The college still preserves the character of twenty years ago in its regard for a purely democratic standard of manliness and worth. The rich man’s son still has to fight his own battles, and frequently to overcome a certain democratic prejudice against him. He succeeds, in spite of his income, and his friends like him because he acts and carries himself like a man.

—John Seymour Wood (Bones 1874), Yale Yarns (1895)1


By the 1889–90 school year, Yale College boasted a student body of 1,079 students, a number which trebled the head count in 1832–33, the year before the senior society system began with the founding of Skull and Bones. Then, two-thirds of the student body hailed from New England, with a fifth from the Middle Atlantic states, and a tenth from the South. Fifty-seven years later, New England including Connecticut accounted for less than half of those collegians, the Middle Atlantic almost a third, the Great Lakes a sixth, and the Southern states a bit less than 3 percent. Yale was still admitting more freshmen than Harvard—344 to 324, this year—while becoming less regional and more truly national (and even international: almost 3 percent came from abroad or the U.S. possessions and territories). Among its peers, meaning then Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Cornell, “Yale incontestably had the smallest home-state base, but also the smallest state as home.”2

Not surprisingly, as it aged the college had become more dynastic regarding alumni legacies in admissions: in the class of 1831, 11 percent had Yale graduates for fathers, while by 1891 the figure was 16 percent, a number that was to hold roughly constant for another four decades, through 1921. The collegians were now mostly young men, not boys: the average age of graduates of the class of 1886 was 22 years, seven months.3 In ethnicity and religion, too, Yale College was homogeneous, and the outside world hardly impinged.

Harvard professor George Santayana, reflecting on a year spent in New Haven, wrote of the New Haven college’s “isolation from the outer world and internal homogeneity” for a Cambridge audience in the Harvard Monthly. “The first ingredient of the Yale Spirit is of course the raw material of the students. They come, as is well known, from many parts of the country, and this diversity of origin and associations would seem at first sight to be an obstacle to unity. But it is not. . . . The traditions of the place become sacred to him and he vies with his fellow students in proving that he understands them. His family and early friends are far away. The new influences soon control him entirely and imprint upon his mind and manner the unmistakable mark of his college. . . . The college hero is there [in New Haven] more unreservedly admired, and although it is not true that the most coveted societies are open to everyone who gains distinction in scholarship or athletics, other considerations have relatively much less weight than among us [at Harvard]. The relations of one Yale student to another are comparatively simple and direct. They are like passengers in a ship or fellow countrymen abroad; their sense of common interests and common emotions overwhelms all latent antipathies.”4

It was because of the sameness of their students that spokesmen for Yale and Princeton liked to claim the existence of a near-perfect “democracy” within their student bodies. At Harvard, journalist Edwin Slosson observed, “the word ‘democracy’ seems to mean ‘promiscuity’ or else some spiritual condition altogether unaffected by external circumstances.” To the ditty respecting Harvard’s famous snobbery—“And this is good old Boston/The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,/And the Cabots talk only to God”—Yale had a riposte:

Here’s to the town of New Haven,

The home of the truth and the light,

Where God speaks to Jones

In the very same tones

That he uses with Hadley and Dwight.

Of course, this was democracy within institutions that did not reflect all the ethnoreligious, racial, gender, or class heterogeneity of American society, but the self-characterization was strongly believed and nationally debated for all that. Democracy existed in the sense that success in extracurricular activities could offset parental fame or wealth in establishing student prestige. At the same time, as one commentator noted, echoing Santayana’s observation on Yale students’ conformity, “It is the effect of [such an] organized democracy that it sets sharp, and often quite arbitrary, limits upon individual taste and action.” The eminent literary critic and Princetonian Edmund Wilson noted that fear of this social censorship in New Haven caused “the most vigorous and alert intelligences . . . to be coerced into a right-thinking mould, to have their intellectual teeth drawn as the price of their local success.”5

Yale was indeed “democratic” from one perspective: prejudices “as to birth, or State, or politics” were rare there.6 Students actively resented the introduction of valets and automobiles as a menace to democracy. A. E. Jenkins while a junior in the class of 1889 declared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine that a “true democratic spirit prevails among the undergraduates. No man is looked down upon because he is poor or of humble birth. Many a student who has ‘worked his way through’ has attained greater popularity than his wealthier classmates.”7

In his 1887 Phi Beta Kappa lecture, President Timothy Dwight had celebrated, as an “element in the Yale spirit,” “disposition to estimate both men and things according to their true value. There is no place in the world, I am sure, where a man is judged more justly in accordance with what he is, than here. The man who has imbibed the spirit of our University is no respecter of persons, in the bad sense of that phrase. He does not look at family descent or early advantages or wealth, but at mind and character. The externals are only secondary and subordinate—a good, indeed, if the man is worthy of them, but not of the essence of the man. What is internal, what the man is in himself and makes of himself, is the all important thing.”8

When Dwight’s successor, Yale president Arthur T. Hadley, was to reflect on the topic of Yale democracy in a speech in 1914, the emphasis had shifted. “I am sometimes asked whether Yale in all these changes is remaining ‘democratic’ in the sense that it once was. Democratic it is; but the sense of the word ‘democratic’ has changed, both in Yale and in America as a whole. Formerly democracy meant equality; to-day it means public spirit, readiness to be governed by public opinion and to take part in making public opinion what it should be.” “Nothing,” Harvard’s Santayana had said, “could be more American—not to say Amurrcun—than Yale College. The place is sacred to the national ideal. Here is sound, healthy principle, but no overscrupulousness, love of life, trust in success, a ready jocoseness, a democratic amiability.”9 Once one accepted the traditional values of the community (Hadley’s “readiness to be governed by public opinion”), one need never again consider himself an outsider.

College democracy had a social dimension so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible to the earnest competitors within it. The Yale version of “democratic amiability” emphasized an internal struggle for power and position, which was remarkable in its severity. “The spirit of Yale,” former Johns Hopkins University president Daniel Coit Gilman declared in 1906, “a mysterious and subtle influence, is the spirit of the hive,—intelligence, industry, order, obedience, community, living for others, not for one’s self, the greatest happiness in the utmost service. Virgil’s words are on the hive,—Sic vos non vobis.”10 In his book of 1910, Great American Universities, Edwin Slosson found something very similar. “I felt on the campus as I do in the dynamo room of a great power house. I knew that I was in the presence of forces obviously powerful but imperceptible to my senses. There is not enough tangible machinery about Yale to account for the work it is doing. The Yale undergraduates seem to train, control, and discipline themselves, leaving little for the official authorities to do in this way.”11

Not all, of course, could be notable, and if the proof of Yale democracy was only the elevation, in a clean contest, of those who became notable in their first three college years, then otherwise worthy men, quietly building character for future success after their university course, would always be passed over. One aspect of democracy is that someone loses. The class of 1907’s Harry S. Lewis, better known as Sinclair Lewis when he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, wrote “on the subject of standard estimation of men” in his Lit. essay for June 1906, published the month after senior society elections (in which he was not chosen). “I am confident,” he declared, “that in each class there is some seemingly insignificant man, who, by the practice of high ideals, spreading far beyond the reach of his name, has had no small share in our transformation from a narrow, rural school to a great, wise University. . . . Why are these men unknown? Partly because you do not look for them, to your own disadvantage; and partly because they are kept down by lack of money, or racial influences, or interest in some line which is not popular, or from lack of early development, or because they have not seen what there is to be done and that they can do it.”12

Furthermore, even for the “known” men in the democratic contest, not all could be rewarded with the accolade of senior society membership. When outsiders asked how so exclusive a system might be reconciled with Yale’s self-proclaimed “democracy,” the answer was that Yale stood for equality of opportunity, not equality of status. As phrased by a correspondent to the Yale Alumni Weekly, “The democracy of a college should simply mean that every man have a fair opportunity, and that no unfair or artificial means of preventing a man from rising to his proper level should be permitted. In a word, I believe that democracy means ‘Equality of Opportunity,’ rather than ‘Equality of Position.’” A New Haven newspaper noted candidly when reporting on Tap Day in May 1897, “Some one must always lose when there is aught to gain. The Yale boys understand this, and hence the failure of society life to injure the University.” This defense ignored the fact that, when the three senior societies were by election only 15 percent of each class, there were arguably too few places to reward all the collegians of intellectual merit, literary skill, or athletic achievement.

Election of legacies also certainly narrowed the openings, yet as Walter Camp argued in 1896, “Popular belief is that a father or a brother who has been a member makes a strong backing for next of kin, but this has so often proved fallacious grounds for hope, that the opinion is steadily gaining ground that each man must stand or fall on his own merits.” In the elections for the class of 1904, Lawrence Mason, whose father’s and six brothers’ membership in Keys had caused it to be dubbed the “Masonic fraternity,” and who according to that year’s Horoscopes was highly unpopular, was passed over. Still, in the elections for the class of 1908, Keys took in three Auchinclosses, two brothers and their cousin.

In his essay on Yale in Four American Universities (1895), Yale president Hadley opined that “On the whole, the Senior society choices are given with conscientious fairness. There are mistakes made, sometimes bad ones, especially mistakes of omission; but they are as a rule bona fidemistakes of judgment, and not the results of personal unfriendliness or chicane. There is a good deal of wire-pulling among those who hope to receive the honor, but surprisingly little among those who are to award it.” The larger truth was framed in a Sunday feature article by the New-York Tribune run just before Tap Day in 1901: “[T]his [choosing the best men] is a harder task each year, as the classes grow and more avenues are opened for men to distinguish themselves in. There are, therefore, more sins of omission scored against the societies each year now than ever before. But this is a natural result, and, while it leaves a good many men unrecognized who have earned society distinction, it makes the competition more worthwhile.”13

This final conclusion was not universally appreciated. By 1911, there were twice as many senior societies as had existed in 1882, and to an outsider, their relative positions seemed still to follow the order of their respective foundings. The eye of the senior society needle had neither widened nor narrowed: sixty men chosen by the societies, as noted by the class of 1883’s twenty-fifth reunion book, formed no greater proportion of the class than did thirty in their year of graduation.14


The notion that the collegians had a duty to the alma mater had long been a common theme at Yale. In his senior year of 1852, wrote Daniel Coit Gilman to his parents, “I had the pleasure last night of delivering before the three literary societies, Brothers in Unity, Calliope and Linonia, an oration of ‘The Claims of Yale College upon its Undergraduate Students.’” Those within the hive which Gilman described over half a century later believed they were “working for” their college if they participated in one or more of a great many activities. “When work is to do,” wrote Barrett Wendell of Harvard in 1901, “the Yale spirit knowns no hesitation.”

Sidney Brockhurst, who plays the devil’s advocate in Owen Johnson’s 1911 novel Stover at Yale, and who says he is “is not fool enough to believe one Eastern university is different in essentials from another,” has the intestinal fortitude to damn that sentiment: “‘Work for Yale! Work for Princeton! Work for Harvard! Bah! Sublime poppycock!’ exclaimed Brockhurst, in a sort of fury. ‘Of all the drivel preached to young Americans, that is the worst. I came to Yale for an education. I pay for it—good pay. I ask, first and last, what is Yale going to do for me? Work for Yale, go out and slave, give up my leisure and my independence—to do what for Yale? To keep turning the wheels of some purely inconsequential machine, or strive like a gladiator. Is that doing anything for Yale, a seat of learning?’”

The effort involved was tremendous, as detailed in a review in the New York Times sparked by Stover, of the sheer hours taken up by extracurricular activities in New Haven, concluding that these “typical interests whose scope is not as well known outside the university as their importance within it demands . . . [are] one of the greatest, if not the greatest, features of Yale life—the scope of undergraduate interests, their seriousness and earnestness, and the unbelievably large amount of labor which the undergraduate expends in identifying himself with them and keeping them in good running order.” The ideal was the man of action, and there were plenty of undergraduates who were sure to make their mark in the economy of the nation in commerce and industry, to become men of colossal energy and ingenuity in practical affairs. Their later success could—or at least would—be traced directly to their exertions in extracurricular activity.15

College students claiming they were working for their alma mater were, in point of fact, working for their own betterment, to be achieved through the connections they might make through the activities in which they participated, and the prestige gained among their peers by so doing, but also—and less selfishly—through the reputations they hoped to establish and maintain for their institutions, reputations based on the age and excellence of their publications, the prowess and success of their sports and debating teams, and the quality of their competing glee clubs. The irate Brockhurst was not so much sounding off as an individualist, but showing that he continued to value the education available through the curriculum, and not the extracurriculum which now almost crowded it out in the students’ attentions. Some collegians may have been aware of the degree to which their rhetoric of “doing” or “working” some activity for the college was specious or at least self-serving, but the belief was clearly fervently held in any case.

Fueling this effort, of course, was personal ambition: Henry Stimson confessed to his fiancée that “the idea of a struggle for prizes, so to speak, has always been one of the fundamental elements of my mind, and I can hardly conceive of what my feelings would be if I ever was put in a position or situation in life where there were no prizes to struggle for.” This emotion fed directly into the society system. In his memoirs, written after serving as secretary of war and of state for four different presidents, Stimson recollected that the “chief fruits of my four years at Yale came from the potent democratic class spirit then existing on the Yale campus; and that experience was most important to my life, both in the character developed and in the friendships formed,” because in his view, the “democratic class spirit” found its apotheosis in the senior society system.16

The undergraduates were themselves aware of the paradox of extolling Yale democracy as quintessentially American, while competing hard among themselves for preferment and believing that, of all American collegians, they worked the hardest. The Lit.’s leading article in June 1902, titled “American Yale,” squared the circle in this way: “It has often been asserted that Yale is essentially American. On the other hand, it has been urged that most Yale men spend at least three of their college years in a fierce and soul-destroying pursuit of social and athletic distinction, with the latter always in subservience. . . . The distinction made by calling Yale American is this—that while necessarily only a minority stand in prominence, the great majority of us are availing ourselves of our right to a fairly equal position in the strife for every honor. So that the competition for all things that are worth having here is probably fiercer than in any other university in the world. It is the greatest tribute that Yale can have to say that every many is given a chance to develop himself in the beginning, and that when he has finished, he is held by his class pretty nearly in the honor which is due to his ability and character.”17

That competition, it was claimed, was not bitter. The Lit.’s leading article the month before, in May 1902, was called “The Spirit of Boyishness,” finding it to permeate Yale, but nevertheless the foundation of “the boast of Yale that she possesses to an unusual degree the power of sending into the world self-reliant, vigorous men who can and do ‘play the game.’ . . . If we seek to analyze the point of view of the boy, we find at the bottom the sentiment that life is a game, a contest to be fought to the uttermost but after all a game, not a death-struggle. . . . The full-blooded enjoyment of the passing moment, the democracy that sees its brothers alike in opponent, onlooker and ally; best of all, the self-forgetfulness of excited enthusiasm—these are the characteristics of a healthy boy, and to an even greater extent the characteristics of Yale.” An anonymous journalist for Scribner’s Monthly had said it more concisely in 1876: “Probably no other American college has so distinctive a social life as has been developed at Yale, nor one so rich in humorous or picturesque traits.”

