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David Alan Richards Skulls And Keys The Hidden History Of Yales Secret Societies

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  • David Alan Richards Skulls And Keys The Hidden History Of Yales Secret Societies

    David Alan Richards Skulls And Keys The Hidden History Of Yales Secret Societies

    Click image for larger version  Name:	David Alan Richards Skulls And Keys The Hidden History Of Yales Secret Societies.jpg Views:	0 Size:	15.2 KB ID:	5820
    The mysterious, highly influential hidden world of Yale’s secret societies is revealed in a definitive and scholarly history.
    Secret societies have fundamentally shaped America’s cultural and political landscapes. In ways that are expected but never explicit, the bonds made through the most elite of secret societies have won members Pulitzer Prizes, governorships, and even presidencies. At the apex of these institutions stands Yale University and its rumored twenty-six secret societies. Tracing a history that has intrigued and enthralled for centuries, alluring the attention of such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Skulls and Keys traces the history of Yale’s societies as they set the foundation for America’s future secret clubs and helped define the modern age of politics.

    But there is a progressive side to Yale’s secret societies that we rarely hear about, one that, in the cultural tumult of the nineteen-sixties, resulted in the election of people of color, women, and gay men, even in proportions beyond their percentages in the class. It’s a side that is often overlooked in favor of sensational legends of blood oaths and toe-curling conspiracies. Dave Richards, an alum of Yale, sheds some light on the lesser known stories of Yale’s secret societies. He takes us through the history from Phi Beta Kappa in the American Revolution (originally a social and drinking society) through Skull and Bones and its rivals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While there have been articles and books on some of those societies, there has never been a scholarly history of the system as a whole.

    History illuminates the past and guides us in the future. Yale's secret societies have been mysterious, misunderstood, and maligned. In the context of Yale history, David Richards has done a superb job of exploring and explaining these unique institutions. This book will inform the reader and help open a new, intelligent discussion about higher education and leadership. --Henry Chauncey, Jr., Secretary and Director of Admissions, Yale University

    About the Author
    With both undergrad and law degrees from Yale University, David Alan Richards was tasked by Yale President Kingman Brewster to write a history of the Yale Corporation to undergird that board's expansion in the nineteen-sixties to include previously-excluded women and ethnic and religious minorities. His Rudyard Kipling: A Bibliography, co-published in 2010 by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press, was nominated for the bibliography prize of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. Earlier works include co-editing Kipling and His First Publisher (Rivendale Press: 2001) and authoring Rudyard Kipling: The Books I Leave Behind (Yale University Press: 2007). Residing in Scarsdale, New York, he is Senior Counsel with Steptoe & Johnson LLP. He is a longtime officer of New York City's Grolier Club and serves as secretary of the St. Bartholomew's Conservancy and on the legal committee of the Yale Club of New York City.



    Chapter 1: BONDING IN SECRET

    Chapter 2: THE SECRETS OF PHI BETA KAPPA (1781–1831)

    Chapter 3: THE FOUNDING OF SCULL AND BONE (1832–1842)

    Chapter 4: THE “OPPOSITION” OF SCROLL AND KEY (1843–1855)

    Chapter 5: THE MAKING OF TOMBS, TEAMS, AND GIFTS (1856–1871)


    Chapter 7: THE SOLUTION OF WOLF’S HEAD (1883–1888)

    Chapter 8: THE THREAT TO YALE DEMOCRACY (1889–1911)



    Chapter 11: WORLD WAR AGAIN, AND OTHER CASTES BROKEN (1940–1949)


    Chapter 13: BLACKS, WOMEN, AND MAY DAY (1963–1970)




    This history is about one year in the college curriculum, in one institution, repeated over the course of more than two centuries. The senior year at Yale, this nation’s third oldest college, has birthed and nurtured student associations called “senior societies,” more familiarly known now as “secret societies.” Their fame has gone far beyond that of typical college fraternities. Called by the leading historian of nineteenth-century American college students “perhaps the most unique student institutions in the country,”1 they have played a seminal role in the history of both Yale and the nation.

    Election to a senior society in New Haven occurs annually in the spring, when groups of fifteen seniors choose their successors in the junior class for clubs where the members’ names and elections may be public, but their subsequent activity in windowless, fortresslike “tombs” very private. These groups at Yale—Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Berzelius, all founded before the American Civil War, to be followed in succeeding decades by the establishment of Book and Snake, Wolf’s Head, Elihu, Manuscript, and numerous “underground” societies of seniors without their own buildings—are for good reason more popularly known, on campus and off, as “secret societies.” But so, too, were their forebears, Phi Beta Kappa from 1778 most prominently among them.

    Their arcane rituals, particularly the annual day of elections known as “Tap Day,” have fascinated the public for over 175 years (the New York Times reported the names of those elected beginning in 1886). The first real secret of these organizations is their original purpose: self-education by and through exercises with their fellow students, when their founders believed their college did not or would not provide that education. This remains true to the present, although what is sought now is as much emotional as intellectual stimulus.

    Soon, however, election to their small numbers became the summit of a Yale College career. The societies were compelled to defend their exclusivity and the privilege of their privacy—their secrecy—by making election choices which were seen on campus to be “democratic,” rewarding with the prestige of membership in their last year collegians who had excelled in undergraduate endeavors of all kinds. The senior societies became in time more democratic and diverse, incorporating into their numbers over the years talented outsiders (Jews and blacks, other non-Protestant ethnics, scholarship students, and finally women), and easing the passage of previously dismissed castes into the American establishment, decades before their elders and betters followed suit in the higher councils of the university and the nation.

  • #2
    The statistical insignificance of the sample population, and the brevity of the experience, should consign the subject of Yale senior society membership to the dustbin of undergraduate nostalgia. Although a statistical sliver, at 15 percent, of their respective class cohorts, in one college among hundreds in this country, these young men nevertheless went on to become among the most prominent leaders in American politics, diplomacy, law, literature, publishing, journalism, higher education, religion, finance, the ministry, physical and social science, philanthropy, and the counterintelligence services.

    To take only the category of national politics, all three of the presidents of the United States who attended Yale College (William Howard Taft and the two Bushes) were members of Skull and Bones, and indeed were the sons of members of that society. More recently on the major parties’ presidential tickets were senior society members John Kerry and vice presidential nominees Sargent Shriver and Joe Lieberman for the Democrats, with a near-miss presidential nominee two generations before in Robert A. Taft for the Republicans. Moreover, six of Yale’s sons who became secretaries of state, both of her chief justices of the Supreme Court, and three attorneys general were members. So were three secretaries of the treasury (most recently, President Trump’s), two secretaries of war, two secretaries of defense, two directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, one secretary of the army, one of three secretaries of the navy, two treasurers of the United States, and Yale’s single secretary of commerce and only postmaster general.

    Their membership served their alma mater disproportionately as well: of the eight presidents of Yale graduating after the first society was founded and serving between 1886 and 1992, all but two were members of Bones, Keys, or Wolf’s Head. University treasurers for all but five years between 1862 and 1910 were members, as were the university secretaries for more than a half century between 1869 and 1921. The faculty was even more inbred, at least into the early twentieth century, with a remarkable 80 percent between 1865 and 1916 being alumni of Skull and Bones. Graduates of Bones and Keys were also prime movers in the mid-nineteenth-century alteration of the Yale Corporation to include elected alumni, and to this day, these graduates absolutely predominate among the ranks of the university’s most generous donors, many recalling the valued warmth of their society membership in making their gifts.

    Since election on the New Haven campus at age nineteen or twenty became a frequent predictor of some future national prominence, the societies themselves became nationally famous. They were the subject of the United States’ most famous college novel, 1912’s Stover at Yale, but also figured thereafter in fiction by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Vincent Benét, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, and John le Carré. The societies have been featured in motion pictures like The Good Shepherd, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and in the trilogy of thrillers The Skulls. Their legends have even been embellished in cartoons, including Doonesbury—Garry Trudeau, a member of Scroll and Key, happy to tweak Keys’ rival Bones and its two Bushes—and The Simpsons, that show’s Harvard graduate writers making Homer Simpson’s employer C. Montgomery Burns a roommate of Stover and retroactive member of the class of 1914 and Skull and Bones.

    The fame of the senior societies of Yale College—or, for their detractors, the notoriety—springs from the confluence of four circumstances of their existence. The first is the large shadow cast by Yale in our country’s political history for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the second, the sustained prominence, over almost two centuries, of the societies’ initiates in all phases of American life; and the third, the proximity of New Haven to New York City, the nation’s social, financial, and media capital, resulting in frequent press reports of the elections to the societies and of the controversies surrounding them. The final circumstance is the provoking secrecy maintained by their initiates after being “tapped” for membership, literally disappearing into “tombs” and a culture which has given the American language new meanings, still current, for “tapped,” meaning to be chosen, and “spook,” meaning spy.

    Their general confidentiality has not stopped secrets of all the societies from leaking out over the decades, through methods as customary as gossip from observant roommates and divorced wives, and as crude as thefts from the societies’ tombs by rivals and strangers. Related here are verifiable facts about the Yale secret societies that are attributable to credible published works: there will be no “secrets” here that have not already, somehow and somewhere, been revealed at least once in print, and otherwise verified. “The least-studied and most mysterious group in the history of American higher education,” one historian has said, “[is] the students, who composed the largest single group on the rosters of colleges and universities, and who were, ostensibly, the primary objects of the institutions’ concerns.”2 Through the prism of the Yale senior societies, part of that story may be discerned.

    Whatever one’s opinion of them, these small student clubs, beginning in the 1830s and ’40s during the Romantic movement in the arts and letters, to this day operate on the patently Romantic proposition that the discovery of an inner, authentic self both corresponds with and advances the aim of forming an ideal community. There are now at least forty-seven senior societies at Yale, nine “landed,” with tombs or houses, and the rest, nomadic and meeting in rented rooms, known as “undergrounds.” With each society electing the canonical fifteen (or a gender-balanced sixteen) members, almost half of the senior class students at Yale are in consequence presently member participants.

    Attitudes toward them have usually been influenced by two mystifications. The first sentimentalizes and romanticizes youth and imagination as fields of pure value. The second demonizes such groups, finding them sinister at worst and precious at best. Both views are inadequate, because they are reductionist, failing to take into account the asymmetries and complexities of the past. Talented people are not saints, and even genius is not privileged. Conspiracies are seductive, seemingly dramatic and rational, but as explanations for events are too simple. This book will try to thresh the wheat from the tares, to separate the values from the legends.

