College students have a tendency to divide themselves into sub-groups, and it's not just by major. Sororities, academic clubs and fraternities are entrenched parts of college life. Most of these groups are transparent and open to all interested students.
But some groups are more mysterious. These secret societies exist at many institutions of higher learning, have a long history of hidden activities and can feature a sizable list of notable members.
Yale University is home to several of such secret societies, and a brief glimpse provides a window into the meaning behind collegiate secret societies in general.
Skull and Bones
Fifteen members of the Skull and Bones society pose in an undated picture with a grandfather clock and, of course, a set of skull and bones. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Probably the most well-known (and oldest) secret society at Yale, Skull and Bones has been around since 1832. Its inception was sparked by a controversy surrounding the membership of the university's branch of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Since its founding, the organization has been the pinnacle of Yale's clandestine groups. The society, which has been a mix of men and women since the 1990s following a debate lasting two decades, the organization is headquartered in a closed-door building known as The Tomb but also owns a 40-acre island on the Saint Lawrence River. The known activities of Skull and Bones include assignment of special nicknames to its members and aggressively stealing memorabilia from various campus locations and other societies. Past notable members include former President George W. Bush and current Secretary of State John Kerry.
Scroll and Key Society
Members of the 1866 delegation of the Scroll and Key gather around a symbolic print. (Photo: Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database/Wikimedia Commons)
Established in 1842, the Scroll and Key Society began in defiance of Skull and Bones. Citing unfairness in the election of Skull and Bones membership, chemistry student (and later distinguished professor) John Addison Porter established Scroll and Key to honor seniors of remarkable stature who were overlooked by Skull and Bones. The Scroll and Key Society would play second fiddle to Skull and Bones but went on to make sizable donations to Yale and to found the prestigious Yale University Press, the Yale Shakespeare project and the Yale Younger Poets Series. Notable members have included "Doonsebury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Berzelius began its life in 1848 as a secret society centered on the student body of the now-defunct Sheffield Scientific School, home of the engineering and science schools of Yale. As with Scroll and Key, Berzelius was meant to include students passed over for membership in Skull and Bones.
Society of Book and Snake
Members of the 1888 delegation of the Book and Snake society. (Photo: Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database/Wikimedia Commons)
Founded in 1863, this secret society is notable for one reason: it was the first to include female students. Similar to other Yale secret societies, Book and Snake houses its activities in a building that also serves as its main meeting hall. This hall is windowless, to preserve secrecy, and only past and present members are allowed inside. Members have included Watergate reporter Bob Woodward and Porter Goss, former director of the CIA.
Elihu was established in 1903 and may not be considered a "secret" organization, per se. But privacy of its activities is aided by curtained windows of its main building and an entrance used solely by members. The official Elihu website states that its main purpose is to "foster among its members, by earnest work and good fellowship a stronger affection for Yale; a broader view of undergraduate life and its aims; a deeper and more helpful friendship for one another; and to give its members, after graduation, an additional tie to bind them to Yale and to each other." Its emblem is shown at right.
Torch Honor Society
Torch Honor Society began in 1916 as a public organization that welcomed members of other societies and continued until the 1960s when it ceased to exist. It was resurrected in the 1990s, however, as a secret society and its purpose and activities are generally unknown to non-members.
This group is a relative newcomer to Yale, being founded in 1952. It gathers students of the arts to its membership and, like many other secret societies at Yale, meets twice a week for meals and discussion of pertinent topics. Actress Jodie Foster and journalist Anderson Cooper were both members during their studies at Yale.
So why all the secrecy? There may be a variety of overlapping reasons, but primarily these societies may hold a closed membership to reinforce the importance and stature of the individuals who are lucky enough and remarkable enough to be offered membership in the first place. (An exclusive health spa is more prestigious than the YMCA.)
There are many other secret societies at colleges and universities throughout the nation. They range from semi-public organizations fulfilling charitable and scholarly undertakings to murky societies whose activities and membership are known only on an as-needed basis. These societies show no sign of decline in membership, thus ensuring that the organizations will continue in their surreptitious missions.
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