The professoriate agreed. In Professor Max Farrand’s speech to Phi Beta Kappa in 1910, he declared that “From my own course, that of History, we learn that the American is supposed to go into life as into a game—and he plays the game to win. He picks out something and tries to follow it through—to succeed where others have failed.” President Hadley argued that the Christian gentleman was one who manfully engaged in competition, not simply to profit from winning, but more unselfishly to serve society—a patrician formulation that lent moral authority, spiritual legitimacy, and character value to competitive individuality. Through its extracurriculum, Yale College in its entirety cultivated not simply industrious scholars, or responsible Christian gentlemen, but highly competitive managerial individuals. The future captains of industry and finance, wrote university historian George Pierson, “found the informal, romantic, competitive college life incomparably exciting and important—the perfect training ground for success in our confident, acquisitive society.”18


Also recognized on campus was that the enormous effort expended in winning these posts devalued the college’s formal purpose of scholarship. “Broadly speaking,” another Lit. leading article of the time maintained, “there are four college activities, success in any one of which gains for its patron a degree of prominence in his class varying with his individual effort and the relative favor in which the line of his industry is esteemed. These four are Religious, Athletic, Musical, and Literary.” These overshadowed “what is a far worthier activity and what certainly has little or no student recognition—Scholarship.” Slosson noted in his book that “the professional spirit prevails in Yale athletics, and the amateur spirit prevails in Yale scholarship.” The complaint, with regard to society elections, was an old one: in his Yale diary, the earliest known journal of an American Jewish college student, Lewis Ehrich complained regarding elections in his junior year of 1868 that Skull and Bones did not applaud scholarly merit —although perhaps of equal significance was his lack of interest in the secret societies: “As for myself, if an election to Skull & Bones were offered to me in one hand, a set of Waverley novels or any other good books in the other, I should choose the latter ten times.”19

“A man who comes here to study nowadays,” lamented an 1896 Lit. editorial, “has found that the societies have trampled him under foot and have passed over; that he, a scholar, is cast aside as a ‘freak,’ a ‘dig’, and they of leisure are looked upon as ‘representative men’ in the classes.” In 1903, a Yale faculty Committee on Numbers and Scholarship, chaired by professor of Political Economy Irving Fisher (valedictorian of the class of 1888 and a member of Bones), reported on the widespread disdain for learning, noting that of the nine valedictorians after 1893, none had been elected to a senior society, though in thirty-four prior classes, fully twenty-six valedictorians had been elected. “That is,” the Committee lamented, “nine failed of Senior Society election during the last nine years, as against eight in the 34 years between 1860 and 1894.” The Horoscope in 1889 predicted the election of a valedictorian, since “it is an hereditary right of valedictorians for the last few years to get Bones” (but he did not); the Horoscope in 1892, sarcastically assessing a prospect for Wolf’s Head, noted that “his Phi Beta Kappa stand will be quite an agreeable variation to the list of valedictorians in Wolf’s Head,” but he too was not elected. The shift back took time: “By certain elections,” the Yale Alumni Weekly was to opine about the spring 1905 ceremonies, “a distinct impression was made that the College estimate is taking a little more into consideration intellectual attainments and services,” because the president of Phi Beta Kappa had been elected to Wolf’s Head.

In December 1906, the Yale Courant published a table which showed that in the years 1882–1905, 24 percent of the nonsociety men had achieved an Oration “high stand” or better, as against only 13.6 percent of the senior society men, finding that 6.1 percent of these “Honor Men” were members of Wolf’s Head, 10.6 percent of Scroll and Key, and 23.1 percent of Skull and Bones. Contemplating these results in his book on American colleges, Slosson noted acidly: “The figures show that only one of the three secret senior societies contained a higher percentage of Honor Men than the college as a whole, and even that society had a less[er] percentage than the student body outside. That is, if a blindfolded man had entered the crowd assembled around the oak tree near Battell Chapel on the third Thursday in May and tapped forty-five men at random, the chances are that he would have obtained men of higher standing than those actually chosen, after the long and anxious deliberations of the secret conclaves.” However, Yale’s elite club system still compared favorably to Harvard’s: the combined membership of Porcellian and A.D. for the classes of 1905–1910 produced only one member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Still and all, Slosson continued, “the faculty estimate of a man’s ability based on grades alone is as narrow in its way as the student estimate based on activities which often interfere with the making of high grades.” He asked seven Yale graduates of the classes from 1872 to 1896 to mark in the alumni directory the names of their classmates who had achieved distinction since graduation, without further instruction as to the degree of prominence or the proportion of the class to be indicated. His survey participants checked on average 24 percent of the names in their respective class rolls. Slosson compared these classmate-composed lists with the lists of living graduates who were members of the three senior societies and of Phi Beta Kappa (the latter being “Honor Men”), and calculated that 38 percent of the PBK men became prominent, and 37 percent of the senior society men became prominent, while only 19 percent of the men not in Phi Beta Kappa became prominent, and only 18 percent of the men not in senior societies became prominent.

While the poll was informal and narrowly based, Slosson declared that “we should probably be justified in concluding that the senior societies and the Phi Beta Kappa, although their standards of judgment are different, are equally successful in picking out men of superior ability, and that a student belonging to either of these groups has twice the chance of future prominence as one belonging to neither.” In naming the high-stand men for Philosophical Oration, High Orations, and Orations, the faculty were largely accurately rewarding the collegians who best performed their “university duties.” In electing juniors to the senior societies, the upperclassmen were, largely accurately, rewarding the most successful pursuers of the extracurriculum. Still, President Hadley was to avow “half-humorously” to a gathering of alumni in 1915, “We need to elevate study to the level of an extra-curriculum activity.”20

For the ambitious student, not participating was not an option. The code of Yale College life exempted no student from some form of extracurricular activity. “The Yale system,” opined an editorial by a senior society man in the February 1896 Lit., “is essentially one of work. Incentive to dosomething, vigorous competition—the vital principle of social life—are such integral parts of Yale that idleness and indifference are reduced to the smallest possible factors.” In Stover, Dink’s first days on the Yale campus are consumed with conversations among his freshmen classmates about which among the numerous campus organizations and activities they would choose to pursue. “Stone was out for the glee club, already planning to take singing lessons in the contest for leadership, three years off. Saunders was to start for the News. Logan had made drawings during the summer and was out for the Record. Hunter was trying for his class team and the crew. Only McNab was defiant,”21 a defiance that ignited a heated discussion on the advisability, indeed the very possibility, that one might choose not to go out for something or other.

That chosen activity, however praiseworthy in itself, could not in this college universe be pursued alone, but had to be a participation for and with others: activity had to be communal, because a student who did all for himself and nothing for his college was a student without the respect of his classmates. To hold oneself off from the group life of the class to preserve time for study or private interests was simple selfishness. Henry Seidel Canby, Yale class of 1899, made this clear in his memoir Alma Mater: “To be musical and indulge in music privately was a sure sign of freakishness, as bad as private drinking or the reading of poetry in seclusion. The banjo, the mandolin, and the guitar were respectable, since skillful players could ‘make’ the instrumental clubs and so gain social recognition; but proficiency on the violin was a sure sign of something wrong, as was skill on the piano not confined to ‘beating the box,’ and also singing of ‘classic’ music.” (The University Glee Club had gone on its first extensive tour in 1871, and incorporated an orchestra in 1879; in 1885, the Banjo Club participated in the concerts for the first time, and in 1890 the two clubs were united into the Yale Glee and Banjo Club, to make annual trips around the eastern seaboard.22)

The Fisher Committee found the same logic at work when sounding student opinion on the relationship of scholarship and society honors: “The athlete or manager,” it heard, “is ‘working for Yale,’ unselfishly and self-denyingly; the student is not public-spirited—he is working only for himself.” In Ralph Paine’s 1909 novel of Yale, College Years, a character is a “‘greasy grind.’ . . . shy and poor . . . toil[ing] incessantly while the varied activities of the college swirled past and left him isolated.” Athletic ability, social standing, money, and good looks were each and all highly valued, but there were, Canby noted, “routes upward for men who could write what the college magazine wanted, or make the music that undergraduates like; and a broad path, much trodden in my day, for the energetically pious who could organize religion, and sell God to the right kind of undergraduate. They were sure of a senior society.” (Stover in Owen Johnson’s novel more cynically styled them “gospel sharks.”23) The religious student so described was no anomaly, because he was comparable to his athletic or musical peers in his ability to involve others in his work—and make them acknowledge his leadership.


Now more than half a century old, the senior societies at Yale, like the fraternity movement in other colleges in the East and then the South and the West, had successfully and irrevocably institutionalized new prestige values. They celebrated the attributes of a successful man of the world, this world, to the detriment of those various attributes of Christian grace—humility, equality, and morality—which it had long been the purposes of the college to foster. The protagonist of Richard Holbrook’s novel Boys and Men: A Story of Life at Yale, a member of the class of 1895, writes home to his parents: “It is commonly believed here in college that a Senior Society man has much better chances in after life, because he will get fine opportunities in business and be able to go into the swellest society in every big city in the country.”

While Yale and other American colleges remained under the influence of evangelical orthodoxy, their religious orientation was both sincere and persistent, in maintenance of their public preference for a brotherhood of professing Christians, rather than a proliferation of Greek brotherhoods. It was hard for their administrators to contemplate that this student invention proposed the substitution of worldly prowess for spiritual grace as a matter of prestige, the preference for social status over Christian status, and the trading of attitudes and skills necessary for success in this world for those which had been considered appropriate for salvation in the next. “The fall from grace,” historian of education Frederick Rudolph has written of American fraternities in general in the nineteenth century, “was facilitated by the recognition that the fraternity movement gave to secular values, to good friendship, good looks, good clothes, good family, and good income.” The Yale Illustrated Horoscope for spring 1891 was indeed to write of Scroll and Key that “good clothes, good cash, good fellowship, and good pull” were “the prime requisites for a bid for membership.” The New-York Tribune, also celebrating the “peculiar distinction” of Keys, noted that it had “adhered to the principles that scholarship, literary ability, athletic distinction, social aspirations, excellent as they all may be, do not, singly or in combination, constitute a valid claim to membership in the society. The one indispensable qualification is manliness. A gentleman, not conventionally but essentially, is always a possible candidate, and nobody else cherishes a hope of admission.”24

Yale’s students, by virtue of the renown of its graduates as that century came to its close, could claim no little success for their system in terms of national prestige. In 1893, Charles Thwing did a census of the 15,142 persons in Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, taking mere inclusion as proof of life success and categorizing those so named by college origin and profession. In the category “statesmen,” counting 883 graduates from Harvard and 713 from Yale (a college sixty-five years younger), he found a Yale predominance, 55 to 50, and concluded that “Yale seems to be more American than Harvard. Public life, politics, statesmanship represent a very important part of American life. Therefore a larger number of distinguished men of Yale do we find in statesmanship than of Harvard.” He quoted Santayana’s article: “No wonder that all America loves Yale, where American conditions are vigorous, American instincts are unchecked, and young men are trained and made eager for the keen struggles of American life.” To remind the undergraduates of their distinguished political forbears, the Yale News periodically ran articles listing the college’s graduates serving in Congress and in the current administration’s cabinet. Yalies in this era even appropriated to their number the country’s most famous living Harvard graduate: “When in 1902 the Public Orator presented Theodore Roosevelt for an honorary degree [at Yale] he explained that the president ‘is a Harvard man by nature, but in his democratic spirit, his breadth of national feeling, and his earnest pursuit of what is true and right, he possesses those qualities which represent the distinctive ideals of Yale.’ This was received not with gales of laughter, but with prolonged applause.”25

In the nineteenth century, the educated middle class widely accepted the impression that Harvard was more the “literary college,” and Yale “more of a college fitting one for public life.” Slosson found general reasons for such sustained success: “The argument in favor of the truth of the legend of Yale’s team play in politics would have as its major premise a list of dignitaries too long for publication in these pages, including, for example, twenty of the fifty-nine governors of Connecticut; and for its minor premise the improbability that such a general recognition of individual excellence by the public was purely spontaneous. There are 15,428 living Yale graduates, probably more closely bound together by common training, a feeling of loyalty toward their Alma Mater, and mutual acquaintance, than any other large body of alumni in America, and inevitably exerting a powerful influence over public affairs.”26

This characterization was well reported in the national press, and linked specifically to the senior societies. For example, alongside an article on Chief Justice Morrison Waite (Bones, 1837), Harper’s Weekly ran an article in 1874 titled “Secret Societies at Yale,” illustrated with an engraving depicting the halls of Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Psi Upsilon, and Delta Kappa Epsilon, and describing Bones and Keys as taking in “each year fifteen new members, who are claimed to be the most prominent in their respective class either as scholars, literary men, or social companions.”

The piece identified “prominent members” of Bones, including former U.S. attorney general William Evarts, (Confederate) Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, collector of internal revenue Henry Deming, Connecticut governor Henry Harrison, U.S. Senator Orris Ferry (Conn.), University of California president Daniel Colt Gilman, Cornell’s president Andrew Dickson White, New York Central Railroad president Chauncey Depew, and ambassador to Bolivia John Croxton, along with “notable members” of Keys, including New Englander editor William Kingsley, ambassador to Germany Theodore Runyon, New York Observer proprietor Sidney Morse, and (Confederate) Major General John Swayne. Another article, in Munsey’s Magazine for June 1894, concluded flatly: “It is noteworthy that the chief arguments against these organizations come from men who have failed in admission to them, and that Yale’s greatest alumni have been members of the secret societies.”

In 1896 Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly published a series titled “American Universities and Colleges,” and the first installment, on Yale, devoted fully one-third of its pages to the student society system, proclaiming: “Paramount in importance, and the culmination of Yale’s whole society system, are its three senior societies—‘Skull and Bones,’ ‘Scroll and Key’ and ‘Wolf’s Head’—local societies, but the most secret and respected in the country.” Contemporary book surveys of American colleges with treatments of Yale, like Slosson’s, echoed these sentiments. Mass market magazines such as Scribner’s published short stories in which Tap Day was a plot point and the ceremony described in minute detail. The New York Times began reporting the senior societies’ annual election results in May 1886 (mis-naming “Scroll and Keys” and “The Wolf Head”), noting that “there were few surprises, the slates having been pretty accurately calculated by the outsiders.”27

On campus, the adolescent mentality looked to the future, seeing college as a staging ground for adult life and the larger society the young men were about to enter. Polished manners are necessary for advancement in this world, not the next. There could be no better preparation for success in the second half of the nineteenth century than to have mingled daily with other young men who not only epitomized new patterns of achievement but had institutionalized them in the secret society movement. The college world that they made was, to an important degree, their reading of the present so that they might claim it for their future. To those heading for the combat of American capitalism, the contests and trials of the extracurriculum appeared to offer valuable lessons. (Slosson quoted a Harvard alumnus who sent his son to Yale, because he found that “all the Harvard men are working for the Yale men.”) Yale students insisted that their college and social system was “democratic,” but the celebration of egalitarianism rested on an intensely hierarchical foundation. What college democracy meant was that the students did not fully accept the status system of the broader society, but created their own where athletic or literary prowess, social grace, and a sense of fair play all weighed significantly—and in which the prizes were allocated on a competitive basis by the students themselves.28

New undergraduate interests and passions had arisen since the founding decades of the senior societies, and their membership was soon to reflect those changes. Henry Beers, looking back in his 1895 memoir The Ways of Yale, remarked on the “number of clubs and organizations in a modern [Yale annual] Banner . . . most of them undreamed of in the simple structure of undergraduate life in the sixties. . . . It sometimes seems to me . . . as if . . . every one was enrolled in some organization or other, was in training for something, and carried on his amusements strenuously and in a corporate way.”29


A new focus of student activity, as indicated by Canby’s remark about the “energetically pious who could organize religion,” was Dwight Hall. The year following a campaign by evangelist Dwight Moody in New Haven in 1878, a group of undergraduates organized the Christian Social Union, which by 1881 had rewritten its constitution to become the Yale Young Men’s Christian Association. In 1886 a benefactor gave funds for a red stone building on the campus’s west side to provide the new group a center, containing living quarters for a resident secretary, four small rooms assigned to the four college classes for committee deliberations and class prayer meetings, and an auditorium for larger meetings. The building, a college religious structure but not a chapel, was the first of its kind in New England; called Dwight Hall in honor of the first president Timothy Dwight (his grandson and namesake was inaugurated this same year as Yale’s president), the name effectively became that of the Association.

