Ron Rosenbaum - Esquire Magazine - September, 1977

Take a look at the hulking sepulcher over there.  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.
   In an age in which it seems that all that could possibly be
concealed about anything and anybody has been revealed, those blank
tombstone walls could be holding the last secrets left in America.
   You could ask Averell Harriman whether there's really a
sarcophagus in the basement and whether he and young Henry Stimson
and young Henry Luce (Time magazine) lay down naked in the coffin
and spilled the secrets of their adolescent sex life to 14 fellow
Bonesmen.  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 initation 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.
   You could ask...but I think you get the idea.  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.
   But none of them will tell you a thing about it.  They've sworn
an oath never to reveal what goes on inside and they're legendary
for the lengths to which they'll go to avoid prying interrogation.
The mere mention of the words "skull and bones" in the presence
of a true-blue Bonesman, such as Blackford Oakes, the fictional
hero of Bill Buckley's spy thriller, 'Saving the Queen', will cause
him to "dutifully leave the room, as tradition prescribed."
   I can trace my personal fascination with the mysteriouis goings-
on in the sepulcher across the street to a spooky scene I witnessed
on its shadowy steps late one April night eleven years ago.  I was
then a sophmore at Yale, living in Jonathan Edwards, the residential
college (anglophile Yale name for dorm) built next to the Bones
tomb.  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.
   But that night in April I wasn't alone; a classmate and I were
coming back from an all-night diner at about two in the morning.
At the time, I knew little about the mysteries of Bones or any of
the other huge windowless secret-society tombs that dominated with
dark authority certain key-corners of the campus.  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 prermitted to open in the presence of an
   All this was floating through my impressionable sophmore mind that
night as my friend Mike and I approached the stone pylons guarding
the entrance to Bones.  Suddenly we froze at the sight of a strange
thing lying on the steps.  There in the gloom of the doorway on the
top step was a long white object that looked like the thighbone of
a large mammal.  I remained frozen.  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
   Recollected in tranquility, the dreamlike gothic moment seems to me
an emblem of the strangeness I felt at being at Yale, at being given
a brief glimpse of the mysterious workings of the inner temples of
privelege but feeling emphatically shut out of the secret ceremonies
within.  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.

   It's night and we're back in front of the tomb, Mike and I,
reinforced by nine years in the outside world, two skeptical women
friends and a big dinner at Mory's.  And yet once again there is an
odd, chilling encounter.  We're re-creating that first spooky moment.
I'm standing in front of the stone pylons and Mike has walked up to
stand against the door so we can estimate its height by his.  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.
   The guy finally walks over to us, "You seen Miles?" he asks.
We look at each other.   Could he think we're actually Bones
alumni, or is he testing us?  Could "You seen Miles?" be some sort
of password?  "No," we reply.  "Haven't seen Miles."  He nods and
remains there.  We decide we've done enough sketching and measuring
and stroll off.  "Look!" one of the women says as she turns and points
back.  "He just ran down the side steps to check the basement-door
locks.  He probably thought he caught us planning a break-in."
   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.
   And so it was that I set out this April to see just how secure
those last secrets are.  It was a task I took on not out of malice
or sour grapes.  I was not tapped for a secret society so I'm open
to the latter charge, but I plead guilty only to the voyeurism of a
mystery lover.  I'd been working on a novel, a psychological thriller
of sorts that involved the rites of Bones, and I thought it wouldn't
hurt to spend some time in New Haven during the week of tap night
and initiation night, poking around and asking questions.
   You could call it espionage if you were so inclined, but I tried
to play the game in a gentlemanly fashion: I would not directly ask
a Bonesman to violate his sacred oath of secrecy.  If, however, one
of them happened to have fudged on the oath to some other party and
that the other party were to convey the gist of the information to
me, I would rule it fair game.  And if any Bonesman wants to step
forward and add something.  I'll be happy to listen.
   What follows is an account of my search for the meaning behind
the mysterious Bones rituals.  Only information that might be too
easily traced to its source has been left out, because certain
sources expressed fear of reprisals against themselves.  Yes,
reprisals.  One of them even insisted, with what seemed like deadly
seriousness, that reprisals would be taken against me.
   "What bank do you have your checking account at?" this party
asked me in the middle of a discussion of the Mithraic aspects of
the Bones ritual.  I named the bank, "Aha," said the party.
"There are three Bonesmen on the board.  You'll never have a line
of credit again.  They'll tap your phone.  They'll..."
Before I could say, "A line of what?" the source continued:   "The
alumni still care.  Don't laugh.  They don't like people tampering
and prying.  The power of Bones is incredible.  They've got their
hands on every level of power in the country.  You'll see - it's
like trying to look into the Mafia.  Remember, they're a secret
society, too."

