MOST SECRET SOCIETIES ARE EITHER FRATERNAL ASSOCIATIONS with convoluted rituals or criminal groups whose activities could be curtailed by willful law enforcement.

One, however, exerts day-to-day influence over the lives of virtually everyone on the planet, and it achieves this end not with a tightly structured organization but via an association of privileged young men attending a prestigious university. Its existence is verifiable, its history is linked to Masonic traditions and Illuminati objectives, its practices remain shadowy, and its activities are replete with suspicious behavior. It is Skull & Bones, a hatchery of American leadership whose members have not only achieved power and prominence on a scale far in excess of their numbers, but retain their close bond throughout their careers, creating at least the semblance of a cabal and perhaps something much more than that.

Officially, Skull & Bones resides in a windowless mausoleum-like building on the campus of Yale University. Known as The Tomb, the brownstone structure was built in 1856 and remains the site of the group's meetings each Thursday and Sunday evening. Only fifteen new members annually are selected from the junior class for membership in Skull & Bones, serving during their senior year. This important distinction means the organization's focus is on its members’ future activities in the outside world, not on their temporary campus life. Let everyday fraternities engage in juvenile bouts of binge drinking and pranks; Skull & Bones members fix their attention on bigger things, including the exercise of global influence.

Bonesmen—no longer an accurate term, but one still applied to the group's members—display a veneer of enmity towards the outside world, or at least that part that intrudes on the Yale campus. Nonmembers who enquire about its actions and membership are openly referred to as “outsiders” or “vandals.” All Skull & Bones members are required to deny any connection with the organization; if the group's name is mentioned in public, they must leave the room or area with no comment. Nevertheless, enough data regarding its members and procedures have been revealed over the 160-plus years of its existence to substantiate all but the most hysterical speculation about its purpose and influence. Despite its serious mode, the organization employs at least a few aspects, especially of its initiation rites, that fans of the movie Animal House may find familiar but perhaps more disturbing.

In 1876, long before Skull & Bones was being viewed with increasing alarm by outsiders, a group of Yale students calling themselves The Order of File and Claw broke into The Tomb and gleefully described its interior. Sounding more like a nineteenth-century boy's club than a gathering place for future world leaders, the most evocative description was of an interior room identified as Parlor 323, where

on the west wall hung, among other pictures, an old engraving representing an open burial vault, in which, on a stone slab, rest four human skulls, grouped about a fool's-cap and bells, an open book, several mathematical instruments, a beggar's scrip, and a royal crown. On the arched wall above the vault are the explanatory words, in Roman letters, “Wer war der Thor, wer Weiser, wer Bettler oder Kaiser?” And below the vault is engraved… the sentence: “Ob Arm, ob Reich, im Tode gleich.” (“Who was the fool, who the wise man, beggar or king? Whether rich or poor, all's the same in death.”)

A century later, the girlfriend of a Skull & Bones initiate (who was obviously ill-chosen for membership in a secret society) reported that she had been escorted by him on a tour of The Tomb. Her most vivid memory of its interior was the sight of a wall covered with license plates. Every plate bore the number 322, alluding to the death of the famed Greek orator Demosthenes in 322 bc, the mythical year in which Skull & Bones was supposedly founded. All Skull & Bones members, she was informed, were obligated to “confiscate” any license plate on which the figures 322 appeared, returning them to The Tomb where they were displayed on the wall.

Undergraduates in universities less prestigious than Yale have been committing more serious vandalism than license plate theft over the years, so this may be considered a trivial matter. But it is interesting to speculate on the occasions when an inner-city youth, lacking the privilege of social standing as a result of his circumstances of birth, was brought on similar charges of “confiscation” before a judge or prosecuting attorney who happened to be a Yale graduate and a Skull & Bones member. Was the less privileged perpetrator always forgiven his transgression?

The human skulls are another matter.

Reportedly, each class of Skull & Bones was required to “confiscate” the skull of a famous individual, bringing it to The Tomb as proof of that class's mettle. Many skulls remain on display in The Tomb. “Confiscating” license plates bearing the mystical 322 symbol involves little more than stealth and a screwdriver, but stealing a skull entails nothing less than graverobbing, apparently a long tradition of Skull & Bones members, many of whom seek to take their place in the seats of American power.

Howard Altman, an award-winning U.S. writer and editor, reported that in 1989 a man named Phillip Romero visited him, claiming to be the great-great-grandson of the celebrated Apache warrior and chief Geronimo. According to Romero, his ancestor's bones were among those on display in the Skull & Bones collection. It had been removed from the warrior's grave, Romero charged, in 1918 by Prescott S. Bush, father of the forty-first U.S. president and grandfather of the forty-third.


