitators, some of whom remained, and some of them eventually died out. But Skull & Bones is really the only one that has stayed in power and has withstood criticism and withstood different eras to remain an infamous secret society that somehow is known throughout the world.
Describe how they have stayed so powerful?
Skull & Bones has retained its power for several reasons. It loves the mystique. The members try to perpetuate as many rumors as possible because they like to elevate this sort of smokescreen that blocks out from the world what they actually do or don’t do behind the blank walls of the Tomb. They love that people sort of ascribe this sort of secret world government power to them because really if people think they have that kind of power, then perhaps in the end, they do. But the true power of Skull & Bones is its network. The purpose of Skull & Bones is to get its members into positions of influence and power within the country and they have managed to do that. And once they get to those positions they automatically hire other Bonesmen. We saw that with Averell Harriman, we saw that with Henry Stimson and we see that now with the Bushes. I think Skull & Bones is making a comeback these days, not only because of the Internet and because people sort of spread the rumors about Skull & Bones, but also because of the Bush political dynasty and I think George W. Bush is certainly the classic example of this.
But it seems like George W. Bush isn’t really down with the Skull & Bones, in terms of his attempt to dissociate himself from his northeastern connections.
So describe how he is saying that to deflect criticism.
One of the major criticisms of George W. Bush is that he’s gotten to where he has gotten to where he has only because of the connections of his father and the northeast establishment scene. He likes to deflect that criticism by painting himself as a good ol’ boy who is so much a part of Texas that he is practically gnawing on ribs 24/7. However George W. Bush was born in New Haven. He has turned to Skull & Bones throughout his life. He has relied on them for money, for power, for connections – even his baseball deal, which is said to be the one part of his life that he managed on his own, is not absent from Skull & Bones influence… George W. Bush has said to the press that he doesn’t even know if Skull & Bones exists. In his autobiography, George W. Bush mentions Skull & Bones once. He says something to the effect of, “My senior year at Yale, I joined a secret society – so secret, I can’t say anything more about it.” It’s almost as if he wants to stamp it on his resume and then gloat that the rest of us aren’t privileged enough to know anymore about it. To the media, George W. Bush pretends like he doesn’t really know what Skull & Bones is, he doesn’t really care, he really tries to distance himself as much as possible. But it’s all a façade. George W. Bush is a favorite son of Skull & Bones and I think that if he really were so distanced from Yale – if he really believed, as he is so vocal about his disparagement of Yale and the intellectual snobs that go there… if he really believed that, he wouldn’t have sent his daughter there.
My partner Stephen has this theory called the theory of ultimate compromisability, which says that people won’t be allowed to rise through the ranks of power unless those allowing them to rise have some dirt on them that they can use against them… So I try to graph that onto Skull & Bones and, if these guys are masturbating in coffins, or telling of their sexual exploits, some of which may not be honorable – if all this were being recorded in some way, then it could be used against them later. So do you see that as something that could be at work here?
It’s certainly possible that, because of the nature of the program in Skull & Bones, because of the sexual histories and the life histories, and knowing that the other members have stolen things – supposedly there is a plaque in the Tomb that says there is an item that was copped (that means stolen) by George Bush, Bones Class of ‘48, it is certainly possible that members could use this information and this dirt that they get on other members… I don’t know if that’s specifically the point of the exercises, but it very well could be.
[continued . . . ]
Read Part II of the interview here.