    Still, the author is in the position of Donald Ogden Stewart, a Bonesman in the class of 1916 and later an Academy Award–winning screenwriter in Hollywood. Publishing a magazine article on Yale in H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set for December 1921, he detailed the aspirations, tensions, and drama of these clubs, and concluded: “This essay is, furthermore, grossly unfair to the Senior societies in the following respect: I have shown the effect of the more or less false tradition which has grown up in the undergraduates’ minds concerning these institutions. I am not able to show the other side of the picture. It is as though a Catholic priest, having described the terrifying effect of an imposing cathedral upon him as a boy, were suddenly to stop before he had testified as to what the Church had come to mean to him after ordination. I do not think, in my own case at least, that the analogy is a bad one.”


    • #3


      Parenthetical dates for individuals are each’s Yale College class
      1701 The Collegiate School is founded by ten Connecticut ministers at a meeting in Branford, near New Haven, Connecticut.
      1716 Collegiate School’s name changed to Yale College to honor donation of Elihu Yale.
      September 12, 1753 Reputed date of founding of Linonia, literary and debating society, excluding freshmen until February 1767.
      1768 Literary and debating society of Brothers in Unity founded, rival to Linonia, open to all classes.
      December 5, 1776 Phi Beta Kappa founded as a secret society at the College of William and Mary (becomes inactive in 1780 due to the Revolutionary War).
      November 13, 1780 Connecticut Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa founded at Yale.
      September 5, 1781 Massachusetts Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa founded at Harvard.
      July 8, 1819 Calliope, literary and debating society, founded by Southerners seceding from Linonia.
      1821 Chi Delta Theta founded, second Yale Greek-letter fraternity (dissolves 1844).
      September 1827 Society of Alumni formed, first alumni association in nation.
      May 1831 Avery Allyn publishes A Ritual of Freemasonry . . . to which is added a Key to the Phi Beta Kappa, anti-Masonic agitation follows.
      September 1831 Secrecy at Harvard and Yale Phi Beta Kappa chapters ended by votes of members (including graduates, by then outnumbering current students)
      October 1832 Opening of Trumbull Gallery, a windowless art gallery.
      November 1832 Scull and Bone senior society founded (later Skull and Bones).
      1836 Alpha Delta Phi college fraternity chapter, known as “A.D.,” founded at Yale (originated at Hamilton College in 1832); surrenders charter in 1873.
      May 1837 First foreigner, a Brazilian, elected by Bones (with a second in May 1840).
      1838 Psi Upsilon college fraternity chapter, known as “Psi U,” founded at Yale (originated at Union College in 1833).
      November 5, 1841 Publication of first number of the Yale Banner, the college annual.
      July 6, 1842 Scroll and Key senior society founded, after dispute during elections for Bones, for classes of 1842 and 1843
      August 15, 1843 Townsend Premiums established for five best English compositions.
      1844 Sword and Crown and Star and Dart senior societies founded, expiring in 1843 and 1851, respectively.
      1844 Delta Kappa Epsilon, “DKE,” junior society founded (Yale the mother chapter), in schism from Psi Upsilon.
      1848 Berzelius (Colony Club) founded as final club in Sheffield Scientific School (converted to senior society, 1933).
      1852 First award of DeForest Prize, for best senior oration in English.
      May 1856 Graduate members of Bones incorporate Russell Trust Association.
      1856 Skull and Bones tomb erected on High Street (enlarged 1883, 1903).
      1863 Book and Snake (originally Cloister–Sigma Delta Chi) founded as final club in Sheffield Scientific School (converted to senior society, 1933).
      1864 Earliest photographic portrait of class year of Keys.
      1864 Faculty abolishes sophomore and freshman societies for abuses, for the first time.
      May 1864 Spade and Grave senior society founded, in dispute with Bones (last delegation in 1871; refounded in 1951).
      November 25, 1865 Yale Courant weekly newspaper first published.
      1865 Yale Pot-Pourri first published, Keys-controlled annual publication opposed to Bones and Yale Lit.
      1866 Graduate members of Keys incorporate Kingsley Trust Association.
      1869–70 Scroll and Key tomb erected on College and Wall Streets.
      July 6–10, 1871 Yale charter amended to provide for election of six graduates to be (Alumni) Fellows of Yale Corporation, substituted for state senators; alumni at commencement elect Alphonso Taft (1833, Bones), William Maxwell Evarts (1837, Bones), William Barrett Washburn (1844, Bones), Henry Baldwin Harrison (1846, Bones), and William Walter Phelps (1860, Bones), five of six elected; sixth man is replaced in 1873 by Mason Young (1860, Keys).


      • #4
        October 11, 1871 Inauguration of Rev. Dr. Noah Porter (1831, Phi Beta Kappa, and before senior societies), as eleventh Yale president, last non–senior society member college president in nineteenth century.
        March 13, 1872 Corporation determines Yale has “attained to the form of a University” (use of name authorized by Connecticut in 1887).
        1872 Linonia and Brothers in Unity literary societies disband.
        1873 Yale Literary Chronicle first published, parody of Yale Lit., opposed to senior societies.
        May 21, 1874 Juniors blocked in their rooms by non-society hecklers, harassing the senior electors, and so come down to their dormitory steps for election, necessitating direction, “Go to your room.”
        May 20, 1875 Election exercises conducted completely outdoors for first time outside, on Old Campus in front of Durfee and Farnam Halls.
        1875 First Yale-Harvard football game (October 18); Yale faculty abolishes sophomore and freshman societies for the second time (May 24).
        September 29, 1876 Bones tomb broken into by neutrals and its layout mapped and published.
        January 28, 1878 Yale Daily News publishes first issue as anti-society publication; third issue (January 30) contains first Bones/Keys joke.
        March 13, 1878 Bull and Stones members vandalize exterior of Bones and Keys tombs.
        Spring 1878 Linonia and Brothers in Unity revived, but soon collapse for lack of interest; sophomore fraternities abolished by faculty action.
        May 23, 1879 First Yale Daily News report of a Tap Day.
        1880–1883 Walter Camp (1880, Bones), as Yale student and coach, develops the game of American football.
        1881–1906 The Horoscope publishes almost annually, with lists of those expected to be tapped.
        1883 Wolf’s Head senior society founded, not to join Tap Day until 1889.
        February 1, 1884 Senior class meeting considers abolition of senior societies, but the motion is ultimately defeated.
        May 28, 1886 New York Times begins annual reports of senior society elections.
        June 30, 1886 Inauguration of Timothy Dwight (1849, Bones), twelfth Yale president.
        1886 Graduate members of Wolf’s Head incorporate as Phelps Trust Association.
        1887 Yale College changes name to Yale University.
        May 25, 1891 Yale Alumni Weekly first published.
        May 1892 First published use of phrase “Tap Day” (in 1892 Horoscope).
        October 18, 1899 Inauguration of Arthur Twining Hadley (1876, Bones), first non-clerical Yale president.
        1900 Sophomore societies abolished for the last time by President Hadley.
        1901 Book and Snake tomb erected on Grove and High Street corner.
        1902 Bartlett Golden Yung, son of first Chinese student in U.S., Yung Wing (1854), tapped by Wolf’s Head.
        March 1903 Elihu Club founded (not a secret senior society for another twenty years).
        June 27, 1905 Election of first non-clerical Fellow, Payson Merrill (1856, Bones), among successors to New England ministers as trustees of the Yale Corporation.
        1909 Election of first Native American, Henry Roe Cloud, by Elihu.
        1910 Berzilius tomb erected on Trumbull Street.
        1911–12 Elihu Club acquires 175 Elm Street (built c. 1772) as clubhouse.
        Spring 1912 Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale published; class of 1915 sophomores organize anti-society protest against Tap Day ostentation, society secrecy.
        May 1913 Old Campus closed to visitors, only juniors and seniors admitted for Tap Day by dean’s order.
        May 1914 Tap Day first moved away from Old Campus, held in Berkeley Oval, where most juniors reside.
        May 1915 Juniors comprise own candidate list; Tap Day again held under Durfee Hall oak on Old Campus, only two upper classes admitted, general public barred.
        April 19, 1917 Tap Day ceremony held both in New Haven and in Palm Beach, Florida, for naval aviators training there.
        May 1918 No Tap Day ceremony, only announcements of those elected in New Haven and in service overseas.
        July 5, 1918 Death of John William Sterling (1864, Bones), Yale’s greatest financial benefactor, leaves $18 million (equivalent to $275 million) to Yale, $10,000 to Bones.
        May 21, 1921 Elihu joins Tap Day ceremony.
        June 21, 1921 Inauguration of James Rowland Angell, fourteenth Yale president and first non-graduate (elected out of deadlock between Bones and Keys members on Yale Corporation).
        1924–26 Second Wolf’s Head tomb erected on York Street.
        May 1933 Students stay in their rooms for Tap Day, but both societies and students find this inconvenient.
        September 1933 First seven residential colleges open in fulfillment of the House Plan (Branford, Calhoun, Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, Pierson, Saybrook, and Trumbull).
        May 1934 Tap Day moved to Branford College main courtyard, and Sheffield Scientific societies Berzelius and Book and Snake compete for first time with academic side societies of Bones, Keys, Wolf’s Head, and Elihu.
        May 1937 Albert Hessberg (1938, Bones), first Jew tapped by a senior society.
        October 8, 1937 Inauguration of Charles Seymour (1908, Bones) as fifteenth Yale president.
        May 1941 Tap Day exercises moved from Old Campus to Branford College courtyard.
        1945–1947 Tap Day held once more in students’ rooms.
        May 1948 Tap Day moved back to Branford Court; Levi Jackson (1949), first black football player and captain of Yale team, offered both Bones and Keys, but pre-tapped by and joins Berzelius.
        April 1950 “Stay-away-from-Tap Day” movement agitates against Branford courtyard tap.
        October 6, 1950 Inauguration of Alfred Whitney Griswold (1929, Wolf’s Head) as sixteenth Yale president.
        1951 Spade and Grave refounded with involvement of Yale professors.
        May 3, 1951 Tap Day in Branford courtyard by Dean DeVane’s direction; societies take second floor “stations” to run taps.
        1952 Manuscript senior society founded as underground.
        May 1953 Tap Day exercises removed from Branford College courtyard and elections given again in juniors’ rooms.
        1957 Senior societies take over the management of Tap Day from Yale administration; Lawrence Bensky, first Jew offered membership in Wolf’s Head, its graduate board objects, he joins Berzelius.
        1961 Manuscript comes aboveground; tomb begins construction (completed 1963).
        April 11, 1964 Inauguration of Kingman Brewster Jr. (1940, turns down Bones and Keys), as seventeenth Yale president.
        1966 Societies agree with Yale Dean’s Office not to contact juniors earlier than week before Tap Day.
        April 28, 1967 Yale Daily News prints results of Tap Day elections for all senior societies for last time.
        November 9, 1968 Yale Corporation approves coeducation for Yale College, beginning with freshman class and sophomore and junior transferees entering in September 1969.
        April 1970 No Tap Day due to imminence of May Day (Black Panther) weekend; five women elected by Elihu (for 1971 club), the first society to do so.
        May 1, 1970 May Day weekend with Black Panthers; Manuscript election nullified, and tomb closed by board; Spade and Grave and Mace and Chain dissolve.
        June 1970 Last annual edition of Yale Banner to list society memberships.
        Fall 1970 Manuscript corporate board elects 1971 delegation, including three women.
        April 1971 Berzelius and Book and Snake tap women, the second year of women’s election eligibility (leaving only Bones, Keys, and Wolf’s Head all male).
        1971 First women named to Yale Corporation, Hanna Holborn Gray and Marian Wright Edelman.
        1978 A. Bartlett Giamatti (1960, Keys) inaugurated as nineteenth Yale president.
        1986 Benno C. Schmidt Jr. (1964, Wolf’s Head) inaugurated as twentieth Yale president.
        May 1989 Scroll and Key admits women with class of 1990.
        April 10, 1991 Bones club of 1991 taps six women; Russell Trust Association changes locks on tomb.
        October 24, 1991 Bones’ Russell Trust Association votes to admit women.
        December 12, 1991 Wolf’s Head’s Phelps Trust Association votes to admit women, last senior society to do so.
        October 4, 1993 Richard C. Levin (Stanford BA 1968, Yale PhD 1974), inaugurated as twenty-second Yale president, only third in twentieth century not to be a senior society alumnus.
        2004 Kurt Schmoke (1971, Wolf’s Head) becomes first black to be Senior Fellow of Yale Corporation.
        2016 Forty-seven senior societies functioning at Yale.


