Televisions across America Monday night showed what was billed as the initiation ritual of an increasingly not-so-secret secret society — Skull and Bones.
ABC News reported that New York Observer investigative reporter Ron Rosenbaum ’68 and a group of Yale students caught the initiation of the 2001-2002 Skull and Bones members on tape April 14. The videotape, also aired on Fox News, catches alleged Skull and Bones initiates, called “neophytes,” in the tomb’s courtyard kissing skulls and acting out murder scenes. Though the faces of the participants are not clear, their actions are virtually unmistakable.
The footage, shot at night, shows participants lying on the courtyard steps while others dressed in cloaks or toga-like costumes appear to be acting out a murder and shouting commands. In the background, a shrieking female distorted what was said among the group, but chants of “kiss the skull,” are very audible.
According to Rosenbaum’s New York Observer cover story last week, “At Skull and Bones, Bush’s Secret Club Initiates Ream Gore,” Skull and Bones initiates were videotaped from the top of Street Hall, a location from which video-tapers were able to film inside the enclosed courtyard of the famous society.
But Skull and Bones alumni member Steve McDonald ’73 said what was caught on tape was not the initiation rite of the society when he was a member almost 30 years ago and that the events may have been staged. McDonald said he was “flabbergasted” to hear about the acting out of the murder and the kissing of the skulls.
“[The initiation] doesn’t bare a smidgen of resemblance to what was done when I was in Skull and Bones,” McDonald said. “The initiation was a great hilarity, great fun. None of this ghoulishness or playacting — just tremendously good-natured fun.”
This initiation appeared to have a much darker side to the one that McDonald described. Participants referred to disturbing current events and assaults, in addition to making threatening remarks to one another.
“Privileged Skull and Bones members mocked the assault on Abner Louima by crying out repeatedly, ‘Take that plunger out of my ass!'” Rosenbaum wrote. “Skull and Bones members hurled obscene sexual insults at initiates as they were forced to kneel and kiss a skull at the feet of the initiators.”
McDonald said his initiation did not include references to politics or current events. He said a member of the group acted as a scribe to ensure that the Skull and Bones traditions were passed down year after year. As a result of this recorded history, McDonald said the April 14 event might not have been the real Skull and Bones initiation.
“[This initiation is] not even close [to mine],” McDonald said. “It may be because someone has been duped because that is nowhere close to what went on.”
McDonald said a Skull and Bones initiation includes three stages. First, there is Tap Night, when 15 members of the juniors class are called to the society. Second, there is another meeting that is not held at the tomb, McDonald said. Then, the actual initiation takes place at a third meeting, he said.
“With some exceptions, the initiation rites are mostly inside [the tomb],” McDonald said. “There was one incident that took place away from the building, but it was nowhere close to the initiation of today.”
But Rosenbaum, who has covered Skull and Bones for several years, wrote in the Observer article that the society’s rituals have included a death theme since it was founded in 1832.
The attraction to Skull and Bones heightened recently with yet another member, George W. Bush ’68, elected to the presidency and with the Hollywood film about the society released last year, “The Skulls.” The secrets of the society are slowly unravelling, and the traditions once kept secret within the walls of the tombs are filtering out.