STEPHEN PROTEHRO, SALON: Though a seniors-only society, Skull and Bones is more than a tad sophomoric. Each May on "Tap Day," senior Bonesmen troll around Yale's campus, selecting, or "tapping," 15 juniors for membership in the upcoming class. The initiation rites that follow sound like something out of Fred Flintstone's Water Buffalo Lodge or a Robert Bly retreat. Each knight, as neophytes are called, reportedly regales his fellow initiates with his sexual exploits. (He may or may not be naked and may or may not be lying in a coffin.) During initiation, he endures some sort of physical challenge (mud wrestling? diving into a dung pile?) before being born again with a new name and a new identity. In the outside world, members are never to speak about their society. If outsiders raise the topic, Bonesmen are supposed to leave the room. Members take their secrecy oath seriously -- no insider has ever published an exposé -- so it is impossible to separate the realities from the rumors that swirl around the society. One rumor has each new member receiving a $15,000 payout. Another says the interior of the "Tomb" (the eerie Gothic headquarters where twice-a-week meetings are held) is decorated with human remains, including the skulls and bones of notables such as Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and Apache warrior Geronimo. -- SALON


MAY 2006

AP - A Yale University historian discovered a 1918 letter that raises anew questions about a secretive Yale student society and the remains of the American Indian leader Geronimo. The letter, written by a member of Skull and Bones to another member of the society, purports that some of the Indian leader's remains were spirited from his burial plot in Fort Sill, Okla., to a stone tomb in New Haven that serves as the club's headquarters. . . At one of the most selective universities in the country, Skull and Bones marks the elite of the elite. Only 15 Yale seniors are asked to join each year. Alumni include President Bush, Sen. John Kerry, President William Howard Taft, numerous members of Congress, media leaders, Wall Street financiers, the scions of wealthy families and agents in the CIA.

Members swear an oath of secrecy about the group and its strange rituals, which includes devotion to the number "322" and initiation rites that include confessing sexual secrets and kissing a skull. The atmosphere makes Skull and Bones favorite fodder for conspiracy theorists.

Its most enduring story concerns Geronimo, who died in 1909. According to lore, members of Skull and Bones - including the president's grandfather, Prescott Bush - dug up his grave when a group of Army volunteers from Yale were stationed at the fort during World War I.


YALE ALUMNI MAGAZINE - Skull and Bones and other Yale societies have a reputation for stealing, often from each other or from campus buildings. Society members reportedly call the practice "crooking" and strive to outdo each other's "crooks." And the club is also thought to use human remains in its rituals. In 2001, journalist Ron Rosenbaum '68 reported capturing on videotape what appeared to be an initiation ceremony in the society's courtyard, in which Bonesmen carried skulls and "femur-sized bones."

It may have been easier for the Bonesmen to plunder an Apache's grave if they shared the racial attitudes typical of their era and social class.

It may have been easier for the Bonesmen to plunder an Apache's grave if they shared the racial attitudes typical of their era and social class. At the time, says Gaddis Smith, Larned Professor of History emeritus, who is writing a history of Yale since 1900, "there was a racial consciousness and a sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority above all others." He notes that James Rowland Angell, who became president of Yale in 1921, "would say, very explicitly, that we must preserve Yale for the 'old stock.'" Smith adds, "The slogan of the first major fund-raising campaign for Yale, in 1926, was 'Keep Yale Yale.' The alumni knew exactly what it meant."




[This article is not just a defense of Skull & Bones; it also describes up how much of Washington's elite feels about itself]

DON OLDENBURG, WASHINGTON POST - This legacy of Bones prominence is not surprising since Yale, like all prestigious universities, theoretically is attended by the nation's best and brightest, many of whom are from wealthy and powerful families -- a circle of success. Bones taps those who the members think are the most promising of this promising pool.

But with its veil of secrecy, Bones also inspires far-fetched conspiracy theories. Skull and Bones has been accused of being a satanic group, an international Mafia, and an incubator of future agents of a "New World Order."