The “322” beneath the symbols inspired the “liberation” of automobile license plates.


For over 150 years, strange goings-on have occurred in the depths of The Tomb on the Yale campus.

When Altman explained that he needed verification of the claim before publicizing it, Romero put Altman in contact with a man named Ned Anderson, who resided on an Apache reservation in San Carlos, Arizona. According to Anderson, a few years earlier a public debate between him and another family regarding the relocation of Geronimo's bones from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Arizona attracted the attention of a Bonesman who wanted to be identified only as Pat. The bones, Pat declared, had not been in Oklahoma for seventy years, but had been used in rituals conducted by the mysterious Yale society known as Skull & Bones.

The story rang true: Prescott Bush had been stationed at Fort Sill in 1918, when the theft of Geronimo's skull was alleged to have taken place. Adding to the story's veracity is the reported existence of a privately printed document authored by F.O. Matthiessen, a Skull & Bones member, describing the expedition and the recovery of Geronimo's skull from the grave. A sample of the document has been placed in a library at Harvard where, under an agreement between both Skull & Bones and the executors of Matthiessen's estate, it remains unavailable to public view.

Anderson had recruited his senator, John McCain, to pursue the matter in 1986 with George H.W. Bush, who was then U.S. vice-president. McCain reportedly arranged a meeting between Anderson and a number of Skull & Bones representatives including Jonathon Bush, the vice-president's brother. According to Anderson, the Skull & Bones members presented him with a skull they claimed to be his ancestor's, offering it in exchange for a document preventing him and representatives of Skull & Bones from discussing the incident. Anderson refused, objecting to the gag order and not believing that the skull being offered was actually Geronimo's. Like most states, Connecticut bans ownership of human remains except for specialized legal or professional purposes, a charge that, like “confiscating” license plates, Skull & Bones believes is not applicable to them.

The controversy over Geronimo's skull launched a number of charges regarding the Skull & Bones collection, including one that The Tomb housed the skull of legendary Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, and that a child's skull was among those on display. Hard evidence is lacking, not surprisingly considering both the charges and the nature of Skull & Bones. Compared with other activities of the group and its secretive members, however, confiscated license plates and purloined skulls are petty concerns relative to espionage, drug smuggling, war profiteering and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, all involving Bonesmen. On these subjects, proof galore exists.

The origins of Skull & Bones are well documented and not flattering. In 1832 William Huntington Russell, whose family operated a firm called Russell & Company, returned from an extended visit in Germany to begin his senior year at Yale. At the time, Germany was in the grip of Hegelian philosophy, which sprang from the mind of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who died while a professor at the University of Berlin the year before Russell arrived for his visit.

Hegel promoted the concept of Absolute Reason, claiming that the state “has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state.” Building on writings from earlier members of the German idealistic philosophy school, such as Immanuel Kant, Hegel's concepts were enormously influential and served as the theoretical underpinnings of both communism and fascism. Russell returned to Yale overflowing with admiration for Germanic society and Hegelian assumptions. Soon after arriving in New Haven, he partnered with fellow student Alphonso Taft to form “The Order of Scull and Bones,” which later became the Order of Skull & Bones.

Something about the atmosphere at Yale during those years encouraged the founding of secret societies among its bright and privileged undergraduates. By the mid-1800s at least seven groups dedicated to surreptitious rituals and identities were flitting around the campus in the dead of night, their members sharing secret signals and names to identify themselves as members of Scroll & Key, Book & Snake, File & Claw, Wolf's Head or some other organization delighting in the exclusivity of its name and rituals. The most exclusive, most secretive and most ritualistic was Skull & Bones.

The original Germanic connection of Skull & Bones has produced speculation about a direct connection between Skull & Bones and the Illuminati. Those who subscribe to this notion point to Illuminati founder Adam Weishaupt's words: “By the simplest means, we shall set all in motion and in flames. The occupations must be so allotted and contrived that we may, in secret, influence all political transactions.” Little else connects the two, but the family of founder Russell was involved in activities far more destructive than anything the fabled (and likely fictional) Illuminati had been proven to pursue.

When Russell cofounded Skull & Bones, his family and their company were acquiring massive wealth as a direct result of supplying the Chinese people with opium purchased in India and Turkey. Chinese authorities tried desperately to ban the narcotic, which was draining the country not only of hard currency but of productivity as well. Nothing proved effective; China, in the nineteenth century, was seen by Western countries as a market and a people subject to unfettered exploitation.

