The story of Skull and Bones begins in December of 1832. Upset (according to one account) by changes in the Phi Beta Kappa election process, a Yale senior named William Russell and a group of classmates decided to form the Eulogian Club as an American chapter of a German student organization. The club paid obeisance to Eulogia, the goddess of eloquence, who took her place in the pantheon upon the death of the orator Demosthenes, in 322 B.C., and who is said to have returned in a kind of Second Coming on the occasion of the society's inception. The Yale society fastened a picture of its symbol—a skull and crossbones—to the door of the chapel where it met. Today the number 322, recalling the date of Demosthenes' death, appears on society stationery. The number has such mystical overtones that in 1967 a graduate student with no ties to Skull and Bones donated $322,000 to the society.
(The number 322 has also been a particular favorite of conspiracy-minded hunters for evidence of Skull and Bones's global connections. It was the combination to Averell Harriman's briefcase when he carried classified dispatches between London and Moscow during World War II. Antony C. Sutton claims that 322 doubles as a reminder of the society's mother organization in Germany; the American group, founded in 1832, is the second chapter—thus 32-2.)
In 1856 Daniel Coit Gilman, who went on to become the founding president of Johns Hopkins University, officially incorporated the society as the Russell Trust Association, and Skull and Bones moved into the space it still occupies. The Bones tomb is forbidding only on the outside. Marina Moscovici, a Connecticut conservator who recently spent six years restoring fifteen paintings from the Skull and Bones building, describes the atmosphere inside as "funny spooky." She says, "Sort of like the Addams Family, it's campy in an old British men's-smoking-club way. It's not glamorous by any means."
"Bones is like a college dorm room," a 1980s Bonesman told me. "Ours was a place that used to be really nice but felt kind of beat up, lived in. There were socks underneath the couch, old half-deflated soccer balls lying around." Dozens of skeletons and skulls, human and animal, dangle from the walls, on which German and Latin phrases have been chiseled ("Whether poor or rich, all are equal in death"), among moose heads, sconces, medieval armor, antlers, boating flags, manuscripts, statuettes of Demosthenes, and a pair of boots that one member wore throughout his active duty with American forces in France during World War II. The gravestone of Elihu Yale, the eponymous eighteenth-century merchant, was stolen years ago from its proper setting in Wrexham, Wales, and is displayed in a glass case, in a room with purple walls.
As noted, for many years the society has possessed a skull that members call Geronimo. In the 1980s, under pressure from Ned Anderson, a former Apache tribal chairman in Arizona, the society produced the skull in question. The skull didn't match Anderson's records, and it was returned to the society's tomb. Anderson wasn't finished. He reportedly took the issue up with his congressman, John McCain; McCain tried to arrange a meeting between Anderson and George Bush, who was then the Vice President. Bush wasn't interested, and the matter was dropped. "We still call it Geronimo anyway," a Bonesman says. The issue of Geronimo's skull never surfaced in the public record during the bitter contest between McCain and George W. for the Republican nomination.
The most private room in the building, known as the Inner Temple, or (this will be no surprise) Room 322, is approximately fourteen feet square and guarded by a locked iron door. Inside, a case contains a skeleton that Bonesmen refer to as Madame Pompadour. Compartments in the case guard the society's cherished manuscripts, including the secrecy oath and instructions for conducting an initiation.
The initiation ceremony, held in April, involves as many alumni, or "patriarchs," as possible, one of whom in each instance serves as the supervisor, known as Uncle Toby. The Inner Temple is cleared of furniture except for two chairs and a table, and Bonesmen past and present assemble: Uncle Toby in a robe; the shortest senior, or "Little Devil," in a satanic costume; a Bonesman with a deep voice in a Don Quixote costume; one in papal vestments; another dressed as Elihu Yale; four of the brawniest in the role of "shakers"; and a crew of extras wearing skeleton costumes and carrying noisemakers. According to the initiation script, Uncle Toby "sounds like the only sane person in the room."
