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Skull & Bones
Inside the world's most infamous secret society
The murky realm of secret societies has long been a hot topic in both Ivy League and conspiracy circles. The most infamous of these is Yale's Skull & Bones, a society that has remained 'secret' for almost 200 years now.
While its old boy network, mysterious headquarters (affectionately called the Tomb) and curious traditions make it similar to many fraternal organizations that seek to keep its practices secret, Skull & Bones' prestigious list of members distinguishes it from your average frat. After all, how many fraternities can offer members access to a network that includes Supreme Court Chief Justices, high-ranking CIA officials, business tycoons and Presidents of the United States – most notably George Bush 1 and 2.
With the return of the Bush political dynasty, the 2000 release of the motion picture The Skulls, and now a book called Secrets of the Tomb, by Yale grad, Alexandra Robbins, Skull & Bones has seen a wave of publicity that has led to heightened scrutiny around the club and the influence of its members.
GNN recently paid a visit to the Yale campus to meet with Ms. Robbins as she passed through New Haven on her promotional tour. Not only did we stake out the Tomb to discover that the current Skull & Bones class looks more like a UN meeting than a KKK rally, but we also explored the possibility of the first Bones vs. Bones presidential race in 2004 with incumbent George W. Bush (Bones '68) squaring off against former Senator John Kerry (Bones '66). Conspiracy or coincidence?
Skull & Bones (Part I)
"Skull & Bones isn’t your typical fraternity. Within the Tomb there is a very strong death motif and a very strong war motif."
Josh Shore (GNN): Tell us about your book.
Alexandra Robbins: "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League and the Hidden Paths of Power" is an expose and analysis of Skull & Bones, probably the world’s most infamous secret society.
Tell us what drew you to this story? How did you come to write about this?
Skull & Bones presents a challenge for any reporter looking for a difficult story. It was almost like a dare. This is a society that has been secret for almost 200 years now. It’s constantly reminding its members to stay quiet, so of course this is something that any journalist wants to penetrate.
So what is the prevailing wisdom around Skull and Bones? What is some of the mythology?
People generally believe that Skull & Bones operates a secret world government, that it controls foreign policy, that it’s a wealthy landowner that guarantees its members power and financial security for life. They believe that members are associated with the Nazis, that they controlled the atomic bomb, and that they lead the nation into war every chance they get.
And so from your research did you find confirmation to these theories?
I was actually surprised because there was a lot more basis to these theories than I had expected. For example, members of the Skull & Bones did indeed oversee the deployment of the atomic bomb. They did choreograph the Bay of Pigs invasion. They did fund Hitler when they could. But it wasn’t the organization pulling the strings. It was the individual members. There are cliques within Skull & Bones that tend to gather together and elevate each other to power and then exert their control and influence… It’s not that Skull & Bones as an entity is specifically and directly pulling the strings. It’s that individuals within the secret society are pushing each other to positions of authority and working their influence from there.
As soon as Bush got into the White House, one of the first social gatherings he had was a reunion of his Skull & Bones members. Then almost immediately he started appointing other members of Skull & Bones into positions into the Justice Department and later the Office of Homeland Security.
And so isn’t that always the case with like groups – that people will share with one another… nepotism, you’ll hook your friend up - not necessarily because you want your friend to be in power, but because that’s the person you know and that’s the person who comes under your radar. So is this not a microcosm for what we often see playing out?
Sometimes that sort of nepotism happens by coincidence or casually, but Skull & Bones is different because really the purpose of Skull & Bones is to propel members to positions of prominence. And then it encourages - in fact it almost directs them once they are there in that position of power, to elevate other members into these high levels of influence. And that’s something that we’ve seen with George W. Bush. As soon as he got into the White House, one of the first social gatherings he had was a reunion of his Skull & Bones members. Then almost immediately he started appointing other members of Skull & Bones into positions into the Justice Department and later the Office of Homeland Security. With your usual networks you may have an entree at a law firm, or maybe a group of people working together at a university. But Skull & Bones is different in that it has had Presidents of the United States, Supreme Court Chief Justices, CIA officials and business tycoons. It’s sort of a realm of influence in America that a tiny club initiating 15 members each year shouldn’t have.
So tell us the history. What are its roots and how did it evolve into what it is today?
