Yale’s secret social fabric

“It has its faults. But it’s the best system there is …”

“… And it makes Yale what it is today.”

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This is how savvy sophomore Hugh Le Baron explains the world of Yale to freshman Dink Stover his first night on campus in 1900 in Owen Johnson’s 1911-12 serial novel “Stover at Yale.” For the Stovers of the time, the society system was the reason to attend Yale — the reason, even, to exist in “a crowd you’ll want to know all through life.” The lists of those “tapped,” selected by the graduating class, were published in The New York Times every year until the 1970s.

The great and the best. The politicians and the powerbrokers. And practically all of Yale’s most illustrious alumni. To be tapped is to be, on Yale’s campus and around the world, what Stover would deem “a big man.”

100 years have passed since the time of Stover and Le Baron. Today, most Yale students do not wear letterman sweaters and tweed. Yale’s big men are no longer all white, Anglo-Saxon and class-obsessed. Indeed, they are not even all men. When women were admitted to the school in 1969, all but the senior societies at the top of the social hierarchy allowed them to join.

And when the members meet, dine and debate on Thursday and Sunday nights, they do not drink 15-year old scotch; they drink Keystone Light or, in the case of Skull and Bones, Snapple. Times have changed, and perhaps the role of secret societies has evolved. Or maybe, just maybe, the old boys’ clubs have failed to adapt to the modern world.

OF GODS AND MEN

The first senior society, the Order of Scull and Bones (yes, “Scull,” not Skull), was created in December 1832. Two seniors, Alfonso Taft and valedictorian William Huntington Russell, both 1833, founded the order after Russell did not receive an invitation to the prestigious academic secret society Phi Beta Kappa.

Scroll and Key, the second senior society, was created in June 1842. It was founded by William Kingsley 1843, John Porter and William Huntington, both 1842, who were dissatisfied with the fact that Huntington had not been tapped for Bones. Members met in rented rooms that burned down in December 1842, forcing them to relocate. Keys, which holds the values of “Truth, Beauty and Troubadour,” adopted C.S.P and C.C.J for their secret letters.

The two senior societies dominated school life for the next 41 years.

Wolf’s Head was founded in June 1883 by William Lyon Phelps 1884 and friends in defiance of the “Poppycock” of the other two societies. Initially, the “Greyfriars,” as members were known, chose not to be a secret but rather a private club. Greyfriars wore their pins face-out and were encouraged to tell others about the society. But certain members shortly chose secrecy over privacy and the doors of the Wolf’s Head tomb were closed.

The societies grew in power and number — students at the Sheffield Scientific School created their own societies: Berzelius and Book and Snake. Soon, the chosen members shaped all aspects of Yale life; more than two-thirds of the members of the Yale Corporation — the University’s highest-governing body — from 1872 to 1936 were alumni of Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key.

Since 1832, students have created new societies on a regular basis. Mace and Chain, the youngest “landed” society (a society that has a tomb), acquired their property only two years ago.

And a four-year society, which initiates refer to only as C&W, was founded by members of the class of 2011. Its members said they will tap freshmen in February.

“I mean, it’s the sense of community that’s important, clearly,” one member said. “There’s a sense of exclusivity and upper-crust Yale society, which people try to recreate in these mini biomes of social superiority, which really mean nothing, but on some level have a psychological effect.”

Another member argued that the society was formed because it seemed the senior societies were not relevant to Yale’s social structure.

“Honestly I don’t think it affects it [the social structure] that much, because by the time someone’s been tapped for a [senior] society, they’ve already stopped being part of extracurriculars,” the member said. “By that point, they’re just fat seniors and not part of the scene anymore — they’re just off it, on the range: it’s basically like a retirement home.”

Leviathan, a senior society, was founded by the class of 2007. A current member of the two-year senior society said the reason for founding the society was simple, really, but that the proliferation of societies has lead to less reverence of the system overall.

