by Ron Rosenbaum
Esquire, September 1977
from PrisonPlanet Website
Small wonder they call it a tomb. It’s the citadel of Skull and Bones, the most powerful of all secret societies in the strange Yale secret-society system. For nearly a century and a half, Skull and Bones has been the most influential secret society in the nation, and now it is one of the last.
You could ask Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart if there came a time in the year 1937 when he dressed up in a skeleton suit and howled wildly at an initiate in a red-velvet room inside the tomb. You could ask McGeorge Bundy if he wrestled naked in a mud pie as part of his initiation and how it compared with a later quagmire into which he so eagerly plunged.
You could ask Bill Bundy or William F. Buckley, both of who went into the CIA after leaving Bones - or George Bush, who ran the CIA / President - whether their Skull and Bones experience was useful training for the clandestine trade. (“Spook,” the Yale slang for spy.) You could ask J. Richardson Dilworth, the Bonesman who now manages the Rockefeller fortune, just how wealthy the Bones society is and whether it’s true that each new initiate gets a no-strings gift of fifteen thousand dollars cash and guaranteed financial security for life.
The lending lights of the Eastern establishment - in old-line investment banks (Brown Brothers Harriman pays Bone’s tax bill), in a blue-blood law firms (Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, for one), and particularly in the highest councils of the foreign-policy establishment - the people who have shaped America’s national character since it ceased being an undergraduate power, had their undergraduate character shaped in that crypt over there.
Bonesman Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under F.D.R., a man at the heart of the heart of the American ruling class, called his experience in the tomb the most profound one in his entire education.
It was part of Jonathan Edwards folklore that on a April evening following “tap night” at Bones, if one could climb to the tower of Weir Hall, the odd castle that overlooks the Bones courtyard, one could hear strange cries and moans coming from the bowels of the tomb as the fifteen newly “tapped” members were put through what sounded like a harrowing ordeal. Returning alone to my room late at night, I would always cross the street rather than walk the sidewalk that passed right in front of Bones.
Even at that safe distance, something about it made my skin crawl.
They were nothing like conventional fraternities. No one lived in the tombs. Instead, every Thursday and Sunday night the best and the brightest on campus, the fifteen seniors in Skull and Bones and in the Scroll and Key, Book and Snake, Wolf’s Head, Berzelius, in all the seven secret societies, disappeared into their respective tombs and spent hours doing something - something they were sworn to secrecy about.
And Bones, it was said was the most ritualistic and secretive of all. Even the very door to the Bones tomb, that huge triple-padlocked iron door, was never permitted to open in the presence of an outsider.
Mike was more adventuresome: he walked right up to the steps and picked up the bone. I wanted to get out of there fast; I was certain we were being spied upon from a concealed window. Mike couldn’t decide what to do with the bone. He went up to the door and began examining the array of padlocks. Suddenly a bolt shot. The massive door began to swing open and something reached out at him from within.
He grasped, terrified, and jumped back, but not before something clutched the bone, yanked it out of his hand and back into the darkness within. The door slammed shut with a clang that rang in our ears as we ran away.
I always felt irrelevant to the real purpose of the institution, which was from its missionary beginnings devoted to converting the idle progeny of the ruling class into morally serious leaders of the establishment. It is frequently in the tombs that conversions take place.
Then we notice we’re being watched.
A small red foreign car has pulled up on the sidewalk a few yards away from us. The driver has been watching us for some time. Then he gets out. He’s a tall, athletic looking guy, fairly young. He shuts the card door behind him and stands leaning against it, continuing to observe us. We try to act oblivious, continuing to sketch and measure.
I found the episode intriguing. What it said to me was that Bones still cared about the security of its secrets. Trying to find out what goes on inside could be a challenge.
One of them even insisted, with what seemed like deadly seriousness, that reprisals would be taken against me.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT, APRIL 14: THE DOSSIER
The dossier of Bones is a particularly sophisticated one, featuring “reliability ratings” in percentiles for each chunk of information. It was obtained for me by an enterprising researcher on the condition that I keep secret the name of the secret society that supplied it.
Okay I will say, though, that it’s not the secret society that is rumored to have Hitler’s silverware in its archives. That’s Scroll and Key, chief rival of Bones for the elite of Yale - Dean Acheson and Cy Vance’s society - and the source of most of the rest of the American foreign policy establishment.
THURSDAY EVENING: THE FILE AND CLAW SOLUTION TO THE MYSTERY OF 322
When the chosen junior opens up, a Bonesman will slam him on the shoulder and thunder:
At that point, according to my dossier, if the candidate accepts, he will be handed a message wrapped with a black ribbon sealed in black wax with the skull-and-crossbones emblem and the mystic Bones number, 322.
The message appoints a time and a place for the candidate to appear on initiation night - next Tuesday - the first time the newly tapped candidate will be permitted inside the tomb. Candidates are “instructed to wear no metal” to the initiation, the dossier notes ominously. (Reliability rating for the stated to be one hundred percent.)
The Bonesmen head up High Street and pass the library, then make a right. Passing the library, I can’t help but recoil when I think of the embarrassing discovery I made in the manuscript room this afternoon. The last thing I wanted to do was reduce the subtleties of the social function of Bones to some simpleminded conspiracy theory.