The Russell firm became the third largest opium trader in the world, behind Scottish merchants Jardine-Matheson and the British company Dent, and for a time it remained the only opium importer in Canton. The hypocrisy of the British and U.S. governments in this matter remains breathtaking to this day, since both countries had banned the import and use of opium by its own citizens, yet they insisted on the right to ship hundreds of tons of the narcotic into China each year.

Continued efforts by Chinese authorities to ban opium, and resistance to these laws by the importing countries, led to the First Opium War in 1840. The two-year conflict saw China beaten by the technical superiority of the British armed forces. Under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, Britain humiliated China by negotiating favored rights of opium importation to that country; France and the U.S. added their signatures to the treaty two years later. Russell profited directly from this formalization of opium rights. While the fortunes of Skull & Bones members may have been acquired from myriad sources over its 175-year history, the group's financial roots are deeply embedded within one of the most scandalous and inhuman episodes of mercantile history.

The chief of operations for the Russell company's Canton office was Warren Delano Jr., grandfather of future U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Delano's position marked the first of a lengthy list of influential families associated with the company and Skull & Bones, which has acted as an incubator for men who sought and seized power out of all proportion to their actual numbers. Skull & Bones founder Russell became a general of the U.S. Army and a state legislator, while his cohort Taft rose through government and ambassadorial ranks to become secretary of war—a post held by many Skull & Bones members—and fathered William Howard Taft, the only man in history to serve as both president and chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The list of Skull & Bones members sounds like a culling of the most prominent males in the U.S. edition of Who's Who: Whitney, Bundy, Harriman, Weyerhaeuser, Pinchot, Rockefeller, Goodyear, Sloane, Stimson, Pillsbury, Kellogg, Vanderbilt, Lovett and, of course, Bush, a list made even more impressive when it is remembered that only fifteen individuals were selected for membership each year.

The selection process for Skull & Bones initiates is suitably dramatic. On a chosen night in April, Skull & Bones seniors arrive outside the rooms of each of the selected juniors, one by one, and pound loudly on the door. When the junior opens the door, a Bonesman slams the candidate on the shoulder and bellows, “Skull and Bones—do you accept?”

If the candidate accepts the invitation, a note wrapped in black ribbon and sealed with black wax is handed over. Inside, along with the Skull & Bones mystical number 322, the message instructs the candidate to appear at The Tomb on initiation night and not to wear any metal.

Through most of its history, the initiation rites for Bonesmen remained among the best-kept secrets of the group, although bit by bit certain activities have come to light. The most enduring ritual, up to recent years at least, obligated the initiate to relate the story of his life in two installments. The first episode, delivered on a Thursday night, covered general aspects of the new member's life, a tale as bland or as entertaining as he chose. The second episode, conducted the following Sunday evening, required him to lie naked in a coffin while recounting details of his sexual history from prep school masturbation to his latest Saturday night conquest, which may have occurred less than twenty-four hours earlier.

With the arrival of coeds on Yale's campus in the late 1960s, the sexual accounts provided substantial titillation for other Bonesmen in attendance, and angry embarrassment for the women whose privacy was invaded in the presence of fourteen male students with greater allegiance to Skull & Bones than to their lovers. One woman confessed an intensely personal experience to her partner, who swore that he would never reveal it to another person. On his return from the Sunday night sex session, she knew instantly by the way he avoided her eyes that he had divulged her darkest secret to his Skull & Bones buddies.

Variations on the ritual seem to have come and gone. During the years between the two world wars, initiates such as future Washington heavyweight W. Averell Harriman and Time founder Henry Luce reportedly underwent the sex-tales-in-a-coffin rite of passage. In the late 1930s, when future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was a Bonesman, seniors dressed in skeleton suits and howled at new candidates, whose initiation into the group required them to wrestle each other naked in a pit of mud.

The reward for Bonesmen may have been worth the humiliation. Acceptance by Skull & Bones reportedly brought with it a $15,000 cash gift to a successful candidate and, upon his marriage, a wedding gift of a good-quality grandfather clock.

Reaction to Skull & Bones from nonmembers on campus was negative from the beginning. The response might by categorized as sour grapes by those overlooked for selection, but the criticism was, and always has been, specific to the enormous power enjoyed by this network of privileged men. In October 1873, a periodical called The Iconoclast appeared in New Haven for the first time, with much of its premier edition devoted to disparaging Skull & Bones. Among its points were these:

We speak through a new publication, because the college press is closed to those who dare to openly mention ‘Bones’….