“If all of your friends get tapped and you don’t, you might feel left out and want to form a society with other people in the same situation,” they said. “Precisely because there are more societies, the whole thing seems, at least to me, less prestigious than it once was — so the idea of making your own society, and not taking it that seriously, doesn’t seem so strange.”

IN THE COFFIN

Around the time of Stover, Tap Day occurred shortly before Commencement. “Several hundred students, and ladies with their escorts” gathered to witness the ceremony, W. E. Decrow wrote in his 1882 book “Yale and ‘The City of Elms.’ ” Senior members approached the chosen junior and asked him to go back to his room. There, the student was offered an invitation to a group, which was, Decrow states, “practically always accepted.”

Yale historian and the Larned professor emeritus of history and Bonesman Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 told The New York Times in 1991 that he has felt the presence of senior societies throughout his time at Yale.

“Up until the middle of the 1950s, all juniors who had aspirations to join a secret society gathered like cattle in a college courtyard,” he told The Times. “There were students who felt that life was over if they didn’t get accepted into a society.”

Now the effects of tap night rarely shake the campus up, although it is rumored that the occasional (real) wolf’s head turns up by Wolf’s Head founder Phelps’s grave on tap night. And to be sure, juniors interviewed for societies and big men on campus still wait in their suites for a masked man or woman.

The society system is still very much a part of the University’s psyche. Being tapped is both an invitation to be a part of a Yale tradition and a stroke of the ego. Now, on that hallowed Thursday in April, underclassmen scurry through ranks of howling seniors in masks and robes leading around baffled juniors, usually costumed and blindfolded.

Yalies, of course, are intrigued by senior societies. What student wouldn’t be?

Seventy-five percent of the 374 students who responded to a poll created by the News this week said they would consider joining — or already are in — a senior society. Only one student said he or she did not know the societies existed. And more than half of the students recognized the names of at least five secret societies.

Case in point: In an attempt to experience the mystery firsthand, students try and break into society tombs all the time. The first break-in to Skull and Bones was by a society that called itself File and Claw in 1877. They published a pamphlet which told of the myriad memorabilia and strange decoration of the tomb’s interior. More recent break-ins describe the tomb as “something like a German beer hall.”

The Bones garden is described as an “Oxford-esque cloister,” with a statue of a knight and a few barbecue grills strewn about. A tunnel is also described by these explorers, at the end of which can be found a chamber with a coffin. The towers are empty and contain a chamber with candles and a chopping-block, a basin with two carved skeletal figures leaning over it full of red liquid and lots of bats.

Keys and Wolf’s Head have also been infiltrated. In the former, students give reports of stained flags above a round table in the inner sanctum. Member “B—” ’90 is recorded as the one responsible, having flicked ice cream onto the flags one night. In Wolf’s Head’s seemingly decrepit tomb, on Yale Daily News reporter observed a rather clean lobby; stairs leading down to a basement on the right, a bulletin board of Egyptian gods split into two groups (“In Egypt” and “Out of Egypt”) to the left and a bust of a female feline head on the wall (perhaps that of a lioness?).

Countless TV producers and movie directors have presented their own visions of what a society is and what a society can be. About half of the students polled said they first learned about the society system from popular culture.

Even now, we watch our “Gossip Girl” and laugh as Chuck tries to infiltrate what he calls “the crème de la crème of secret societies,” Skull and Bones. We watch our “The Skulls” DVDs. We listen to the conspiracy theorists, and we think that these societies might control the world. We imagine they masturbate in coffins. But is it possibly true?

PARTY IN THE TOMB, YOU’RE NOT ON THE LIST

Alexandra Robbins ’98, author of “Secrets of the Tomb” (2002) and “Pledged” (2004) and a member of “Keys,” said that the fascination with societies has been promoted by the members themselves, especially by members of “Bones.”