Sometime in the late 1820s or the early 1830s, a Yale student named William H. Russell went abroad to study in Germany. Over there, he must have been inspired by some German secret society that used the skull and crossbones logo. He may have come across some traces of the Illuminati, but in either case, when he came back to Yale he found that his secret society at the time, which was Phi Beta Kappa, the honor society, had suddenly been stripped of its secrecy in the face of the anti-Masonic fever. He was angry that his society was no longer secret and, inspired by his experiences in Germany, he decided to start a chapter of the German organization in America that eventually became known as Skull & Bones. One of the members of that founding class was Alfonso Taft, the Judge and the father of William Howard Taft, so Skull & Bones from the very beginning was a secret and prestigious organization.
You described anti-Masonic sentiment congealing at Yale. To what degree were the Freemasons involved in the secret societies up until that point, to your knowledge?
People have asked me about links between the Freemasons and the Skull & Bones. I don’t think there are any specific links between the organizations but of course there have always been overlaps in the members just as there have been overlaps with the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. For example Winston Lord, who was a prominent member of Skull & Bones, was also the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and George Bush, during the Reagan Bush administration, appointed him the ambassador to China. So you do see these kinds of overlaps and one interesting tidbit about Freemasons is that the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Yale, before Skull & Bones arrived on campus, was housed in a building said to be owned by the Freemasons.
Hmm… So once Skull & Bones was established at Yale, describe some of the milestones in its evolution that have enabled it to accrue so much power.
Skull & Bones began in 1832. In 1856, Daniel Coit Gilman, who was a member of Skull & Bones and became the first president of Johns Hopkins University, incorporated Skull & Bones as the Russell Trust Association. Their tomb was erected later on in the nineteenth century and it doubled in size by about 1908 or so. They got their private island at the turn of the 20th century – that’s Deer Island, which is about 350 miles from New York City in the St. Lawrence River on the Alexandria Bay – and that’s sort of their private retreat where they go to forge bonds between members. They may spend summers there and they have alumni reunions there as well…
Tell me – how is Skull & Bones any different from any typical fraternity that would seek to make its practices secret to non-members?
Skull & Bones isn’t your typical fraternity. Within the Tomb, for example, there is a very strong death motif and a very strong war motif… There are dozens of skulls in the Tomb both human and animal, there is supposedly a mummy, there is the gravestone of Elihu Yale that was stolen from Rexom, Wales, sometime in the 20th century probably. I was told by a Bonesman that the idea of the death motif is to remind you that life is short and that there is an unspoken pressure to achieve, and to follow in the footsteps of all of the prominent alumni before you before you die. And that’s really what Skull & Bones is about. It’s about power. Your typical fraternity – I would think there is more of an element of fun. There is no alcohol in Skull & Bones, which is also another big difference between Skull & Bones and fraternities. You won’t see a kegger in the Tomb.
Skull & Bones has always had a distinguished roster of alumni, but we really see them coming into power in the early 20th century, first with William Howard Taft – the only man ever to be President of the United States and Supreme Court Chief Justice. At least two of the men he appointed to his eleven-man cabinet were members of the Skull & Bones. Then you see the Harrimans come in the early 1900s. The Harrimans had the largest private bank in the country, filled it with Bonesmen, and when W.A. Harriman merged with Brown Brothers, it was because of the Skull & Bones partners at each bank and then by 1972, more than 1/3 of the partners at Brown Brothers Harriman were members of Skull & Bones. Moving on you see members of Skull & Bones operating as directors on the boards of banks that did stowe money for Hitler. During WW II, Henry Stimson, a prominent Bonesman who believed that men weren’t really of quality unless they went to Andover, Yale and then through Skull & Bones, hired many members of Skull & Bones to work with him in the war department and ended up assigning the deployment of the atomic bomb to these members of Skull & Bones…
Really the classic cases of how power works in America as exemplified by Skull & Bones are the Bushes. You have George Bush and George W. Bush who both turned to Skull & Bones at various points throughout their lives, even though George W. Bush says very strongly that he doesn’t rely on his northeast connections. There have been 9 Bushes in Skull & Bones, and at the end of 2003, there will probably be 10 Bushes in Skull & Bones with George W. Bush’s daughter, Barbara.
Describe if you could the agenda of the Skull & Bones. In their closed meetings what are they actively trying to do and describe the process of how they bring new members in…
Fifteen Yale juniors are tapped for membership in Skull & Bones in April. A couple of weeks after being tapped, they are initiated into the society. Contrary to popular thought, there is no naked masturbation in coffins involved in Skull & Bones initiation, at least not these days. Soon after initiation, the new 15 members of Skull & Bones – they are called Knights once they are initiated – the Knights are sent to Deer Island, their private retreat, and there they are supposed to get to know each other and start to bond with the friendships that are supposed to last a lifetime, I guess. And then after that retreat, they go off for the summer and they scatter their various ways.
