Recently discovered correspondence between members of the Yale senior society Skull and Bones may lend greater credence to the longstanding speculation that the society possesses the remains of a Native American war hero.
The letter, which was uncovered last fall and partly reprinted in the Yale Alumni Magazine on Monday, claims that Bonesmen desecrated the grave of the Apache leader Geronimo and hid his skull in their tomb. But tribal leaders and historians disagreed over whether the grave in question was actually Geronimo’s. The letter dates to 1918, according to its discoverer, researcher Marc Wortman.
In the letter, Winter Mead, Class of 1919, reported that his fellow Bonesmen had removed Geronimo’s remains from Fort Still, Okla., ten years after he died in government captivity.
“The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and Knight Haffuer is now safe inside the [Tomb] — together with his well worn femurs, bit and saddle horn,” Mead wrote.
Wortman, who discovered the letter in Sterling Memorial Library’s archives while researching a former Bonesman, said it is the first contemporary document to provide evidence that the society thought it had Geronimo’s remains. Since historians have verified other activities mentioned in the letter, they are confident that it is legitimate Skull and Bones correspondence, Wortman said. But the burial site may have been unmarked, so the grave robbers could have misidentified it, he said.
“There was no way they could be sure which grave was Geronimo’s,” he said. “They believed they had Geronimo’s skull and bones at the time, and we don’t know if that’s true.”
The robbery has been a subject of Yale lore for decades, but it began attracting more attention in the late 1980s after people claiming to be Bonesmen informed Apache leaders that the story was true.
Harlyn Geronimo, a former tribal leader who is Geronimo’s great grandson, said he trusts the accounts and may pursue legal options to recover his ancestor’s remains. He also expects an apology from U.S. President George W. Bush ’68, whose grandfather has been implicated as one of the robbers, Geronimo said.
“I believe it’s true,” he said. “With the higher learning of these individuals, I don’t know why they could resort to desecrating something that’s very sacred to Native American people.”
Yale historian Gaddis Smith said the Geronimo story has been a “major” part of Skull and Bones legend for at least 50 years. If it is true, Smith said, the Bonesmen’s actions could be explained by a great historical fascination with secret society raids. The public was also less sensitive toward preserving remains than it is now, he said.
“It reflects the occasional profound silliness of Skull and Bones,” Smith said. “Back then they weren’t quite aware of what they were getting into. This enormous respect for the remains of the dead has intensified in recent years.”
Wortman said he discovered the letter while researching a book on F. Trubee Davison, Class of 1918, the Bonesman and future Yale trustee to whom it was addressed. Davison’s accomplishments — including a role in founding the U.S. Navy’s World War I air service — suggest that the grave robbery may say more about his era than it does about him, Wortman said.
“These young men then went off and did incredibly heroic and patriotic things, and we have to keep both sides of what they were about in mind,” he said. “It’s historically significant for what it reveals about the attitudes among the privileged elite at the time.”
Geronimo’s name inspired the modern war cry that paratroopers use when jumping out of planes.