“How secret do they really want it to be when members are (were historically) supposed to stand up and leave the room when someone brings it up?! Me thinks the pretentious doth protest too much,” she said in an e-mail. “It’s like when someone says, ‘I have a secret! But I can’t tell you what it is.’ ”

But, she added, “Society life is a lot more dull than people think.”

Members of the societies have written dry, official histories such as, “The Founding of Wolf’s Head,” by John Williams Andrews ’19 and “The First Hundred Years of Scroll and Key,” by Maynard Mack ’32.

Even a former Yale President has written one — A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60, a Delta Kappa Epsilon brother and member of Scroll and Key, published a history of his society in 1978 for his fellow members. He claims that, to some extent, the group “reflects Yale College.”

“To tell of Yale is therefore to impart a good deal about the Hall,” he concludes.

To an extent, Yalies now agree. Two out of three students who responded to the News poll initially thought senior societies are at least somewhat important to the Yale social scene. And one in five respondents initially thought they are at least somewhat important to the Yale education.

But perceptions sometimes change. One in three Yalies who responded to the News poll said he or she found the society system to be less relevant to the Yale social scene than originally thought, and one in four now thinks the system is less relevant to the Yale education.

It is not uncommon for seniors to decline taps today because they feel they have many time commitments and existing social obligations.

“I just wanted to be back and enjoy the friends I’d made, and I wasn’t ready to form a whole new bond with 11 people,” a senior who declined a tap from one of Yale’s landed societies said. “I just wasn’t ready to take that risk.”

The decreased relevance of senior societies on Yale’s campus can in part be attributed to the shift of extracurricular power from seniors to juniors. As juniors lead the clubs of the school and seniors worry about the job market, the power structure of the college has moved somewhat away from the fourth-years.

The fact that societies are closed and inaccessible to more than a small group of Yalies suggests that, on its surface, society life has little to do with Yale’s social scene. Indeed, many underclassmen have no contact with the societies until tap night.

And apart from the naked parties hosted by the Pundits, a prankster senior society, only Manuscript and St. Elmo’s throw parties in their tombs on Halloween and then sporadically throughout the year. Manuscript hosts events with distinguished alumni that are open to guests of members, and three-year society Delta Psi, now known as St. Anthony Hall, also organizes in-house lectures and social events.

Somehow, the secret atmosphere at the Halloween parties gives Yalies a chance to unwind in environs as novel as Manuscript’s tomb: elegant, modern and sleek inside with a Japanese water garden and a good deal of fine art; or St. Elmo’s: an old-fashioned fraternity house.

A KIND OF UTOPIA

There once were freshman, sophomore, junior and senior societies to structure the social scene of the University.

The freshman societies, which tapped promising students in their senior years at the leading boarding schools of the time and fresh off their first train to campus, were short-lived. There were two secret societies, Sigma Epsilon and Delta Kappa, and one open society, Gamma Nu.

The sophomore societies were very powerful: if accepted, entrance to a junior, and even a senior society was almost inevitable. In number, they were three: He Boule (founded 1875), Eta Phi (1879) and Kappa Psi (1895).

The juniors had fraternities. Each of them had 35 members, considerably more than the sophomore and senior societies. DKE and Psi Upsilon inhabited windowless tombs (later seized and demolished by the University). Today, only St. Anthony Hall, besides the frats and the one or two junior societies, taps anyone younger than a junior at Yale.

Without the rigid social structure imposed by many years of organizational hierarchy, Yale, unlike Harvard with its finals clubs and Princeton with its eating clubs, has shifted towards a more fluid social structure where interactions between the classes are marked by few, if any, barriers.

And Yale freshmen feel as free to do what they want as the seniors.

“Freshman year for Harvard guys is shit,” a Harvard freshman said. “We can’t get into the clubs to party and the upperclassmen have first pick on the girls.”

The freshman did not want to be named for fear of endangering his chances at a finals club.