When they get back in September they first do a recap… I should say Skull & Bones meetings occur in what’s called the Tomb every Thursday and Sunday night for the entire academic year. Alumni can come back for parts of these meetings but not all. There’s always a huge dinner of about four courses, there are speeches, presentations, Averell Harriman used to come back to the Tomb to talk about national security issues, McGeorge Bundy used to come back to the Tomb and talk about national security issues, George Bush came to the Tomb as recently as 1998. I don’t know what he spoke about but he probably spoke about national security issues. So after they come back in September, they do a quick recap of what they did over the summer and then they go right into the sexual histories. Sexual histories in Skull & Bones are also referred to as Connubial Bliss, and that consists of one of the Knights standing up – he has an evening devoted to him – he stands up in a cozy dimly lit room in front of a painting of a woman that Skull & Bones also call Connubial Bliss. And then he or she is supposed to recount to the rest of the 14 knights, his or her entire sexual history – beginning with their masturbation days and moving on to times at Yale, which has not been appreciated by some of the girlfriends or boyfriends of the current members because they know their secrets are being spilled to 14 other members. That’s supposed to take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours a night. After the sexual histories come the autobiographies, also called life histories. And during that time, again, an evening is devoted to one knight at a time. The knight stands up in front of the other 14 members and delivers his or her autobiography. This takes hours, and during that time, the other 14 members are allowed to critique the speech, the life and probably most importantly, the character of the speaker. This has actually sent many a Bonesman into therapy because they find out things about themselves that they don’t want to know, and the thinking is that these criticisms can better the character of the Bonesman before he or she goes out into the real world, so that there is more of a chance of becoming a success.
After the life histories, that usually takes them almost to the end of the year and they come back after winter break and pretty much January to April is almost exclusively devoted to elections. That is when they sift through the entire junior class. They weed down the juniors trying to find the ones that will bring the most honor and prominence to the society and who won’t betray the society’s secrets, and then the cycle starts all over again. And during that entire year, Skull & Bones members are said to be encouraged to steal. They are supposed to go out of the Tomb and bring artifacts back in as gifts to the Goddess… In 1917, for example, Prescott Bush, who was a member of Skull & Bones, and a few other members of his club were stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. That’s where Geronimo’s grave was and there is a document in Skull & Bones (that looks to be authentic from what I know about how Skull & Bones codes its documents) that describes Prescott Bush and these other men going to Geronimo’s grave, taking out Geronimo’s skull and a few personal items, cleaning the skull with carbolic acid and eventually bringing it back to the Tomb. Almost 90 years later, that skull still sits in the Tomb. It sits in a glass case and the members still call it Geronimo. In the 1980s though, supposedly, one Bonesman got in touch with a member of an Apache tribe in Arizona, Ned Anderson and he sent him photos of Geronimo’s skull. He had heard that Ned Anderson was looking for the skull and said, “What you are looking for is not in Fort Sill. If you want Geronimo’s skull, you have to come to New Haven.” So Ned Anderson went to New Haven to try to find the skull.
Eventually he got in touch with Jonathan Bush, and Jonathan Bush had him into his office in New York and said to him, “We will help you find what you’re looking for.” But Bush put him off for a couple of days and Ned had to go back to Arizona. Eleven days later, Jonathan Bush called Ned back so Ned came back to meet with Jonathan Bush and this time, the lawyer for Skull & Bones and another Bonesman were also in the conference room. There, the Bonesmen presented to Ned Anderson and said, “This is the skull we believe is Geronimo.” And Ned Anderson said, “No it’s not - that’s the skull of a child.” Jonathan Bush apparently said to Ned, “You should take this skull and take it back home…” and then he produced a document, and said, “Sign these papers.” And the papers said that Ned would promise not to reveal anything about the conversation and not to speak to the press about this whole ordeal about Geronimo’s skull ever again. Ned Anderson refused the skull, he refused the papers, he went back home and still nobody knows if that skull is Geronimo or not… I would say that it is probably likely that the skull in there is Geronimo. Skull & Bones is also rumored to have Martin van Buren’s skull, which I think is unlikely, but Geronimo I think is a good bet.
Did they ever find out who the guy was that contacted Anderson?
No, Anderson wouldn’t tell.
Because why would someone contact him but not want to give him the skull?