Out of every class Skull and Bones takes its men. They have gone out into the world and have become, in many instances, leaders of society. They have obtained control of Yale. Its business is performed by them. Money paid to the college must pass into their hands, and be subject to their will….

Year by year the deadly evil is growing. The society was never as obnoxious to the college as it is today…. Never before has it shown such arrogance and self-fancied superiority. It grasps the College Press and endeavors to rule it all. It does not deign to show its credentials, but clutches at power with the silence of conscious guilt.

… It is Yale College against Skull and Bones. We ask all men, as a question of right, which should be allowed to live?

At least part of the answer arrived quickly. The Iconoclast was never heard from again.

Even before the appearance of this article, a pattern of questionable alliances and activities by Skull & Bones members had been established at Yale. In 1856, three Skull & Bones members traveled, as Russell had, to the University of Berlin for studies in philosophy. Upon their return one of the young men, Daniel Gilman, incorporated Skull & Bones as the Russell Trust Association, appointing himself as treasurer and the group's founder, William H. Russell, as president.

The Russell connection has tainted Skull & Bones since its inception. In some instances, such as the Russell family's involvement in the Chinese opium trade, the connections are tenuous; no evidence exists that any Skull & Bones members outside the Russell family were directly engaged in that activity. But as time passed the relationship continued, with suspicions fueled by unusual coincidences and, from time to time, confirmed with hard facts.

Perhaps one of the most startling revelations in recent years has been an alleged association between the German Nazi party and Skull & Bones members led by Prescott S. Bush, father and grandfather of two U.S. presidents.

Prescott Sheldon Bush, Yale ’17, was ideal Skull & Bones material, active in all the right places on campus including the Glee Club, the cheerleading squad, the University Quartet, the varsity baseball team and the famous Yale Wiffenpoofs. After graduation, Bush shrewdly married the daughter of George Herbert Walker, one of the wealthiest men in the U.S., and one of the least admired for anything beyond his penchant for squeezing as much money as possible out of partners and friends. Walker's earlier career as a heavyweight prizefighter established his personality; according to his contemporaries, Walker's hobbies were golf, hunting, drinking Scotch and beating his sons to a pulp.

Among Walker's business associates was Averell Harriman, a Bonesman from the class of 1913, who founded W. A. Harriman & Co. in 1920, naming Walker president of the firm. Two years later, Harriman traveled to Germany, a country that appears to have held special interest for early Skull & Bones members, and established a branch in Berlin. On the same trip, he established a close acquaintance with August Thyssen, patriarch of the family that dominated Germany's iron and steel industry. In the years between the two world wars, the value of Thyssen's industrial empire was estimated at $100 million, a figure that would be perhaps fifty times higher in today's currency.

August's son Fritz stood to inherit the family wealth. Concerned about the socialist waves that swept his country following Germany's surrender in 1918 and the hyperinflation that followed it, Fritz Thyssen began searching for two saviors: an effective political leader for Germany, and an offshore bank that would serve as an economic anchor in future perilous times. He found them in Adolf Hitler and George Herbert Walker.

Hitler mesmerized Thyssen as, in fact, he mesmerized virtually an entire country desperately in need of strong, decisive leadership. At their first meeting in late 1923, Hitler informed Thyssen that the Nazi Party urgently needed money to grow into a national party, defend itself against attacks from the Communist/Jewish conspiracy, and realize its dream of a fascist state capable of returning the country to its glory. Almost without being asked, Thyssen pulled out his checkbook and handed Hitler 100,000 German marks and a promise to persuade other industrialists to follow his lead. They did, overflowing the Nazi coffers and providing the nascent party with enough funds to survive the aftermath of Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch.


Fritz Thyssen. As part-time banker to the Nazis, he maintained a curious relationship with many Bonesmen.

Meanwhile, Fritz Thyssen's younger brother, who had married a Hungarian aristocrat and acquired the title Baron Thyssen Bornemisza de Kaszon, moved to Rotterdam, where he took over the reins of the Netherlands-based Bank voor Handel en Scheepvaart. In 1924, while Fritz remained in his early rapture over Hitler's charisma and plans, Harriman's bank, with Prescott S. Bush at the helm, joined forces with the Thyssen family's Dutch bank to form Union Banking Corporation (ubc), whose corporate offices were at 39 Broadway in New York City, the same address as Harriman's bank. Through ubc, over $50 million in German bonds were sold to U.S. citizens, financing the rise of Germany's industrial muscle in a close parallel to the growing strength of Hitler and the Nazis.