What feeds such suspicions is that Bonesmen are like a cross between Forrest Gump and Zelig -- always in the picture at major historical crossroads: Bonesmen oversaw development of the atomic bomb and influenced the decision to use it on Japan. They managed the postwar occupation of Germany. They helped shape U.S. Cold War policies. They were policymakers during the Vietnam War. They have ties to the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission -- two hot-button organizations for conspiracy theorists. . .

Since Bush moved into the White House, he has nominated or appointed at least 10 Bonesmen to prestigious positions -- among them the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Bill Donaldson, '53; Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum, '68; General Counsel to the Office of Homeland Security Edward McNally, '79; and his close friend Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Roy Austin, '68. . .

Bush has also benefited from Bones on his path to power. His first real job, the financing of his first oil company, his lucrative partnership owning the Texas Rangers baseball team, the big money backing his campaigns -- all had Bones backing. . . .

For more than three centuries, Yale has seen its job as educating future leaders -- from the 14 Yalies who served on the Continental Congress and four signers of the Declaration of Independence to four of the past six U.S. presidents (the two Bushes; Bill Clinton, Yale Law '67; and Gerald Ford, Yale Law '41).

This year's Democratic primary was flush with Yalies, in addition to Kerry: Joe Lieberman, '64 and Yale Law '67, and Howard Dean, '71. They and President Bush were undergrads when then-Yale President Kingman Brewster proclaimed Yale's goal to be to produce "one thousand male leaders every year." After Brewster turned the university coed in 1969, the statement was trimmed to "one thousand leaders."

Levin, who has been president for 11 years, often refers to Yale as "a laboratory for leadership." Aside from the university's acclaimed academic life, Yale provides undergrads a wealth of opportunities to lead. . .

Looking out of his office windows, Levin can see Scroll and Key's headquarters. In a sense, Skull and Bones is just a microcosm of Yale's culture of leadership, he suggests. . .


A YALE ALUMNUS points out that Skull & Bones is not is not next door to the Yale Daily News building, but a block away. 'Next door to the Yale Daily News building is Wolf's Head, which in Bush's years was a wild-ass drinking fraternity, of which, I believe, he was a member."


Russert: You were both in Skull and Bones, the secret society.

President Bush: It's so secret we can't talk about it.

Russert: What does that mean for America? The conspiracy theorists are going to go wild.

President Bush: I'm sure they are. I don't know. I haven't seen the (unintel) yet. (Laughs)

Russert: Number 322.

President Bush: First of all, he's not the nominee, and I look forward . . .


WE HAVE REMOVED the cite of Alexandra Robbins book on Skull & Bones because the excerpt included legends about the secret organization that she later refutes. For example, when the sainted Doug Ireland passed on the item to an editor at one of the major news weeklies, he wrote back: " I've passively collected S&B lore for some 20 years. I've never heard the bit about the roof of the S&B building being a helicopter landing pad; possible, but unlikely. The building is really only one story high, and it's on a street right in the middle of the campus, next door to the Yale Daily News, as a matter of fact. I should think that aviation regulations would make it illegal to land a helicopter in such a densely populated area. . . John Kerry personally recruited a friend of mine to be in Bones but my friend, to his credit, turned them down."

As it happened, we were contemporaneously in contact with an exceptionally good source on this matter, former New Haven alderman John Halle, whose reflections on that job we have just posted. He responded:

"Here's the deal. The story about a landing pad for a helicopter is a canard, one of many, that are contained in the introduction of Alexandra Robbins excellent book. The way the book is organized to is to lay out all of the legends about S+B in the introduction and then, in the main body, Robbins debunks the ones which need to be debunked and documents what really goes on there. Unfortunately, she was too clever by half. A lot of people read only the introduction and took as fact false information, some of which turns out to have been created by the Bonsers themselves as a diversion.