Well it wasn’t a member of the society at the time. It was a graduate. So he sent him documents and he sent him photos, and I’m sure he didn’t have access to go back into the Tomb… plus it’s locked in a glass case. It’s not like he could just go in and swipe the skull and bring it back to Arizona. Anderson tried to lobby through Senator McCain, he tried to get McCain to lobby through then Vice President Bush to get the skull back but there was nothing doing. He never got Geronimo’s skull…
The thing about Geronimo that gets me is whoever it was that wrote that letter to Anderson – it wasn’t someone who was trying to tease him, was it? I mean was it an ex-Bonesman or someone who wasn’t even a Bonesman, who wanted people to know about it?
No, the man who sent the letter to Ned Anderson, Anderson says, was a member of Skull & Bones who was scared… He would never call Anderson up directly and they never had direct contact. He invited Ned Anderson to Yale because he said that there were engravings all around the Yale campus of Skull & Bones, and of Satanic links to Skull & Bones, and so he took Ned on a tour of Yale. But he wouldn’t walk with Ned. He walked about 60 feet in front of him, and he would make a little sign of a gun whenever he saw something that he thought Ned should see. So it was all done very surreptitiously and Ned Anderson is convinced that the Bonesman feared for his life…
- and just had a guilty conscience and wanted to give it back.
I guess so. I couldn’t confirm that. Ned said he would not reveal the name of the Bonesman because the Bonesman was truly scared for his life, but I don’t know if that’s true or not…
Now I’ll tell you why Skull & Bones is supposed to steal… According to Skull & Bones lore, in 322 BC Demosthenes died, and when Demosthenes died, Eulogia, who was the Goddess of eloquence ascended to the Heavens and didn’t come back down again until 1832, when she happened to take up residence with Skull & Bones. Eulogia is Skull & Bones’ muse. There is sort of a shrine to her in the building. They sing songs to her. They call their songs sacred anthems and they sing about Eulogia. Their programs on Thursday and Sunday nights are devoted to Eulogia and the reason they are supposed to go out and steal things is because they are called gifts to the Goddess. They have to bring things back as a tribute to Eulogia. It’s almost sacrificial…
What are some of the internal laws once you become a Bonesman?
Skull & Bones doesn’t really have a constitution per se. They know they are supposed to keep their secrets away from outsiders, or barbarians as they call them… You are not allowed to drink any alcohol in the Tomb – that’s so the Knights can stay level-headed during their discussions and debates and critiques. When entering and exiting the Tomb, members of Skull & Bones are not allowed to make eye contact with outsiders or say a word. They have to silently file in and out and if they know that someone is watching, they are supposed to try not to enter or exit the Tomb because that’s something they don’t want anybody to see.
Describe to us how it has evolved from something that seemed like a literary, philosophical society to what it can be construed as now, which seems like more of a networking society.
Before Skull & Bones began, Yale had many other societies. They were mostly literary or philosophical or scholarly. But when Skull & Bones started up it was immediately different. It was immediately about power. From its beginning it was about something that Yale really hadn’t seen before. It was the most exclusive kind of club that Yale had ever had, and it started a whole wave of other secret societies, other imitators, some of whom remained, and some of them eventually died out. But Skull & Bones is really the only one that has stayed in power and has withstood criticism and withstood different eras to remain an infamous secret society that somehow is known throughout the world.
Describe how they have stayed so powerful?
Skull & Bones has retained its power for several reasons. It loves the mystique. The members try to perpetuate as many rumors as possible because they like to elevate this sort of smokescreen that blocks out from the world what they actually do or don’t do behind the blank walls of the Tomb. They love that people sort of ascribe this sort of secret world government power to them because really if people think they have that kind of power, then perhaps in the end, they do. But the true power of Skull & Bones is its network. The purpose of Skull & Bones is to get its members into positions of influence and power within the country and they have managed to do that. And once they get to those positions they automatically hire other Bonesmen. We saw that with Averell Harriman, we saw that with Henry Stimson and we see that now with the Bushes. I think Skull & Bones is making a comeback these days, not only because of the Internet and because people sort of spread the rumors about Skull & Bones, but also because of the Bush political dynasty and I think George W. Bush is certainly the classic example of this.
But it seems like George W. Bush isn’t really down with the Skull & Bones, in terms of his attempt to dissociate himself from his northeastern connections.
So describe how he is saying that to deflect criticism.