Members of Dwight Hall elected officers, chosen at the end of their junior year, who as seniors directed the affairs of the association and coordinated their activities with the undergraduate deacons of the University Church. The first secretary was Chauncey Goodrich of the class of 1886. Knowing in 1885 that he would become the first graduate secretary of Dwight Hall, he refused an election to a senior society that spring on the grounds that the office required him to be above all campus politics—this was known, but Skull and Bones still offered him an election, at which he “shook his head emphatically before going to his room” and formally refusing there. A tradition was not established by Goodrich’s self-denial: leadership in Dwight Hall ranked as leadership on campus, and the president customarily became a member of a senior society, as did many of the class deacons, who also served as association governors. Baseball captain and football star Amos Alonzo Stagg, 1888 and Bones, Henry Burt Wright, 1898 and Bones, and James Howard Merriam, 1909 and Bones, all served as YMCA postgraduate secretaries, and in time, it was even charged that there was a “Dwight Hall ring,” with an underground tunnel beneath High Street into that society’s tomb.30

In their book of 1899, Yale: Her Campus, Class-rooms and Athletics, Lewis Sheldon Welch and Walter Camp wrote that “the most significant, of all the facts of Yale’s religious life, [is] that those of influence and leadership in the college world and those who man the student religious organizations are in very many cases identical.” The Lit. author of “American Yale” noted “a thing somewhat incomprehensible to most of us in Freshman year . . . that men who devote themselves to religious work, are rightly given a high appreciation by the University as they become Seniors.” Slosson noted in 1911 that a “capable religious leader is almost as likely to be elected to one of the Senior Societies as an athletic leader.” This aspect of Dwight Hall made it a part of the organized and competitive student life, playing a most conspicuous role from 1897 through World War I, but voluntary religious life in Yale College flourished overall—nearly two-thirds of the undergraduates were members of the same church—and the religious loyalty was genuine.

Taking up religious activities as a means of social/political advancement was undoubtedly practiced by some, but the sheer volume of such activity made clear, in Slosson’s words, “the striking difference between Yale and most other universities in the student estimation of religious work.”31Even to review the range of Dwight Hall activities is exhausting. Deputations of influential undergraduates went out every winter to preparatory schools to speak about Yale and the Christian soldier character which Yale embodied and instilled. A comprehensive handbook was prepared for all incoming freshmen, describing the college facilities, how athletics and college publications were run, and in general what and when to do, and what not to do (but senior societies were not discussed). Newcomers were invited to Dwight Hall to use it as a place to meet Yale’s important upperclassmen and as a center for social services they would help to perform: class prayer meetings every Sunday, Bible classes (seven every Wednesday night), Sunday School classes, city missions, a foreign missions committee, a boy’s club, and a band.

“In Dwight Hall,” wrote Yale’s twentieth-century historian, “Yale’s impulses toward piety and social preferment—with the political activity and practical altruism which they encouraged—had found happy communion.” The Horoscope for spring 1892 was more cynical: “Dwight Hall is the arena in which candidates are often expected to struggle, and how beneficial the results are which are sometimes gained may be seen in the case of several members of Scroll and Key. The Pope without ability, conviviality, or wealth, was enabled not only to gain a place in Keys but also an election to the Lit., by means of his Dwight Hall pull.”32


Still, muscular Christianity was topped by athletic prowess on the absolute campus scale. As the Illustrated Horoscope for spring 1891 put it, “when athletics came to be a recognized factor in college life, Bones showed its wisdom by forthwith making athletic ability one of the keys (no pun intended) to its iron-clad lock.” The Yale victory against Columbia in its first intercollegiate football match was the beginning of what would become, in terms of victories, the most successful college football program in the first century of that sport. This remarkable success was largely due to Walter Camp, who effectively created the American version of football that first became the dominant college sport and thus shaped the course of all intercollegiate athletics in America. A member of the class of 1880 and Bones, Camp while captain in 1879 pioneered the technique of teammates guarding the ball by running alongside him to interfere with tacklers, and as coach, effectively invented signals (nonsense sentences) for calling plays.

While Yale won at all its major sports, it triumphed in over 95 percent of its football games in the years Camp was associated with the football team in some capacity, officially or unofficially: Yale lost only fourteen games in the span of thirty-four years from 1876 to 1909, incontestably the greatest record in intercollegiate history. From 1872 through 1909 in all games of soccer, rugby, and American football, the fantastic Yale teams ran up a record of 324 victories, 17 losses, and 18 ties. From 1883 to 1898, nine of the Yale football teams were undefeated, and three were not even scored against. “Yale’s success against Harvard,” writes a Yale historian, “was so great that Cambridge men began to think of Yalies as nothing but muckers, while Yale men had serious doubts about the manliness of the Harvards.” William H. Corbin, Bonesman and captain of possibly the greatest all-time Yale team of 1888, which outscored its opponents 698 to nothing, invited Camp to be his official coach that season, and Yale captains for years afterward followed suit. Camp led the way in transforming English rugby into American football, incorporating the notion of “downs,” and the need for measured chalk marks on the field, creating a “gridiron” and thus a new name for the American football field.33

By the 1880s, Yale had established itself as the dominant college athletic institution in America. The faculty did not much interfere with management, as the university had no athletic committee, and the students were thus not wrong to claim credit for their success. Administrative support was not completely absent. In 1881 the Yale athletic field, some thirty acres of land on a bluff on the west bank of the West River, on Derby Avenue, was purchased, and laid out with a football field, grandstand, two baseball diamonds, a running track, and tennis courts, and from the fall of 1884 the college athletic contests were held there. A Princeton man accepted the fact that “there is probably not another university in the land where students have more direct control of College athletics and are less under Faculty rules and where there is less friction . . . between students and Faculty.”34Walter Camp observed that “Managers and Captains are absolute in their power, the rest of us bearing ourselves with proper modesty and decorum in offering here and there bits of advice,” while pointing out that twenty of twenty-six championships came to Yale in three major sports, and attributing the result to the Yale system of undergraduate control.35

Yale won five of six football championships, eight of ten baseball championships, and seven of the ten dual championships over Harvard in crew through the 1880s. In 1887, it won quintuple championships, in crew, baseball, football, track, and tennis. When Yale occasionally lost, as happened in the 1896 game, Harvard was not above twitting the four Bonesmen on the team (excluding the captain, Rhodes, a Keys man): “We showed ’em that the Harvard men/Care not at all about The Bones/But Rhodes instead has lost his head/and nearly went without the scull/He saw that he would have to be/More cautious far about the scull.”36

Camp’s listing of managers before captains was not a mistake. The captains of the four university teams (football, baseball, crew, and track) were elected by the members of the previous year’s team, but the managers were chosen by the university at an annual mass meeting (a parallel to the election of the Lit. editors). The captain and manager of the 1894 eleven, both members of Bones, posed together for a Pach Brothers studio portrait in front of a faux Yale fence, the captain in his uniform and the manager in his suit. In 1911, Bones elected the managers and captains of baseball and track, the captain of the eleven, and the manager of the crew. Canby in his memoir recollected, besides the “Strong Silent Men . . . calming the crowded field by the full-breasted dignity of the white letters on their blue sweaters,” other “slighter figures in tiny top coats with upturned collars, who seemed to exercise equal authority. These, I was told, were the Big Men, the managers, the powers behind college life, more important, because brainier, than the athletes. These were the real masters.”37

Of course, beyond the managers were the most successful athletes, recruited from the ranks of ordinary students, amateurs rather than professionals, destined for a career in the learned professions or business, not sports, with special skills put in the service of the alma mater while becoming campus heroes.38 Their exploits were recounted, fittingly, in the first history of its kind among American colleges, a 150-page book titled A History of Yale Athletics 1840–1888, self-published on May 20, 1888, and sold from his South College room by Richard M. Hurd, class of 1888 and Bones. Divided into five parts under the headings of Rowing, Foot Ball, Base Ball, Track Athletic, and Tennis, the chronological chapters gave a full statistical description of Yale’s contests with Harvard, Princeton, and other colleges in each branch of sport for the year, and some indications of the developments or changes undergone by the sport in question.39

A review of the teams’ leadership in Hurd’s History makes clear that athletic prominence had long been a signifier for society membership. In the thirty years of crews through 1887, Keysmen had captained for nine of those, and Bonesmen for thirteen. In twenty-three years of university baseball, Keys could claim four captains, and Bones fourteen. In sixteen years of football captains, Keys members constituted four, and Bones members seven; when starting in 1881 the position of quarterback became defined, Bonesmen held that position for the teams from 1881 through 1883, and Keys for the years 1885 through 1887.

For the football teams of 1888 through 1911, this hardly changed. Of those twenty-four elevens, only six were not captained by men who had been tapped for Bones or Keys (and two of those as students in the Scientific School were ineligible for the Academical School senior societies). In the same years, nine who served as managers of the football team were elected. The two elder senior societies claimed six presidents of the Yale University Boat Club (Wolf’s Head also counted one) through 1903, and five captains of the crew (again, Wolf’s Head elected one, and traditionally tapped the coxswain). In athletics, baseball was a close second, with seven captains and three managers. Other sports fell well behind these totals, but still occasionally counted toward society election: two captains of the “Mott Haven” (track) team, and three managers; after 1899, four captains of the golf team, with three chosen by Wolf’s Head; and after 1903, two captains of track, two of hockey, and one of fencing. Not surprisingly, the president of the Yale Athletic Association—a “hereditary Bones office,” according to the Horoscope for April 1889—was often a member of Bones or Keys, numbering seven through 1903.

Nor was it only captains and managers. In 1905, of the forty-five juniors tapped for the three oldest senior societies, thirty-two were athletes. Electing a man for his athletic prowess was not, however, a binary choice against scholarship: it could not be maintained that the athletes were invariably low-stand men. The Yale News surveyed the appointment lists (those having a 2.50 or higher academic average, where 4.0 was perfect) and found that in the classes of 1890, 1891, and 1892, 64 percent of the athletes had received appointments. This compared very favorably with the standing of the editors of the college publications, the Lit., the Record, the Courant, and the News, where 68 percent had won appointments.40

Besides the “Athletic,” in the 1897 Lit. essayist’s classification of campus activity, there remained the Literary, the Religious, and the Musical. The chairman of the Yale Literary Magazine was chosen eight times from 1888 through 1903, and one or more of his fellow editors were also elected, even in some years where the chairman was not: from 1890 to 1902, thirty-six out of sixty-five editors received elections. The chair of the Yale News, a publication a half century younger than the Lit. but now itself more than a decade old, was “slapped” even more often—ten times—along with its business managers and other senior editors. In due course, the chairmanship of the humor magazine the Yale Record was added to the list of class leadership positions recognized by senior society elections, and after the creation in 1900 of the oldest American college acting club, the Yale Dramatic Association, its president too became a likely candidate: Erastus Corning was elected to Bones in 1902, and Buell Hollister in 1904, while Lawrason Riggs (future Catholic chaplain at Yale) was elected to Keys in 1909, followed there by William Bullitt (future ambassador to Russia) in 1912.

As for “Religious,” five presidents of the YMCA in Dwight Hall were chosen between 1888 and 1903, and another was the last man tapped for Bones in 1910. All class deacons between 1890 and 1902 received elections to the junior societies, and thirty out of fourty-four to senior societies, all but two to Bones or Keys. For “Musical,” twelve presidents and managers of the Glee Club, all but one Keys, and two presidents of the Banjo Club, one with Wolf’s Head, were elected by the three senior societies. By 1909, members of the a capella singing group the Whiffenpoofs, founded that year, began to be chosen. The gift of musical talent was somewhat marginal, because a gift: as noted in a 1911 Scribner’s short story about Tap Day, a candidate whose singing “bubbled up without effort” and “put him in the Glee Club” was “not a thing he had done; boys are critical of such distinctions.” Three other leadership positions were apparently equally significant: the chairman of the junior prom was elected eleven times through 1903, or more often than the eight Lit. chairmen, as may seem appropriate for this institutional successor to the Cochs, and the Custos of the largest junior fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, four times. Similarly, in this social category, the president of the University Club, almost exclusively a Keys franchise, was tapped ten times.41

Given that the senior societies were the offspring of the ancient literary societies in which debate and declamation were the main program features, it is remarkable that the inauguration of intercollegiate debates between Yale and Harvard in 1892 did not automatically make its practitioners preferred for senior society membership. “The debater, like the athlete, works for the honor of his college rather than for self, and [prize] money is out of place,” wrote Welch and Camp in 1899, but support for the enterprise was occasional, and not sustained: the May 1898 Horoscope editor noted that “the thick-headed athlete who is frequently, and often too frequently, the combination of athlete and society man, presses forward to carry off the victorious debater, there are long cheers, a bonfire, and all is over. The same is true of a victorious Ten Eyck speaker. The crowd of society men stand outside the treasury building awaiting the decision, shout lustily the winner’s name, and if they happen to know him, shake his hand and pass on, perhaps secretly chagrined that not a man from a recognized Junior society happened to be in the contest.”42

This episodic enthusiasm was not yet sufficient for election. As a character exclaims in Richard Holbrook’s novel of 1900, Boys & Men: A Story of Life at Yale, “But suppose that a man isn’t an athlete—I calculate that there are only ninety-nine connected with the University teams—what kind of a chance has he then of being known? What does debating amount to, anyway? In my opinion it’s a fake. Did the man who virtually downed Harvard last year receive any recognition? Not on your life!” Debaters would never be truly significant on campus, Welch and Camp opined, without “graduate coachers, that they may be taught how to debate; and then that the great senior societies, which, by the conferring of their coveted honors can spur men on to work for Yale in any field, shall stand as ready to recognize the debater as they now are the athlete.” The Fisher Report noted that only six of thirteen winners of the DeForest Gold Medal from 1890 to 1903 were tapped for society honors, and “debaters are but rarely taken,”43 although Bones had tapped two in 1900, when the New-York Evening Post observed that “It is only recently that debating at Yale has been regarded as worth of senior society recognition.” Not until spring 1910 was a president of the Yale Debating Union elected to a senior society, William Archibald McAfee, to Keys.

The horizontal mix, of course, was more significant in the affected class’s and entire campus’s estimation of the relative standing of the three societies, and in the commentary on the disparities inherent in a Bones or Keys delegation. The Bones club of 1899 included the football captain, the crew captain, the Dwight Hall president, two deacons, the Lit. chairman, the junior prom chairman, the Custos of DKE, the Athletic Association president, and the winner of the Lit. medal. For the same class year, the Keys cohort could boast of the baseball captain, the baseball manager, a class deacon, the chair of the News, both the president and the manager of the Glee Club, and the president of the Tennis Association. In subsequent classes, the predominance of one society over the other in tapping those in class leadership positions was less balanced, but, as was often observed of Scroll and Key, that society picked class leaders more for their compatibility within a delegation than for leadership alone.