Certainly, Yalies now enjoy a far different experience from the hierarchy that societies and clubs emphasize. But that was not always the case. In 1882, there was a quota for Skull and Bones.

Two members needed to be from the Yale Literary Magazine. One or two came from the baseball, football or boating teams. One joined from the Yale Daily News and other Yale publications. At least one was set for high scholarship. This was done to, as Decrow put it, “secure representative men from all the leading student interests in the class.”

In 2008, the demographics were noticeably different. For the 2007-’08 class of Bones, one member was a ornithologist, a handful were from the cultural and international student communities, one was a Yale Daily News editor and several had accomplished large-scale community service projects.

To be sure, the “tap lines” no longer play much of a role in society choices.

Clay Dean GRD ’00, current president of Manuscript and a vice president at New Haven’s New Alliance Bank, said his society has assembled a wide variety of intellectual tastes to ensure lively night-time discussion.

“It’s an ideal student group,” Dean said. “It’s a kind of utopia because it’s the best combination of informed conversations in an ideal setting — which is to say, around a dinner table.”

Social status and alumni connections no longer entitle one to a tap for a senior society. While they might encourage consideration of a candidate, they no longer offer assured membership.

Secure taps in undergraduate organizations have also declined. Rowers were reportedly outraged when their captain’s Skull and Bones tap-line was broken last year, when the society decided to tap a non-rower. On tap day, last year’s captain, Bonesman Jack Vogelsang ’08, was away at a tournament.

It is, however, rumored that the tap lines that ran through the fraternities are still alive. Certainly, George W. Bush ’68, as a beer-guzzling DKE brother stood a high chance of becoming a “Bonesman.”

LIFELONG FRIENDS, INBRED BLOODSPAWN

When a group of 15 students are selected for their talents, rather than their social status, intellectual sparks are bound to fly. In many societies, members do not know each other before they are inducted. Society members interviewed said the societies allowed them to meet new people and discover new interests. And the collaboration can, in some ways, be helpful to the Yale community.

“The Yale community and even the greater community are positively affected by these kids and what they learn,” Clay said. “What they get out of Manuscript, they share with their friends.”

A current Scroll and Key member, however, thought that the scope of societies’ influence was smaller.

“It only structures the lives of those people who are interested in being in a society, as they’re trying to position themselves to be in one,” the member said. “But I don’t think that it structures the lives of people that don’t really care.”

A current member of one of the oldest landed societies said he or she thought the society system to be an “invaluable” part of the Yale experience because meeting new people through a senior society is exciting and informative.

“Unlike being thrown into a randomly assigned college or suite or sports team, here you made the choice to commit to this group of people,” the senior said. “You go in with an open mind, and you force yourself to confront these people. These people will challenge who you are — emotionally, politically, racially, etc. — in ways that your friends never would. Not only does it force you to see the world through completely different lenses than the ones you were used to, but it also forces you to rethink your ideas through these lenses, altering them or finding ways to make them stronger.”

The senior said the “bio” section of his/her society, the time when members gather to tell their life stories is rewarding.

Other society members said they chose to be in societies for precisely that reason.

“The thing that societies have maintained is this philosophy that if you get to know people, their core, their life story, you’ll grow to like these people,” a current member of Mace and Chain said. “That’s the reason I was drawn to societies because I thought it was a beautiful ideal.”

But let’s not forget the conspiracy theorists. Ask them, and they too will tell you the societies have the same power as they did in former years.

For them, the power of societies is not a social good but a social evil.

“This is no old-boy network, this is no I’ll pat your back and you’ll pat mine,” said former Coventry City (UK) soccer goalie turned conspiracy researcher David Icke on the History Channel in 2006. “This is a vicious group of interbreeding bloodlines seeking to impose their will and their structure of life upon the global population.”

Perhaps he is right, perhaps he is wrong. Asked what the mission of his/her society was, an inebriated society member offered the following explanation: “to breed eternal bloodspawn between its members.”

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