        • #5
          CHAPTER ONE

          Secret societies . . . are the consequence of an effort of individuals—usually and mainly men—to create the social conditions for exercising their gregarious propensities, the expression of which may be (or may seem to be) inhibited by their community.

          —Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups (1969)

          Bonding in secret—both the internal process, and the external profile, of Yale’s senior “secret” societies—has made them, over the almost two centuries of their existence, objects of fascination, fear, and scorn. Less appreciated is their prehistory of student society predecessors in Europe and more especially England. And almost unknown is how, at their inception in New Haven and in the decades to follow, their members deviated from the common pattern of the new college fraternities being founded on other campuses, and created a particularly American forcing chamber of self-education and prestige, to become nationally renowned over the succeeding decades.

          Organized secrecy is a feature of many civilizations. That human beings gather together in social groups is a commonly observed phenomenon, and such groupings are a much examined subject of sociologists and anthropologists. Still, secret societies are not so much studied unless they are part of exotic native cultures, because such organizations are more than vaguely suspect in our own culture. The whole subject is neglected as an area for serious investigation, a noted Oxford historian has observed, because once “the historian passed by, the charlatan, the axe-grinder and the paranoiac long had the field to themselves. . . . All of us have presuppositions which make it difficult for us to appreciate social purposes when they are expressed in an unfamiliar idiom, and these constantly ensnare and divert us when dealing with a topic so rich in irrational elements as this.” Unless a secret association is supported by, or is part of, the political authority of the state, its formation and operation are always regarded by some outsiders as potentially aggressive. Secrecy itself is usually perceived as hostile.1

          These societies have been defined as “any social grouping not based on blood relationship which possesses some ritualistic element of secrecy, the knowledge of which is confined to initiated members.”2 Why we form secret societies, for reasons other than plotting conspiracy, and that such societies have been primarily male are subjects also examined by academics, but less understood by the general public. That public does appreciate one prominent feature: fraternal orders, like churches, are “expressive” organizations, directed primarily toward meeting the social and personal needs of their members. In contrast, “instrumental” organizations such as trade unions or professional associations have specific goals to accomplish, and mediate between members and the outside world.

          Secret societies are also an expression of the “play element” in American culture, which Johan Huizinga has described as a distinct and fundamental function of life in all societies, where humans create “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” While it cannot be defined exactly, play is “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world.”3 These characteristics are shared by the Yale senior societies: a game, most seriously and solemnly played by their members, which necessarily involved those on the outside as well as on the inside of the game.

          This play, however, can be offensive or even frightening to the outsider. Fraternal ritual presumes a surrounding network of relations, the community of birth and rearing. Formation of a fraternity, however, is a violation of that community, an acknowledgment of obligations which transcend it, an assertion that the identity conferred by the greater community is lower in the scheme of things. While still in the larger society, the initiated brothers are never again of it. The fact that fraternal ritual surrounded itself in secrecy and mystery suggests as much. “Whether secrecy is a tool for power or a sacred truth not to be uttered before the profane, the secret presumes those from whom the secret is kept. It is based, as are ‘rites of passage’ in general, on a separation between the included and excluded.”4

          Moreover, a private, self-selected fraternity guarding a secret knowledge seems to many to challenge the value of democratic publicity, causing social tension in the contest between a community’s right to knowledge and the individual’s right to privacy. Sociologist Georg Simmel’s work on secrecy helps to provide a framework for trying to understand this, in noting that the “relation which is mysterious in form regardless of accidental content” is an attractive one: secrecy within a community creates a subgroup that has special reasons for a sense of confidence among the members. Exclusion of outsiders heightens the sense of individual difference, provides a center of unity, and, within the subgroup, “countenances the separatistic factors” that Alexis de Tocqueville had lamented as a consequence of American democracy.

          To many, it seems puzzling that fraternity has so often been associated with the secret society. Of course, the secret emphasizes the distinction between insiders and outsiders, and thus strengthens the bonds which unite the former. However, what is critical is the nature and purpose of the secret as viewed by the initiates; that, as Georg Simmel knew, is crucial to an evaluation of a secret society to be a “fraternity.” In most instances, the secret is not what is valued most highly by the members. Secrecy is adopted as a means to ends other than the protection of the secret, as is obvious in the case of formal and public “secret” societies. Publicity calls attention to the society and raises the danger that the secret will be discovered. The risk is justifiable only if the members desire the attention which publicity provides, valuing the interest, curiosity, and attention of the community.

          A more striking and romantic explanation of the secret society than that of the sociologists and anthropologists, founded on youthful cravings, was offered by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796, translated into English by Thomas Carlyle in 1824), he wrote of a secret university student brotherhood, the Turmergesellschaft, the Tower Society. “The taste of youth for secrecy,” he observed, “for ceremonies, for imposing words, is extraordinary; and frequently bespeaks a certain depth of character. In those years, we wish to feel our whole nature seized and moved, even though it be but vaguely and darkly. The youth who happens to have lofty aspirations and forecastings thinks that secrets yield him much, that he must depend on secrets, and effect much by means of them.”5 The college students who founded the first Yale secret societies were possessed of the same belief.

          In the twenty-first century, such an attitude seems remote, and even alien. Yet what has been styled “secret fraternalism” represents one of the major patterns of American civilization. In this country’s early years, it was of course imported from England. Even before 1700, the English had formulated a new respect for private and informal activity, with the appearance of such meeting places as coffeehouses, clubs, and salons, inventions of men and women making new demands on society and discovering new capacities in themselves which could not be given expression within the historic unities of blood, locality, religion, occupation, and legal subordination. Here, too, were founded the first “secret societies,” in the modern sense of that phrase. Sometimes lighthearted, sometimes not, they guarded their secrets jealously and took elaborate precautions against the approach of the profane and uninitiated. Of these societies, immeasurably the most important were those of the Freemasons.6


          • #6
            The first grand Masonic lodge was formed in 1717 out of four London lodges that in turn owe their origins to the masons’ guild in that city. An early masonic document dating from 1659 contains a mason’s oath that a brother “keep all that we or attendees shall be[,] you keep secret, from Man, Woman, or Child, Stock or Stone, and never reveal it but to a Brother or in a Lodge of free masons, and truly observe the Charges in the Constitution.” The order included not only “operative” Masons who gathered themselves into “lodges” (the term Freemason may have come from the designation of those who worked with freestone, a generic term for any fine-grained stone that could be carved), but also “speculative” Masons, men who were honorary members rather than craftsmen. They came to predominate, and the brotherhood devoted itself to building “spiritual instead of material temples.”

            The lodge structure was functional, meeting the needs of a craft whose members were often itinerant, assembling sometimes for limited—even if for lengthy—periods on building sites where no urban craft organized. It may have been the craft’s itinerant nature that explained the early evolution of a secret system of signs for mutual recognition of its members. The trade secrets of the operative Masons became the esoteric secrets of the speculative Masons. This led to a heightening and dramatizing of the language of initiation: the aspirants’ oaths were couched in terrifying terms in order to bring home to them the importance of preserving secrecy about trade practices and signs of recognition in whose defense legendary martyrs were supposed to have died. The order had been introduced into the American colonies by 1730.7

            In the United States at the dawn of the nineteenth century, there existed only a few thousand members of secret brotherhoods: approximately three thousand Freemasons, five or six hundred participants in the Tammany societies (the Sons of St. Tamina, born of the Sons of Liberty), and the handful of members at Yale and Harvard College chapters of the literary society Phi Beta Kappa (not yet the national scholarly honorary society of today). Growth was explosive thereafter. By 1825, there were twenty thousand Masons in New York State alone; in Connecticut, with seventy-five lodges by that date, the organization served as a vehicle for dissent from Connecticut’s religious standing order. Beyond the eastern seaboard, secret societies, lodges, and fraternities grew like weeds through the nineteenth century, flourishing in any place with a concentration of young men, in cities and towns and colleges, offering social acceptance at a time when other bonds and commitments were severed for a time, or otherwise in flux.8

            That such societies formed within America’s very first colleges is not surprising. The honors examinations in the ancient universities from which those of our nation derived were devised to control youthful impulses, as well as to impart then-settled knowledge, and to organize learning for public purposes. In their quest to maintain such control, the administration and faculty distrusted all undergraduate clubs, suspecting them of subversion. In the eighteenth century, social clubs and dining societies had proliferated for various frivolous and ephemeral purposes, and their rites of passage were boisterous associations of drinking, gambling, and other dissipations. As student bodies grew larger, new associations formed to alleviate the anonymity of the larger campuses. These were devoted to more serious and sober purposes, formulated by collegians who were themselves more mature than their generational predecessors, with the interests of young adults rather than those of children.9