This was because, for most if not all of these individuals “working for Yale” in its myriad undergraduate activities, election to a senior society was the ultimate goal of that effort. For that “fancy necktie pin . . . for that little piece of gold,” the Horoscope for May 1887 noted, “men will work on the crew in the boiling sun and in the cold storm for three years, they will train in inclement weather on the foot-ball team, they will strive like Hercules to reach some prominent position on the baseball team, which will give them the privilege of the society’s stamp; others will dig for high stand to be ‘taken in’—men will do anything that their muscle and nerve will stand for the sake of wearing that necktie pin. Men who take a medium course, who will not over-exert their powers, are not wanted.” Chances for election were now the seasonal concern of the anonymous editors of the successive annual editions of the Horoscope, which appeared annually from 1881 through 1905, excepting only the years 1894–1896. Richard Holbrook’s Yale undergraduate characters in his 1900 novel were “wearing their brains out over the coming elections to senior secret societies. . . . Some . . . think of nothing else, and spend their days in small diplomacy or calculating the chances of other men. Every possible candidate is scrutinized a thousand times.”44

In his mid-twentieth-century memoirs, Yale professor Canby of the class of 1899 remembered that “[i]n that moment of college time, actually they were playing the game because it was strenuous, and successful strenuosity was certain of recognition by your fellows. It was power in themselves and credit for that power which they sought, not power over others—that desire came later.” Canby maintained that “in that rough-and-tumble of athletics, social drinking and doing something for the old college,” all classes of America “except the socially impossible and the intellectually prim were thoroughly mingled. Veils of glamour in older countries [which] have protected rank and wealth—especially in those college aristocracies nearest to our own, Oxford and Cambridge” were stripped away from the young plutocrats of the United States.

“After the sons and heirs who might have formed an American aristocracy of wealth and privilege had been shuffled in the college competitions with the shrewd children of parvenus and the good baseball players whose fathers were Irish policemen,” he continued, “cards were redealt in new social categories.” The boys were “not impressed by the Great Names of plutocracy—by Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers as such—since we saw them at first hand. And thus, in the qualified democracy of the colleges died the possibility of adding to the economic privileges of the very rich the respect given elsewhere to rank.” They knew, Canby concluded of his own institution, “that this college boasted of its democracy, which actually was no social democracy at all, since class lines (once drawn) were tighter in the outside world. They knew well that it was a democracy of opportunity.”

Thus, a young man whose parents had invested in a Yale College education might hope to pass by his own native abilities into the brave world of great cities and the gilded corridors of their privileged sets. If he could place himself in the right college group, his own would take care of him, provided his later career was not a great falling off. “From henceforth,” wrote Canby, “he would be not Jones of Columbus, but Jones of ‘Bones’ or some other tight-ringed fraternity. Thanks to his ability to catch a ball, or to organize, or to be friendly, or to drink like a gentleman, or even to capitalize his charm, he was tapped as of the elect at age twenty or twenty-one, and had precisely that advantage (and no more) which rank and privilege still gave in the Old World. This code of competition in, but also very definitely for, the group brought with it other virtues, such as loyalty, tenacity, generosity, courage, and a willingness to cooperate, which made the college career, so trivial in its immediate objectives, so irrelevant to the purposes of scholarship, nobler, or at least less selfish and sordid, than the power-seeking society for which it was obviously a preparation.”45

Nevertheless in some years (although very few), adding to the seeming arbitrariness of the election process, the traditional “line” taps did not run true: in the class of 1897, Bones had the football manager and the junior prom chair, and Keys the All-American football captain, but no one from any other of the several leadership roles discussed here was picked by any of the three societies, although all of those passed over probably lived in hope.

But that year’s yield was not completely barren. The most significant election in the spring of 1896, for the future history of Yale, was that of Edward S. Harkness, a prep school graduate of St. Paul’s whose father had been a silent partner of John D. Rockefeller in the founding of the Standard Oil Company, receiving for his investment 15 percent of the shares of the Standard Oil Company. When Edward’s mother died in 1926, her wealth could be measured by the fact that her son had to pay the highest estate tax ever assessed to that date in the United States. Harkness was not a striver in the striving Yale mode: his highest campus recognition was service on the Class Supper Committee and in the St. Paul’s Club, of which he was president his senior year. Nonetheless, rooming at the suggestion of the college dean with a future leader (and Bonesman) of his class, Henry Sloane Coffin, Harkness made warm friends and achieved membership in Psi Upsilon, and, on Tap Day, he followed his elder brother into Wolf’s Head. He later was to see Yale as the one place where he had felt completely at home.

While he had enjoyed his four undergraduate years, it came to trouble Harkness that some men he knew, liked, and considered “average men” like himself had not been selected for the junior fraternities and senior societies, and were consequently excluded from what he had found to be rewarding and constructive experiences. From the family fortune, he donated in the late 1920s sixteen million dollars to Yale for the development of the residential colleges in New Haven, patterned after those of Oxford and Cambridge, in a deliberate attempt to restore to the large college classes a feeling of community, in breaking down social walls between undergraduates.46 The magnificent donations of John Sterling and Edward Harkness to Yale, generated in no small measure by their respective senior society experiences in Skull and Bones in 1863–64 and in Wolf’s Head in 1896–97, must weigh heavily in the balance against all the criticism, aggravation, and social misery that that the senior society system has generated over its history.

Harkness was not, however, the first to envision a quadrangle for deluxe housing for undergraduates in New Haven. George Douglas Miller, a Bones alumnus of 1870, had by the first decade of the twentieth century managed to acquire most of the northern blockfront on Chapel Street between High and York Steets. Filling up the aggregated parcel’s center with a great earthen plateau, he planned an Oxfordesque cloister for his senior society, something close to a replica of Oxford’s Magdalen College of 1474, with a truncated version of its Founder’s Tower to the west. In 1911, Miller seems to have run out of money: his society ended up with a secret garden over the eastern wall and then over that garden the transported twin Gothic towers of Alumni Hall, first constructed on the Old Campus in 1853 and demolished in 1911 to make way for Wright Hall. Miller’s incomplete building, its courtyard, and the rest of the property passed to Yale in 1912. The structure was finished as Weir Hall, as recorded on a bronze plaque set into a central windowsill, describing Miller’s vision, and as a memorial to this two-year-old son, who had lived and died on this land. Future Yale building architects Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, and Philip Johnson all studied or taught there, and the Schools of Art and Architecture still return to Miller’s courtyard for their professional school commencement each spring.47


Judge Henry Howland, a member of neither Bones nor Keys (but an honorary member of Wolf’s Head, with a son elected to Bones in 1894), wrote in Scribner’s in 1897, in language that tied the system back to Yale’s notion of college democracy: “Except for the curriculum itself no force in the college is to be compared with the senior societies. Their cardinal principle in the selection of members is the recognition of character and achievement. The various activities of a college career are all recognized—literary ability, scholarship, athletic energy, the liking of many friends are all avenues to the temple of fortune. This is the highest honor which a Yale man can receive from his fellows, and because it comes from them he sets it above scholastic distinction or any titles which the faculty can confer.”

All this was the result of a consciously maintained system. “The organization of effort, carried to its highest development at New Haven in athletics, debate, or the different phases of social life, which is the ‘Yale Spirit’ upon its tangible and mechanical side, is due in large measure to the society influences which concentrate into channels of efficiency all the diffuse and vagrant energies of the college. The system is at once the child and supporter of that vigorous democracy which endures because it recognizes the achievements of worth, and yet acknowledges no claims of birth or station.”48

The larger Yale social system was, by this decade, an intensely hierarchical one: fraternities for freshmen, societies for sophomores, fraternities for juniors, and then the senior societies. By way of example, when the statistics for the class of 1874 were published under the heading of “Secret Societies,” of 123 men, only four had “never joined any secret society; of the four, two had entered the class at the beginning of senior year [and so were ineligible for the senior societies].” “Our system of class societies,” Nathan Smyth contended in his Ten Eyck prize–winning oration of 1896, “has exercised an influence hard to overestimate in strengthening and purifying that Yale spirit which we count the most precious influence that enters our college life. It is a system far in advance of that practiced in many other colleges—where the student’s social standing, friends and influence are largely dependent upon fraternity elections held during the first few weeks of the college course.”

Smyth’s objection was instead that it was “manifestly undemocratic” that “the men chosen by the Sophmore societies shortly after Christmas of Freshman year should by that election be practically assured of a position in the much coveted societies of Senior year.” It was a widely held opinion that for such elections, a sophomore society man “needs only the recommendation of only mediocre social qualifications, while the outsider must have shown especial ability in literary or athletic lines or gained exceptional popularity among his classmates,” because the fifty-one men elected to the sophomore organizations (seventeen each, to Hé Boulé, Eta Phi, and Kappa Psi, respectively) “are by that election immediately raised to a position of social prominence,” giving them an edge on becoming two years later among the “forty-five most prominent” in the three senior societies. Abolition was the solution: “Rid of the Sophomore society, our system if rightly managed would be well-nigh perfect.”49 An anonymous Horoscope editor argued in May 1898, “Over one-half of the entire number of positions in Senior societies are open only to Sophomore society men who hold offices. Count a fourth for family pulls, which in some classes is exceedingly low, and the places open to real democratic competition can be counted on your fingers, and in some years one could lose an arm and still say the same thing.”

In 1900 a petition was circulated among the senior class men, calling for the abolition of the sophomore societies; signed by a majority of the class, it was forwarded to the faculty for action. When that body delayed, those societies gave out their elections at the usual time, though secretly, from the class of 1903, prolonging their influence for another year. The agitation was too widespread to die out, and ultimately the faculty abolished the sophomore societies, establishing a new schedule through which the junior societies were to be extended downward, to include sophomores, taking effect in 1902. The criticism was at last telling: in the spring 1900 elections, it was said that there were “more non-sophomore society men than usual, being taken in by the Senior societies,” and in the spring 1901 election, a man reported to have “thrown down all three Sophomore societies—Pretty sandy!” was tapped for Bones.50

The class in general and the societies in particular saw no lack of logic in composing small clubs of men of disparate backgrounds and achievement. Yale, it was maintained, “is primarily a place where character is developed by the rubbing up of men against each other in a way that surprises men of other colleges.”51 (The Horoscope for May 1890 saw that as a conundrum: “The problem with the Bones men are compelled to confront is, how to unite the athletic, the literary and the studious elements in one harmonious body. The task is certainly a difficult one, for literature and athletics do not often go hand in hand, but usually are at variance.”) That mix, as among the three senior societies, varied somewhat with each. The New York Times succinctly reported the election results in 1893: “As usual, Bones took the specialists, Keys the general society men, and Wolf’s Head the good-fellowship men.” Society partisans saw their experience in the tomb as superior to their educational training. Bonesman William Welch of the class of 1870, by then an internationally renowned medical educator, wrote his brother-in-law twenty years after Welch’s graduation: “If a boy has no chance of Bones it makes little difference to him comparatively whether he gets to Yale or somewhere else but if he is the right sort of man for Bones then I say Yale over any other college or university in the world.”52

The Yale Illustrated Horoscope for 1888 expanded these descriptions in distilling the campus appraisals. “While Keys always requires in its candidates money, tone or good fellowship, all of which are characteristics of a single class of men, Bones includes other elements in its membership, viz: prominence in athletics, scholarship, and literary ability. Bones has in reality a wider field to choose from and consequently is in a position to enroll the best fifteen in each class.”

The policy of Keys, on the other hand, “is to make prominent the social element, and in this respect, as far as ‘Bones’ is concerned, it occupies an undisputed field. Qualities other than social are accounted of secondary importance as qualifications for membership. Its aim is to secure men of ability, where that is possible, but above all else, to secure a congenial and social crowd and one in which there can be no conflicting elements. This, and the knowledge that the wishes of the most desirable man, or as he is more familiarly know, the ‘packer,’ will be respected in the selection of members, render Keys more attractive to the ‘popular’ man and leave less of uncertainty in his mind as to whom he will have to fraternize with.”

As for Wolf’s Head, that society had “steadily increased its capital, influence and popularity, until now it lacks only age to acquire some of the prestige of its rivals. Its general policy has been to select the solid and as far as possible wealthy men who failed to secure an election to Bones or Keys. . . . Nearly all of [its members] have been candidates for the first two Senior societies and would have entered had there been room enough.”53

Challenged across the class by changing perceptions of the best men, and now from below by Wolf’s Head, Bones and Keys in their selection standards were gravitating toward one another. The Horoscope’s view almost a decade later found that the “ideals of the two and the fields of activity which each encourages by its elections show, each year, an increasing similarity. For years Bones was committed to a hard and fast policy which rewarded prominence in any line and for its own sake. In late years, however, she has shown a desire and some ability to grow out of the influence of the past, to insist that the man shall, above all, be a gentleman, capable of commanding respect, first for what he really is, and then for what he does. Keys, on the other hand, once content with men whose only title was that of ‘gentleman,’ has displayed with her rise in favor, a certain restlessness, new aspirations, a desire to challenge Bones in fields where formerly Bones ruled alone. The change for Bones is a natural development; for Keys it involves more of a departure from her old methods and ambitions. Thus we see both Bones and Keys standing in the same fields, bidding for almost the same men and hence brought in closer contact in the brace of a keener competition.”54

The change was appraised by the national press as not so much a result of convergence as of overlap: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, in the Yale installment of its series “American Colleges and Universities,” observed that “Each year ‘Bones’ and ‘Keys’ elect a number of men whom the other society would gladly take, and each chooses men whom the other society would never elect. Thus, despite differences, the two have a common ground, and on this they contend for the best men, who usually combine both requirements, and who prefer sometimes one and sometimes the other society.”55

If their election goals were becoming more alike, however, their methods of tapping were still asymmetrical. The Horoscope announced in May 1887 that Keys no longer used a “packer”—“men no longer go to this society because they are friends of the man who is ‘going’ and taking all his friends with him”—but the competing Yale Illustrated Horoscope the same month identified E. C. Fellowes as the Keys packer (president of the YMCA, class deacon, and business manager of the Yale News). This second, competing publication was, it admitted, itself the result of a gambit for election: a small band set on being chosen for Keys “held a meeting and resolved to have their pictures published, think thereby to aid their chances.” Each paid $15 for having his likeness inserted in the new annual newspaper assessing his election prospects, and printing was delayed “by our waiting for the pictures of some of the candidates.” A dozen engraved portraits were printed within the columns of appraisal, and all but one of those depicted were elected. Not to be outdone, the candidates for Bones next year supplied their own portraits.

