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Secret Societies: Skull and Bones

The concept of secret societies in higher learning institutions exists. The movie, ‘The Skulls’ (starring Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker) probably used the Skull and Bones college society at Yale University as inspiration. In this article, you will learn more about the history and practices associated with one of the most well-known of secret societies in the United States.

Founded in 1832, Skull and Bones was established after Yale’s debating societies (Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean Society) got into an argument over the Phi Beta Kappa awards held that season. When it was first established, it was called ‘the Order of Skull and Bones.’

One of the first descriptions of Skull and Bones was published in 1871. Lyman Bagg wrote a book titled ‘Four Years at Yale,’ where he described the group as a mystery that was a popular topic of college gossip. Throughout the 1950s, the secret society was prominent on campus, but seemed to have lost its esteem over the years.

Becoming a Member

When Skull and Bones selected their new members at Yale University, they did on ‘Tap Day’ , a ritual that has taken place since 1879. Every spring, the society selected fifteen men (and in later years, women) of the junior class to become a part of the organization. It was tradition to ‘tap’ those that were seen as leaders on campus or someone who proved significant at the school. These were the types of people they wanted to join the society. At Yale, the Tapping ceremony was always a public event.

The traditional method of choosing new members was once described as involving a gathering of juniors who were tapped by senior members of the society. They wore their pines, black ties and blue suits during the ritual. They’d march through the crowd and tap their chosen men. A tappee would race to his room , followed closed by his tapper. Some would shake their head in refusal. The ceremony traditionally took place at 5 o clock and usually ended when the clock struck 6.

The process of tapping members comes with interesting variations and is different from school to school. However, it is noted that the tapping process of Yale is still the longest and most extravagant.

Skull & Bones Hall

The Skull & Bones Hall was called ‘the Tomb’ and was a building that was completed in three phases. The first wing was constructed in 1856, while the second wing was built in 1903. The Neo-Gothic towers from a previous structure were added to the rear garden in 1911. The building of the ‘Tomb’ has actually been a subject of controversy and debate, as to who the true architects were of the hall.

Being a Bonesman

The Skull and Bones society was sometimes called ‘Bones’ and a member was a ‘Bonesman.’ The organization quickly gained a reputation that becoming a member meant that you were part of the ‘Power Elite.’ The qualifications varied for each year, but were comprised of a colorful group of men. It was not uncommon to see the captain of the football team or head of the school newspaper become a member. However, other potential candidates could be a ladies man with a sports car, religious group leader, or ex-service man.

For the majority of the history of Skull and Bones, becoming a member of the secret society meant that you were most likely a white Protestant male. However, being a standout athlete sometimes made a potential member look more appealing to the secret society.