"So, to be clear, there is no helipad at the Bones tomb. Also, while I haven't been inside, by all accounts its a pretty shabby place, as is their summer retreat on the St. Lawrence River. (There is no Caribbean island). Also, so far as I know, you don't get cash upon graduating. In fact, the organization itself has very little money. (They're a 501C3 and yes, as an alderman you can be damn sure I looked into taxing them. That was the first thing I thought about. I never looked into trying to get the fire department to shut them down for lacking appropriate egress, which I think they might, but that's for someone else.)

"This is not to say that there are not a lot of benefits to being in the Skulls. But it's important to understand what these benefits are to understand the psychology of the members. What they get out of membership is a social circle of initiates of similarly uptight, ambitious and superficial elitists with whom they can let their hair down without fear of being judged. The last they need is cash. What they need is the ability to feel as "supported" and "connected" to others. I know this sounds new-agey, but that's what Robbins book shows which, as I say, is quite good."

Of course, the problem is that when you set out to create myths is that you end up creating myths.

Why Skull & Bones matters

As we learn more of the strange little society called Skull & Bones, it is useful to remember that what we know already is enough:

America is about to choose between two presidential candidates who belonged to an organization whose values were infantile, elitist, misogynist, anti-democratic and secret and whose purposes include the mutual support and protection of its members as they make their into the upper ranks of American society and throughout their adult lives. Far from apologizing for this, the two candidates refuse to give open and honest answers about their participation. Further, at least one of the candidates, Kerry, has retained a close enough relationship to the organization to have sought news members from among his young acquaintances.

The most benign view of this was expressed by the conservative columnist David Brooks, who told CBS, "My view of secret societies is they're like the first class cabin in airplanes. They're really impressive until you get into them, and then once you're there they're a little dull."

Certainly, Skull & Bones is not alone. For example, a decade ago in 'Shadows of Hope' I described a more open if just as dubious influence on American politics:

While institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute have long added theoretical underpinnings to political policy, Clinton's arrival has forced such institutions of the New York-Washington axis to take seats behind the Cambridge-headquartered John F. Kennedy School of Government. In fact, the Clinton administration seems practically a subsidiary of this academy of wonkdom. Half of Clinton's cabinet has ties to the school either as students, officials, fellows or faculty: Les Aspin, Bruce Babbit, Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros, Robert Reich, Richard Riley and Donna Shalala.

The Kennedy School is to government what the Harvard's business school was to corporations in the 1980. There is a similar emphasis on technical skills -- decision trees, case studies and so forth -- and little interest in ethics, philosophical or humanistic principles. Not surprisingly, a lot of the money for the school comes from large corporations who are more than happy to have their tax deductible contributions used to teach public officials the Kennedy School way of governing.

"This bureaucratic boot camp did once consider creating a "chair in poverty" to study "who has been poor for a long time and why," but according to the Washington Post, then Dean Graham Allison (now in Clinton's Pentagon) was unable to come up with the money. It didn't really surprise him since, after all, most donors are "wealthy people, not poor people." The conservative nature of this institution can be gauged by the fact that flaming moderate Robert Reich was considered its left-wing, a flank that apparently did not qualify him for tenure.

Executive dean Hale Champion told the Post that "if there isn't a lot of traffic between here and in Washington, then we're not in touch with what's going on." A Kennedy School graduate student in an interview with Andrew Ferguson of the Washingtonian put it more succinctly:

"The vast majority of people [at the school] are idealists. They want to change the world. But it's more than that. To be honest, we feel that we're entitled to change the world. . . You think that's arrogant. Maybe it is. But look around you. What you've got here are some of the brightest people in this country. If the country needs to change, let's face it, we're the ones to change it."

It's not the first time that Harvard has felt entitled to such a role in Washington. In the 1960s Harvard theorists applied their paradigms to Southeast Asia with disastrous results. The 1980s were propelled in part by dubious management theses emanating from its business school. In the 1990s we find not only the Kennedy School rising to power, but former members of the Soviet bloc coming under the sway of Harvard B-School professor Jeffrey Sachs, whose plans for weaning these emerging republics from communism appear an economic version of General Sherman's approach to weaning Georgia from the Confederacy. . .

