How Secret Societies Stay Hidden On the Internet

Inside the surreal recruitment process of a legendary club—or something like it—at New York University
Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

It all started with a Facebook message from a dead guy.

His name was Ernest Howard Crosby and his profile picture showed an old-time portrait of a man in a dapper vest sporting a bushy Civil War beard. The message came on behalf of New York University’s Eucleian Society, a literary club formed in 1832 around the same time that secret societies began sprouting up at university campuses across the country.

"The Society is interested in your potential membership and would like to invite you to learn more… Time is of the essence."

There was a link to a Facebook group that contained a long list of male undergraduates, mostly white (like me), a few Latinos and Indians, and one black guy. The list also contained the avatars of a few other dead guys, like Crosby, and the identity of the Group itself was similarly concealed beneath another guise: “Vote Arthur Watkins for Second Circuit Judge.”

The page, paired with the campaign-ready photo of an old guy holding an open book, appeared to be a 1930s-era political campaign. The comments field on the Group page was disabled, but a note in the Description section directed us to fill out a questionnaire (via Google Forms) that asked about our backgrounds, our political views, and our religious ideologies.

Before submitting to interrogation, I first searched online for any information I could uncover about the “Eucleian Society.” A Wikipedia page drew on sources from NYU’s Bobst Library and Digital Archives, as well as academic books that covered the broader topic of “secret societies in America.” The society was founded the same year instruction began at NYU, first operating out of the Main University Building, where it held oratory debates and readings. Topics under discussion spanned philosophy (“Whether humanity is naturally depraved,” Decision: Affirmative) to legal theory (“Should the capital of large moneyed corporations be limited by statute?” Decision: Negative) to romantic truths (“Resolved that adultery is the only true way to cohabit”). The names of Eucleian alumni would later grace major buildings around campus (Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, Jerome S. Coles Sports & Recreation Center) and university curricula (Gallatin School of Individualized Study).

Then, in 1942, the society seemed to have disappeared.

NYU archives showed no official record of the society after this date, meaning everything that has turned up since then regarding its members and any ongoing activity is hearsay. Most recently, in 2009, there were student newspaper reports of a “beeper” prank which was attributed to the society: a handful of devices were choreographed to go off at the same time in various classrooms on NYU’s campus. Each device was attached to a signed note:

Truth is something you find outside of the classroom, outside of the walls of this university, and only from the professor in front of you insofar as he can serve as an experienced guide… NYU has its secrets too.

The prank elicited little response from the student body, perhaps a sign of the changing times. Maybe a new generation raised on unprecedented levels of connectivity was less intrigued by antiquated notions of “secrecy” or “privacy.”

My recruitment with the society was doomed from the beginning: Three months after I received the original Facebook message, I was slated to leave the country and study abroad for a year and a half. But I was still curious. I submitted my answers to the online questionnaire and almost forgot about the whole thing—until a week later, when we recruits received our first directive.

* * *

A mass email was sent to recruits’ NYU accounts, which we had provided in the questionnaire. The sender’s alias was “John S. / Odysseus” and he introduced himself as a senior member of the society and head of its recruitment efforts. He told us the process couldn’t begin until we chose a nom de plume for ourselves and created a corresponding Gmail account to be used exclusively for all society-related communication. His email included a list of links to over a dozen Blogspot pages, YouTube videos, and Google Groups, all of which he told us to read through and absorb “ASAP.” He also sent us a Google Calendar invite to join a weekly online group chat, the first of which would focus on discussing this trove of information.

Screenshot courtesy Matt King

I browsed the webpages, many of which contained abridged histories of the society, largely regurgitated from Wikipedia. One recurring storyline was the society’s relationship with Edgar Allan Poe, a frequent guest lecturer during its early era. After Poe’s death, the group adopted the raven (from his popular poem) as its unofficial mascot. Meme-ified photos captured various society shenanigans around Washington Square Park—a raven perched atop the Giuseppe Garibaldi statue; a faint trail of raven footprints around the fountain. Other blog posts included opinion pieces extolling Society philosophy (“Social Capital as Exclusive and Intergenerational”) and shared YouTube excerpts of films—like a scene from the 1990 comedy-drama Metropolitan about essential Manhattan evening wear—as though it were educational material.

Finally, I reached the page displaying an index of suggested Greek pseudonyms along with their associated mythological histories. I settled on Calchas, a famous soothsayer whose contributions included the Trojan horse scheme during the Battle of Troy. I created my corresponding Gmail address and notified John S. and the other recruits of my new name. I felt like I was wading through a time or reality warp, still doubting whether any of this was real.

Presented by

​Matt King

Matt King is a writer based in New York.

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