One of the major criticisms of George W. Bush is that he’s gotten to where he has gotten to where he has only because of the connections of his father and the northeast establishment scene. He likes to deflect that criticism by painting himself as a good ol’ boy who is so much a part of Texas that he is practically gnawing on ribs 24/7. However George W. Bush was born in New Haven. He has turned to Skull & Bones throughout his life. He has relied on them for money, for power, for connections – even his baseball deal, which is said to be the one part of his life that he managed on his own, is not absent from Skull & Bones influence… George W. Bush has said to the press that he doesn’t even know if Skull & Bones exists. In his autobiography, George W. Bush mentions Skull & Bones once. He says something to the effect of, “My senior year at Yale, I joined a secret society – so secret, I can’t say anything more about it.” It’s almost as if he wants to stamp it on his resume and then gloat that the rest of us aren’t privileged enough to know anymore about it. To the media, George W. Bush pretends like he doesn’t really know what Skull & Bones is, he doesn’t really care, he really tries to distance himself as much as possible. But it’s all a fašade. George W. Bush is a favorite son of Skull & Bones and I think that if he really were so distanced from Yale – if he really believed, as he is so vocal about his disparagement of Yale and the intellectual snobs that go there… if he really believed that, he wouldn’t have sent his daughter there.
My partner Stephen has this theory called the theory of ultimate compromisability, which says that people won’t be allowed to rise through the ranks of power unless those allowing them to rise have some dirt on them that they can use against them… So I try to graph that onto Skull & Bones and, if these guys are masturbating in coffins, or telling of their sexual exploits, some of which may not be honorable – if all this were being recorded in some way, then it could be used against them later. So do you see that as something that could be at work here?
It’s certainly possible that, because of the nature of the program in Skull & Bones, because of the sexual histories and the life histories, and knowing that the other members have stolen things – supposedly there is a plaque in the Tomb that says there is an item that was copped (that means stolen) by George Bush, Bones Class of ‘48, it is certainly possible that members could use this information and this dirt that they get on other members… I don’t know if that’s specifically the point of the exercises, but it very well could be.
Skull & Bones (Part II)
"This is just the way American business works."
Josh Shore (GNN): Tell us a bit about The Bad Club.
The class of 1971 in Skull & Bones is and forever will be known as The Bad Club. They were the first class to try and admit women. They had lined up three women whom they had planned to tap. They called them the Jackie Robinsons of Skull & Bones and when the alumni found out that the 1971 class wanted to tap women, they demanded a meeting in NY at a swank restaurant. So the Class of ‘71 piled into a van and drove into NY to this restaurant. They open up the van and there is smoke billowing out, like the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemount High… And the members get out and they find that there are alumni at every table of the restaurant and none of the members of the Class of ‘71 were allowed to sit together. They were separated around the room and they were lectured by members of the alumni, who basically said that (and this is Jonathan Bush speaking again), “If you think that women can do all of the things that we do in here, then you’re not having the correct Skull & Bones experience. You’re just not doing it right.” Eventually the alumni won out and said, “You have two choices – either you can come up with a class of men who you will tap, or we will do it for you. So about half the members stayed at the restaurant and agreed to tap men, and the other half walked out and many of them are still disgruntled.
So when were women allowed in?
As far as I know, women were allowed into Skull & Bones in 1991 and this was after a long fierce battle that involved several lawsuits including one led by William F. Buckley that claimed that if women were let into the Tomb, it would lead to date rape in the medium term future. Eventually there was a very close vote and the seniors of the Class of ‘91 won out and they were allowed to tap women. Senator Kerrey and Senator Boren, both members of Skull & Bones, have disclosed that they voted for women. The Bushes, to my knowledge, have never disclosed their vote. But going by what their relatives have said - going by Jonathan Bush, George Bush’s brother, who actively, strenuously lobbied against having women in, and judging by George W. Bush’s comment to a female graduate of Yale… she was a producer who graduated from Yale in 1983 and he said to her, “Yale has gone downhill since they’ve admitted women…” - I think we can guess what their vote was.
So is the elitism and classism that we see in these societies, whose roots and traditions were essentially laid down by the architects of the nation and its constitution, is this not a microcosm of white conservative America and all the groups that seek to control?
I think certainly Skull & Bones is the pinnacle of American business as usual. This is just the way American business works. There are old boy networks and they propel each other to positions of authority. However, Skull & Bones is sort of… if the Ivy League is a distillation of that and alumni networks from Yale or Harvard or Penn or Brown are distillations of that distillation, then Skull & Bones at Yale is almost like the elite of the elite. This is the very top level of how those networks work. The problem is that Skull & Bones is an overly conservative regressive organization that really belongs to an Ivy League that doesn’t exist anymore. And the fact that these very traditional members do reach such high levels of power in so many aspects of America today is a little disturbing because only 15 members are initiated each year. So for such a tiny club to have such influence on America when the members of this club don’t reflect the rest of the country, is a bit distressing.