            These societies were products of our modern age, the Age of Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant had declared, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. . . . The motto of Enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding.” From Kant’s Germany in the Enlightenment, known there as the Aufklärung, came the debating society, with its tendency to submit all the problems of the world to the test of reason. Knowledge and discussion were exalted above the will and the feelings. The contagion of these new ideas spread to England, and from thence to the fertile soil of its American colonies.10

            The doctrines of the Enlightenment, originating in Europe, entered America through the port cities and the great plantations, the “ports of entry” for ideas as well as trade. The new theories, moreover, had appeals which specifically commended them to Americans. The Enlightenment removed the constraints from human imagination and seemed suited to the openness of the continent. Social and political goals became freed from the old country fetters of experience and history and, indeed, from those of reason: what a man could conceive, he might achieve, expecially in America, where the hand of the past fell lightly.11

            While the first student associations in American colonial colleges were largely religious in nature, like the Moral Society founded at Yale in 1797 by students as a secret society to examine and self-correct their own behavior, the Spy Club at Harvard in 1719 had a different focus. Its constitution stipulated, “That any Difficulty may be propos’d to the Company and when propos’d the Company shall deliver their Thôts upon it,” and “That there be a Disputation on Two or more questions at every Meeting, one part of the Company holding the Affirmative, the other the Negative part of ye question.” (Each of the Spy Club’s six members assumed a nickname by which he would be addressed within the club, a feature that was to be replicated in Yale College’s senior societies).12

            The first effective agency of intellect to make itself felt in the American college was the debating club or “literary society.” These appeared first at Yale, founded in 1753 (Linonia) and 1768 (Brothers in Unity), and soon thereafter at Princeton (the American Whig, joined in 1769 by future president James Madison when a student, and the Cliosophic, founded in 1770), and at Harvard (the Speaking Club, afterward the Institute of 1770, and then Hasty Pudding). John Quincy Adams, Harvard class of 1787, who belonged to both the Speaking Club and Phi Beta Kappa, wrote: “Of these societies friendship is the soul, and literary improvement the object; and consequently neither of them is numerous.” Yale also led in establishing the American college tradition of founding not one but two competing societies. Where the writing of compositions drew the student into the interior world of the vita contemplativa, the literary society’s debates pushed him outward, upon the public stage of the vita activa.13

            “Literary” did not in this era mean “mere” literature—fiction, verse, and drama. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the American college itself was styled a literary institution, meaning, roughly, all knowledge (conveying much of the present German word Wissenschaft). Students went to college to become men of knowledge, men of literature, men of letters, to become literati. Parents and guardians were clear about their motives in sending their sons to Yale and other colleges, and students too agreed that becoming a member of the literary world was demanding but inspiring.14

            The earliest American college literary society known to have existed anywhere is Crotonia, founded at Yale in 1738 but disappearing before 1767; it paved the way for both Linonia and Brothers in Unity, which together after 1802 were to include all members of Yale College—the incoming freshmen divided between them alphabetically—up to and beyond the creation of the senior societies. In rivalry, they had not only badges but their own mottoes and colors (red for Linonia, and blue for Brothers), and constitutions permitting membership to all undergraduates who were not a member of the other society.

            The waves of political interest produced by Revolutionary War made the new nation’s college literary societies for fifty years the strongest force in American student life, with two prominent societies—a strong testimonial to the competitive principle, replicated in the later history of the Yale senior societies—at each of Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Amherst, Williams, Brown, Wesleyan, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. When Yale’s Southerners formed Calliope in 1819, the New Haven college was indeed to have three. Futhermore, in their prime on college campuses, these societies were the major, and often the only, student extracurricular activity.15

            The society members intended themselves for the professions and politics. In the decade of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to the fact that one-eighth of the members of Congress had been born in Connecticut, a state whose population comprised only one forty-third of the nation’s. By 1835, the law rivaled the ministry as a professional choice of graduates of Yale, Bowdoin, Brown, and Dartmouth. At Yale, the ministry slipped from 33 percent as a professional choice of graduates in 1821 to 15 percent in 1861. Those who survived the rigors of university examination, developing the skills of puzzle-solving, mental speed, and verbal agility into tools for self-preservation and representation, knew that eloquence and rhetoric were essential devices for the translation, mediation, and interpretation of their world and work. Clarity of thought, reason and eloquence, and quickness of mind all contributed to their cultural authority to move others, in the legislature and in the courts, from one side of a proposition to another, or one side of a case to another.16


            • #7
              This was, in other words, the age of the “self-made man,” a term coined by southern Senator Henry Clay in 1832 (the year Skull and Bones was founded) to describe the ability to perfect the self through sustained, concentrated efforts to improve the mind, morals, and body, with an identity that was a voluntarily chosen and consciously constructed. This ideal was not something that had to be achieved by an individual in isolation, nor was it then narrowly identified with entrepreneurship and money-making. In the nineteenth century it applied not to Americans who succeeded in the material world but rather to those who pursued inner self-improvement, forging a balanced character from nature’s raw material.17

              This was to be cogently expressed by Daniel H. Chamberlain, a member of the Yale class of 1861 and Skull and Bones (and later the governor of South Carolina), in an article on the role of American college literary societies written in his senior year. “What is the secret of the success of men whom the world calls self-made?,” he asked, and answered: “The self-made man . . . is able to marshal his mental forces more readily and precipitate them more effectively than he who has passed through a liberal course of study in the schools, but neglected to use his powers and acquirements, in his progress. To correct this great error and supply this great defect, we think no other agency is so admirably adapted as the Literary Society, since there is scarcely a single faculty of mind which may not here find its appropriate field of activity. . . . Here, in the flash and glow of mental combat, all effeminate softness must be put away, and the strong armor of argument, principle, history, logic, must be put on. But over all this severity and out of all this austerity, shall grow a grander Beauty, a more delicate Grace.”18

              In this American student practice of organizing secret societies as preparation for entering the great world, two conditions were essential. Secrecy was the first, a protection against authority (particularly in the consideration of religious questions in a speculative manner), as well as a barrier against the frivolous, the curious, and the idle who would challenge or demean the entire enterprise. The emergence of individuality and cognitive daring was permitted by privacy, and secrecy actually encouraged intellectual dissent. When discussions became more personal, confronting the young men’s individual doubts and fears about themselves (and about women), privacy became even more vital; withdrawal behind closed doors was in such circumstances eminently reasonable. Such groups had no public function: their role was to provide an environment within which their members could consider separate, sometimes clashing, and certainly private views without public explanations.19

              In organizing fraternities in the 1820s and 1830s, which they called and were secret societies, these students were also going against the political temper of their times. The nation had largely embraced the Jacksonian ideal of this era—everyone equal before God, equal before one another—but the collegians had perhaps known too much equality, with the same class program, the same class subjects, the same professors, the same prayers, the same drab cubicles in uniform dormitories. In the very decades of the Age of Jackson, the students clearly preferred the privileges of secrecy and club life to equality before the Creator, and were inspired and energized by the very exclusiveness which the Jacksonian temper rejected. However paradoxical it may seem, they also came into being during the anti-Freemason fervor in the United States which excoriated secret societies in general and the Masons in particular, a protest and a scandal of which the students cannot have been ignorant, and yet they forged ahead nonetheless.

              Even secret societies which hide neither their aims nor their members’ names still take extraordinary efforts to forbid disclosure of their rituals. Given this mindset, the most vicious form of disloyalty, according to the principles of the secret society, is disclosure of the ritualistic features of the order to outsiders.20

              Notably, these manifestations of secrecy were intertwined with the Enlightenment. Language about being enlightened, and at the same time secretive about the commitment to the Enlightenment, was used self-consciously by Freemasons to identify their society with “the highest aspirations of the new secular culture . . . [but this] only reinforced the masonic dedication to secrecy that was as much metaphorical as it was real. The belief that most people were incapable of, or hostile to, the new culture of Enlightenment was widespread both within and without the lodges. Indeed, Kant himself had carefully qualified his description of the age; as he ruefully observed, ours is not an enlightened age.”21 The attitude was one that Phi Beta Kappa in America, founded by newly minted Freemasons who were students at the College of William and Mary, was to pass on in barely diluted form to its successor institutions, the Yale senior societies.


              • #8
                The second essential condition for a secret society was friendship, the foundation of college youth culture. Linonia’s first name was the “Fellowship Club,” and its constitution held its first two objects to be “to promote friendship [and] Social Intercourse.” Away from things familiar and surrounded by young men of largely similar age and circumstance, university students formed close friendships with their classmates: “A hundred boys entering college together—all strangers to its customs, most of them coming unsophisticated from the family roof—conceive for each other an affection that often lasts for a lifetime, without any better reason than that early community in the charms and against the terrors of a strange life.” If liberal learning, after the Enlightenment, was “an intellectual free-trade territory into which those from outside the orthodox and conventional world could now enter,” friendship was also an abiding value in a world whose metaphors were drawn from an antique past, fundamental as a political truth in the ancient republics and of first importance to ancient religious feelings as well.22

                With the Greeks, it involved the love of teachers and their pupils; with the Romans, in Cicero’s De Amicitia, it involved the love of equals; with the Christians, it called for the feelings described in the Gospel of St. John. C. S. Lewis observed that, for the ancients, friendship “seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue.” Man must pay homage to the social needs of continuity, nurture, and education, mindful of the hierarchy inherent in human improvement. Only among brothers, however, was a man free to follow up what was best in him at any time, and hence climb the ladder of excellence. The possibility of moving forward in the search for identity requires the support of persons who assure our identity anew, not as authority might, by giving us the conviction of a new, “known” self, but by stimulating us to seek the self which remains unknown.23

                It was not pretense that caused such student societies (literary societies, then college fraternities) to adopt, as slogans, variations on the idealistic triad of friendship, love, and truth. These very values had been nurtured in the American home and maintained in family life for virtually two centuries past in the growing nation The nineteenth-century families which the young men left for their respective colleges were themselves strong social organizations, often being large, and certainly patriarchal, communal, and socially self-sufficient for the most part. The student society was intended to domesticate the frontier college community.24

                Yale president Timothy Dwight, an undergraduate member of the Skull and Bones club of 1849, described the centrality of friendship sensitively and eloquently, in the context of the New Haven senior year and secret societies, in his memoirs. “[T]here can be no doubt,” he wrote, “as to the positive influence of the smaller bodies [as opposed to the class-wide old literary societies] on the development of friendship among their members. This was especially true of the societies pertaining to the Senior year—and naturally so, in view of the fact that in our College, as contrasted with many others, the active membership in the [underclass] fraternities of the earlier years ceased when those years came to an end. The men who were united in the fraternity fellowship as Seniors came together, accordingly, as a small and selected company, in the latest period of their course, when their minds and characters had developed to the highest point of college life; when the great questions of their future, with the seriousness attendant upon them, were arising before all alike; and when the very approach of the end of the happy period, which they had found so full of blessing, was bringing a sadness of spirit that could not but make the heart open itself with tenderness and sympathy.”25

                More than a construct of literature and sociology, friendship provided the code and social insulation necessary for collegians as they sought vocation. It was the avenue through which they could escape the rigidities of family and religion, and slip away from the confines of the colleges which were otherwise so important to them for their identities. More than companionship, friendship represented a means of social and personal survival in a fraught and antagonistic world, a way they could confront, not alone, the most personal and elemental features of life encountered in their new college community: harsh discipline, financial catastrophe, disease, and death. “Some [in college] fail through indolence,” a graduate wrote, “some through want of health; some through poverty, perhaps; some get dishonorable dismissions; some die—too early to be entered with an asterisk in the triennial catalogue” (the usual way in postgraduate publication of noting a society or fraternity member’s death).26 Two of Yale’s freshman dormitories on the Old Campus are memorials by their parents to young men who died as juniors or seniors: Lawrance Hall is named for Thomas Garner Lawrance, class of 1884 and Skull and Bones, and Vanderbilt Hall for William H. Vanderbilt, class of 1893 and Scroll and Key.