   Already I have in my possession a set of annotated floor plans
of the interior of the tomb, giving the location of the sanctum
sanctorum, the room called 322.  And tonight I recieved a dossier
on Bones ritual secrets that was compiled from the archives of
another secret society.  It seems that one abiding preoccupation
of many Yale secret societies is keeping files on the secrets of
other secret societies, particularly Bones.  The dossier of Bones
is a particularly sophisticated one, featuring "reliability ratings"
in prercentiles 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.
   But to return to the dossier.  Let me tell you what it says about
the initiation, the center of some of the most lurid apocryphal
rumors about Bones.  According to the dossier, the Bones initiation
ritual of 194O went like this: "New man placed in coffin - carried
into central part of the building.  New man chanted over and
'reborn' into society.  Removed from coffin and given robes with
symbols on it.  (sic) A bone with his name on it is tossed into
bone heap at start of every meeting.  Initiates plunged into mud

   I'm standing in the shadows across the street from the tomb,
ready to tail the first person to come out.  Tonight is tap night,
the night fifteen juniors will be chosen to receive the one-hundred-
forty-five-year-old secrets of Bones.  Tonight the fifteen seniors
in Bones and the fifteen in each of the other societies will arrive
outside the rooms of the prospective tappees.  They'll pound loudly
on the doors.  When the chosen junior opens up, a Bonesman will
slam him on the shoulder and thunder: "Skull and Bones: Do you
   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 prercent.)
   Not long before eight tonight, the door to Bones swings open.
Two dark-suited young men emerge.  One of them carries a slim black
attache case.  Obviously they're on their way to tap someone.  I
decide that Bones inititates are taken to a ceremony somewhere near
the campus before the big initiation inside the tomb.  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 embarrissing discovery I made in the manuscript room this
afternoon.  The last thing I wanted to do was reduce the subleties
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 intersted 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 megacabal 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.
   First consider the account of the origins of Bones to be found
in a century-old pamphlet published by an anonymous group that
called itself File and Claw after the tools they used to pry their
way inside Bones late one night.  I came upon the File and Claw
break-in pamphlet in a box of disintigrating documents filed in
the library's manuscript room under Skull and Bone's corporate
name, Russell Trust Association.  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 breakin crew, "Bones is a chapter
of corps of a German university.  It should properly be called the
Skull and Bones chapter.  General Russell, its founder, was in
Germany before his senior year and formed a warm friendship with
a leading member of a German society.  The meaning of the permanent
number 322 in all Bones literature is that it was founded in '32 as
the second chapter of the German society.  But the Bonesman has
a pleasing fiction that his faternity is a descendant of an old
Greek patriot society founded by Demosthenes, who died in 322 BC."
   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." "Wer war der Thor, wer Weiser,
Bettler oder Kaiser? Ob Arm, ob Reich, im Tode gleich," the slogan
reads, or, "Who was the fool, who the wise man, beggar or king?
Whether poor or rich, all's the same in death."
   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, "a skeleton
in pointed out to him [the initiate], at the feet of which are laid
a crown and a sword.  He is asked 'whether that is the skeleton of
a king, nobleman or a beggar.'  As he cannot decide, the president
of the meeting says to him, 'The character of being a man is the
only one that is importance'".
   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.
   Now you can lok at this three ways.  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 still following the dark-suited Bonesman at a discreet
distance as they make their way along Prospect Street and into
a narrow alley, which to my dismay, turns into a parking lot.
They get into a car and drive off, obviously to tap an off-campus
prospect.  So much for tonight's clandestine work I'd never get
to my car in time to follow them.  My heart isn't in it
anyway.  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 weree 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.

   In his senior year, each member of Bones goes through an intense
two-part confessional experience in the Bones crypt.  One Thursday
night he tells his life story, giving what is meant to be a painfully
forthright autobigraphy 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.
   This has begun to cause some disruptions in relationships.  The
women the Bonesmen talk about in the crypt are often Yale co-eds
and frequently feminists.  While it might seem to be a rebuke to
Bone's spirit of consciousness raising, none of these women is
too pleased at having the most intimate secrets of her relationship
made the subject of an all-night symposium consecrating her lover's
brotherhood with fourteen males she hardly knows.  As one woman
put it, "I objected to fourteen guys knowing whether I was a good
lay...It was like after that each of them thought I was his woman
in some way."
   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
embarassing, 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.
   It seems that the whole secret society system at Yale is in the
terminal stages of a sexual crisis.  By the time I arrived this
April, all but three of the formerly all male societies had gone
co-ed, and two of the remaining holdouts - Scroll and Key and
Wolf's Head - were embroiled in bitter battles over certain
members' attempts to have them follow the trend.  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.
  While changing the least of all societies over its one hundred
forty-five years.  Bones did begin admitting Jews in the early
Fifties and tapping blacks in 1949.  It offered membership to some
of the most outspoken rebels of the late Sixties and more recently,
added gay and bisexual members, including the president of the
militant Gay Activist Alliance, a man by the name of Miles.
   But women, the Bones alumni have strenuously insisted, are
different.  When a rambunctious Seventies class of Bones proposed
tapping the best and brightest of the new Yale women, the officers
of the Russell Trust Association threatened to bar that class from
the tomb and change the locks if they dared.  They didn't.
   The sort of thing is what persuaded the person I am meeting with
late tonight - and a number of other persons - to talk about what
goes on inside: after all, isn't the core of the Bones group
experience the betrayal of their loved ones' secrets?  Measure for