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Behind the walls of Yale's secret societies

By Molly Ball and Emily Bell

George Bush, DC '48, William F. Buckley, DC '50, and Garry Trudeau,
DC '70: some of the most illustrious Eli alums have been members of Yale's infamous secret societies. Although associations such as Skull and Bones, Book and Snake, and Scroll and Key are inextricably linked to the Yale name, these societies actually play a small part in the lives of most undergraduates since they consist solely of seniors. Nonetheless, the looming presence of their various "tombs" around the campus and the mystique they inspire make secret societies an intriguing part of Yale life.

The tomb of Skull and Bones, Yale's oldest secret society, looms over High Street behind Jonathan Edwards College.

Because secret societies are secret, it is difficult to provide concrete facts about them. There are reportedly about a dozen senior-only societies, only a few of which have tombs. The first, Skull and Bones, was founded in 1832. Not all secret societies date back nearly that far; some are recent upstarts formed in response to the entrenched elitism of their better-known counterparts. Most choose a number of juniors and conduct a series of interviews (though some do accept applications).

You might not even realize the societies exist until Tap Night, an April evening when societies invite select juniors to join their ranks. Cloaked and hooded seniors lead the blindfolded "taps" around campus in obscure initiation ceremonies, that often involve screaming and bizarre behavior. This year, for example, Book and Snake taps were led blindfolded to Cross Campus to perform "The Humpty Dance."

The dark, ancient "tombs" where the societies meet add to their air of bizarre mystery. Hardly noticeable to the casual passer-by, the tombs have few or no windows and are surrounded by locked gates. Skull and Bones is located on High Street next to Street Hall; Book and Snake faces the Grove Street Cemetery; Wolf's Head is on York Street next to the Dramat; Berzelius is on Whitney and Temple Streets; Scroll and Key is on College and Wall. One rarely sees anyone go in or out, and the details of what transpires inside are kept as secret as possible. Rumor has it that Skull and Bones has the highest water bill in all of New Haven—enough to fill several swimming pools every month. Rumpus, Yale's campus tabloid, routinely reports on societies' naked parties and debauched rituals.

Most societies meet Thursday and Sundays for dinner. Sometimes a guest from the community, such as a professor or local businessman, is invited to speak. Often, a member presents his or her "autobiography," revealing personal details from childhood scars to sexual exploits using props or slides. Some societies hold regular debates.

All the elitism that surrounds traditional secret societies is missing in the Pundits. A mock secret society, the Pundits ridicule the stuffy atmosphere that their counterparts cherish. A traditional Pundit prank is the once-a-semester streak through CCL and Sterling Memorial Library during finals week. The group also once nearly succeeded in impersonating the the Whiffenpoofs singing group on The Today Show.

The purpose of secret societies is not simply clandestine fun and games—many members join for the promise of getting to know a group of people they ordinarily would never even meet. In general, secret societies have about 15 members from all different walks of Yale life. Though one or two still fit the all-male, Old Blue mold, most societies went coed shortly after the University did, and many now strive to represent the diverse Yale community. The societies tend to be tight and cohesive groups that inspire fierce loyalty in their members.

No matter how hard secret societies try to project a more politically correct image, they are undeniably exclusive and selective. In recent years, tapped juniors have been known to turn down bids from even the most prestigious societies. However, for some of the "chosen" ones, it is just this quality that makes secret societies so appealing.

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