Right… So what can we foresee in the future? It seems like despite the erosion of traditionalism with people like yourself, who tend to scoff at these traditions, many others still seek the power and elitism that comes with it… So what is going to be the fate of these clubs? Because it seems like as the traditions erode, the power that the initial founders had in mind is only starting to take root.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that the traditions are going to continue to erode. I think the fact that Skull & Bones has another president in power is just another mode of encouragement that will lead it to continue its traditions and lead it to continue to do what it has always done. And I think the current political scene is probably evidence of that. In 2000, let’s look at the four men who were on the ballot. You had George W. Bush, a member of Skull & Bones. You had Al Gore, a graduate of Harvard. You had Dick Cheney who is distantly related to a family of Skull & Bonesmen. And you had Joseph Lieberman who was a member of another secret society at Yale. In 2004, it could very well be the first Bones vs. Bones ballot, with George W. Bush against Senator John Kerry, a 1966 graduate of Skull & Bones. It seems that we see the same cycles of people over and over again and, as much as we say this is 2002, this is America, this is a democracy, we are still seeing the candidates coming from the same tiny political pool.
So how do you feel about that? Describe the implications for us.
Frankly I don’t think members of Skull & Bones should be running the country. I don’t feel comfortable with a group that’s historically been misogynistic, has had anti-Semitic members, has been prejudiced in the past, and has been linked with Hitler and the atomic bomb. I don’t think these people should have such an influence on our country, and yet we see them in journalism, in business, running the CIA, running the Supreme Court and running the U.S. government. I think the only way to tear this society down is to penetrate its secrets and to spread awareness about it so that people know what’s going on and when they see politicians capitalizing on Skull & Bones, constituents can call them on it.
So by reporting on it, how do we ensure that we are not just fueling the fire and doing all the PR for them, what is the other side that needs to be exposed to make it clear what’s going on?
I think people need to pay more attention to organizations like Skull & Bones so that whenever, for example, George W. Bush appoints another cabinet member, he’ll be scrutinized – he won’t easily be able to just elevate somebody from Skull & Bones because people will be watching and people will be able to call him on it and the press will be able to confront him on his secret society leadership. A lot of people have a problem with the fact that George W. Bush was a member of a secret society. I have gotten a lot of emails from people essentially saying that if a society is secret it can’t be hiding something good.
Let’s talk about the process of you writing the book because I am sure that a lot of people would be really curious about that. First of all, why would any of the people that you sought out trust you? Surely they have been approached by other journalists seeking to expose Skull & Bones. What made it so that the people talked to you, and were they not violating their code of secrecy by sharing information with you?
I persuaded more than 100 members of Skull & Bones to violate their oath of secrecy and speak to me about the society. It wasn’t easy. Certainly there were many members who hung up on me or were very angry with me or screamed at me before they hung up on me. But some of the members are tired of the secrecy. They are tired of being linked to the more boastful Bonesmen and they were willing to share with me their stories on the condition that I print the truth about Skull & Bones, which is that not all of the members are malicious. Some of the members were only interested in the friendship with 14 other people whom they hadn’t met before. And there are members from classes in the 1940s and 1950s who value Skull & Bones only because it led them to lifelong friendships. So I basically knew where to look to find the men who would speak to me. Also, as a member of a secret society myself, Skull & Bonesmen generally figured that I would be able to put what they said into context and that I would almost side with them. That turned out not to be the case. I don’t side with them, I don’t agree with the purpose of Skull & Bones, and I don’t think it should remain. In fact, I don’t think that secret societies at Yale should remain the way they are… ooh I’ve never said that before!
First of all how do we know that you are not a disinformation agent and how do you know that you were not being used as a disinformation agent by sophisticated members who are savvy to the PR process and who understand the power of media?