                Life’s temptations and devastations, through friendship and fellowship, could be foreseen, better understood, and mastered. Again, friendship was the bridge which the students might cross from self-formation to some vocation in adult life. It allowed young people, secure only with one another, to attack hierarchy, to associate themselves with free-thinking and enlightenment beyond hallowed certainties, to ask and answer, when freed within their secret societies of family restraints and social connections, the fundamental question: what should one believe and in that belief, to what and whom should one be loyal, in a dangerous and risky world? In their quest for learning to be true to themselves, to their duty as they saw it, and to a pure if abstract truth, friendship galvanized and sustained them.


                • #9
                  THE CAMBRIDGE APOSTLES
                  If all this is so, then it is fitting that the motto “only connect” was formulated by the English novelist E. M. Forster,27 elected in 1901 to the first famous Anglo-American college secret society. This, the Cambridge Conversazione Society, was founded in 1820 in Cambridge, England, in that town’s namesake university by George Tomlinson, who would become Bishop of Gibraltar, and eleven other members of St. John’s College. Because they were originally twelve in number, and because their evangelical views were somewhat pronounced in the club’s first several college generations (of the original twelve, nine took holy orders), they became known as “the Apostles,” although they referred to themselves simply as “the Society.” Because they believed they were gathered for serious purposes, and not merely convivial gustatory or social pursuits, or for the celebration of athletic victories, they distinguished themselves in tone and membership from other student societies at Oxford or Cambridge. And because these purposes and proceedings were confidential, even to mention membership in the society in memoirs was to break the rules of secrecy.28

                  Although in time the personal and professional distinction of their graduates (including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Forster) would make them famous—and with certain later twentieth-century members, the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, notorious—there is no evidence that the existence of the Apostles was known in New Haven a dozen years later when Skull and Bones was founded in 1832, or that this English university club provided any pattern for the membership number or traditions of any Yale senior society. Still, the transatlantic parallels in cloaked customs and coded nomenclature are striking. The Cambridge-birthed traditions constitute further evidence that the social and historical forces that converged in the creation of the Yale groups were not unique to America, and in consequence similar institutions flowered at two widely separated locations, alike only in their institutional settings as seminaries of learning for their respective countries’ future leaders in church and state.

                  More than seventy Apostles were elected between 1820 and 1830, but thereafter slightly more than three, on average, were elected each year, their numbers narrowing to members who mostly would attain great marks of success in the Tripos examinations. They did not seek uniformity, but valued individual differences, candor, openness, and intelligence, because only in this way could they learn from one another; they also sought manners, charm, and affection because these qualities were necessary for an environment of intense intimacy. Birth, social position, and wealth counted for virtually nothing in election. They met each Saturday evening after meals in hall during term, with all members obliged to attend and each, at regular intervals, to read an essay.29

                  The Cambridge Conversazione Society, like the Yale senior societies which were to follow in its wake, although not inspired by its example, left an indelible mark upon its members by creating feelings of self-discovery and enlightenment, and giving them feelings of self-confidence, belonging, consequence, and liberation. In his presidential address to the Apostles’ annual dinner in 1896, Sir Donald MacAlister of Tarbert, by then the chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said that “The voice that issues from the hearth-rug on Saturday nights has gone through all the earth, its sound to the world’s end. It speaks in Senates, though men know it not, it controls principalities and powers, it moulds philosophies, it inspires literatures. To those of us in the world of the unreal who are constrained ‘to keep the up-right hat, the mid-way of custom,’ the memory of it is a priceless possession.”

                  “We have been young,” he continued, “we have drunk delight of battle with our spiritual peers, we have dared to question everything, we have sworn at the words of every master. We know that there are such things as liberty, equality, fraternity: for we have reveled in free and equal brotherhood.”30 In those words are all of the fierce joy and unbridled arrogance of membership in this Cambridge secret society, sentiments for which the senior societies at Yale were later to be celebrated and damned. But although they still have their Ark, the Cambridge men, unlike those New Haven societies, have never had a permanent home: ironically, these Apostles have never entered a tomb.


                  • #10
                    THE AMERICAN WAY
                    It seems doubtful that anyone on the campus in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1832 knew of Goethe’s celebration in Wilhelm Meister of the Studentnorden, the German secret student orders, which were not to have an accessible popular description in America until the publication of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad in 1880. The Cambridge Apostles, born in one college of several in that university in England in 1820, would have been similarly distant and unfamiliar. The young men in New Haven were members of, and most familiar with, their own three Yale literary societies, but these were not in any way exclusive, taking in all members of every class, in which they participated throughout their four-year college course. These were secret societies, but the secrets were clearly widely shared, and their internal proceedings remarkably similar.

                    The Chi Phi Society had been founded in 1824 at the College of New Jersey in Princeton by faculty members for students, but a year after became inactive, and in any event was unknown up in Connecticut; Chi Delta Theta, founded earlier at Yale in 1821 for seniors with recognized literary ability, also at faculty instigation, was thus likewise not a model. Such societies, whether instigated by professors or by students alone, then and thereafter took Greek letters for their names because they were all composed of students who, given their intensive study of the language, knew Greek as well as modern college students know English. It was during the antebellum period that Greece eclipsed Rome as the model for a virtuous citizenry in the American imagination, at colleges particularly. To be Greek was to subscribe to notions of self-improvement through literature and oratory—Demosthenes speaking through the pebbles in his mouth—and more grandly, to hearken back to the ancients, and to their ideals on which Western Civilization was founded.31

                    In November 1825, at Union College in Schenectady, New York, the Kappa Alpha Society was established by six seniors and two juniors. All had been members (two of them its chief officers) of an organized military company at Union that had recently been dissolved by the college’s president Eliphalet Nott in summary resolution of an electoral dispute about new officers. These collegians, feeling what was described as “an aching void” left by the company’s dissolution, thereupon decided to form a secret society to fill it; by the middle of December, they had initiated another eight members. As for “the most important definite objects of the Association,” these were, “as they all thought better, left to the collective wisdom of the active college membership—for the time being—from class to class, as time and experience would suggest.”32 Kappa Alpha was the product, thus, of the twin desires for friendship and secrecy, but no had special programmatic purpose.

                    Such fraternities from the start—and Kappa Alpha is agreed by most scholars to be that start in the United States—and the Yale senior societies which paralleled them in measured growth offered fellowship to their members and a way to be distinguished from non-members, perhaps as proof of an elevated status. Smaller and more exclusive than the literary societies, and more strictly secret, they became increasingly more popular as well. That bond, their internal language proclaimed, was thought to last well beyond the time together on campus: calling each other “brother” and cementing ties through a familial model was emotionally comforting, and allowed fraternity/society men to trust one another, believing that this trust would not be betrayed. Brothers would always be brothers, not only in their loyalty, but also in the lack of hierarchical relations between them. Implicit in this construct, however, was exclusivity, which fraternity membership was always understood to be. Competing for new members was naturally acceptable, but membership meant “brotherhood” for life. In offering election, once there were two Yale senior societies after 1842, the candidate for one society was always asked if he had a prior affiliation with the other.

                    Absent from this shadow family construct were fathers, because young men in nineteenth-century colleges had abundant father figures, charged with trying to control college life. Collegians were adolescents in a particular context: they were a subject people, in a community where they did not make or enforce the rules. Fraternities were begun in no small part to establish an independence from patriarchal eyes, of the real or substitute variety. Their members’ dependence was to be upon their peers, not upon someone with the new power to punish them. Mutual dependence was a comforting midway point between the dependence of childhood and the independence of adult manhood.33

                    American fraternities were thus themselves a symbolic form of rebellion against authority, constituted in deliberate disregard or even in repudiation of college administrators. They were initially formed because some student “right” had been curtailed or abolished (the military corps’ dissolution for Kappa Alpha, and, as will be seen, the abolition of secrecy in Phi Beta Kappa for Skull and Bones at Yale, and also for Psi Upsilon for the same reason over at Union). The founding of Phi Beta Kappa itself in 1776 has been celebrated as “a revolt against authoritarianism of the college and the assertion by students of their right to assemble, to choose those they wished to associate in their enterprise, to be free to speak their minds, and to make decisions affecting their own welfare.” College authorities of this era were accustomed to student outbreaks and did everything in their power to curb them; they logically sought to regulate when, where, and for what purposes students gathered. Yale president Noah Porter, himself an undergraduate member of Philagorian, a secret society which survived only two years, described fraternity life generally in the nineteenth century: “The aggression of constant interference [by the faculty] provokes the resistance of boyish mischief and arouses the wrath of manhood that is half-developed and is therefor intensely jealous of its invaded rights.”34

                    And of course, by joining together in secret, their members were often able to engage in forbidden activities, either noble like debating topics in politics or religion which the faculty would not have countenanced in public, or less noble, such as drinking liquor and indulging in profanity or other immoralities illegal under lengthy books of college rules called “laws” on their title pages. The Laws of Yale College for 1832, for example, mandated incoming freshmen each to sign an oath “particularly that I will faithfully avoid using profane language, gaming, and all indecent, disorderly behavior, and disrespectful conduct to the Faculty, and all combinations to resist their authority35 (emphasis supplied).