With this success, Walker provided his son-in-law with a hand up the corporate ladder by naming Bush a vice-president of Harriman & Co. Once settled in the executive suite, Bush added two old friends from Yale to his team, Bonesmen Roland Harriman and Knight Wooley. Bush worked hard, as did everybody under Walker's thumb. He may have worked harder than others, however, because his next career boost involved supervision of a new German steel operation named the Thyssen/Flick United Steel Works, which included the Consolidated Silesian Steel Corporation and the Upper Silesian Coal and Steel Company, both located in Poland.

While Prescott S. Bush was running one of Germany's leading steel producers, Hitler encountered new financial troubles and once again turned to his old friend Fritz Thyssen for money. This time, Thyssen handed over between 250,000 and 800,000 German marks—he claimed the lower figure, others estimated the higher amount—which Hitler used, among other things, to convert a Munich palace into elaborate new headquarters for the Nazi Party.

The Great Depression in the early 1930s sent Germany and the rest of the world on a slide towards disaster. Through a series of political manipulations and the application of brute force, by 1934 Hitler completely controlled Germany, promising to build an intricate system of high-speed highways and launch “a rebirth of the German army.” For the latter, he turned to Thyssen's steel mills, whose profits soared in the following years, overflowing into the coffers of the Bank voor Handel en Scheepvaart in Rotterdam and the Union Banking Corporation in New York.

Walker and his son-in-law, through their direction of the Harriman financial organization, seem to have tolerated, if not favored, antidemocratic regimes. In 1927, they were dealing both with Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini and Russia's Communist party while Stalin held his country in an iron grip. The bank's Russian connection inspired Lord Bearsted of Britain to recommend that Union Banking cease its dealings with Stalin, prompting Walker to retort: “It seems to me that the suggestion in connection with Lord Bearsted's views that we withdraw from Russia smacks somewhat of the impertinent…. I think we have drawn our line and should hew to it.” Business was, after all, business.

Four years later, Harriman and Co. merged with Brown Brothers, a British-American investment firm, creating Brown Brothers Harriman, whose New York office was managed by Prescott S. Bush.

Through the 1930s, Bush's involvement with Nazi Germany's finances expanded beyond Union Banking into shipping via the Hamburg Amerika Line, managed out of Bush's office through a wholly owned firm called the American Ship and Commerce Corporation. In September 1933, Bush helped orchestrate the merger of Hamburg Amerika, or Hapag, with the North German Lloyd Company to create Hapag Lloyd. Meanwhile, another spin-off from the same parent firm was set up to coordinate all trade between the U.S. and Nazi Germany, and Bush arranged refinancing for the German-Atlantic Cable Company, providing the only direct communications linkage between Germany and the U.S. The legal details of this latter arrangement were finalized by a Wall Street lawyer named John Foster Dulles, who would later become a hard-line secretary of state under President Eisenhower.

Union Banking Corporation grew into the leading financial connection between Nazi Germany and the rest of the world, and by the mid-1930s the relationship was bonded at the highest levels. Consider the identity of its eight members of the board of directors:

E. Roland Harriman


Skull & Bones, ’17

Vice President, W. A. Harriman & Co., New York

H. J. Kouwenhoven

Member of Nazi Party; Managing Partner, Bank voor Handel Scheepvaart N.V. (transfer bank between August Thyssen Bank andUBC)

Knight Wooley


Skull & Bones, ’17

Director, Guaranty Trust, New York (a subsidiary of W. A. Harriman & Co.)

Cornelius Lievense

President, ubc; Director, Holland-American Investment Corp.

Ellery S. James


Skull & Bones, ’17

Partner, Brown Brothers & Co., New York.

Johann Groninger

Member of Nazi Party; Director, Bank voor Handel Scheepvaart N.V., and Vereinigte Stahlwerke (steel plant owned by Fritz Thyssen)

J. L. Guinter

Director, ubc

Prescott S. Bush


Skull & Bones, ’17

Partner, Brown Brothers Harriman, New York

Of these eight powerful men, six either belonged to Skull & Bones or were members of the German Nazi Party. And although the parent firm of Brown Brothers Harriman employed several Yale graduates in positions of authority and responsibility, only Skull & Bones members sat on the ubc board.

Networking, especially among university alumni, is neither new nor, on its own, worthy of concern. The existence of several members of the same university fraternal organization on the board of a company dealing with an international power of such murderous reputation as the Nazis could be a mere coincidence. Alarmists raise another possibility: the networking was agenda-based, connecting successive generations of very wealthy and highly privileged families whose career-oriented sons belonged to a society pledged to exceptional levels of secrecy and focused on financial and political manipulation on a global scale. This would apply if the organization itself were consciously oriented towards these activities or if its interests reflected the agenda of the families who dominated it, especially in the critical years between 1920 and 1980.