People have accused me of being hired by Skull & Bones and to that, I would respond in many ways… First of all I have been threatened by Skull & Bones and have been harassed by members and it hasn’t been a great experience. I don’t really like living in fear that my career is in jeopardy, and that there are certain people who won’t ever talk to me simply because I’ve reported on Skull & Bones. It certainly hasn’t been easy. I treated this really like any other investigative assignment, which means that whenever I got a piece of information I didn’t just take a source’s word for it. I verified it with other members who had different attitudes. I also had access to a sheath of documents that I used to back up what people were telling me. And certainly my experience in Scroll & Key, which was my secret society, helped because Scroll & Key was founded in the same era as Skull & Bones and so many of the programs are run similarly although they are not the same society and Scroll & Key doesn’t have this bent towards power and world domination. Because I had that society experience, I had a certain insight into Skull & Bones that non-members might not have had. So I was able to tell when I was hearing something bogus and when I was hearing something that was verifiable and probably true. But I backed up every fact that I got from the interviews. I did not speak to anybody who I thought would give me disinformation. I did not interview Jonathan Bush. I did not interview William F. Buckley. George Bush, George W. Bush and Senator Kerrey never agreed to interviews. In fact George Bush told me through his secretary that he thought that Skull & Bones should just remain secret.
Was there any apprehension from your publisher? Obviously not because they wanted to publish the book, but were they sticklerish with respect to your sources or anything else?
No – actually there were several publishers interested in this book. There are a lot of Yale men in publishing but…. In fact, my editor at Little Brown was a Yale man who was not a member of a secret society so he knew the importance of this book and he knew how much people would care.
What was your motivation in writing the book and what gave you the courage, in the face of the power elite, to go and rap on their door and seek to expose them?
I think my youth helped me in this case. I think along with youth comes a bit of fearlessness, even if it is a little bit too rash and too impetuous, so I think that that was certainly helpful. As an up and coming reporter, I wanted a big story and Skull & Bones was just looming out there as something that nobody had really ever penetrated, so I put aside any fear or apprehension for the moment because I was just gunning for the big story.
So what is the big news that is deployed through this book? What are some of the key things to take away from it?
I think one of the most important things to take away from this book is that, unbeknownst to many people in America, Skull & Bones does exist. There is a small secret society in our country that has a disproportionate amount of influence on America, and that’s a disturbing thing. I think George W. Bush’s relationship with Skull & Bones is something that people need to know about. When the President of the United States is so influenced by a secret society, that’s something that should be bigger news than it’s been.
Totally… what’s Skull & Bones a metaphor for? The act of banning together to ensure that your people are going to be taken care of – whether it’s out of a need to survive or whether it’s out of a pre-hatched plan to dominate… What happens in Skull & Bones – the dynamics that govern the politics of getting in and so forth, we see that everywhere.
Certainly Skull & Bones represents an old boy network and that’s something that has always been part of the country and probably always will be. What’s different here is that this is such a tiny organization – there are only 15 people initiated each year, which means there are only about 800 living members at any one time, and yet this is a society that’s managed to spawn three Presidents of the United States, Supreme Court Chief Justices, Supreme Court Justices, cabinet members, congressmen, senators, CIA officials… the proportion is skewed. Why is such a tiny slice of America running the country throughout history? That’s really the question here.
And so do you see that the power of the Internet for example, or bringing to light all this through your book - that that’s going to hopefully change things?
I hope so. The point of Secrets of the Tomb was to spread awareness of Skull & Bones because the more people that know about it, the less power it will actually eventually have. The problem is that so many people are unwilling to accept that this secret society exists in the first place, that it’s difficult to be able to, say, confront the President about it. You’re not going to see someone in the press at this time raise their hand during a press conference and ask George W. Bush about his Skull & Bones experience. The hope is that if enough people read about Skull & Bones, they will force the media to speak about it, force people to confront the President and force the higher level authorities who are not in Skull & Bones to start tearing that kind of club down.
Why isn’t the journalistic community putting it to him – especially in lieu of his rising power?
Journalists really haven’t focused on how much Skull & Bones has influenced American politics. They don’t frequently look for members of Skull & Bones to watch how they ascend to certain levels in politics. They don’t monitor the President’s appointments to see whether he’s appointing members of Skull & Bones. That’s what I did. That’s something this book does that other people haven’t done. I think one reason we don’t see a lot of Skull & Bones in the media is because it’s so awash with conspiracy theories, that journalists are afraid that they will be branded as conspiracy theorists if the write anything about Skull & Bones.
Also there are Bonesmen at the head of many of the media institutions.