                    College officers not only supposed that plots might be hatched, or rules broken, at secret meetings, but objected to the very fact of secrecy. If they were doing nothing wrong, as many society members claimed when queried, why the need to hide? In colleges founded by Protestant denominations that demanded abstinence and self-denial, members could break the official codes among trusted brothers. The professors were not wrong to fear that fraternities institutionalized various escapes—whether drinking, smoking, card playing, or singing—but the student-invented groups did not invent these diversions, which long antedated their founding. Rather, they channeled traditional means of escape into a brotherhood of devoted men, and in time, on many campuses, it became hard to distinguish purpose from manifestation.36

                    “Their secrecy,” a nineteenth-century commentator observed, “consists of but two elements: the members hold meetings with closed doors, and do not tell the meaning of the Greek letters by which they are known.” Because the constitutions and rituals of many of these fraternities were to be stolen in the early days by members of rival organizations, that general resemblance also existed. Harper’s Weekly was to report in 1874 that “They ‘Mask their business from the common eyes,’ but even if their doings were open to public inspection, but little would be revealed not already known or surmised.” Their members could still draw a line between those who knew the secrets and those who did not. Fraternal secrecy serves at least two functions: its possessors are elevated by the loyalty engendered when they are first told the mysteries upon initiation, and they are in turn protected when they break the rules of their larger society, in this case, their college.37

                    As evidenced by the existence of at least two literary societies in every American college of note, on-campus competition was another key feature of the fraternities which succeeded them in popular favor. This was more than a natural continuation of childhood games, or a precursor to the competition of the marketplace to be encountered after graduation: a man succeeded by contributing to a group effort, and if that effort failed, he was not alone. Banding together, they could first identify as a select group, and then compete in that group. Loyalty to one’s brothers was prized above all else because it was precisely the competition with other individuals that made men so anxious.38


                    • #11
                      This in turn pushed competition among such fraternities to the fore, fascinating their members and the greater world. Logically, competition—having archrivals who might be appraised, discussed, and derided—was not necessary for the enjoyment of the camaraderie which was the groups’ ostensible first purpose. Nevertheless, such competition became its own focus of activity on the campus, created entirely by the societies’ memberships. This competition was self-perpetuating, since the only way for one fraternity or secret society to win a decisive victory was for one of its competitors to dissolve (but there were always others to take up the fight when the vanquished had expired). Even then, there could never be a decisive victory, because the rules were never clearly established, or could be changed by new entrants into the system.39

                      In 1817, some years earlier than the founding of Kappa Alpha, the young men at Union College with the blessing of their faculty had petitioned Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter for membership in that fraternity, which with the sister Harvard chapter’s concurrence was granted. Kappa Alpha adopted many of Phi Beta Kappa’s practices, since most of its founders were members. Its badge, square and silver like PBK’s, bore a coffin above a scroll and surmounted by a rising sun, and the letters “C.C.,” for Collegium Concordiae (in an uncanny anticipation of the symbols of both Yale’s oldest senior societies, Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key). When students at Williams went to the Union campus in 1833 to secure a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, they came back with Kappa Alpha keys, the resemblance of which to his PBK key from Yale in 1790 caused the Williams president to welcome them back.40

                      Still, this first nineteenth-century fraternity’s organization was, as an exclusively student group, without faculty instigation or supervision, or further graduate participation or annual dinners as occurred with Phi Beta Kappa, and it doubled as a literary society because that was its only familiar model. The constitutions of successor fraternities almost always included literary pursuits among their stated purposes: that of Alpha Delta Phi, to be founded at Hamilton College in 1832, mandated that each member would “exhibit” three essays per year. Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose mother chapter was to be formed at Yale in 1844, explained that “the objects of the organization are the cultivation of general literature, the advancement and encouragement of intellectual excellence, the promotion of honorable friendships, and the union of stout hearts and kindred interests to secure merit its due reward.”41

                      The example of Kappa Alpha sparked the formation of two competitors on the Union College campus, the Sigma Phi Society, formed in March 1827, followed by Delta Phi in November. The three became known as the Union Triad and were followed by three more fraternities on that campus in the next decade. Sigma Phi was the first American fraternity in the classic mold to expand, by opening a second chapter at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in 1831; that and an effort by Kappa Alpha to also enter the Hamilton student body led to the formation of Alpha Delta Phi the following year.

                      None of these fraternities had attempted to expand to Yale by then, although Alpha Delta Phi soon did, as would Psi Upsilon, another fraternity birthed at Union, in 1833. From the several parent chapters at Union and Hamilton, the Greek-letter fraternity by 1840 was introduced into several of the colleges of New England and New York. Most college presidents, before they quite knew what had happened, discovered their undergraduates had ushered into the American college community a social system the administrators had neither invited nor encouraged. None of these fraternities by this time considered Phi Beta Kappa a rival, but in a class by itself, an honor society in which members could accept membership as evidence of scholarly standing.42

                      For the young men who joined them, the first fraternities—or secret societies, as the Union fraternities’ members called them—fulfilled a number of needs. From their inception, fraternities “have been middle-class equivalents of the youth gangs, no less likely to make trouble and no less suffused by a spirit of peer loyalty.” Primarily, they allowed a form of resistance to the control of an overbearing college faculty. By contemporary standards, these students were neither merely boys nor fully men, and yet they were treated as the former by their instructors, and forming a secret society allowed them to assert, even if only confidentially, an independence and autonomy not otherwise available. Such societies also broke the monotony of college living through bleak winters and its incessant round of prayer, recitation, and study in dreary student housing. Finally, they provided companionship and a substitute for the families that had been left behind. Later, they would be seen by students bound for the professions, or finance and business, as a way of securing a network of patrons who like them had vowed loyalty and secrecy to the death, as they were launched into an increasingly competitive market economy with daunting competition.43

                      For the administrators charged with confronting this unlooked-for student invention, those same societies were abhorrent. Just as Union saw the birth of the first American fraternity, so too was it the site of the first attempt at extinguishment: on December 3, 1832, President Nott tried to rid his college of the societies’ “evil influence” by announcing in chapel before the assembled student body that “The first young man who joins a secret society shall not remain in Coll[ege] one hour, or at least only while we can get him off.” About a year later, Nott had relented and given full sanction to such clubs.44 That set a pattern that was often repeated across American college campuses, with faculty attempts at suppression causing the overground societies to go underground and persist in deeper darkness and defiance.

                      Fraternities in American colleges were not only founded to push back at an overbearing faculty: some were formed to correct what their members perceived to be abuses, unfairness, and hypocrisy by their fellow students in the conduct of existing societies. This history has been buried because modern fraternities are pilloried as expressions of exclusiveness, snobbery, or other antidemocratic motives, or seen as almost indefensible pits of depravity.45 Samuel Eells started Alpha Delta Phi in 1832 because of what he deemed to be partisan rivalry between the two literary societies at Hamilton College: “It was a contemplation of these and similar evils that first suggested to me the idea of establishing a society of higher nature and more comprehensive and better principles, providing for every taste and talent.”


                      • #12
                        When Eells moved west and personally sponsored a second chapter of his fraternity at Miami University in Ohio, the resulting dissension impelled John Reily Knox to start Beta Theta Pi, which he hoped, “would embrace the good without the ingredient of evil [and] . . . show how far human friendship can carry us from the shrine of the idol self.” Sigma Chi was to emerge on the same campus within a few years, “to exalt justice and to stand for the square deal,” when members of Delta Kappa Epsilon were enraged by the refusal of the elder brothers in their chapter to support the election of a well-qualified but unaffiliated candidate for the office of poet in the campus literary society. Rejecting “authoritarianism” and “violations of the fundamental dignity and rights of individuals,” they formed a new fraternity “based on no narrow ideal of manhood.” In these and other instances which might be cited, those creating new collegian brotherhoods believed themselves to be making an effort to enhance individual liberties and broaden the opportunities for student participation.46

                        These, then, were the common and national foundations of the American way of college fraternities and Yale secret societies. They were provoked by some perceived injustice (administrative action deeply resented by those acted upon, or student political maneuver which offended a minority); were founded on friendship in homelike clubs with lateral and not hierarchical bonds; were formed without prior permission of any authority; and were self-justified in their aims of individual liberty and self-improvement. They were to confront and celebrate competition with other societies in election and renown, insisting on loyalty and exclusivity, and conducting their proceedings in privacy—which was called secrecy by those excluded.

                        Back in New Haven in 1832, where there were as yet no fraternity chapters imported from other schools, the Connecticut chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was the closest and most obvious model for students seeking to form a new college society there. PBK was a society for seniors, secret as to its proceedings but not its members’ names. However, it took in upward of one-third of the class, valued scholarship over good fellowship or other talents, and was a fraternity for life, mounting annual anniversary dinners with public speakers for graduates in attendance, having voting privileges that in numbers trumped the students. The first Yale senior society, Skull and Bones (and thus its successors in that mold), was in all these respects to be very different from any predecessor student organization at Yale or on any American college campus elsewhere.

                        This new Yale senior society was to be only half the size of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and only a tenth of the size of either of the all-class literary societies. It severely limited its annual membership intake, and its yearly drafts silently projected election standards which most candidates could not expect to meet. This society refused to justify its existence, or otherwise engage its critics, or to expand beyond New Haven. Its chosen but confidential name, the “Eulogia Club,” was not Greek, like the fraternities founded elsewhere, but Latin, in differentiation from Phi Beta Kappa on campus and the new fraternities on other campuses. In these several ways, the Yale secret society was to be a distinctly new breed of fraternity, compared to those being founded before and after it in other northeastern colleges in the same decade. Furthermore, the men of this new society consciously formulated a specific educational purpose, narrower than that of the ancient literary societies or Phi Beta Kappa, and invented a different and more frequent drill for self-taught speaking skills. In their quest to become “self-made” men, they did not seek administration blessing, and had no faculty connections (until their “high-stand” graduates themselves became Yale College tutors, and then professors, and then university presidents).

                        Most strikingly, Bones, as it soon came to be known, in its elections was to employ a more autocratic manner and more democratic scope, recognizing, even before popularity or general sociability, proven leadership talents in all fields of college endeavor. These included but were not limited to academic appointment or intellectual achievement certified by the professors whose marking system made Phi Beta Kappa membership possible, or not. Rather, their diverse membership, including some who were strangers to one another before initiation, embraced most forms of student endeavor and all varieties of regional origin.

                        And that pattern held when those fields of endeavor changed, in the rise at Yale, then the nation’s largest college, of the extracurriculum of music, sports, journalism, and religious outreach, followed by the increasing demographic, ethnic, and gender diversity of the student body itself. When, in the classic American fraternity pattern, rival senior societies were self-formed to give opportunity for recognition to more of the growing student body, that notion of membership first for the competitively deserving was to persist, and its very application subject to righteous judgment, printed and otherwise, by their classmates. Over time, the senior, “secret” society system in New Haven became a magnet, and concentrated training ground, for talent and achievement.