Harvard grads permeate not only the upper level of politics, but also of the media, the law and the think tanks, carrying with them an aura of what songwriter Allen Jay Lerner called Harvard's "indubitable, irrefutable, inimitable, indomitable, incalculable superiority." This Harvard old (still mostly) boy network is a significant -- yet because of its discretion underrated -- influence on the city's values and policies, reflecting, in the words of the historian and reluctant Harvard grad V.L. Parrington, the "smug Tory culture which we were fed on as undergraduates."

Seventy-five years later, this smug Tory culture quietly thrives in Washington, Not the least indication of this is the fact that products of Harvard and/or Yale comprise one-third of the top positions in an administration that said it was going to look like America.

Now the control has passed to Yale or, to be fair, the offspring of one of its most childish manifestations. It is said, of course, that if you raise such matters you are engaging in 'conspiracy theories.' In fact, this phrase is popular among the political and media elite precisely because it provides a dirty mirror reflection of the very values that this elite holds: "If the country needs to change, let's face it, we're the ones to change it." It is schools such as Harvard and Yale that inculcate their political science and history majors with a sense of change being the product of a small number of great minds working in concert with their peers. It is this arrogant illusion that kept blacks, women, and the poor so long out of the history books in such places. They called it the Great Man Theory of History.

In fact, you don't need any conspiracy at all to create a Skull & Bones, a Kennedy School, or a Washington Post newsroom. All you need is the right environment. If you want a field of corn, all you have to do is plant corn and get it enough water.

Besides, those who have used such institutions as Skull & Bones to make their way through life tend not to be clever enough to engage in a conspiracy. That requires social intelligence, lateral thinking, imagination, all of which are in short supply among the products of such places. That's one reason they need the institutional assistance in the first place.

I know. I was supposed to be one of them. I was punched by several "final clubs" at Harvard but quickly turned them down for I found their members among the most boring people I had met at college. Instead, I found my way to the Harvard radio station - a salon des refuse for many of the most interesting people at the school. I became news director and was subsequently elected station manager, but was unable to serve because I had been placed on probation due to my excess of extracurricular activities and inattentiveness to the prescribed curriculum.

The other day, Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, a former editor of the Daily Princetonian, and I were trying to think of people who had served in major Ivy League media positions yet had not become - in the manner, say, of Adam Clymer or Don Graham - totally embedded in establishment values and media. We could only think of two others: William Greider and Larry Bensky. There are probably more, but it's certainly a far smaller club than Skull & Bones. We were the weeds in the corn field. Another one, interestingly, was a guy named Howard Dean.

The problem with such people is that we actually know how the system works. We have been probationary members of it and have betrayed and deserted it taking along the secrets of the crypt. Yes, as David Brooks says, it is as boring as first class, but who said the distortion of power, the corruption of society, and narcissistic excesses of ambition had to be interesting? Power at play is often the dullest thing on earth because in the end it is only a bad substitute for what really matters.

Still, we are left with the problem that our supposedly democratic system has narrowed itself down to a choice of two members of an ersatz nobility smaller yet more powerful than the British nobility. And not only are its members not meant to say anything about it. According to them and their friends in the media, neither are we.



[We asked readers for the odds of 600 Skull & Bones members of presidential age having two colleagues running against each other for the presidency.]

BPD - Apparently 100%.

MARK MOTYKA, MATHEMATICS LEAGUES - The odds of a Skull and Bones vs Skull and Bones Presidential election, using the numbers you gave for the estimate, would be the sqare of (600/146,000,000), or about one chance in 59,211,111,111. However, there is a glitch: since one of the two Bonesmen was already appointed to the position by the SCOTUS, we have a conditional probability for this particular election. That is, one of the candidates WILL be a Bonesman. In this particular case, the odds that Bush would run against another bonesman would be 600/146,000,000, or about one chance in 243,333. All of the above assumes the usual two candidate duopoly that our media so happily reinforces. Should Americans have a choice of more then than two presidential candidates, the odds are considerably lower.

