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Exposing Bones: Controversial Connections

In this second part of the series we take a look at the influential connections of Skull & Bones on American History

Everyone loves a good mystery. They are intriguing, entertaining, and force us to consider scenarios that we wouldn’t ordinarily see. The best tales are those that never reveal what is at the center of the mystery and always leave us with more questions than we have answers. These mysteries leave a trail –breadcrumbs of a sort – that if you pay close enough attention to can help you to reveal much about what may be shrouded from view. The Skull & Bones society at Yale University in New Haven is one of these great real-life mysteries. In the first article of this series we looked at the history and reasons that led to the notorious reputation that Bones has received, and now we’ll look at what happens beyond the borders of Yale’s campus.

During their senior year at Yale, the 15 newest members of Bones or “Bonesmen” spend their time becoming acquainted with each other through some unusual rites and rituals that have been passed down over the 180 year history of the society. And while this introduction lasts the school year, graduation doesn’t mark the end of their connection with Bones. Following their time at Yale Bonesmen have gone on to become some of the most powerful people in America. This is a close-knit network like no other since there has only been 2700 members in its history (only around 800 living members at present), and anytime you find one Bonesmen you can bet they have brought in others. The influence of the society can be found in its members who went on to become Congressmen, Supreme Court justices, Governors, Ambassadors, Cabinet Officers, industry leaders, faculty and administrators of leading universities, and even three U.S. Presidents.  

While former President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry became the most well-known Bonesmen after competing against each other in the 2004 Presidential Election, the influence of the society can be seen in many areas of America aside from just politics. Take for example Harold Stanley (Bones class of 1908) who was a co-founder of Morgan Stanley and Averell Harriman (Bones class of 1913) who was a co-founder of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. Both of these financial institutions are still powerful to this day, and in addition to numerous Bonesmen having served on the boards of these companies, they both contribute back to the society itself in financial as well as business ways.

One of the greatest controversial connections in the history of Bones is the direct links between the society and the U.S. Intelligence Community, specifically with the events that led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When looking at the history books, a group of Bonesmen including Robert A. Lovett (Bones class of 1918), Frederick Trubee Davison (Bones class of 1918), were among those who laid the foundations for the agency. Over the years over 15 Bonesmen have gone on to take high-ranking positions in the CIA, and for a time during the Cold War it was often rumored that unless you had a connection with Bones, you weren’t ever going to get a high position in the Agency. In 2006 a Hollywood movie, “The Good Shepherd,” did a good job of showing the connection between Bones and Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, which evolved into the CIA during the Cold War era. The links were clear even in more modern times with George H. W. Bush (Bones class of 1948) who became the Director of the CIA from 1976 to 1977.

The connections to the people and institutions are clear throughout history, but while there are many that are easily recognized, others are not as known but equally influential. In the last 180 years Bones has seen 80 Congressmen, 34 industry leaders, 20 Supreme Court judges, 23 governors, and 15 faculty and administrators of Yale… and that’s just the ones we know about. Bones has also seen members who have gone on to areas of athletics, science, cinema, and others. Some who look at this list of members may suggest that the reason for so many recognized names is simply because Bones taps its members from the best-of-the-best in Yale. This may be true, but the fact that these individuals have such strong links and loyalty to a group they aren’t willing to discuss in detail certainly calls for some close consideration.   

In Part 3 of Exposing Bones we’ll look at what happens behind the doors of the Bones “tomb” on High Street in New Haven. Rumors of strange and disturbing rituals that each new class of Bonesmen is subjected to that makes them “brothers for life” have been floating around Yale for decades. Though some information about these initiation rites has been leaked, or uncovered by careful investigation and observation, exactly what takes place on Thursdays and Sundays during the school year remains the closest guarded secret of the society.

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Sue Ellen January 21, 2012 at 10:51 PM
I wonder how many of these "bonesmen" are tied to the masonic fraternity? Glancing at some of the names...a good number are masons. Perhaps an interesting twist to US history?!
Jon Nowinski January 23, 2012 at 03:41 AM
As you can probably tell, the list of Bones alumni composes a veritable who's-who of American history, which of course adds one aspect to the overall controversy about the society. Although those who graduate Yale are a part of Bones for life, the society itself is merely a stepping stone into the world, so you can imagine that many of them went on to have parts in larger secretive organizations - the masons perhaps being one of them. More-so than any society in history, the masons do indeed bind together influential people from throughout history and the world. And, whether as notorious as Bones or not, the masonic connections can certainly be well-traced in American history.

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