As an initiate enters the room, patriarchs standing outside the Inner Temple shout, "Who is it?" The shakers bellow the initiate's name, which the patriarchs echo. The shakers push the initiate toward the table, where the secrecy oath has been placed, and he is enjoined to "Read! Read! Read!" The shakers then half-carry the initiate to a picture of Eulogia, and the Bonesmen shriek, "Eulogia! Eulogia! Eulogia!" After another trip to the oath, the shakers fire the initiate toward a picture of a woman that Bonesmen call Connubial Bliss.
Rituals along these lines go on for quite some time, recalling a cross between haunted-house antics and a human pinball game—"like something from a Harry Potter novel," in the words of one Bonesman, now an engineer. It is perhaps worth noting, in light of George W.'s controversial episode at Bob Jones University and the specter of anti-Catholicism, that at one point in the proceedings every initiate kisses the slippered toe of the "Pope." At last the initiate is formally dubbed a Knight of Eulogia. Amid more raucous ritual he is cast from the room into the waiting arms of the patriarchs.
Within the tomb students run on Skull and Bones time, which is five minutes ahead of the time in the rest of the world. "It was to encourage you to think that being in the building was so different from the outside world that you'd let your guard down," a Bonesman ('72) explains. At 6:30 on Thursdays and Sundays the Bonesmen gather in the Firefly Room for supper. The room is dim and intimate; light shines through the gaping eyeholes of fixtures shaped like skulls. Bonesmen drink various refreshments from skull-shaped cups, but never alcohol. The dry-society rule, fervently enforced, was designed to keep members level-headed for discussions—a change of pace for George W., who drank heavily during his college years.
At 7:55 barbarian time Uncle Toby rings a bell to summon the members to the session. When the knights are seated, they sing two sacred anthems before the Hearing of Excuses, during which members are assessed fines for errors, such as arriving late or using a society name outside the tomb. Uncle Toby then draws debate topics and an order of speakers from the Yorick, a skull divided into compartments. The ninety-minute period of debate can be frivolous or grave.
One of the standard pieces of lore about Skull and Bones is that each member must at some point give an account of his sexual history, known as the CB (for "Connubial Bliss"). "After the first one or two times it's like guys listing their conquests, and that gets old," one young Bonesman told me recently. "There's just not that much to talk about"—and so CBs have evolved into relationship discussions. "It's the kind of stuff a lot of guys do with their teammates," says another Bonesman ('83). "There was nothing perverse or surreal or prurient—just an open exchange. It's like TV's Ricki Lake—there's now a national mania for purging thoughts at large. This is a way of doing it in a very private, non-sensationalist way that benefits the people who are listening and the people who are telling."
By mid-autumn, after each member has presented a CB, the time slot shifts to Life Histories, when Bonesmen spend one or more nights giving their autobiographies. George Bush's autobiography focused on his military service but also looked ahead, a 1948 member told me. "He was talking about the future, first about his family and then about being able to have an impact in public service." George W., in contrast, spoke often about his father. George W.'s fellow Bonesmen have been unwilling to elaborate.
When U.S. News & World Report asked President Bush in 1989 why he had chosen to attend Yale, he replied, "My family had a major Yale tradition." Today George W. Bush distances himself from Yale (although supporters cite his alma mater to combat charges that he is a lightweight). He has criticized its "intellectual snobbery" and has maintained that the school epitomizes "a certain East Coast attitude" and an "intellectual arrogance." George W.'s attitude toward Yale extends to its most elite society. Whereas George Bush returned to the tomb in 1998 to be the dinner speaker at the annual Skull and Bones commencement party, George W. has stayed away. In his 1999 campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush mentions his membership in Skull and Bones only in passing: "My senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can't say anything more."
Yet Skull and Bones was not relegated entirely to George W.'s past after he graduated. In 1971, having been rejected by the University of Texas Law School and needing a job, Bush called a Bonesman, Robert H. Gow. Gow, who later told The Washington Post that his Houston-based agricultural company had not been looking for anyone at the time, hired Bush as a management trainee. In 1977, when Bush formed Arbusto Energy, his first company, he once again applied to Skull and Bones for financial aid. With assistance from his uncle Jonathan Bush (Bones '53), he lined up $565,000 from twenty-eight investors. One of them contributed $93,000—the California venture capitalist William H. Draper III (Bones '50). Twelve Bonesmen (including family members)and the son of a patriarch gave a total of $35,500 to Bush's 1998 gubernatorial campaign. At least forty-six Bonesmen or sons of patriarchs have given approximately $1,000 apiece to his presidential campaign—the maximum allowed by law.
