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,
'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
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 Havenenough to fill several swimming pools every month. Rumpus,
Yale's campus tabloid, routinely reports on societies' naked parties and
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 gamesmany
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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