EDDIE M. ABBOTT, M.D. - 1 chance in 60 billion. Pretty unlikely. But you also need to factor in the increased likelihood of a Yale graduate being president when compared to an Arkansas high school dropout. Don't know how to do that.

RUTH ROWAN MA - Random chance of two skull and bones members running for president is in one in 59 billion ((600/146million)squared). But Gide would tell you to doubt that.

YALE PROFESSOR OF STATISTICS - What appears straightforward may not always be so. There are many assumptions one must make to proceed with the problem. If we impose very naive assumptions such that (i) party affiliation is not an issue, (ii) that each age-eligible person in Skull & Bones is just as likely as any other to run for president, and, (iii) more generally, we assume each age-eligible person in the overall population is just as likely as one another to run for president, then we proceed as follows. We sample two people to run for president from the overall age-eligible population at random, and see if both of them are from Skull & Bones. This is an example of a hypergeometric probability, and the answer is: 1.686043e-011

That is a VERY SMALL probability. We can add additional assumptions that take away some of the randomness of the above selection process (thereby, making the calculations more difficult), as we would certainly think that there is a greater probability that individuals from Skull & Bones would run for president versus a general age-eligible person in the entire population.


INDIAN COUNTY - The Skull and Bones Society admitted to Apache leaders 17 years ago that they had a skull they call "Geronimo's" in their secret cult museum in New Haven, Conn. Still, his remains have not been returned. Raleigh Thompson, former San Carlos Apache tribal councilman for 16 years, said it is time to bring Geronimo home to be buried in the mountains that he loved.

. . . During an interview at the Mount Graham Sacred Run, Thompson said he was present in New York when the Skull and Bones Society admitted that it held Geronimo's remains in 1986. . . The grave robbing was exposed when Apache leaders received a photo and information in the 1980s. The informant, fearing for his life and never identified, provided Apache leaders with a photo of the cult museum's display of Geronimo's remains in a glass cage. The informant also provided a copy of a Skull and Bones Society log book, in which the 1918 grave robbery was recorded.

According to the Skull and Bones log book entry, Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush, and five other officers at Fort Sill, Okla., desecrated Geronimo's grave.

After receiving the information, San Carlos Chairman Ned Anderson, Thompson and tribal attorney Joe Sparks were in an Apache tribal delegation which met with the Society. During a series of meetings, they met with Skull and Bones officials and Jonathan Bush, George Bush's brother, in New York City in 1986.

However, Thompson said the skull that the Skull and Bones Society offered to return to the Apache delegation was that of a young boy, not Geronimo, and the Apache leaders refused it. "They admitted that they called this skull Geronimo. They gave us the skull, but the skull was so small that it looked like a young boy's skull." Thompson said. "Based on that, we didn't want to take the skull. I think they switched the skull on us."


RON ROSENBAUM, NY OBSERVER - It's the primal scene of American power, of Bush family values. For two centuries, the initiation rite of Skull and Bones has shaped the character of the men who have shaped the American character, including two Presidents named Bush. And last Saturday, April 14 - for the first time ever - that long-secret rite was witnessed by a team of outsiders, including this writer. Using high-tech night-vision video equipment able to peer through the gloom into the inner courtyard of the Skull and Bones "Tomb" in New Haven, The Observer team witnessed:

- The George W. effect: intoxicated by renewed proximity to Presidential power, a robed Bonesman posing as George W. harangued initiates in an eerily accurate Texas drawl: "I'm gonna ream you like I reamed Al Gore" and "I'm gonna kill you like I killed Al Gore."

- Privileged Skull and Bones members mocked the assault on Abner Louima by crying out repeatedly, "Take that plunger out of my ass!"