Right. Another reason we probably don’t see a lot of Skull & Bones in the media is because there are a lot of members of the secret society in various media outlets. Look at TIME magazine that was started by Henry Luce and Briton Hadden. Those were two Bonesmen who supposedly came up with the idea for TIME Incorporated in the Tomb. TIME Inc. is now one of the largest media empires in the country and we see that in other places as well. The Harrimans had a great influence on Newsweek. There are members of Skull & Bones at many journalistic outlets across the country and of course, they are not going to agree to write about their own secret society. In fact, at Yale for many years, Skull & Bones had a relationship with the campus media where they did not allow the campus media to write about Skull & Bones news. In May 2000, I wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly on Skull & Bones and George W. Bush, and soonafter that article appeared. I received a call at my office at The New Yorker magazine from a journalist whom I knew to be a member of Skull & Bones. He started off the conversation very nicely. He said that my article was tremendously accurate, it was the most accurate article that Skull & Bones had seen, and if I wouldn’t mind, they would really like to just know who were the sources who talked to me. Well of course I wasn’t going to tell them that. But he kept going. He kept saying, “We just want to know who were the members of Skull & Bones who talked to you. It’s really important that we find this out.” I wasn’t giving. I told him I didn’t reveal my sources and that’s when he got angry. He berated me for writing the story, he said what I did was not an ethical thing to do, it wasn’t honorable journalism to write about Skull & Bones, he told me how upset the society was with me, and he ended the conversation by saying that, “There are a lot of us at journalism and political institutions across the country – good luck with your career!” And he slammed down the phone, insinuating that because at that time, I was just a 23 year old aspiring investigative reporter, that my career was shot simply because I had reported one article on Skull & Bones.
The funny thing is that conspiracy theorists don’t think I went far enough in the book. They don’t think I wrote enough about things like devil worship and there were a few reasons for that… I am sort of caught in the middle. On one hand, the conspiracy theorists are worried that because of my own society membership, I represent somehow Skull & Bones, which isn’t true. On the other side, a lot of journalism outlets won’t report on my book and may think differently of me because I reported on Skull & Bones in the first place. And this puts me in a sort of a limbo where I can’t win either way. Either I am a PR person for Skull & Bones who has been hired to spread disinformation, or I am a nut-job who is writing about a secret society that doesn’t have the kind of influence that I say it does…
One of the things that I wanted to touch upon, is the extent to which Bonesmen have permeated the Administration of this school. So that, at different times, when Skull & Bones politics might have been challenged or something, if it went up the ranks to some of the senior levels of power at the University, it would constantly get quashed or swing the way of the Bones. So could you describe that dynamic?
I think there is a reason that Skull & Bones was spawned at Yale rather than another University, let alone another Ivy League school, and that’s because Yale has always insisted it’s a Democracy. It has always insisted that the best men rise to the top, but it’s never been that way. Beginning in its earlier years, students weren’t ranked by grades, they were ranked by social status. As you went on through the years, there was this fractal-like branching of groups from one into many. When students wanted to stand out from the pack, if they weren’t able to be viewed as a success in one group, they would break off and form another one. There was such a proliferation of all these sorts of societies and clubs at Yale, only because students wanted to be recognized, and if they weren’t recognized in one group, they would start their own… Skull & Bones has really epitomized this. Ever since Skull & Bones appeared on campus, it graduated members who later on became part of the faculty, the administration and the Yale Corporation. Skull & Bones at one time was in danger of losing its status as a secret society. There was a time when all members of secret societies were not approved of on campus.
Well, Skull & Bones eventually graduated the members who became the Yale Corporation and the administration who had say over these matters, and that’s why Skull & Bones still exists. It was sort of this cycle, and for many years, I think for almost a century, the President of Yale was a member of Yale’s top 3 secret societies. So Skull & Bones has had a great deal of influence at Yale that’s even been shown in smaller issues. In the 1920s, Yale was disciplined by an honor council and one year, I think 6 of the 8 members of the honor council were members of Skull & Bones. There was a case when one student was brought up for cheating over and over again, but the council refused to hear his case. Eventually the students found out that the student was a member of Skull & Bones and when they confronted the council about it, the council, which consisted mostly of Skull & Bonesmen, said that they just didn’t think that this case should be heard in front of them. The next year, the honor council was banished from the University.
So using that as a backdrop, describe how that level of favoritism that we see rubs off into the corporate and political cultures that they go on to become a part of – it’s the very same rules that apply.
Those kinds of rules are really the heart of the Yale ‘Old Blue’ network. That’s sort of what Old Blue means to me. Yale’s colors are blue and white and to be a really staunch member of Yale is to be Old Blue. And when you think Old Blue, you think of old white guys who slap each other on the back, give each other money and jobs, and sort of perpetuate their own needs… One of the most interesting things about Skull & Bones and the culture at Yale that bred it is that it really is not so unusual in America anymore. I mean, the favoritism, the nepotism, the networks t [snip - maximum size exceeded]
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