Not surprisingly, loyalty often flows in the other direction. In 1984 Bush flew to Tennessee to accompany the Republican Senate nominee and Bonesman ('67) Victor Ashe on a seven-city tour. Ashe lost to Al Gore.
That George W. keeps his Skull and Bones connections in repair is hardly a sign of anything insidious; it's just business as usual in America. Compared with his family connections and his family's Yale connections, the Skull and Bones network is just a sideshow. But in the eyes of the conspiracy-minded, interconnections of any kind, especially when cloaked in mystery and ritual, constitute virtual proof of dark doings. Skull and Bones will probably never rid itself of innuendo—innuendo that has not helped the Bonesmen Bushes in the pursuit of politics.
Conspiracy theories, which George W. has called "the kind of connect-the-random-dots charges that are virtually impossible to refute," contributed to Bush's defeat in his 1978 congressional campaign. Bill Minutaglio, in his biography of Bush, First Son, recalls an afternoon debate moderated by the radio talk-show host Mel Turner:
Turner ... wanted to know if the young Bush was a tool of some shadow government; it was the same thing people had confronted his father with when they had called him a "tool of the eastern kingmakers."
"Are you involved in, or do you know anybody involved in, one-world government or the Trilateral Commission?"
Bush, who had been telling people he was tired of being hammered for having "connections" through his father to the eastern establishment, was fuming. "I won't be persuaded by anyone, including my father," he said, with a biting tone in his voice.
On the way out of the restaurant, Bush was still livid. He refused to shake hands with Turner. "You asshole," Turner heard him hiss as he walked by.
George W.'s father has certainly felt that membership in Skull and Bones damaged him politically. When Fay Vincent made a consolation call to Bush after his 1980 loss of the Republican presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan, the weary candidate said, "Fay, let me tell you something. If you ever decide to run for office, don't forget that coming from Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, and the Trilateral Commission is a big handicap. People don't know what they are, so they don't know where you're coming from. It's really a big, big problem."
In The Skulls, members of the secret society murder a student journalist who is attempting to probe its mysteries. Real-life journalists have not met the same fate, so far as we know, although Ron Rosenbaum, the author of a 1977 Esquire article on Skull and Bones, wrote that a Bonesman warned him not to get too close: "The alumni still care," the source warned.
"Don't laugh. They don't like people tampering and prying. The power of Bones is incredible. They've got their hands on every lever of power in the country. You'll see—it's like trying to look into the Mafia."
When I read this excerpt to one young Bonesman, he laughed and said, "I really don't think I'd be working nights as a paralegal while trying to be an actor if I had access to some golden key."
Skull and Bones doesn't own an opulent island hideaway like the one depicted in The Skulls. It does own an island on the St. Lawrence River—Deer Island, in Alexandria Bay. 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."
The fading of Deer Island exemplifies the dwindling finances of Skull and Bones, which can no longer claim the largest society endowment at Yale. Unlike members of other societies, Bonesmen pay no dues, though patriarchs receive an annual letter requesting a "voluntary contribution to the Russell Trust Association." In truth, Skull and Bones has never been wealthy.
The society's accounts are much fatter in the ineffables department. A Skull and Bones document states,
The experience we have come to value in our society depends on privacy, and we are unwilling to jeopardize that life in order to solicit new members. The life which we invite you to share in our society is based on such intangible factors that we cannot meaningfully convey to you either its nature or quality.
Hardly a tool of Hades, but rather a staid wayside for students, its heyday past, its glory faded, Skull and Bones may have little more than this to conceal.
As for the $15,000 graduation gift, George W.'s contemporary Rex Cowdry says, "I'm still waiting for mine."