                        It took the ending of secrecy in Phi Beta Kappa to effect the new direction.


                        • #13
                          CHAPTER TWO

                          THE SECRETS OF PHI BETA KAPPA (1781–1831)
                          Here then you may for a while disengage yourself from scholastic laws and communicate without reserve whatever reflections you have made upon various objects; remembering that everything transacted within this room is transacted sub rosa, and detested is he that discloses it. Here too you are to indulge in matters of speculation, that freedom of inquiry that ever dispels the cloud of falsehood by the radiant sunshine of truth—here you are to look for a sincere friend, and here you are to become the Brother of unalienable Brothers.

                          —From the Initiation Ritual of Phi Beta Kappa, College of William and Mary, 1779

                          The history of the secret societies at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, begins not with the founding of Skull and Bones in 1832, but with an earlier student society, founded on December 5, 1776, at the College of William Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This the world knows by the Greek initials of the club’s motto, Phi Beta Kappa—latinized, Philosophia Biou Kybernetes, or “love of wisdom, the guide of life.” It was America’s first college fraternity and secret society. Since the name of the Societas Philosophia, the Philosophical Society, was according to the by-laws to be kept completely secret, the group came to be known by its Greek letters, with no public explanation of their meaning.

                          Phi Beta Kappa was the first college-based society in the United States to have a Greek-letter name (to contrast with an even earlier society at William and Mary, the Latinate “P.D.A.”).1 In the four years of its initial existence, ended when the British redcoats, commanded by the American turncoat Benedict Arnold, compelled the college to close its doors during the Revolutionary War in January 1781, all of the fundamental characteristics of such groups were appropriated or invented. These were election by undergraduates, induction after an elaborate (and blindfolded) initiation ceremony which included an oath of secrecy, and the award of a metallic badge to wear. For those in the fold, there were mottoes in Latin and Greek, a code of laws, a seal, and a special name, “Brothers.”

                          At its regular meetings in the Raleigh Tavern’s Apollo Room, the chief activities were literary exercises, especially debating. Four members performed at each meeting, two in “matters of argumentation” and two in “opposite composition,” with their worthy compositions to be “carefully preserved.” Here they enjoyed a freedom of speech that under their college’s “scholastic Laws” they did not enjoy in class; it was this, not merely a taste for the mysterious, which accounted for the emphasis on secrecy. Each initiate was welcomed with the message that “Now then you may for a while disengage yourself from the scholastic Laws and communicate without reserve upon various objects; remembering that everything transacted within this room is transacted sub rosa, and detested is he that discloses it.”2

                          This formal program was enlivened by social celebrations, especially anniversaries of the founding. High academic scholarship was apparently not a requisite for admission, as it was to become and is today. Its earliest members (fifty over the four years) were distinguished in later life, and included two United States senators, two members of the United States Supreme Court, and two judges of Virginia’s highest court. One member served dual roles as the first clerk of the House of Representatives, and the first librarian of Congress.3

                          In all these features of small numbers, talented members, badges, rituals, and a pronounced fidelity to secrecy, Phi Beta Kappa in its original form set patterns for the senior societies of Yale which commenced fully half a century later, nearly five hundred miles to the north.

                          Noting their carefully minuted record of “many toasts” in the Raleigh Tavern, a historian in 1888 described the founding group “discouraging to those who would like to consider Phi Beta Kappa as a band of youthful enthusiasts planning a union of the virtuous college youth of this country who were afterward to reform the world.”4 The minutes also speak of the design, “for the better establishment and sanctitude of our unanimity, [of] a square silver medal . . . engraved in the one side with SP, the initials of the Latin Societias Philosophia, and on the other, agreeable to the former, with the Greek initials of Φ . . . Β . . . Κ . . . and an index imparting a philosophical design, extended to the three stars, a part of the planetary orb, distinguished.” The three stars on the back side symbolized the aims of the society—friendship, morality, and literature—and the pointing hand in the lower corner symbolized aspiration toward these goals.

                          The same meeting’s record also preserves the text of an “oath of fidelity,” which the members considered “the strongest preservative” to their new organization: “I, A.B., do swear on the Holy Evangelists of Almighty God, or otherwise as calling the Supreme Being to attest this my oath, declaring that I will, with all my possible efforts, endeavor to prove true, just, and deeply attached to this our growing Fraternity; in keeping, holding, and preserving all secrets that pertain to my duty, and for the promotion and advancement of its internal welfare.” As if this mighty oath were not enough, the meeting of March 1, 1777, further resolved “That a profanation of the preceeding oath of fidelity subjects the Member to the pain of the universal censures of the fraternity as well as the misery of certain expulsion.”5

                          The next link in the chain joining Williamsburg and New Haven is Elisha Parmele of Goshen, Connecticut. Parmele completed two years at Yale and then, when college did not open in the fall of 1776 because of an outbreak of camp distemper, transferred to Harvard as a junior. Graduating there in 1778, Parmele went off to Virginia to preserve his fragile health, teaching at a neighborhood school in Surry County, across the James River from Williamsburg.6 Not long after his arrival in the south, the founders of Phi Beta Kappa on July 31, 1779, elected him to membership in the William and Mary society.7

                          Parmele’s election was arranged by chapter president William Short in furtherance of the vision of fraternity brother Samuel Hardy, who proposed to his cofounders a “plan for extending branches of our Society to the different States.”8 Along with eight other members of Williamsburg’s Phi Beta Kappa, Short and Hardy also belonged to Williamsburg Lodge No. 6 of the Masons, which had received its own charter from England only in 1773. It seems patent that Hardy’s proposal to extend Phi Beta Kappa derived from the Masonic example and influence, even though Phi Beta Kappa was more a student literary society for intellectual self-improvement than a mere social group.9

                          With his connections to both Yale and Harvard (being, with William and Mary, the three oldest colleges in the United States), and his intention to return soon to New England, Parmele was suddenly the perfect agent for Hardy’s scheme of issuing charters to new chapters, on “the great advantage that would attend it in binding together the several states.”10 This notion of organization across states would not have seemed as odd in 1779 as it may today, long after the adoption of the Constitution which federated those states a decade later in 1789.


                          • #14
                            Parmele was eager to undertake the task of expansion across state lines, and at the third anniversary celebration on December 5, 1779, he petitioned his William and Mary brothers to do so. He seems initially to have believed Phi Beta Kappa to be something like Linonia as a literary and debating organization. Despite the fact that Yale College’s literary societies were also private membership groups, with meetings closed to the public, led by officers whose names were kept confidential, Parmele was nonetheless dismayed when confronted with Phi Beta Kappa’s fierce penchant for secrecy.

                            Although Parmele’s petition for a charter at Harvard had already been approved at the meeting of December 4, 1779, a debate ensued during the meeting the following day on the terms for Yale’s charter. Minutes of that foundation anniversary meeting (with the secretary’s uncertain grasp on the spelling of Parmele’s name) record that it was “Resolved, that so much of Mr. Parmelie’s petition as relates to the establishment of a Phi: Society to be conducted in a less mysterious manner than Φ Β Κ be not agreed to, as the design appears to be incompatible with the principles of this meeting.” As a grace note, it was “Ordered, however, that Mr. Paremlie be thanked for the proof which he has given of his zeal by openly communicating his sentiments to this Society.”

                            The discussions occurring thereafter seem to have overcome the New Englander’s objections to “mystery,” and the next week, a momentous resolution was passed by the Williamsburg chapter. “Whereas this Society is desirous that Φ Β Κ should be extended to each of the United States,” it was “Resolved, that a second Charter be granted to our Brother, Mr. Elisa Parmele, for establishing a meeting of the same in the College of New Haven in Connecticut, to be of the same Rank, to have the same Power, and to enjoy the same privileges, with that which he is empowered to fix in the University of Cambridge [Harvard].”11

                            President Short then had two copies of the charter transcribed and signed by all nineteen officers and members in Williamsburg; the code of laws and form of initiation were made up in duplicate, and he added to this trove two of the society’s medals, for transport to each of the new chapters in New England.12 Parmele’s protest against secrecy had been rebuffed by his new brothers, so the covering letter of greeting which he carried to Connecticut and Massachusetts from the Alpha of William and Mary provided that “the Arcana of this Society be held inviolate.”13

                            Parmele then traveled back north, taking ten months to reach Connecticut, carrying the medals, the charters with ribbons of “pink and sky blue” (Yale’s being the oldest surviving document of the society), copies of the code of law, and the ritual. Arriving in his hometown of Goshen in November 1780, he initiated his brother Reuben Parmele (class of 1781), Sam Newell and Lynde Lord (1783), and his classmate Ezra Stiles Jr.—who became the first president of Alpha of Connecticut and promptly added the name of his reverend father, Yale’s president from 1778 to 1795, as an honorary member.14 To these initial members were added seven recent graduates and twelve other members of the class of 1781, at a foundation meeting in New Haven on November 13, 1780.15 Membership in the “Alpha of Connecticut” chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in the classes succeeding 1781 likewise approximated twelve to fourteen members each, chosen from the junior class, after the spring vacation and examinations in July.16 (Here again, the practice of holding of election in the spring of junior year by members of the outgoing senior class, and restriction of membership to a small number, are antecedent customs for the Yale senior societies of the next century.)

                            Following Parmele’s receipt from Harvard of his second (master of arts) degree in 1781 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and some ten months after his missionary work in New Haven, he then on July 17 established Phi Beta Kappa’s second New England chapter, the “Alpha of Massachusetts.” He chose four students from the class of 1782 and presented them with the documents and the model medal for Harvard brought from Williamsburg; they later met to make formal establishment of the chapter on September 6, 1781, and to select additional members from their junior class, replicating what had happened the year earlier in New Haven.17

                            Exactly nine months before the establishment of the Harvard chapter, on January 6, 1781, as the British fleet bearing the forces of Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis had arrived opposite Jamestown, the Williamsburg chapter assembled to close itself down, at a meeting “called for the Purpose of securing the Papers of the Society during the confusion of the Times & present Dissolution which threatens the University.” They determined to deliver their records to the college steward, “in the sure and certain Hope that the Fraternity will one Day rise to Life everlasting & Glory immortal.”18 The next rising to life did not occur until 1855, although a few years later, in 1861, the Williamsburg chapter succumbed again to the travails of battle, in the American Civil War, not to be resurrected once more until 1893.