And yet I do seem to have come across definite, if skeletal links between the origins of Bones rituals and those of the notorious Bavarian Illuminists. For me, an interested but skeptical student of the conspiracy world, the introduction of the Illuminists, or Illuminati, into certain discussions (say for instance, of events in Dallas in 1963) has become the same thing that the mention of Bones is to a Bonesman - a signal to leave the room.
Because although the Bavarian Illuminists did have a real historical existence (from 1776 to 1785 they were an esoteric secret society within the more mystical freethinking lodges of German Freemasonry), they have also had a paranoid fantasy existence throughout two centuries of conspiracy literature.
They are the imagined mega-cabal that manipulated such alleged plots as the French and Russian revolutions, the elders of Zion, the rise of Hitler and the House of Morgan. Yes the Bilderbergers and George De Mohrenschildt, too. Silly as it may sound, there are suggestive links between the historical if not mytho-conspiratorial, Illuminists and Bones.
The foundation was named for William H (later General ) Russell, the man who founded Bones in 1832. I was trying to figure out what mission Russell had for the secret order he founded and why he had chosen that particular death-head brand of mumbo jumbo to embody his vision.
Well, according to the File and Claw breaking crew,
They go on to describe a German slogan painted “on arched walls above the vault” of the sacred room 322. The slogan appears above a painting of skulls surrounded by Masonic symbols, a picture said to be “a gift of the German chapter.”
Imagine my surprise when I ran into that very slogan in a 1798 Scottish anti-Illuminatist tract reprinted in 1967 by the John Birch Society. The tract (proofs of a conspiracy by John Robinson) prints alleged excerpts from Illuminist ritual manuals supposedly confiscated by the Bavarian police when the secret order was banned in 1785.
Toward the end of the ceremony of initiation in the “Regent degree” of Illuminism, according to the tract,
Doesn’t that sound similar to the German slogan the File and Claw team claims to have found inside Bones? Now consider a haunting photograph of the altar room of one of the Masonic lodges at Nuremburg that is closely associated with Illuminism.
Haunting because at the altar room’s center, approached through the aisle of hanging human skeletons, is a coffin surmounted by - you guessed it - a skull and crossed bones that look exactly like the particular arrangement of jawbones and thighbones in the official Bones emblem. The skull and crossbones was the official crest of another key Illuminist lodge, one right-wing Illuminist theoretician told me.
One possibility is that the Bircher right - and the conspiracy-minded left are correct: The Eastern establishment is the demonic creation of a clandestine elite manipulating history, and Skull and Bones is one of its recruiting centers.
A more plausible explanation is that the death’s-head symbolism was so prevalent in Germany when the impressionable young Russell visited that he just stumbled on the same mother lode of pseudo-Masonic mummery as the Illuninists.
The third possibility is that the break-in pamphlets are an elaborate fraud designed by the File and Claw crew to pin the taint of Illuminism on Bones and that the rituals of Bones have innocent Athenian themes, 322 being only the date of the death of Demosthenes.
(In fact, some Bones literature I’ve seen in the archives does express the year as if 322 BC were the year one, making 1977 anno Demostheni 2299.)
I am due to head off to the graveyard to watch the initiation ceremony of Book and Snake, the secret society of Deep Throat’s friend Bob Woodward (several Deep Throat theories have postulated Yale secret-society ties as the origin of Woodward’s underground-garage connection, and two Bonesmen, Ray Price and Richard Moore, who were high Nixon aides, have been mentioned as suspects - perhaps because of their experience at clandestine underground truth telling).
And later tonight I hope to make the first of my contacts with persons who have been inside - not just inside the tomb, but inside the skulls of some of the Bonesmen.
One Thursday night he tells his life story, giving what is meant to be a painfully forthright autobiography that exposes his traumas, shames, and dreams. (Tom Wolfe calls this Bones practice a fore-runner of the Me Decade’s fascination with self.)
The following Sunday-night session is devoted exclusively to sexual histories. They don’t leave out anything these days. I don’t know what it was like in General Russell’s day, maybe there was less to talk about, but these days the sexual stuff is totally explicit and there’s less need for fabricating exploits to fill up the allotted time. Most Sunday-night sessions start with talk of prep school masturbation and don’t stop until the intimate details of Saturday night’s delights have come to light early Monday morning.
As one woman put it,
Some women have discovered that their lovers take their vows to Bones more solemnly than their commitments to women. There is the case of the woman who revealed something very personal - not embarrassing, just private - to her lover and made him swear never to repeat it to another human. When he came back from the Bones crypt after his Sunday-night sex session, he couldn’t meet her eyes. He’d told his brothers in Bones.
The popular quarterback of the football team had resigned from Scroll and Key because its alumni would not even let him make a pro-coeducation plea to their convocation. When one prominent alumnus of Wolf’s Head was told the current members had plans to tap women, he threatened to “raze the building” before permitting it.
Nevertheless, it seemed as though it wouldn’t be long before those two holdouts went co-ed. But not Bones. Both alumni and outsiders see the essence of the Bones experience as some kind of male bonding, a Victorian, muscular, Christian-missionary view of manliness and public service.
Measure for measure.