The Secret Society of the Skull and Bones has featured in many modern conspiracy theories and has passed into popular usage to symbolize any organization that hides its membership or its procedures for sinister purposes. However, the actual Skull and Bones society is not only a real organization but has its home in one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Further, some of the members of the Skull and Bones Society have been famous and highly-regarded, including at one point two candidates for the presidency of the United States.What is the Skull and Bones? Is it really a sinister organization, or are the stories about it all hype? Here are the facts that are known about the Skull and Bones Society and its history.

History of the Skull and Bones

Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 at Yale University in response to a dispute between several collegiate organizations. It was founded as a senior society after the Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and Calliopean Societies fell out over the nominations for the year’s Phi Beta Kappa awards. The official name of this new society was the Order of the Skull and Bones. The organization soon came to be called “Bones” and its members were referred to as “Bonesmen.”

The society remained shrouded in secrecy from the beginning of its existence, but in 1871 Lyman Bagg, a recent Yale graduate, published his memoirs of the time he spent at the University, and noted that the Skull and Bones was much-discussed by all underclassmen, although few new all of its secrets. Members were sworn not to reveal any of the society’s secrets to anyone outside the group, a fact which has contributed richly to the body of folklore surrounding the organization. It is also probably responsible for the slightly sinister atmosphere always attached to the Skull and Bones by outsiders.

Tapping and Membership

Oddly, the Skull and Bones membership recruitment drive that takes place each spring, known as “Tap Day,” is held quite publicly. Fifteen men and women of the junior class who are considered leaders are “tapped” or asked to join the society. The potential members are literally tapped on the shoulder as they gather at Branford College Court and either agree to membership by leaving with the recruiter or shaking their heads to indicate refusal.

According to former members, membership choices are not as elitist as detractors have portrayed. There is an effort to balance the political views, ethnic backgrounds, and interests of the members chosen for each group. Women are now admitted to the Skull and Bones, as are Jewish students, African-American students, and Asian-American students.

What Does Skull and Bones Do?

Like any senior society, the Skull and Bones is primarily a fellowship organization, providing support to its members. However, the Skull and Bones keeps its methods a carefully-guarded secret, so it is impossible to tell exactly what the society does or does not do. However, gossip about illegal activities and recruitment for world domination are likely exaggerated.

There is one questionable activity attributed to the Skull and Bones that has enough documentation to warrant it likely to be true. This is the process known as “crooking,” which means the theft of some interesting or valuable object from other senior societies or private or public locations. Legend has it that Skull and Bones members have stolen the bones of Geronimo, Martin Van Buren, and Pancho Villa, although there is no verifiable proof of these rumors.

Famous Members

There is no doubt than many powerful people have been members of this secret society. Several presidents or presidential hopefuls have been members, including William Howard Taft, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Senator John Kerry. Other famous members included William F. Buckley, Jr., former CIA officer; Walter Camp, who was the founder of American football; William Sloane, peace activist; Perry Rockefeller, member of the Standard Oil family; Dana Milbank, political reporter for the Washington Post; and Austan Goolsbee, chief economist for Barack Obama.

Conspiracy Theories

Although most conspiracy theories regarding the Skull and Bones have been discredited, rumors persist to the effect that the society is really a cloak for an elite group of men and women bent on world domination through the control of global economies and governments. Although it is hard to imagine that a set of college seniors could be capable of such Machiavellian maneuvering, those who espouse the conspiracy theories point out that the members is, in the main, comprised of people who have strong connections to the world’s most affluent and powerful families.