Tour brings locals to society tombs

Book and Snake (above) and Skull and Bones (below) were two of the six tombs represented on a tour of Yale’s secret societies organized by the New Haven Preservation Trust Monday evening.
Book and Snake (above) and Skull and Bones (below) were two of the six tombs represented on a tour of Yale’s secret societies organized by the New Haven Preservation Trust Monday evening. Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Fifty residents of New Haven and neighboring towns spent Monday evening criss-crossing campus as part of a walking tour of Yale’s senior societies.

The tour, organized by the New Haven Preservation Trust, cost participants $75 each and took them to the steps of the “tombs” of six societies: Manuscript, Wolf’s Head, Skull and Bones, Elihu, Scroll and Key, and Book and Snake. Attendees also had the opportunity to go inside Elihu, where they were given a tour by Harold Roth ’57, an alumnus of the society. The program concluded with dinner at Mory’s, where the Whiffenpoofs performed.

Most of those on the tour, generally in their 50s or 60s and not affiliated with Yale, said they had heard about it through the New Haven Preservation Trust, of which many were members.

The two-hour tour split into two groups of 25, with each group visiting the societies in a different order. Tour groups stopped at each tomb for a brief explanation of the society’s history as well as its current activities. The tour guides also offered personal anecdotes about friends in the various societies, including “running into” Jodie Foster ’85 and Anderson Cooper ’89 during parties at Manuscript.

At Elihu, participants in the tour were allowed inside, where Roth guided the group through the building’s library, meeting room and “tap room.” Throughout the tour of the society, Roth emphasized Elihu’s unusually open nature.

“This is a place with virtually no mysticism or ritual,” he said.

Dispelling notions of mysticism was a motivation for at least one tour guide, Barry McMurtrey ’88.

“People always wonder what are those buildings, how secret are they,” said McMurtrey. A former Whiffenpoof who also serves as one of the a cappella group’s chief historians, McMurtrey said it was important to separate myth from reality when it comes to senior societies.

“People let their imaginations run wild,” he said. “They’re not an evil cabal.”

Tour-goers said they were excited to gain insight into organizations typically considered exclusive and mysterious, even among locals. Many added that they were motivated to sign up in part because they were interested in the architecture and history of New Haven.

“I always like learning about the New Haven community,” tour-goer and Yale Center for British Art docent Berclee Cameron said.

The idea for the tour began with Bruce Graham, who serves as an advisor to the New Haven Preservation Trust. John Herzan, a staff member at the Trust, said the tour had been “years in the making.”

The New Haven Preservation Trust was founded in 1961 and seeks “to honor and preserve New Haven’s architectural heritage — historic buildings and neighborhoods — through advocacy, education and collaboration,” according to its website.

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