Rumors of society preference before Tap Day could apparently be damaging. When Dr. William Welch heard that his nephew Frederic Collin Walcott (later a United States senator from Connecticut for two decades) might prefer Scroll and Key over Skull and Bones in the May 1890 tap, he hurried off a worried letter to his sister, the boy’s mother, saying that the rumor must be scotched if it were untrue—and he did hope it was untrue. “I of course cannot judge of the special conditions which may prevail in his class, still I feel very strongly in the matter and shall be disappointed if Fred gives up his chances for Bones. . . . I have known many in his position who have never regretted choosing Bones even when some of their best friends went the other way.” He also wrote the boy on the subject: “I am afraid I gave Fred more information as to the chances of his election than I ought to have done, but from all I can learn he is universally regarded as a sure man and I wanted to brace him up all I could, but I have no fear that he will not be prudent as to what I wrote him, and of course it was not as if I were writing to a comparative stranger, but rather as a father might to his son.” Fred went Bones.56

Keys was now thought by the Horoscope editor to be equaling Bones in prestige, or even surpassing it, with the “Marble Palace on College Street . . . a rival of the Granite Mosque on High. It was thought strange when [Chauncey] Goodrich [the Dwight Hall director] refused an election to Bones in 1885, but when [James Gamble] Rogers [manager of baseball and future architect of much of Yale’s twentieth-century campus] and [Henry] Mosle [captain and coach of his class crew and Junior Prom committee member] refused their election last year and took Keys instead, the real turning point was reached.” New York newspapers reported the Rogers and Mosle refusals. Bones, it was suggested, would have to “follow Keys example in pledging her men beforehand.” Goodrich seems to have been the first collegian to be noted in campus publications for turning down an election: beforehand, “a report [was] rife to the effect that he will refuse all societies [which he did]. If true, he is one in a thousand and worthy of admiration.”57

A Hartford newspaper in 1892 advised its readers that “no one was ever known to lose an election to a senior society because he happened to be ill or absent from New Haven at the time the elections were given out. Members of the societies have traveled to New York and Hartford to carry out the announcement of elections and the cable has been used to send the announcement to a student abroad at the time that men were being ‘tapped’ at the campus.”

The Wolf’s Head elections from 1885 through 1888 were given out the week following the traditional Tap Day, but by 1889 all three societies were electing in the same Thursday afternoon in late May, as the New York Times noted that year in its annual article on the men elected, and those chosen were listed in the Lit. feature in the order of the respective societies’ ages. In 1890, the names of four men declining Wolf’s Head offers were duly recorded; another in 1892; in 1896, two more; and in 1900, one other. In June 1900, the astute reader, by comparing lists, could learn that two men refusing Bones, a football tackle and a prominent Glee Club man, went instead to Keys, and two of four who declined Wolf’s Head joined Bones. Four years later, a Bones choice went to Keys, and a Wolf’s Head preference joined Bones instead. In 1905, three men refused election to Keys and were subsequently chosen by Bones; in 1908, three men who turned down Wolf’s Head, and the passed-over son of the vice president of the United States, were all elected to the recently founded Elihu Club.58

Tap Day for the class of 1902 saw the biggest miscarriage, in the eyes of the college, of this era’s elections. Charles Gould, football captain and manager of the track team, was passed over by all three societies (he was the real-life counterpart for the fictional football captain Dudley similarly passed over in Stover at Yale). Shocked by this seeming injustice, four hundred men packed around him, twenty deep, and the crowd’s sentiment for the slighted athlete was signified by “a number of long cheers,” eighteen by count, “with his name at the end, which were given with force and feeling,” the Yale Alumni Weekly reported. “The demonstration, as far as is recalled, is without precedent.” The New York Herald, titling its report “Yale Man Slurred by Senior Societies” and noting that Gould’s three predecessors as football captain had all been tapped by Keys, attributed the disrespectful action in Gould’s not having been a member of any of the sophomore societies. Of the forty-five men elected that year, according to the Hartford Courant, fully thirty-four had been members of the sophomore societies.

Four days after the elections an anonymous pamphlet appeared, titled After Tap Day, the first such since the flurry of anonymous pamphlets of the early 1870s that began with the Iconoclast. This publication reaffirmed the college’s expected standards, pronouncing the lesson: “It means that Yale senior societies, which ought and are supposed to be above meanness and pettiness, are unwilling to take men who refuse to toady to them. . . . It means that Bones no longer has taken the best men, that Keys has degenerated even from what it used to be, that Wolf’s Head no longer accepts men of literary ability and debaters, but confines itself to hangers on, men who are not quite good enough to make the others. . . . Either the Senior societies should come out openly and admit that they do not take men for what they have done, but rather for what they are in a social way, or they should be compelled to recognize merit.”59

A happier example of the system at its best was the election by Bones in May 1903 of Frederick Erastus Pierce, who had labored six years on his father’s farm before entering Yale, where he worked his way through waiting tables and “shaking down” furnaces. Meanwhile, as a freshman, he won the McLaughlin Prize for the best English essay, the Berkeley Premium for excellence in Latin, the Woolsey Scholarship for the best examination in Latin, and tied with a classmate for first place in mathematics; as a sophomore, the mathematics prize; and as a junior, the Yale Lit. medal, followed by election to the magazine’s board of editors for his prodigious output, then garnering a tie for the Curtis Prize in literary and rhetorical excellence, and taking third place in the Ten Eyck junior exhibition speech competition (as a senior, he was to win the DeForest Prize). He was slapped by Albert Lamb, the chairman of the Yale News and the last man tapped by Bones the previous year.60

Unnoted among those passed over whose names were highlighted in the several newspaper reports was William Pickens, the “Yale colored phenomenon” from Little Rock, Arkansas, who had actually triumphed just a few weeks before senior society elections in the Ten Eyck contest where Pierce had finished third; with Pierce, he ranked as one of the thirteen men with the highest stand Philosophical Oration appointments.61 Neither Pierce nor Pickens is mentioned as a likely senior society candidate by any of the four competing but identically titled Horoscopes which were published in spring 1903. The vaunted Yale democracy in action, which could astonish the college by the election of a poor white scholar and prize-winning orator like Pierce, who could not afford to join any underclass society, was not yet ready to do the same for an outstanding black man who was also a scholar and prize-winning orator.

Another football captain was to be passed over by all the societies in 1905, but that was a moral judgment: Tom Shevlin, with a “Y” in three sports, was also a baseball outfielder and the intercollegiate champion hammer thrower, but was known as well for speeding over Connecticut highways in his roadster, “mainly followed by public prosecutors,” and he was finally doomed by his pronounced indifference to public opinion.62

After election of the “sure men,” public opinion noted anomalies, with elections perceived as biased by a preference for wealth, or biased against wealth to correct the first preference, or biased against a worthy campus activity whose adherents could not gain an election foothold. There were the “so-called surprises, either of inclusion or omission.” Although Keys was characterized as a rich man’s club, electing Vanderbilts in 1892 and 1894, something Bones did not do until 1899, and which Wolf’s Head paralleled in 1902, that society, noted the Horoscope for May 1890, “always wants one man to keep up the appearance of Yale democracy and [this candidate] is just the one to collect the weekly dues and be relieved from payment himself.”63

And Skull and Bones, like Scroll and Key, was accused of tokenism for the perception of balance: “She is now accustomed purely for the sake of tradition to elect one man who is pre-eminent for brains and poverty.”64 Furthermore, Bones was seen as erratic or quixotic in some choices, with their occasional but almost traditional “dark horses”: “Bones has a little trick of slapping the surprise. . . . As examples of this, we given Buchanan, ’89, Morse, ’90, and Kenerson, ’91, none of whom were even mentioned for election.” These examples nonetheless gave unexceptional collegians some hope. Still, the window was small: as one character remarks to another in Meade Minnigerode’s novel The Big Year, about his class of 1910: “Barring some extraordinary slip-up, there aren’t more than one or two doubtful places in either Bones, Keys, or Wolf’s Head.” Yet even those surprises seemed to grow in stature with their elections. “It is the consensus of college opinion,” reported the New York Sun, “that these same unexpectedly elected men have a way of proving their qualifications during their senior year and that they are usually possessed of personality and charm which has not hitherto been generally recognized.”65

What outside observers could only half know were two features of senior society life which, after the strained competition of the annual election, made those tapped into the system, including the “surprises,” eternally grateful for their inclusion: the spring day’s external confirmation of undergraduate success, and the subsequent year’s internal benefits of fellowship.

As had happened two decades before with baseball in the criticism of the Iconoclast, Bones, seen as having an inherent duty to reward athletic prowess in all Yale’s major sports, was criticized for the sin of omission regarding track. “Bones has also brought such ruin on the Mott Haven team, by not recognizing its prominent members, that today Alec. Coxe’s band of winners has degenerated into a howling mob of Freshman, a handful of enthusiastic Sophmores, three or four ordinary Juniors, and one or two Seniors, whose aim is not the glory of their Alma Mater, but one or two trumpery medals and a possible election to the New York Athletic Club.” Whether the society heeded this counsel or not, track captain (and DKE Custos) Alfred Henry Jones was elected to Bones the following year. As the Yale Alumni Weekly noted, the senior societies had “a responsibility which their own self-preservation forces them to meet. Undergraduate ideals insensibly change from decade to decade regardless of outside efforts to maintain old standards. With this change shifts also the attitude toward possible candidates for social honors of the societies themselves.”66

In the eyes of some observers, an election was valued above all else in Yale College, as can be teased out from the convoluted observation of the Illustrated Horoscope in 1891 that “aside from such trivial considerations as character formed, a latent talent developed, or an education acquired, a Senior Society election has come to be the summum bonum of our college course.” In the eyes of others, it was a spur to further achievement. Another Horoscope editor observed the following year about Bones in particular, “It seems to have a good influence on a man to get into this society, and he, becoming involved with its ambitions and spirit works with renewed energy and eventually adds another name to her roll of honor.” “The System,” opined a third editor, in the Horoscope for May 1897, “gathers from the mysticism that envelopes it, the history that strengthens it and the general uprightness of its policy a grip on Yale life such as no Debating Union, Fraternity Chapter or Y.M.C.A. could ever hope to establish.”

The outsider and Princetonian Edmund Wilson noted that “The senior societies, whatever their effect on those who are taken into them, have at least succeeded in collaborating rigorously in an ideal of a certain dignity—for these organizations, through their proceedings, have evidently rather an inspirational and intellectual character and arouse an almost religious veneration on the part of those who are elected to them.”

A national newspaper’s report in 1893 perceptively noted how the advantages of senior society life could inspire a new member to even greater effort and distinction: “The junior fortunate enough to enter, finds himself in an organization almost perfect of its kind. He is in a building comfortably, even luxuriously, fitted, surrounded by trophies reminding him of great men and great actions; breathing an atmosphere of tradition, the fruit of quaint and noble thought; cultivated in thought and expression, especially in ‘Keys’ and ‘Bones’ by a vigorous literary discipline; and stimulated to increased efforts for the college by the example of his predecessors. These possessions and the life among them are cloaked from the outside with a mantle of impenetrable secrecy assured and enforced by practice of harmless poppycock.”67


In some significant respects, “poppycock” had diminished. But it was the “old” (circa 1875) tradition of the open-air tap that continued to stir controversy: it was a system in which “the maximum amount of chagrin is inflicted upon the largest possible number of students,” as described in his twenty-year reunion book for the class of 1899 by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, first Sterling Professor of English but never a senior society man.68

The problem was wel framed in the Yale Alumni Weekly of May 27, 1903: “The one thing desired by the largest number [of society and non-society men] is the elimination of the show feature—the presence of a large ‘gallery’ of men and women and girls, as well as of students. But to eliminate this feature and still to bring the whole class together at one time and one place, to be taken or left, to accept or to refuse, is considered an impossibility.” An unidentified pre-1875 “Graduate” in a letter to the editor printed in the same issue was to point out that changing the much-maligned Tap Day procedure would be, in essence, the reform of a reform. “It seems to be taken for granted, that if elections were given out privately their objectionable features would be removed, but it should be remembered that just this private system was used a generation ago and was repudiated by the college public as undemocratic and promotive of trickery and favoritism.”

The elections had historically been manifested in a variety of patterns, the correspondent recounted, being “given out at one time in Chapel after morning prayers; at another time on Campus at midnight, and later down to the seventies, when the present system began, they were given out at twilight at the students’ rooms, in a manner to excite the least possible attention.” The candidates themselves, he argued, “put an end to this system by persistently herding together at the old fence and forcing the societies to seek them out in the presence of student witnesses. Though their reasons for so doing were never formulated, it seemed to be a wish to proclaim to the College that they had no knowledge of their chances of election, and that the rumors, which in those days were rife before every election of bargains and combinations, by which one society attempted to get the advantage of another, were without foundation.” To criticize the senior societies at the beginning of a new century for running a system “not of their own choosing, but forced on them to their considerable inconvenience,” was not quite fair. “If publicity is the price of fairness, let us by all means have publicity even at the expense of the feelings of the candidates.”69 To suggest reforms, the Russell Trust Association in the early 1900s named a committee of local Bones alumni, composed of Yale Law School professor Simeon Baldwin, professor of Greek Bernadotte Perrin, professor of Political Economy John Schwab, university secretary Anson Phelps Stokes, and Yale College dean Henry Wright, but these solons could not devise a practical system free from the objections sought to be eliminated.

The senior society elections on a late Thursday afternoon in May (generally, the last Thursday) were the culmination of “society week” at Yale. On the evening of the preceding Monday, the various classes of the college met at the fence, and shouting the songs of the old sophomore societies to recall their extinguishment, marched about the campus and cheered each dormitory in turn. On Tuesday evening, the Old Campus elms were illuminated with the flare of calcium lights, the glare of colored fires, and the flash of Roman candles, and the walls re-echoed with the songs of the junior societies, Psi Upsilon and Delta Kappa Epsilon, while their members, grotesquely garbed as white or black friars, conferred elections upon their successors, whose names were printed in the Wednesday Yale News.

On the night before Tap Day, each junior fraternity—Alpha Delta Phi, Psi Upsilon, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Zeta Psi, and Beta Theta Pi—held a farewell dinner to which junior members only were admitted. Under the system prevailing then, twelve men were elected to each junior fraternity in the fall of the sophomore year. Those a week later chose eight more, and in the following spring, those twenty would elect five to eight additional brothers. Then, four or five more were picked up during junior year itself, for a total membership in each of thirty to thirty-five, for a grand total of 150 to 170 in a class which varied from 300 to 325 seniors in this era. The result was that before the end of his penultimate class year at Yale, almost any collegian who had really made good by achievement or personal qualities or could by any means afford it, probably would have “made a frat.” At their farewell dinner, knowing that only sixty would be tapped by the seniors the next afternoon, the strain of nerve-racked “possibility” was relieved by conspicuous consumption of alcohol. “The result is a gloriously uproarious party in which Keys possibilities slap Bones prospectives hilariously on the back and roll off to observe the time-honored custom of breaking into the other four fraternity houses.”70

The student body was thus in a heightened state for the main event on Thursday, after the last afternoon session of class recitations. On that day, there was little mingling between the classes of juniors and seniors most concerned. Juniors stayed by themselves, and indeed kept off the campus as much as possible, while the senior society men, who were not usually seen together, walked to recitations in groups of three or four, or passed the time lounging in front of Vanderbilt Hall, where they were unlikely to meet their friends from the class below. “Everything else in college is given up on this day, in order that nothing may interfere with the solemnity of the occasion” reported the New York Sun in an 1894 article cheekily titled “It Is Touch and Go at Yale.” “There is no athletic training, no crew or baseball practice, nothing to keep the crowd away from the uneasy juniors.” During the very hour of society elections on May 25, 1899, the Yale Corporation was voting on a new president for the university, and the result only became known when trustee Chauncey Depew was seen standing on the edge of the crowd observing the student ceremony; when asked, he said, “Yes, we elected Hadley.” This news, which all Yale had been anxiously awaiting, had been lost amid the excitement of election to the senior societies.