The latter possibility—the idea that an organization could maintain its focus across several generations—raises the specter of a conspiracy among Skull & Bones members to effect its secretive goals. This likelihood is dismissed by skeptics who note that, among the hundreds of surviving Skull & Bones members, many have revealed insights into its operations but none has hinted at such a broadly based conspiracy. Yet, as events such as the collapse of WorldCom, and the exposed relationship between Enron executives and its auditors Arthur Andersen revealed, it takes only a few well-placed individuals to orchestrate an activity that involves an entire organization and benefits a selected few.

Besides, it's not only the administration by Skull & Bones members of ubc and other organizations that's of interest and concern; it's also evidence of sly manipulation of the media and government, such as coverage of the demise of Union Banking, Hitler's Wall Street financier.

The year 2003 saw the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a glowing tribute to Prescott S. Bush by Mickey Herskowitz, a Houston, Texas, sportswriter. Author Herskowitz had produced previous books on celebrities such as cowboy film star Gene Autry, tv commentator Howard Cossell and baseball hero Mickey Mantle, men he admired with a level of adulation matching his apparent reverence for Prescott Bush.

In glowing prose, Duty, Honor, Country traces the career of this father of one U.S. president and grandfather of a state governor and another president as he blazes the political trail for his offspring, winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952 and acting as a political confidant for Richard M. Nixon.

Throughout the tale, the book is an uncritical paean to the Bush family patriarch, one that any Beverly Hills public relations firm would take pride in producing on behalf of a client. In one mild effort to present an objective portrait of his subject, Herskowitz refers to a front-page story that appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune during World War ii, revealing close connections between Union Banking and Nazi Germany. “Thyssen Has $3,000,000 Cash in New York Vaults,” the headline announced, followed by the sub-head: “Union Banking Corporation May Hide Nest Egg for High Nazis He Once Backed.” The article, written by Herald-Tribune reporter M. J. Racusin, provided details of ubc's connection with Thyssen along with the speculation: “Perhaps it wasn't Herr Thyssen's money at all, some persons suggest. Maybe he sent it here for safekeeping for some of the Nazi bigwigs—perhaps for Goering, for Goebbels, for Himmler, or even Hitler himself.”

Whoever had a right to claim the money—no evidence surfaced to suggest that it was anyone but Thyssen—the revelation was an embarrassment for everyone, especially Prescott Bush who already had expressed his political ambitions.

According to Herskowitz, ubc president Prescott Bush took immediate action when the story broke. “[He] acted quickly and openly on behalf of the firm, served well by a reputation that had never been compromised. He made available all records and all documents. Viewed six decades later in the era of serial corporate scandals and shattered careers, he received what can be viewed as the ultimate clean bill.”

Then the fawning Herskowitz notes:

“Earlier that year [Bush] had accepted the chairmanship of the uso (United Service Organizations). He traveled the country over the next two years raising millions for the National War Fund and… putting himself on the national stage for the first time… [and] boosting the morale of U.S. troops.”

The records show that Bush indeed jumped aboard the uso bandwagon in the spring of 1942. Unfortunately, Herskowitz makes a critical error of timing in his subject's favor. The Herald-Tribune article, he states, appeared in the summer of 1942, suggesting that Prescott Bush had already assumed an anti-Nazi stance with his participation in the uso several months earlier. How could anyone question the patriotism of a Wall Street financial heavyweight who takes an active role in supporting U.S. troops (the U.S. joined the war effort against Germany in December 1941) well in advance of a revelation that might have put his ethics in doubt?

But the Herald-Tribune revelation did not appear in the summer of 1942, as Herskowitz stated. It appeared on Thursday, July 31, 1941, a fact that Herskowitz could not have missed, since he quoted directly from the article itself. In that context, Bush made his patriotic move to the uso after the appearance of the story connecting him and his bank with a Nazi regime that was well advanced in its murder of millions of innocent civilians and Allied soldiers. No longer an obvious altruistic enlistment, Bush's move now appears more like frantic fence mending, and Herskowitz's story looks like a conscious whitewash.

Bush and his ubc cronies managed to sweep other dusty smudges under the rug wherever possible, as indicated by this innocuous one-line announcement that appeared in the financial pages of the December 16, 1944, issue of the New York Times:

The Union Banking Corporation, 39 Broadway, New York, has received authority to change its principal place of business to 120 Broadway.

