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Skull and Bones is laid bare, chilling the paranoids' delight


Among my favorite people are a number who are devoted to conspiracies. These friends don't partake in conspiracies, you understand. (Though I also have friends associated with the Council on Foreign Relations and Yale's Skull and Bones society -- both conspiracy-theorists' darlings.) My suspicion-obsessed friends abide in the certainty that virtually everything in the world that matters, and a good deal that doesn't, is controlled by forces of darkness.

I often envy these friends. It is more comforting to be sure of the source of woe -- personal or universal -- than to suffer in clueless befuddlement. If I knew that extraterrestrial aliens were manipulating Earth's jet streams to prevent rain in the eastern United States, I would feel much better about the two drought-dead trees in front of my house than I do now. I could, at least, throw rocks at Alpha Centauri.

Now that everybody who's marginally sentient knows that the Elders of Zion were a baseless, libelous fiction, I suppose the most engaging focal tribe of conspiracy fanatics -- at least in the U.S. -- is Skull and Bones, the 170-year-old Yale senior-class club. Do you doubt that? Read on:

"Skull and Bones has curled its tentacles into every corner of American society. ... In its quest to create a New World Order that restricts individual freedoms and places ultimate power solely in the hands of a small cult of wealthy, prominent families, Skull and Bones has already succeeded in infiltrating nearly every major research, policy, financial, media, and government institution in the country. Skull and Bones, in fact, has been running the United States for years."

Those three sentences come from a new book, Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power, by Alexandra Robbins (Little, Brown, 240 pages, $25.95). Robbins does not mean them to be taken as true. She presents those conspiratorial charges -- and more -- as an examination of the legend. Her conclusions, built on what appears to be very sound, probing reporting, find Yale's most prominent secret society, finally, to be more ridiculous than threatening, more pathetic than powerful.

What is Skull and Bones, indisputably? A self-perpetuating group of 15 members of each senior class in Yale, who for that final undergraduate year meet twice a week, in intense secrecy, in an almost windowless, Gothic, tomb-like edifice. No alcohol is drunk within the building, except on extremely rare occasions, Robbins reports, when there has been celebratory drinking of wine. House servants prepare meals, but no other outsiders are allowed in the building. After graduation, the members, who are known as "knights" while at Yale, become "patriarchs," but have no formal duties.

In the course of each year, each member takes from one and a half to three hours to give an oral autobiography. These are taken very seriously. Meetings last sometimes as late as 3 in the morning, with dinner beginning at 6:30. The evenings include formal debates as well as other activities.

There are more or less 800 living members. Their solidarity has long been taken as a dark side of Bones. There have been nine U.S. Supreme Court members over 170 years. Henry Stimson, FDR's Secretary of War in WWII, appointed a remarkable number of fellow Bonesmen to top defense and research posts -- including many who organized the research for the atomic bomb.

Now with two Bushes, father and son, raising the number of Bonesmen U.S. Presidents to three (William Howard Taft -- 1878 -- was the other), there is new fuel for the fire of paranoia about the group. Though President George W. Bush apparently has not, George H.W. Bush made significant appointments of fellow Bonesmen. But all were men of convincing credentials.

The core of the book begins by tracing the origins of Yale itself, an upstart competitor of Harvard, begun as the Collegiate School of Connecticut in 1701. Its early history was dominated by severe Congregationalist orthodoxy, which slowly eroded into a sort of caste system. Robbins presents a delightful history of undergraduate pranksterism at Yale -- ritualized, often pompous, almost always absurd -- gatherings, events, elections of such offices as "College Bully" and "The Wooden Spoon Man." "The Burial of Euclid" ended the geometry semester.

Student societies began in the 1750s. Literary societies arose from the 1780s onward, with the beginning of Phi Beta Kappa as a secret society. Many others took Greek letters as their names. Skull and Bones was established in 1832. Women were first allowed in in 1991.

Bones has gone through shifts of emphasis from literary talent to general scholarship to athletic prowess to primary attention on social and prep-school origins. There is probably more detail in this book about Yale's origins and quasi-official institutional development than anyone but a participant is likely to want to know. But cumulatively, the details provide some keen insights into the culture, breeding and background of the Skull and Bones elite.

Robbins describes in intricate detail the "tapping" -- selection and invitation -- and then the initiation ceremonies. She finds them less sinister and vulgar than some other reports have -- many of which would better please my conspiracy-culture friends.

She believes that the majority of the rumors and conspiracy theories have been planted by Bonesmen themselves, to raise them in the sight of others, or in playfulness.

"Skull and Bones is," she writes, "at its core, equivalent of the Wizard of Oz, the puny but cunning man hidden behind a curtain of mystique, projecting images that inspire awe and terror in order to expand himself into something great and terrible. ... Many of the secrets ... may simply serve as skullduggery to mask the society's biggest mystery, or lack thereof."

Her clear and clear-headed summation comes near the end of the book: "Perhaps one of the reasons people are so fascinated with conspiracy theories ... is that they need causality in much the same way they need a God. ... Underground control suggests order and order suggests reason. Explanations, however implausible, are somehow reassuring."

Much ado about very little, it might be said. But a useful, often very entertaining and painstakingly responsible examination of an institution which, if not very important, will always be -- because of its mystery and its prominent members -- intriguing.

The "On Books" column of Sept. 1 incorrectly identified the founding date of the Phi Beta Kappa society. The correct date is Dec. 5, 1776.The Sun regrets the error.
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