That public gathering in the northeast corner of the Old Campus was now a great public ritual, and a settled one: the Yale News, while reporting only the names of those elected, always wrote annually that it was done “according to the usual custom.” Most of the spectators were juniors, but there were seniors, too, and not a few underclassmen, while the graduate members of the three societies were looking about eagerly, getting ready to help the men who were to tap in locating the desired juniors and making way through the crowd. “It might be called,” noted one newspaper reporter, “the annual meeting of the societies, for this is the one day of the year when they appear in a body in public, and in selecting their successors render an account of themselves which the college may either commend or condemn.” While still not commonly called “Tap Day”—the first use of “taps” for the action of the “coveted slap” appeared in the New York Times in 1887 and on the Yale campus in the Horoscope for April 1889, and the capitalized “Tap-Day” first appears in the Horoscope for May 1892—the choreography on the third Thursday in May for the “circus in front of Durfee” was fixed, to commence with the ringing of the first chimes of the five o’clock chapel bell, and the Illustrated Horoscope for the same election said to all the college, “Don’t fail to bring your fair [female] friends, if you have any, and show them a characteristic feature of Yale life.”

Spectators looked out from the windows of the nearest dormitories, Durfee and Farnam and North College, or stood on the steps of Dwight and Alumni Halls, or sat in carriages and, in one or two cases by 1905, automobiles whose occupants (in a prefiguring of football game tailgating) followed the election events with teas, while “the gallery had its usual proportion of mothers, sisters, cousins, and other people’s sisters.” The satirical verse of Brian Hooker of the class of 1902, titled “Dirty Durfee,” celebrated that dormitory’s vantage point:

There’s a place on the Campus, I weel ken its name,

And the brawest o’ view may be had frae the same—

Gin there’s onything doing ye’re wishful to see,

Why, it’s up wi’ the windows o’ dirty Durfee!

There’s a braw time on Tap-Day, when down by the fence,

A’ the Juniors gang buggy, and sweat most immense—

When ilka Keys heeler has jumps like a flea,

Then it’s up wi’ the windows o’ dirty Durfee!71

James Donnelly, the (only) campus policeman, hired in 1893, advised fascinated onlookers of the latest campus odds-making. From the spring of 1902 onward, President Hadley, the first senior society graduate member to be elevated to the university presidency since the beginning of publicly viewed elections, and other faculty members and their wives watched the spectacle from the balcony over the entrance to Dwight Hall. Mory’s filled up with graduates come up from New York City for the event, and the roadways around the Old Campus were lined with hacks used by the visitors. An 1895 newspaper report about elections that spring opined that “It would be impossible in any other community. It could not be originated, even on the Yale campus, in this day of realism; but it persists and gains in vigor and importance as the years go by.” To the freshmen seeing it for the first time, it had “the same element of the inexplicable that a heathen’s rite possesses for the traveler.”

Welch and Camp (graduate members, respectively, of Keys and Bones) provided an extended description in their 1899 book on Yale. Admitting in their chapter titled “Tap Day and the Society System” that “from the point of view of Yale welfare, the custom is either applauded as one consistent with the best traditions of the place, or tolerated as the only known expedient for a peculiar occasion, or condemned as undignified and inhuman,” they painted a word picture of “a custom as peculiar as any in all the life of the campus.” Speaking to none, the men of Keys entered the campus one by one through the western Elm Street gate, the Wolf’s Head members by the Battell Chapel gate between Durfee and the Chapel (styled by the college the “Pass of Thermopylae,” in remembrance of a faculty-banned ceremony where the freshmen had to run a gauntlet between massed upperclassmen), and the Bones seniors from High Street by Dwight Hall, going straight toward the quietly waiting crowd of juniors, who held themselves still near the oak just inside the fence and opposite the Pass and in front of Durfee, where the juniors now lived, awaiting events and hoping for the slap between the shoulders.

“[B]eginning at five o’clock and at intervals of from two to four minutes,” their description continued, “each of those members emerges from his society hall, and proceeds to the campus, walking alone, recognizing no one. With solemn face he invades the densest part of the crowd, where the most likely of the candidates from the Junior Class are gathered; finds the one particular man whose election to that particular society has been delegated to that particular Senior; slaps that particular man on his back; tells him at the same time to go to his room; follows that man through the crowd and across the campus to his room, wherever it may be, preserving still the same unbroken silence and grave countenance; announces within the seclusion of that room, the formal election; leaves the room, the dormitory, and the campus, in the same manner and with the same demeanor, and returns to his society hall, not again to emerge until the formal breaking up of the regular gathering of that Thursday evening. As to the man himself, who has received this election, he usually returns to the campus and to his friends, to receive their congratulations, and to talk it all over, and to compare lists, and to ask whether Jim has gone here or Jack has gone there,—to be happy with this man and sad with that.”72

Tap Day “slaps” were no mild affairs. “They fall with a sickening thud and with the whole force of a young Hercules behind them.” The grim visages of the society representatives bespoke the seriousness of the occasion. Said the New-York Tribune in 1896: “He may be the jolliest fellow in college, but now he makes his way toward the crowd with set and melancholy visage, which in hardly any instance relaxes into a smile, even in spite of loudly uttered jests which cause the assembled students to roar with laughter.” The societies’ seniors came “rapidly, each wandering around in the crowd with apparent inability to find the eager fellow who is pressing himself almost into the searcher’s path, as when one plays at hide-and-seek with a child.”

It was later said the society electors’ attire of black suits and derbies was not putting on “side,” and not originally part of the ceremonial, but a convenience, to enable a junior to spot a senior. In 1898, it took the last Wolf’s Head elector, searching through the scrum, fifteen minutes to find his man, and in 1915, Archibald MacLeish for Bones could not locate his candidate for ten minutes, to the great amusement of the crowd. Some of the more energetic of the onlookers climbed up into the oak tree’s lower branches, where they could look straight down at the crowd, and when the spectators, seeing a distant slap or hearing “Go to your room!,” would cry out “Who is it?,” somebody, usually one of the men up a tree, would answer. Other high vantage points were the top rail of the fence, and even an electric light pole. In 1911, a small boy fell from a tree branch into the arms of the campus policeman below, to a “subdued cheer” from the crowd.

Skull and Bones, by custom and its rivals’ deference, usually slapped the very first man, although in May 1909, the Wolf’s Head electors started before the chapel bell struck five and claimed the initial choices. Scroll and Key’s persistent habit of pledging candidates before Tap Day sometimes accelerated completion of its choices: in 1908, all of its members were taken in within fifteen minutes, while it took Bones and Wolf’s Head both an hour longer. In spring 1906, the pace literally picked up. In a number of cases the candidates were not satisfied with the spirited walk to their rooms, but cantered in that direction. The query was raised on campus as to whether this variation of the old custom was by special request of the elector or whether it was more or less involuntary and reactionary on the part of the elected. In one case the successful candidate was halfway across the campus, then stopped and looked back anxiously, to see if the man giving the election was following, or had changed his mind.

The close massing of the students under the historic oak complicated the tappers’ efforts, and refusals added to the confusion (1907 saw seven). In the milling of the crowd and the high tension of the most involved participants, it is remarkable that mistakes did not occur more frequently. In the election of May 1897, Curtenius Gillette of Bones tapped Lewis Williams and started him to his dormitory, but suspecting he had blundered, asked the candidate’s name before the two had cleared the crowd’s outskirts, and then with an apology retracted the invitation. Distraught but helped by two friends, Williams went off to his room to recover, then returned to the campus and received an election to Wolf’s Head.

The Hartford Courant used this example to run an editorial attacking the publicity of the election process, calling it a “refined cruelty,” and suggesting that the faculty “abolish . . . this whole heartless exhibition.” The Courant editorial was significant, as the editor of the paper, Charles Clark, was a Bones man of prominence, to be elected in 1910 to the Yale Corporation, who himself had been elected privately in his room in 1870, before Tap Day became a campus spectacle. Equally if not more embarrassing to Bones, basketball captain Walter Logan in May 1910 tapped Meade Robinson, who to Logan’s consternation stood still when slapped, because he had previously been struck and then elected by Keys in his room and had returned to the campus to accept the congratulations of his friends.73

The tapping of some men chosen early in the sequence and of the last two men was always greeted by loud cheers. Others, passed over, sometimes fainted, or worse: “Men have been known to break down completely and cry like women when the forty-fifth man has been selected and they have been passed.” When Walter Hoyt, the president of the Gun Club Team, received a tap from Skull and Bones in 1895, “the tears rolled down his cheeks, and for several minutes he was unable to speak,” which one newspaper report attributed to his realizing that, by having made a pledge to Keys, “he saw that he had thrown away his chance to go” to Bones, while another newspaper more charitably attributed his reaction to “how intense the feeling is at such a time.” In the following spring’s election, Thomas Clarke fainted when he received his slap from a Wolf’s Head member, and was taken to his room to be attended by a physician, where the society’s delegate again found him, revived, and offered formal election.

There was even, one year, a form of group therapy. A number of men who had failed of election in 1907 formed a little circle and began to sing. “As harmony the performance was not a great success. The singers did not have very steady voices, but the men stuck at it and went off the Campus together singing familiar College Songs.” The Alumni Weekly noted editorially that, to minimize the humiliation, possibly it was time for a “declaration of independence by the eligible . . . to betake themselves to the privacy of their rooms on the fateful day and there await a possible notice of election.” No one was to have the courage for such a recusal. The emotion could flow both ways: a local newspaper reported that several “‘lucky men’ who had received elections in 1899 met at their boarding house and cried . . . not for themselves . . . but because the dearest friend of several of them had not been chosen.”74

The men who were first touched by Bones and Keys were those that were regarded as doubtful by the societies. If both of them wanted a man and neither knew which he preferred, the doubtful man was likely to be the first tapped (and “there was always considerable betting attached to the priority”). By 1898, a New Haven newspaper declared that “The last man chosen for each society is considered to be the honor man of the society. The first man taken is the second honor man.” The practice was well enough known to inspire the title of a short story appearing in Gunter’s Magazine for September 1906, “The Last Man Tapped, a Tale of the New Haven Campus.” Because on account of refusals Wolf’s Head sometimes had trouble in filling its complement of fifteen, it became the custom for Wolf’s Head to tap the very last man.

In his 1909 novel Jack Hall at Yale, Walter Camp added another, comparative detail: “the man who gives the election wears a dark suit and a black derby hat, while the men who are awaiting election are many of them hatless and none of them dressed in their best.” The derbies were said to be “shoved down to their eyes in approved fashion.” There was a tradition at one time that if a junior wore black shoes, a stand-up collar, and a derby, he was “heeling” (trying out for) Bones, but if he wore a soft shirt, brown boots, and a derby, he was heeling Keys.75

Although refusals were infrequent, they were possible, so keeping a running account of successful offers was vital to the societies seeking to reach the mystic number of fifteen. The first and second entries of Durfee Hall were occupied during the election hour by graduate members. Bones alumni, occupying the first entry, kept to themselves, while the Keys graduates in the second took up positions on the front steps, where the messengers would come up to a man with the ledger, giving him a slip of paper, and then dash back into the crowd.

Some students stood around holding what were styled “dope sheets,” based on campus rumors and the traditional tendencies of the different societies, and could be seen checking off the elections as fast as the men were tapped. “Dope,” according to a contemporaneous newspaper report, was then recent college slang, meaning information of any kind on activities, or schedules, or things in general, but by early May in New Haven it meant the latest chances for election. “Many a man in the junior class had his ‘dope sheet’—carried concealed on his person, to be glanced at surreptitiously during recitations, or slid under the papers in the top drawer of his desk, where he can draw it out a night to compare it with those of his classmates.”

“Dope” changed from day to day. “The final lists that appear on Tap Day, copied in ink, from the original manuscripts now illegible from much erasure, usually contain, out of forty-five men, from twenty to forty names correctly placed.” A dope sheet from the class of 1912 lists eighteen prospects for Bones (eleven borne out), twenty for Keys (of whom two went to Bones), and ten for Wolf’s Head. The “official list” against which the student ones were said to be compared was made up by the suit-pressing “Rosey” of the tailor shop Arthur Rosenberg’s who, from knowing not only his affluent customers but their friends, and from many years’ intensive study of Tap Day results, had developed an almost uncanny technique in picking winners, and bet on the results. Fittingly, Rosey was to die on the morning of Tap Day in 1951, at age 63.76

The second great ritual which thrilled the campus was initiation, on the Tuesday following the Thursday of election, although not much could actually be seen or even divined from outside the halls. These ceremonies of course remained forbidden to all but the initiated, although after a chimney fire at the Bones tomb in 1909, the fire marshal reported to the New Haven Journal-Courier that he had now been in every Yale secret society house in the city and might be considered “a ‘member’ persona non grata.” That society’s tradition forbade communication with their selected candidates from their being tapped until they became full members of the society. Even on the athletic field they communicated with them, before initiation, by means of a third party, and this, said the New York Sun, “is another one of those secret things which are so impressive to Yale men.”

On the night of initiation, at the Bones tomb, at intervals of about twelve minutes, a hand and bare forearm reached out slowly through the open iron doors, grabbed the candidate by his left shoulder, and fairly yanked him into the building—“pulling them into Bones,” the college called it. “From then until the following day,” the Buffalo Courier was to report, “he is put through the severest course of sprouts he will ever have to endure, if any reliance can be placed on the many rumors of the treatment received. One thing is certain, that although no wine is drunk, the men appear next day in a more dilapidated condition than the ‘Keys’ or Wolf’s Head men.” The most unique Bones initiation was for a member of the class of 1926: he underwent an appendectomy immediately after Tap Day, and since he was unable to attend the ceremony in the tomb, his appendix was carried in a bottle through the ritual. At Keys, the initiates passed in one by one, in groups of five. After 1904 at the new Elihu Club in the Heaton House at 245 York Street, not yet occupying the historic “Tory Tavern” which became their permanent home facing the Green on Elm Street, the men went up the steps, one by one, in dinner jackets, rang the bell, and entered.77

The third great ritual, or rather set of them, concerned the weekly meetings. These were exactly timed by observers: the Thursday night meeting of Bones lasted from about eight P.M. until one o’clock in the morning, and that of Keys until twenty-five minutes to one. “At this exact moment the Keys men emerge silently from their hall, and after securely locking the door, burst in chorus with the beautiful song, ‘Gaily the Troubadour,’ which wells out distinctly on the silent night. After singing this they form two by two and march to the campus, slapping the left foot on the pavement at each step. You can always find a crowd of awed under-classmen watching their performance from the opposite side of the street, and it never fails to take place at exactly twenty-five minutes of one.” The Keys regulations on meeting hours also became known in the trial of a member charged with assaulting a policeman a little before midnight, a charge defending against by a fellow member’s testimony that the accused student was in his society hall at the time, that under the rules all Keys men had to be there from 6:30 P.M. until 12:30 A.M., and that no one could leave the building in the interval unless accompanied by another member.

To sing their anthem, in three stanzas, the men of Keys lined up at the top of the stairs which fronted their building, “biting off the ends of the lines, and then the chorus in harmony, with the tenors high up, thrilling in the night . . . Then usually someone in one of the Scientific School fraternity houses across the street would start an alarm clock going outside his window—but at that it was difficult to spoil the effect of the song.” On a still night, the regular stamp, stamp of the procession could be heard a long distance, and as they approached the campus, the march was quickened, the regularity of the stamp was lost, and finally the men broke and ran to their rooms.

Five minutes after the Keys performance began at 12:31 A.M., Wolf’s Head would come swinging by on their way back from their Prospect Street hall, although they never tramped or made other demonstration as they marched. On the last Thursday before Tap Day, almost the whole junior class used to go to watch Keys “come out,” and then there was time to rush breathlessly up to Wolf’s Head and see them lining up outside their big gates. Thereafter, often, the juniors would line up and follow that society’s members home, but those men spoke further to no one that evening. On Sunday afternoons, the members of all three societies were seen to wander off in twos and threes, headed for their respective halls.