The announcement conveniently ignored the fact that ubc had been taken over by the U.S. federal government under the Trading with the Enemy Act more than two years earlier, and that 120 Broadway was actually the address of the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. By this time, of course, Prescott Bush and his other Skull & Bones cronies had moved on, parading on behalf of Victory Bonds in their starched shirts and wrapped in Old Glory, ready to assume the next stage in their shining careers which, in Bush's case, included election to the U.S. Senate.

It's this apparent financial/political linkage among Skull & Bones members that alarms many people. With so much smoke swirling among both the organization and the U.S. federal service, they contend, there has to be some fire. Predictably, and most disturbingly, the secret Skull & Bones society has made its biggest impact on that most influential of all government-administered secret societies, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Consider this partial list of Bonesmen associated with the U.S. intelligence community via the Office of Strategic Services (oss) and the cia during their careers:

Hugh Wilson


Robert D. French


Archibald MacLeish


Charles R. Walker


F. Trubee Davison


Amory Howe Bradford


Hugh Cunningham


Richard A. Moore


William P. Bundy


McGeorge Bundy


Reuben Holden


Richard Drain


James Buckley


George H.W. Bush


Sloane Coffin Jr.


V. Van Dine


William Buckley


Dino Pionzio


David Boren


By definition, Bonesmen are bright, ambitious and, based upon their membership in the secret society, eminently qualified to serve in a covert organization like the cia. On the surface, this makes a good deal of sense. Concerns arise, however, when layers of secrecy concealing many Bonesmen associations and activities are peeled away, revealing suggestions of extracurricular clandestine actions and evidence of remarkable coincidences.

Remember Russell Trust Association, the official corporate name of Skull & Bones? According to records of the state of Connecticut, where the organization was registered, Russell Trust Association no longer exists. But of course it does, since Skull & Bones remains more active and, apparently, more solvent than ever. The parent organization of Skull & Bones is now known as rta Incorporated, a name it surreptitiously assumed at 10:15 am, April 14, 1961.

It's an interesting date and time, because less than two hours later the cia launched its self-financed and self-directed invasion of Cuba, resulting in the disastrous Bay of Pigs debacle. The cia's mastermind of this folly was Richard Drain, a Bonesman of ’43. The White House liaison was McGeorge Bundy, Skull & Bones ’40, working closely with his brother William P. Bundy, Skull & Bones ’39, at the State Department. Together, these three cooked up one of the great foreign misad-ventures in U.S. history, boosting Cuba's prestige in the Third World, highlighting Fidel Castro's claims of U.S. imperialism, and leading directly to the Cuban missile crisis, the closest the world has yet come to nuclear war.

The timing of the change in corporate identity and the Bay of Pigs invasion could be dismissed as coincidence, but with the perspective of history and our knowledge of cia operations over the years, there may be a more practical explanation.

While no one has revealed the source of funding that enabled 1500 Cuban Americans to launch the invasion, suspicion remains that it was the U.S. government, via a cia operations group. Without a defined conduit, however, a financial linkage cannot be verified. And without an existing Russell Trust Association, any record of a potential involvement of the Skull & Bones parent organization as covert manager of the funds was neatly erased on the morning of the invasion. One fact remains, however: the individual who handled the paperwork on the name changeover and the incorporation of rta was Howard Weaver, a ’45 Bonesman who had conveniently retired from covert work at the cia less than two years earlier.

Coincidences grow curioser and curioser. George H.W. Bush may or may not have been working on behalf of the cia in the years between 1958 and 1966, encompassing the timing of Bay of Pigs. His official record identifies him only as chairman of the board and president of Zapata Offshore Oil, a company headquartered in Houston, Texas. Without some experience in espionage, however, Bush's selection as cia director in 1974 seems strange to say the least, and more than one reliable source has claimed the Zapata company was a cover for cia operations.

In any case, Zapata happens to be the cia's code name for the Bay of Pigs invasion and, for an extra measure of conspiracy spice, two of the support vessels for the operation were identified as the Houston and the Barbara. The latter designation is intriguing because, during his World War ii escapades as a pilot, Bush named every aircraft for his wife, the indomitable Barbara Bush.


Three generations of the Bush family—one senator and two presidents—all proudly declared their association with Skull & Bones.

Another coincidence involves the same former president George H.W. Bush and the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. One week after that calamitous event, an official fbi document noted that information on possible Cuban exile involvement in the president's death had been received “orally furnished to Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency and Captain William Edwards of the Defense Intelligence Agency on November 23, 1963, by Mr. W.T. Forsyth of this Bureau.”