                            If Elisha Parmele ever notified the Alpha of Virginia of his success in delivering the charters and medals to New Haven and Cambridge, the letters miscarried. On January 15, 1782, William Short inquired of the Yale chapter, “What has become of our very worthy member Mr. E. Parmele? He has been silent as the grave since his return northward. Wherever he is, assure him of our sincere regard for him. He has endeared himself to us here, not only by his personal merit, but by his diligence in spreading the ΦΒΚ. Like the great luminary he carries light with him wherever he goes, vivifies all around him, and exhilarates the spirits of whomsoever he pleases to favor.”19 In fact Parmele, whom his best biographer styled “the St. Paul who carried [Phi Beta Kappa] from the Zion of its birthplace to the far-off Gentiles of Yale and Harvard,” had become a minister in Connecticut and then Virginia. He did not long survive the chapter of his brothers: he died of consumption in the upper Shenandoah Valley on August 2, 1784, and was buried on the Abraham Byrd family farm, in a grave that cannot now be located.20

                            Given the the Williamsburg chapter’s extinction, if the Yale and Harvard chapters had not been founded, Phi Beta Kappa would probably have been forgotten like its predecessor student societies at William and Mary, the P.D.A. and another, the contemporaneous Flat Hat Club, which boasted Thomas Jefferson as a member.21 Instead, Parmele’s dissemination of its detailed charters established a standard of selection based, however imperfectly, on the scholarship and character of a chosen few, in a fellowship encased in a code of secrecy.

                            With the extinction of the Alpha of Virginia, the Alphas of New Haven and Cambridge were in charge. These two concurred to found new Alphas in other states: in New Hampshire at Dartmouth College in 1787, in New York at Union College in 1817, in Maine at Bowdoin College in 1825, and in Rhode Island at Brown College in 1830,22 all with the mandates of secrecy first pronounced in Williamsburg in 1776. Because of the society’s secrecy and selectivity, its first half century in Northern institutions aroused not only loyalty, emulation, and curiosity, but jealousy and animosity,23 all strong emotions which the Yale senior societies, indirectly descended from the Phi Beta Kappa of the late eighteenth century, were themselves to engender.

                            The exclusiveness of membership and secrecy at weekly or fortnightly meetings, combined with very public celebrations of anniversaries held in connection with college commencements—and perhaps further provoked by condescension or conscious swank—aroused significant opposition to the Alpha of Connecticut, which erupted in successive raids on the Yale chapter’s records. The first time, in December 1786, three students “under the united influence of envy, resentment, and curiosity” broke open “the Secretary’s door, in his absence, entered his study and feloniously took, stole and carried away the Society’s trunk with all its contents.” Discovered, the thieves were compelled to restore their booty, including the trunk, paying for the damage done. After confessing in an open meeting, they bound themselves “by a solemn oath, to confine within their own breasts all the knowledge of the secrets of the Society which they had criminally obtained.” Six months later, in June 1787, a further theft occurred, and the records were not to be recovered for another fifty years.24


                            • #15
                              Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa archives also contain a letter dated August 26, 1789, from Jonathan Nash of the newly founded Dartmouth chapter about a raid there: “We lament that this sad misfortune happened to our young Alpha. . . . Rancorous envy still lies broiling in the breasts of a few, who in that way discover how highly they esteem the ΦΒΚ society.”25 The Harvard chapter took official notice of this outrage in New Hampshire, and voted, for its own conduct of business, “That because several persons not members of the Society have endeavored to discover the manner of salutation peculiar to the ΦΒΚ; this manner to be suspended until the next anniversary.”26 Milder protests had been met with caution: the meeting at the Anniversary Day for the Harvard chapter on September 5, 1788, had voted “that by reason of the dissensions in the Senior Class on account of the election of members, no more than ten members be chosen previous to the anniversary,” and a letter to the Yale chapter on September 18 noted that “disagreeable consequences have attended the initiation of persons into the Society, previous to that period.”27

                              Secrecy remained a flashpoint. The “oath of fidelity” transmitted by the Alpha of Virginia to the chapters at New Haven and Cambridge contained a stipulation against change, but the mother Alpha was gone, and Yale was then purportedly free to simplify the oath when revising its organizational law in 1787, to read more simply: “You solemnly call the Supreme Being to witness that you will be true and faithful to this Society, that you will obey the Laws and preserve all the secrets of the same, so help you God.”

                              Phi Beta Kappa had drawn support from the example and reputation of the Freemasons, but in the two decades that followed, the Masons suffered from public attacks by those who disapproved of secret societies. The conflict was severely heightened in 1827, when William Morgan, initiated as a Mason in Virginia but not well received by the Masonic lodge in Batavia, New York, wrote and threatened to publish a tell-all book. Titled Illustrations of Masonry, it included the organization’s first three degrees’ oaths of fealty and, for oath-breaking, agreement to blood-curdling penalties of disembowelment, dismemberment, and death. Morgan was arrested in September of that year for petty larceny. Acquitted, he was arrested again in Fort Niagara, and then disappeared, perhaps drowned in the Niagara River or Lake Ontario: a decomposed body was found on the shore not far from the place of Morgan’s abduction.

                              Although no legal case for kidnapping or murder was established (twenty-six Masons were indicted, six came to trial, and four were convicted of conspiracy), the incident was widely publicized and gave new strength to the Anti-masonic movement and political party, the first third party in American history. The outrage turned the office of Freemasonry, in the words of historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, “from that of a handmaiden to Christianity and republican liberty to that of a secret and impious conspiracy against the rights of freemen and the majesty of the law.” Thousands of Masons were compelled by public opinion to resign, and about three thousand lodges gave up their chapters; those in Connecticut were decimated. Four years later, this had a direct effect on the Phi Beta Kappa chapters, when one Avery Allyn published A Ritual of Freemasonry, Illustrated by Numerous Engravings, To which is added a Key to the Phi Beta Kappa. The book was dedicated to “the Freemen of America,” and dated “Boston 1830,” with a copyright entry of February 18, 1831.28

                              The Allyn exposé should perhaps have been only another glancing blow at the society, since his book devoted 290 pages to the features of the Masons. Only eight pages described Phi Beta Kappa, but included a plate illustrating the “sign,” the “grip,” and “both sides of the medal,” although he omitted the anapestic knock at the door. The “sign” was given by placing the two forefingers of the right hand so as to cover the left corner of the mouth, and then drawing them across the chin. The “grip” was like the common handshake, only not interlocking the thumbs, and at the same time pressing the wrist. The book’s author—whose true identity is still obscure—followed his name on the title page with “K.R.C., K.T., K.M. &c.” and claimed membership in Phi Beta Kappa in the text, although his name does not appear in any Phi Beta Kappa catalogue or in the catalogue of any of the six colleges with society chapters on that date. (It was to be said that it was a Harvard man who gave away the secrets.)29

                              Because his book had such adverse consequences for his claimed “respected brethren,” it bears extended quotation: “In this day of laudable excitement and anxious investigation into the nature and principles of secret societies, it is my humble opinion, there ought to be no concealment; and that the public good imperiously demands a fair and full disclosure of the nature and principles of all secret societies, and that what is said and done under the cover of darkness, should be openly proclaimed on the housetop. . . .”

                              “But the reasons I give, which particularly induce me to make these disclosures,” he continued, “are principally two: one is the secret nature of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and the other it its infidel motto. . . . That the Phi Beta Kappa Society is a secret association, is well known to the public. It is a species of Freemasonry, and bears a strong affinity to it; and for aught I know, may be a younger branch of the same tenebrous family. . . . Like Freemasonry, the Phi Beta Kappa Society has its secret obligation, sign, grip, word, and jewel, by which its members are enabled to recognize each other, in any company, in any part of the world; and though it has no bloody code, as I know of, with savage penalties, and consequently none of those crimes which blacken the Institution of Freemasonry; yet, as a secret society it is as susceptible of being perverted to unholy and dangerous purposes.”30

                              Allyn then repeated his general attack on secret societies as a potential threat to American liberties and as being against religion, detailing the historical myths regarding Phi Beta Kappa as “a branch of the [Bavarian] Illuminati, that spurious offspring of the celebrated Weishaupt,” while simultaneously, inconsistently, and falsely claiming that “this Institution was imported from France” and planted in this country by “Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary.”

                              Upon the “extinction of that college during the Revolutionary War,” he continued, “a charter, technically called an Alpha, was obtained by the students of Yale College, where it still flourishes. From thence it was imparted to Harvard and Dartmouth, and since that time, charters have been granted to the students of Union College, in N.Y., and to Bowdoin, in Maine; and very recently, I understand, to Brown University, in Providence, R.I.” Yet “all the literary and honorable advantages it affords, might as well be obtained without secrecy as with, and the danger thence resulting, be avoided; and I cannot but wonder why the authorities of our colleges allow of their existence.”31 Those authorities, so challenged, duly took notice.

                              Despite peddling historical misinformation, Allyn does seem to have described accurately the prevailing manner of election and quality of the initiates of Phi Beta Kappa, which is striking for the parallels it offers to the Yale senior societies, waiting to be born within the next few years. “The way and manner in which this secret institution is perpetuated in our Colleges (and I know of no other places where they exist and meet as societies) is this,” he recorded. “Towards the close, or during the last term of the college year, the members of the Senior Class, who belong to the Society, make a selection from the Junior Class of one third of its members; and their aim is, however much they may be mistaken, to take those who are reputedly the best scholars, and the most prominent members of the class. They are privately informed of their election; and at the appointed time, are initiated into the Society; not indeed naked, and barefoot, hoodwinked, and cable-towed, but in a more gentlemanly manner, where a promise or oath of secrecy is first exacted of them.”32

                              At Yale, Phi Beta Kappa was esteemed over membership in the older literary (debating) societies Linonia and Brothers in Unity. A member of the class of 1821 remembered that “The exercises of Φ. Β. Κ. were generally of a higher order than those of the other societies. They ought at least to be so, since the members, from the higher classes only, are selected for their talents and attainments. The desire to be elected to this society was hardly less than that of appointments at commencement; and for the same reason, namely, that it was regarded as proof of scholarship.”33

                              While there had been concern and protest for decades about the secrecy of Phi Beta Kappa, the publication of Allyn’s book, in Boston in the spring of 1831, was a breaking point. Edward Everett, president of the Alpha of Massachusetts since 1826 (and fated to speak at length after Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863), concluded that something must be done before the Harvard chapter anniversary meeting held on September 1. He wrote to Joseph Story, then a justice on the United States Supreme Court, saying he wished to call a meeting to change the constitution: “Several friends, with whom I have conversed, think it expedient wholly to drop the affectation of secrecy and all its incidents.”34