Another custom was accompanying home members in training for the athletic teams at ten o’clock on their meeting nights, since “under no circumstances does a foot-ball, base-ball, or crew man stay up after ten.” Two clubmates attended each athlete to his dormitory room: “the Bones men take their athletes home, undress them, put them to bed, and after whispering some mysterious words in their ears, march silently back to their hall. The Keys men do the same thing except that each of the two marches on each side of the athlete with a great brass key over his shoulder.”78This practice, tending to degenerate into farce, ended about 1912.

The structure and contents of the societies’ meetings remained a mystery to outsiders. Sometimes, the topics for discussion were prosaic, albeit with flourished delivery: Cole Porter delivered an essay to his Keys delegation in January 1913 about the opening of the Taft Hotel, titled “The New Hotel of America,” but it was filled with alliteration, syncopation, plays on words, puns, and rhymes. The atmosphere inside the tombs was probably well captured by Phelps Putnam, a member of the Bones club of 1916, in his poem “To The Memory of Yale College,” with its hidden pun on the Bones name for undergraduate members in the third line:

There underneath the elms were large delights

Beyond the rotten touch of circumstance,

And there for us the ribaldry of nights

When the bright harlot, thought, came out to dance.

A broken lamp swaying in scarves of smoke

Toward sprawling bodies in the firelight:

Fred murmured, “Some would say that God’s a joke”;

And Charlie shouted, “Spare my God to-night”;

Bill said, “That bright illusion of the soul”;

And I, “You mean illusion of the flesh”—

The adolescent words began to roll

So close that light was taken in their mesh.79

Fourthly, the badges, of course, were still sported during the school year, even if more discreetly than formerly. “One of the deep mysteries of the Bones,” reported a New York City newspaper in 1896, “is the wearing by one of the fifteen men for a half-year, and by another for the second half-year, of two pins overlapping each other.” Society badges, the article continued, might very rarely be seen, “though not in New Haven, adorning a pretty girl; but these trinkets are probably in every case the property of graduates of a few years’ standing.” They were also worn by the African American janitors of the respective halls; when Robert Parks, the second Bones servant, died in the fall of 1895, many newspapers at the time asserted that he was an initiated member of the Skull and Bones Society, entitled to wear the badge. By 1908, the men of Bones were wearing their badges concealed on their undershirts, which perhaps was not very secret. “One should not,” Donald Ogden Stewart of the class of 1916 was to write in his autobiography, “allow one’s superiority to show: just as the Bones pin was always worn on the undershirt, instead of flaunting it immodestly; I knew it was there, and took it for granted that others would find out about it and be properly impressed.”80

The fifth senior society activity to attract, if not court, public notice was the mounting of annual conventions held during the week of Yale graduation festivities, where the notable graduate attendees had their names published in the New Haven and New York newspapers. Scroll and Key created an officer in 1874 to represent his delegation after graduation and “to strengthen in general their connection with the society and with each other,” preparing a yearly circular letter and organizing an annual reunion of his class year’s members. Keys’ fiftieth anniversary celebration, held during commencement week in 1892, is said to have attracted nearly half the living members of the society (including, from 1842, founding members Runyon, Kingsley, and Keasbey).

Featured in the four-day celebration, as permitted by university president and Bones graduate Timothy Dwight, was the Sunday sermon in Battell Chapel preached by Keys graduate and Yale Corporation member Rev. Joseph Twichell, titled “The Value of Social Life at Yale.” This very public celebration of the joys of society membership, called by the New-York Tribune “an eloquent and admirable expression which the society exercises upon those who belong to it and upon the college world,” expressed Twichell’s firm conviction that “a very great many of the students of this college, who have been no idlers here, who have done their work well, have found here and carried away with them, as the distinct fruit of the social conditions and participations of the place—in their general, and in their particular aspects—a qualification, a furnishing, for a successful, serviceable, beneficent career in the world, to be reckoned not inferior to any element of benefit besides which they here received.”81

As for Skull and Bones, the convention at the time of Yale’s bicentennial celebrations in 1901 was the largest in the Russell Trust Association’s history, and alumni visited often. The doubling of the area of the Bones tomb was in part to provide small rooms where graduated clubs returning to Russell Trust Association conventions could find comfortable seclusion in which to retire, for gathering up the threads of their life histories since the last separation. Bones alumnus and Cornell president Andrew Dickson White, in the course of refusing a contribution to his fraternity Psi U because of its dissipated ways, causing him an “utter lack of confidence” in his former junior fraternity, further noted that “On visits to Yale I return with the greatest pleasure to my Senior Club, which still retains its records, its proper way of conducting its exercises and a proper sense of what is due itself and its visitors.”82

Sixthly, there were the speculations and the legends: “a man, an outsider, had gotten into Bones once, and had never been seen again,” recorded Meade Minnigerode, whose 1921 novel The Big Year was dedicated to his class of 1910 (where he was a member of the Elihu Club and a Whiffenpoof who was to help adapt Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen-Rankers” into the Whiffenpoof Song). The candid autobiography which Bonesmen told each other was alleged to be given while the member was lying in a coffin. “Again, what did anybody know about the ‘sixteenth man in Keys,’ the man whose election was never announced! And so on endlessly through the improbabilities of legendary lore.”

When an iron-doored vault was being constructed at the rear of the Bones tomb in 1908, a local newspaper reported that “the underground apartment was nothing less than a bombproof cavern for retreat in case of a war with Japan, a sudden cyclone or a bad thunderstorm.” A newspaper article by a Harvard man published in 1912 claimed that each member of Bones “has an actual skull-and-crossbones over the entrance-door to his room.” More darkly, faint wailings escaping from the sandstone blocks on High Street were said to come from the “Bones whore,” needed to make men of its members. After World War II, it was told that Hitler’s silverware was in the archives of Wolf’s Head or, others said, Scroll and Key.

A satirical story of 1913 titled Stover in Bones noted how non–society members would give a small personal article to a society man before his Thursday night meeting to be taken into the tomb, to expose it “to the hallowed atmosphere” before being returned to its owner, “who thereafter counts it among his most precious possessions. The cheerful generosity with which Society men always do this is a comforting proof of the all-pervading character of Yale democracy.” In an article on Tap Day in Time in 1926, the magazine reported rumors that “fabulous treasures and curiosities are stored within the various cryptic walls, brought there by brethren from high office or daring adventures—the original Declaration of Independence, the very skull of Napoleon, a wolf shot by Buffalo Bill, a key to the main gate of the Vatican.” In a 1929 Harper’s Monthly article were mentioned “fantastic stories of huge endowments funds which can be used, if necessary, to provide fifty-thousand-dollar-a-year incomes to otherwise indigent senior society brothers.”83

The Yale society system began to receive even more detailed treatment in the national press with the November 1908 election of President William Howard Taft, class of 1878, a Bonesman and son of a Bones society founder. Scroll and Key sent a congratulatory note to their rival society, and cognoscenti were especially excited by the originally reported electoral vote count of 322, the Bones society’s mystic number (which count fell back in the end to an official 321). Articles like “Bill Taft of Yale,” appearing in the May 1909 Collier’s, advised the country of the new chief executive’s college achievements, and the pride of all Yale men everywhere swelled. His son Robert Alphonso Taft, president of both Phi Beta Kappa and the Yale Debating Society and treasurer of Dwight Hall, was the thirteenth man tapped for Bones in May 1909, which also saw the society’ election of the captains of the football, baseball, and hockey teams, and of Stanhope Bayne-Jones, chairman of the News and later the dean of the Yale Medical School and master of Pierson College.

Further along in his presidential term, the press was to observe that secret society fellowship only went so far, noting that Taft had fired Gifford Pinchot, Bones ’98 and the U.S. chief forester, appointed by Taft’s mentor and predecessor President Theodore Roosevelt, and furthermore had declined to receive, when he called at the White House, Congressman Francis Burton Harrison, Bones ’95 (and son of Burton Harrison, Bones ’59 and Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s private secretary). The president, the newspaper noted, “did not hesitate to land heavily on a brother ‘Bones,’ and in so doing teach a lesson to all youngsters now in college that there is something more in life than being slapped on the back and sent to their rooms before the assembled brains, wealth and beauty of New Haven.”84 Taft’s impartiality with regard to Pinchot was more than outweighed by the president’s replacing him as chief forester with Henry Solon Graves, Bones ’92, and furthermore choosing Henry Stimson, Bones ’88, as his secretary of war; Franklin MacVeagh, Bones ’62, as secretary of the treasury; Yale’s treasurer Lee McClung, Bones ’92, as United States treasurer; Lloyd Bowers, valedictorian of the class of 1879 and Bones, as solicitor general, a job once held by Taft; and Amos Wilder, Bones ’84 and Thornton Wilder’s father, as U.S. consul general in Hong Kong and then Shanghai.

Finally, the publication of first one and then two competing issues of the Horoscope in the week preceding Tap Day, produced in the first several years by “some unknown person . . . giving pictures of the most prominent men, and taking the opportunity to make sly hits, sometimes vindictive ones, with his hidden pen,” also roiled the campus. A New Haven newspaper headline from May 1900 said it all: “Yale Men Angry. Stirred Up over Horoscope. May Flog the Author. Reward of $50 Offered for the Publisher.” It was reported that every copy was immediately bought up at 25 cents apiece—these publications were, and were intended to be, money-spinners for their anonymous authors.

Even without the Horoscope, undergraduates ran their own morning line: in the basement of Lawrance Hall, above the bathtubs, as recorded in Stover at Yale in 1911, it “had been the practice from long custom to inscribe on the walls tentative lists of the probable selections from the class for the three senior societies.” According to the New York Sun, “hundreds of such lists are scrawled on more or less secluded walls, for the awful blight of senior ostracism, according to tradition, falls upon one seen writing up such a list publicly.” Perhaps these informal but constantly updated personal appraisals (as happened with the fictional Stover) were actually of use to the seniors, the newspaper suggested: “The societies confronted with the necessity of picking the men who most nearly approach their ideals out of a class of 400 and 500 men seem to have realized that the safest way is to follow the estimate of a student’s classmates.”

On the day of elections, underclassmen bet freely on the results, “the ‘book’ running often up into the hundreds.” In the May 1912 elections, when it had been rumored that Averell Harriman would go to Keys, “wagers had been laid that if tapped for ‘Bones’ early he would decline the election, awaiting a possible later chance to enter ‘Keys.’” Harriman, that year’s most prominent “doubtful man,” was, as per the strategy in such situations, the first man tapped for Bones, so those bets were lost.85

Skull and Bones also garnered attention with the expansion of its tomb. Ground was broken by William Howard Taft’s brother Horace on May 27, 1902, for the addition of a fireproof wing to the north, replicating the original hall in size and design, nearly doubling the building’s area, with the installation of a new, double iron door between the old and new wings and addition of both a large library for books and memorabilia and a number of meeting rooms for the graduate club gatherings. And while the Sheffield Scientific School fraternities were not yet part of the Academic College’s senior society system, the construction in 1901 of the windowless marble hall of the Sheffield fraternity Book and Snake (and now that society’s tomb) at the corner of Grove and High Streets, at the western end of the new Commons building for undergraduate dining, reminded all the undergraduates of the society mysteries conducted therein.

What was perhaps more remarkable was that, while membership was desired so fiercely, when accepting election these young men knew virtually nothing of the societies’ activities beyond their external prestige. The New York Sun informed its readers, in a long article on the societies in 1894, that, “Of course, no inkling of what passes within this arcane region [of the windowless society halls] ever reaches the outside world.” The Horoscope for May 1890 commented on one (unsuccessful) candidate: “It is to be hoped that Norman [McClintock] will not make so many breaks about his society as he does about everything else; if he does, Bones secrets will be spread far and wide until even the heathen Zulus are reveling in possession of them.”

The Horoscope’s annual issues made occasional guesses about the quality of the food within, or how exhausting the initiations must be from the looks of the initiates the following morning, but none of their publications over twenty-seven years ever contained speculation or discussion on the societies’ internal programs or goals, other than one aside in May 1886 that Keys “was the best place in college for developing speech and oratory.” Over on High Street, Bones continued its weekly debates on Thursdays, where graduates were welcome to join them for dinner, but about 1888 shifted its members’ delivery of life histories and other personal discussions to Saturday evenings, when their communion of spirits was not to be disturbed by visits of alumni coming to join the mid-week dinners.

In his barely disguised autobiographical novel of 1921, Stephen Vincent Benét of the class of 1919 was to write that what his protagonist, “said or did or had done to him when he finally passed through the spike-topped chevaux-de-frise that guards the mysterious building [the Wolf’s Head tomb, then] on Prospect and Trumbull Streets, a veil of perfect secrecy will be drawn.” Again, Princetonian Edmund Wilson may have said it best: “In the case of the senior societies you have a moral pressure brought to bear probably unparalleled in any other university. It is a pressure exerted by a small group of men supposed to represent the very best in the senior class and exercised in an atmosphere of mystery which makes its ideals all the more impressive because it is impossible to tell exactly what they are.”86

The fear of being “sad with that” man who was not tapped was seen by the Fisher Report’s committee as an aspect of general Yale conservatism which was having a negative impact on the quantity and quality of Yale College admissions, which in 1902 was for the first time lagged the number at Harvard. “Societies mean so much to the students that parents hesitate to subject them to such chances of disappointment as they must inevitably run in Yale College.” The number of men taken into the three senior societies remained at forty-five, although the classes at 300-odd were double the size they were when Wolf’s Head was founded in 1884.

Even worse, the passing over might reach the newspapers: the New Haven Evening Register recorded that the son of Ambassador John Hay had not been chosen in May 1897, and the New York Times reported about the May 1900 tap that “Robert W. Forbes, a prominent football player, was not elected for any society. Walbridge S. Taft, a nephew of Secretary [of War William Howard] Taft, who was regarded as certain of election, also failed.”87 The Fisher Committee hoped that the establishment in March 1903 of a fourth organization, “The Elihu Club,” as a non-secret society would improve the situation somewhat, but “men hesitate to enter a college where there is only one chance in six of getting into the social ‘swim.’”

Elihu, named of course after the university’s most famous patron, Elihu Yale, was not regarded as a protest against the existing senior societies, according to the New York Times article announcing its formation, “and as evidence of this fact, three graduates representing the present societies have accepted honorary elections,” namely Anson Phelps Stokes ’96, secretary of the University and Bones; Lewis Welch ’89, editor of the Yale Alumni Weekly and Keys; and Frederic Wells Williams ’79, assistant professor of Oriental History and an honorary member of Wolf’s Head in its graduate membership program. In replication of Wolf’s Head strategy for acquiring renown and stability, it was announced by Elihu’s organizers that other “graduates of distinction will have elections,” from the classes of the prior fifteen or twenty years (they were to elect men from as far back as the class of 1880). Its founders also proposed “to reserve the right to elect men after graduation where their record has shown special claims to such recognition,” and to elect as members professors in the Yale faculty who were graduates of other institutions.