- Skull and Bones members hurled obscene sexual insults ("lick my bumhole") at initiates as they were forced to kneel and kiss a skull at the feet of the initiators.

- Other members acted out the tableau of a throat-cutting ritual murder.

It's important to remember this is not some fraternity initiation. It is an initiation far more secret - and far more significant, in terms of real power in the United States - than that of the Cosa Nostra. If the Bushes are "the WASP Corleones" - as the ever more stingingly waspish Maureen Dowd has suggested - this is how their "made men" (and women) are made. It's an initiation ceremony that has bonded diplomats, media moguls, bankers and spies into a lifelong, multi-generational fellowship far more influential than any fraternity. It was-and still remains - the heart of the heart of the American establishment. . .

Of course, there is more to Skull and Bones than the mystical mumbo-jumbo of its rituals. The rituals are less important than the relationships-the bonds of power and influence that develop between Skull and Bones initiates after they graduate. But the relationships are first forged by the rituals and fact that the founders of Time Inc. and the CIA., as well as several Secretaries of State and National Security Advisors - the men who made the decision to drop the Hiroshima bomb, invade the Bay of Pigs and plunge us into Vietnam, the Tafts, the Bundys, the Buckleys, the Harrimans, the Lovetts - all took part in this initiation ritual may have something to do with the real world power of those bonds. The unspoken understanding, the comfort level with the clandestine, the nods and winks with which power is exercised. . .

Most of the speculative lore about the Skull and Bones ritual has centered on its death fixation. Beyond the obvious skull-and-crossbones insignia, of course, the most persistent story is that initiates spend their senior year in the basement crypt of the Bones Tomb taking turns lying in a coffin and, in two long, intense, psycho-drama autobiographical sessions in said coffins, recount their personal and sexual history to the other 14 chosen ones. The better to bond for life with those they know best and prepare for their destiny as stewards of the ruling class. . .


BOSTON HERALD - Sen. John F. Kerry expounds on many issues in his presidential campaign, but he's completely silent on one topic: his membership in Skull and Bones, Yale's infamous secret society. "John Kerry has absolutely nothing to say on that subject. Sorry," said Kerry spokeswoman Kelley Benander. . . There's also another high-profile member of the club: President Bush.

Bonesmen already are buzzing over the prospect of the first Bones vs. Bones presidential race should Kerry win his party's nomination and face Bush in 2004. "Bones don't care who wins," said author Alexandra Robbins, whose book "Secrets of the Tomb" pierced the secrecy shrouding the 171-year-old society. "If Kerry wins, it's still a Bones presidency." Robbins calls the group "probably the most secretive and successful club in America," and adds, "It's also pretty bizarre."

Every year, 15 Yale juniors are tapped for the club, which holds meetings twice a week in a crypt-like building known as the "Tomb." Robbins described the interior, replete with skulls and skeletons, as a cross between the "Addams Family" and a slightly shabby English men's club. There are bizarre initiation rites, including a ceremony where new members must spend an evening before a roaring fire in the Tomb recounting details of their sexual history to fellow members.

Kerry was tapped for the club in 1968, two years after Bush, whose father and grandfather were also Bonesmen. Kerry's brother-in-law from his first marriage, David Thorne, was Bones. So was the late husband of Kerry's current wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. The Bones alumni roster is flush with CIA officials, business moguls, congressmen and Supreme Court justices. The club owns a secluded 40-acre island retreat on the St. Lawrence River.

In 1986, Kerry allegedly tried to recruit Jacob Weisberg, then a college-age intern at "The New Republic" magazine. Weisberg, now Slate magazine editor, said Kerry made his pitch during a private meeting in his Senate office. Weisberg declined, pointedly asking Kerry how he squared his liberalism with membership in such an elitist club that refused to admit women. "Kerry got sort of flustered and said, `I've marched with battered women,' " Weisberg told the Herald. Five years later, Kerry was among those voting to force the club to admit women after a bitter court fight.