When a reprint of this document appeared in the July 1988 issue of The Nation, on the cusp of Bush's run for the U.S. presidency, the cia quickly issued a statement claiming that “Mr. George Bush” was not really the current candidate for the highest office in the land but a different man with a similar name: George William Bush. This appeared to deflect suspicion about the presidential candidate's hidden career as a spook, but only until George William Bush emerged from obscurity to admit that yes, he had once been employed by the cia among other government offices, but only as a low-level research and analyst clerk. He also blew the cia's claim out of the water with an affidavit swearing,

I have carefully reviewed the fbi memorandum to the Director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Department of State dated November 29, 1963 which mentions a Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency…. I do not recognize the contents of the memorandum as information furnished to me orally or otherwise during the time I was at the cia. In fact, during my time at the cia, I did not receive any oral communications from any government agency of any nature whatsoever. I did not receive any information relating to the Kennedy assassination during my time at the cia from the fbi. Based on the above, it is my conclusion that I am not the Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency referred to in the memorandum.

Which leaves the logical conclusion that George H.W. Bush was a cia operative at a time when he claimed not to be. No surprise there, given the cia's understandable reluctance to admit anything it doesn't have to. But Bush also had, at the time, an alliance with Cuban exiles who were furious with Kennedy's dis-association with the Bay of Pigs failure, encouraging some observers to make a linkage between Bush and two catastrophic events in U.S. history: the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. The media chose to discount both connections, leading conspiracy buffs into a round of speculation that has endured for years.

From time to time, Skull & Bones lashes out at those who dare probe too deeply into its operations, as it apparently did when Netherlands tv producer Daniel de Wit completed a documentary on the group. De Wit's premise connected Skull & Bones with the cia in drug-smuggling activities as a means of financing unapproved covert operations, a tactic confirmed during the Iran-Contra hearings of 1988. Before his production could air, de Wit was ordered by the Netherlands government to remove all reference to the cia and drugs, and soften its criticisms of Skull & Bones. The deletions reduced the program's running time from its original 80 minutes to barely 30 minutes. Completed in 1998, the show was aired once in the U.S. on a Friday at 5 pm when, as de Wit notes, “every possible viewer is in traffic going home.” It was never repeated.

In August 2003, de Wit recalled his experience with the cia and Skull & Bones, noting, “These… institutions and their members show a brute force and an enormous concentrated power that is overwhelming and could make everyone very cynical very easily. That also must be a reason people like to stay away from these realities.”

Skull & Bones is no more immune to the passage of time and its changes than anything or anyone else, and whatever influence and impact it had beyond the Yale campus may be waning. The 2004 U.S. presidential election, after all, featured Bonesmen George W. Bush, ’68, against John Kerry. Depending upon your point of view, this proves either that Skull & Bones members dominate the U.S. political arena to an extent no one imagined, or that the vaunted conspiracy did not exist, because why would two conspirators face each other across an ideological divide?

Whatever the answer, the innermost secrets of Skull & Bones have been leaking through the stone walls of The Tomb for several years now, even as the reality of the outside world has been seeping into it. Surely the most important change occurred in 1992 when, after a bitter rear guard battle by old Bonesmen (one, a prestigious Washington-area lawyer, suggested a coed membership “would lead to date-rape”), the organization actually agreed to admit women. By 2000, six of the fifteen Skull & Bones members that year were female.

The changes wrought by the last forty years of social upheaval—Skull & Bones now taps Jews and blacks as potential members, something it avoided during the first 150 years of its existence—make it doubtful that many of the old initiation rites, such as relating one's sexual history while stretched out naked in a coffin, are still practiced. With an estimated $4 million in assets in 2000, however, Skull & Bones could still afford to pay the $15,000 stipend and award a grandfather clock at marriage.

The spectacle of both U.S. presidential candidates being Skull & Bones members may represent the dying echo of the society's excessive influence on the country's political and judicial systems. In a day of hand-held instant messaging, global economics and tech-based fortunes, the networking arrangement that boosted the U.S. privileged class even higher in the pecking order is not nearly as influential or even necessary. The male wasp contingent of American society is no longer as exclusive as a generation ago, and secret societies on campus are considered at best anachronisms, a throwback to days of panty raids and silly rich boys in raccoon coats. Skull & Bones appears to be stumbling towards extinction; in recent years, more Yale juniors have declined the invitation to become a member than have accepted it.

Yet its influence during the past century deserves consideration. Too many of its “best and brightest” were involved in too many economic and foreign policy disasters, from Bay of Pigs through the Kennedy assassination to Vietnam and Iraq, to assess it as an exclusively campus crowd, a bunch of advantaged young men playing silly games in a dark, tomb-like room. There is more to be told. But by whom?

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