Elihu held its first undergraduate elections on June 3, 1903, following Tap Day on May 27, naming eleven from the class of 1904: William Alexander Blount Jr.; Frank Farrell Jr.; Francis Spencer Goodwin; Robert Andrew Grannis Jr.; Rowland Hazard; Charles Arthur Moore Jr.; David Ritchie McKee; Wheeler Hazard Peckham 2d; Zeigler Sargent; Edward Perry Townsend; and Carroll Johnson Waddell. (Of the four versions of the Horoscope appearing this year, one had predicted eight original members, but named no names, while another identified ten prospects, but got none of them right.) “Several of the organizers,” reported the New York Herald, “are members of very wealthy families,” naming Grannis, McKee, Peckham, and Townsend. The charter members proposed to elect about eleven more members from their own class, and to select from the succeeding class, “a nucleus, probably ten men, to take up the work of the succeeding year.”

Robert Grannis had been in the last group elected to the sophomore societies before their demise and was disappointed at not being tapped for a senior society in the spring of 1902. He spoke just two days later with Keys alumnus Lewis Welch, who agreed with him that Yale College needed another senior society, and spent the following summer in a productive search for support among Yale alumni. Meanwhile, Grannis, Charles Moore (to become the first undergraduate president), and four others enlisted at a University Club dinner in New York drew up a penciled statement committing themselves to the concept of a non-secret organization, a “club,” and vowed to erect in time “a suitable house, not to be built on the tomb (or windowless club) plan.” The founding club of 1903 eventually grew to twenty-four members, and left a gift of $4,800 to their successors chosen for the delegation of 1904.

Welch gave the new organization a boost in the Alumni Weekly. “The number of good men available will be the controlling factor,” he wrote, although they might not be members of any other senior society; the membership number would not be fixed, “and it will thus adopt itself to the varying conditions in different classes.” Dues would be almost nominal in order not to deter men of limited means. Already, enough funds had been guaranteed to cover expenses for two years for meetings of the undergraduates, convening in rooms at Heublein’s restaurant. The club—it consciously did not style itself a society, and the “plan to form a fourth senior society, frequently broached within the last ten years of large classes, was, if ever considered by these men,” wrote Welch, “definitely abandoned”—continued to take in a varying number of men each year, sometimes as many as twenty, while the other senior societies invariably elected fifteen.

Characterizing themselves as a nonsecret club devoted to intellectual interaction and development of forensic skills, in study of the world’s contemporary political and economic affairs, the members staged debates on particular and general social issues; practiced giving after-dinner extemporaneous talks; wrote, presented, and criticized essays, with the members voting on which essays merited retention in the club library; and invited distinguished faculty at Yale and other colleges to lecture at their meetings. It gave out its elections by mail after Tap Day, with no refusals, and conducted no special manifestations or outward rituals remarked upon by their classmates. They chose to meet on Thursdays and Saturdays like the other senior societies, taking a lease on a narrow brick building at 74 Wall Street, then in a 1905 moving into a second rented house at 245 York Street for five years.88

The two of the four competing Horoscopes (all anonymously edited) for the elections of the class of 1904 which chose to assess the prospect of the new organization reached diametrically opposed assessments, probably fairly accurately reflecting the two poles of campus opinion. One gauged it almost solely in relation to its older rivals: “The existence of the new club, the Elihu Club, which we think in time will develop into a fourth Senior society, has aided Wolf’s Head wonderfully. In such large classes as Yale now has, it is an honor for a man to make even this club which fact raises Wolf’s Head to a much higher plane. In fact we think that in time, Wolf’s Head will be getting much the same crowd that Keys now has and that that society will be taking more the Bones type of man; Keys policy in the last year or two points to that.” The other’s appraisal was more succinct: “As for the Elihu Club it is an important innovation and is bound to fill a large place in the system. We do not believe, however, that it will ever become a fourth Senior Society.”

In late 1912, the new society took possession of a building, numbered 87 Elm Street, renumbered 175 Elm a decade later. This three-story, colonial-era white clapboard house facing the New Haven Green, built circa 1762–1776, as partly reconstructed and completely repurposed, became in fact the oldest of all Yale’s senior society halls. The home had belonged to Nicholas Callahan, a loyalist who had purchased it on the eve of the American Revolutionary War, turning it into the infamous “Tory Tavern,” which was then confiscated by the town of New Haven in 1781. Elihu had architect Everett Meeks, longtime head of Yale’s first formal program in architecture, remodel the structure the year after the society’s acquisition, and over further years expanded it to the rear, making it in time among the largest of the society buildings, belying its modest clapboard façade with shuttered (and interior-blinded) windows. The brick basement, constructed in the seventeenth century, is older than the superstructure and contains a rustic “tap room” in keeping with its Tory Tavern days; above are three bedrooms, the house steward’s suite, a large formal meeting room, and library.89

The new club’s mixed measure of success a decade later is captured in the title of a New York Times article in the spring of 1913: “Post-Tap Day Honors. Elihu Club at Yale Gets Prominent Juniors Who Were Passed Over.” In an election delayed four days, Elihu had chosen its members from the men not taken by the other societies on Tap Day. These included the chairman of the Lit. (and, the newspaper noted, the son of the president of the Associated Press), a member of the Courant board, two committeemen of the Junior Promenade, two Phi Beta Kappa members, a class deacon, a “football and track athlete,” and three others, for a total of eleven. Like each of Scroll and Key, Spade and Grave, and Wolf’s Head at their respective births, the new group struggled for its place in the senior society firmament, having like Wolf’s Head declared its distinction from that system in shunning secrecy, while meeting in an historic but conventional clubhouse with windows, yet failing annually to elect a full fifteen members.

One distinction, however, they could claim early in their history: in a college which was not diverse in its student body, where social prejudice was focused on the Catholics and the Jews (there were virtually no blacks except college and student society servants), they admitted to their membership Yale’s first Native American, Henry Roe Cloud, of the class of 1910. A full-blooded Winnebago, Cloud had moved from his tribe’s reservation to Indian schools and then Mount Hermon preparatory school before entering Yale; just two years after graduation, he headed his tribe’s delegation to his classmate Robert Taft’s father’s White House. He joined the fraternity Beta Theta Pi as a sophomore, and in his senior year, an intrigued New Haven Journal-Courier hailed him as the most notable student in his class.

Cloud did not follow up his prep school athletic career by competing on a varsity team, but excelled at oratory, earning one of the five second-place prizes in the Ten Eyck speaking contest (tying the young Taft), with an address titled “Missions to the Indians,” by-lined when printed in the Yale Courant “By H. Cloud, of the Winnebago Tribe, Nebraska.” He roomed with a Mount Hermon classmate who had been elected to Elihu in his junior year, and became a member of Elihu in November of his senior year. At Elihu’s annual banquet at New York City’s University Club in 1910, he spoke to the graduates’ and his clubmates’ great applause about the struggle of American Indians nationally, in the relief of which his auditors might have a part. In due course over his life, after attendance at seminary and earning a Yale MA in anthropology, he served as founder of an Indian preparatory school, head of a federal Indian boarding school, administrator in the Indian Bureau, and manager of a reservation.

The election of a Native American, long before any other senior society elected a Jew or a black man, was all the more remarkable, given that Elihu’s members were not generally free of the prejudices of the time. This is evidenced by the record of the club’s debates on topics of race, ethnicity, and prejudice, such as whether blacks should be admitted to Yale (a majority “yes” vote in 1905, but “no” in 1907 and 1909, all conducted in ignorance that several blacks had in years past already been admitted); should “the present ostracism of the Jews be tolerated” (affirmatively decided in 1905); should the Chinese Exclusion Act be supported (affirmatively decided in 1906); should Japanese laborers be excluded legally from the United States (“yes” in 1906 and 1908); and should the United States sell the Philippines (no, in 1907).90

But just after Roe Cloud’s graduation, the three elder senior societies were themselves passing through yet another crisis of reputation and confidence, brought on by the publication in 1911 of Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale, perhaps the most famous college novel in American literature.


Thomas Elliott Donnelley


CEO, R. R. Donnelley & Sons

John Cornelius Griggs


professor of English, Langman University

Gifford Pinchot


chief, U.S. Forest Service


Yale professor of Forestry


governor, Penn.


president. National Conservation Association


donor, Yale School of Forestry

Harry Lathrop Reed


president, Auburn Theological Seminary

George Washington Woodruff


acting secretary of Interior


U.S. District Court judge, Hawaii

Thomas Francis Bayard


U.S. Senate (Del.)

Fairfax Harrison


chairman, Railroad War Board

Wallace Delafield Simmons


founder, Simmons Hardware

Percy Hamilton Stewart


U.S. Congress (N.J.)

William Phelps Graves


professor of Gynecology, Harvard

Norman McClintock


professor of Zoology, Rutgers

Henry Hallam Tweedy


professor of Prac. Theology, Yale

Frederic Collin Walcott


U.S. Senate (Conn.)

Clive Day


professor of Political Economy, Yale

Pierce Jay


president, Fiduciary Trust Co.

Henry Solon Graves


chief forester, U.S.


dean, Yale Forestry School


provost, Yale University

Pierre Jay


first chair, Federal Reserve Bank of N.Y.

James William Husted


U.S. Congress (N.Y.)

Lee McClung


treasurer, Yale University


treasurer, United States

Francis Parsons


U.S. attorney (Conn.)

Thomas Cochran


chairman of the board, Bankers Trust

Thomas Frederick Davies


Episcopal bishop, Western Mass.

John Loomer Hall


president, Boston Public Library

John Howland


professor of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins

Ralph Delahaye Paine


author, war correspondent

Benjamin Stickney Cable


assistant secretary of Commerce


U.S. Congress (N.J.)

Mortimer Norman Buckner


chairman, N.Y. Trust Co.

Francis Burton Harrison


governor-general of Philippines

Arthur Behn Shepley


professor of Law, Washington U.

William Sloane


president, W. & J. Sloane

William Redmond Cross


president, New York Zoological Society


keeper of maps, Yale University

Anson Phelps Stokes


secretary, Yale University

Frederick Edward Weyerhaeuser


president, Weyerhauser Timber

Henry Sloane Coffin


president, Union Theological Seminary

Clarence Mann Fincke


chairman, Greenwich Savings Bank

Frederic Kernochan


chief justice, N.Y. Court of Special Sessions

Franklin Atkins Lord


secretary, U.S. Shipping Board

James Wolcott Wadsworth Jr.


U.S. Senate (N.Y.)

Henry Burt Wright


professor of History, Yale

William Sloane Coffin


president, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Joseph Rockwell Swan


chairman of the board, N.Y. Botanical Gardens

Frank Wood Moore


professor Homiletics, Auburn Theological Seminary

Russell Cheney



James Ely Miller


organized first air squadron, World War I.


first American aviator killed in France

Lansing Reed


chair, Yale Alumni Fund

Thomas Day Thacher


U.S. District Court judge (N.Y.)


U.S. solicitor general

Murray Sargent


president, chairman, Sargent & Co.

John Sloane


chairman of the board, W. & J. Sloane

Edwin Sheldon Whitehouse


U.S. minister to Guatemala, Colombia

Hugh Robert Wilson


U.S. ambassador to Germany

William McCormick Blair


founder, William Blair & Co.


president, Art Institute of Chicago


president, Chicago Historical Society


Senior Fellow, Yale Corp.

Samuel F. B. Morse


president, Del Monte Properties

George Dahl


professor of Hebrew, Yale

Charles Seymour


professor of History, provost, president, Yale University

Harold Stanley


founder, Morgan Stanley

Harvey Hollister Bundy


chairman, Carnegie Endowment for Peace assistant secretary of state special assistant to secretary of war

James Morrison Howard


director, Union Theological Seminary

Stanhope Bayne-Jones


dean, Yale Medical School


brigadier general, World War II


president, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center

Walter Seth Logan


general counsel, Federal Reserve Bank, N.Y.

George Harrison


president, N.Y. Federal Reserve Bank


president, N.Y. Life Insurance Co.

Carl Albert Lohmann


secretary, Yale University

Robert Alphonso Taft


U.S. Senate (Ohio)

Francis Fitz Randolph


senior partner, J. & W. Seligman


Robert W. Huntington Jr.


chairman of the board, Connecticut General Life Insurance

Augustus Henry Mosle


cofounder, Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle

Edward Lambe Parsons


Episcopal bishop of Calif.

James Gamble Rogers


architect, Sterling Library and many other Yale buildings

Lewis Sheldon Welch


founder/editor, Yale Alumni Weekly

Herbert Parsons


U.S. Congress (N.Y.)

Harvey Williams Cushing


Sterling Professor of Neurology, Yale


winner, Pulitzer Prize

Irwin Boyle Laughlin


U.S. ambassador to Spain

Moses Taylor


chairman of the board, Lackawanna Steel

Thomas Shaw Arbuthnot


dean, Medical School, University of Pittsburgh

Frank Lyon Polk


cofounder, Davis, Polk & Wardwell (grandson, President James K. Polk)


president, New York Public Library


chief, U.S. Peace Commission, 1919

William Adams Delano


acting secretary of state, U.S.


architect, Sage and Harkness Halls, Yale Divinity Quadrangle

Allen Wardwell


cofounder, Davis, Polk & Wardwell


president, Assoc. Bar NYC

George Henry Nettleton


dean, Yale College


president, Vassar College

Fred Towsley Murphy


professor of Surgery, Washington University

Julian Starkweather Mason


editor in chief, New-York Evening Post

Edward Clark Streeter


professor of History of Medicine, Yale

William Henry Field


secretary, Yale University Press

Mervin Clark Harvey


general manager, New York Daily News

Joseph Medill McCormick


publisher, Chicago Tribune


U.S. Senate (Ill.)

Hugh Auchincloss


professor of Clinincal Surgery, Columbia

Joseph Medill Patterson


publisher, New York Daily NewsChicago Tribune

Clive Livingston DuVal


president, Carnegie Institute

Howard Phipps


donor, Phipps Field (polo)

James Coates Auchincloss


U.S. Congress (N.J.)

Lewis Hill Weed


director, School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins

Roger Selden Rose


professor of Modern Languages, Yale

Henry Payne Bingham


donor, Bingham Hall

James Dwight Dana


cofounder, Wiggin and Dana

Allen Skinner Hubbard


cofounder, Hughes Hubbard & Reed


John Fuller Appleton Merrill


U.S. attorney (Me.)

James Hall Mason Knox Jr.


president, American Child Hygiene Association

Francis Oswald Dorsey


professor, University of Indianapolis

Alfred Kindred Merritt


registrar, Yale College

Robert Hastings Nichols


professor, Auburn Theological Seminary

William Henry Salmon


president, Carleton College

Benjamin Spock


general counsel, N.Y., N.H. & Hartford Railroad

Alexander Smith Cochran


founder, Elizabethan Club

William Darrach


dean, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons

Edward Stephen Harkness


president, Commonwealth Fund


donor, Yale residential colleges and Harvard houses


donor, Wolf’s Head (second) tomb

Charles Reed Hemenway


attorney general, Hawaii


Clarence W. Mendell


Yale professor Latin and Greek


Dean of Yale College

James G. Rogers


first master, Timothy Dwight College

Charles Sheldon Judd


Chancellor of Hawaiian Kingdom

Kenneth Latourette



Irving Sands Olds


U.S. Steel board chairman

Frederick A. Godley


Yale professor of Architecture

Philip Rogers Mallory


founder of Duracell

Meade Minnigerode


co-author, Whiffenpoof song

Tappan Gregory


president, American Bar Assoc.

Chenteng Thomas Wang


Chinese minister of foreign affairs

Thomas Beer



Stanley T. Williams


founder, American literature


as academic profession

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