Huntington, we must have opposition.

—William L. Kingsley to John M. Huntington, July 5, 1842


Yale’s whole undergraduate body totaled only 376 students in 1842–43. (Harvard was even smaller, at 254.)1 While the turbulent details of a college feud of 1842 were not likely to find their way into printed public reports, sufficient records and reminiscences were written down, both then and decades after the fact, to give shape to the story of the creation in that year of a rival to Skull and Bones, named Scroll and Key. The testimony of those documents can be joined with an analysis of facts—who was elected to Skull and Bones that summer, and who chose instead to found and join a new senior society—to allow an approximate reconstruction of this seismic event in the social history of Yale College.

The seniors of Skull and Bones in the class of 1842, choosing their successors, had a candidate pool in the class of 1843 which was riven by a fight between the two junior fraternities, Alpha Delta Phi and Psi Upsilon. Decades later, John Monroe Sibley, a member of the class of 1843 then living in Belmont, California, produced in 1893 a list of what purported to be the Bones club of fifty years before. The fifteen names thereon were John Brandegee (a high-stand scholar performing at the Junior Exhibition), William Burroughs, Gideon Granger (president of Brothers in Unity), Gordon Hall (also Junior Exhibition), Roswell Hart, John Huntington, Alfred Lambert, John Lent, George Meech, John Nourse, George Pierce (First President of Linonia), Lucius Franklin Robinson (class poet to be), Sibley himself, John Skinner (First President of Brothers), and Henry Stevens.2 Significantly, five of these juniors were brothers of Alpha Delta Phi, and five brothers of Psi Upsilon.

The Sibley list has some anomalies. Missing from it is William Lathrop Kingsley, member of Alpha Delta Phi, son of the Yale professor of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin languages James Luce Kingsley (class of 1799), and younger brother of Henry Kingsley (class of 1834, and member of the first club to be tapped for Bones). Alternatively, Sibley’s own appearance has no obvious justification for being selected by Bones: he was never a president of one of the literary societies or a high-stand man, nor was he a member of Phi Beta Kappa, or Alpha Delta Phi, or Psi Upsilon.


Sibley Pre-Tap List

1843 Skull & Bones Catalogue

1843 Scroll & Key Catalogue


Julius Baratte


John Brandegee (Alpha Delta Phi)


John Brandegee (A.D.)

William Burroughs


William L. Chambers


Benjamin Eames (Psi Upsilon)


David Judson Ely (A.D.)


Isaac Mills Ely (A.D.)


Charles Gachet


Edward W. Gilman


Christopher Grammer


Gideon Granger (Psi U)

Gideon Granger (Psi U)


Gordon Hall (A.D.)


Gordon Hall (A.D.)

Roswell Hart

Roswell Hart


Daniel Havens


John Huntington (A.D.)


John Huntington (A.D.)


Anthony Keasbey (A.D.)


William L. Kingsley (A.D.)

Alfred Lambert

Alfred Lambert


William Lane


John Lent (Psi U)

John Lent (Psi U)


George Meech


Thomas Moody


Frederick Munson

John Nourse (A.D.)


John Nourse (A.D.)

George Pierce (Psi U)


John Robb (A.D.)


Edward Robbins

Lucius F. Robinson (Psi U)

Lucius F. Robinson (Psi U)


Eli Shorter (A.D.)

John Monroe Sibley


John Skinner (A.D.)


J. Skinner (A.D.)

Henry Stevens (Psi U)

Henry Stevens (Psi U)


Franklin Taylor


Henry A. Weeks (A.D.)

The Sibley list would seem to be the names of the juniors intended for or pledged to Bones, many (but, with the usual “outsiders,” not all) of whose biographies evidenced the hallmarks of Yale success customary for an incoming delegation to that society. The list for the class of 1843 in the Bones catalogue, however, is very different. On it appears no one who spoke at the Junior Exhibition, and only one man with a faculty speaking appointment then or later at commencement. Neither of the First Presidents of Linonia or Brothers are there.

The reason is rivalry among the junior class fraternities which had now appeared at Yale. The fierce pride in their membership is evidenced by a letter to his parents from Vermont’s Henry Stevens Jr., later the greatest dealer in rare Americana in the nineteenth century, who had entered Yale as a sophomore and at the end of that class year in 1841 wrote his father about his election to Psi Upsilon. “We have in College a secret literary society consisting of Juniors and Seniors, fifteen out of each class who are annually elected during the last term of the Sophomore year. As it is considered a great honor in the class to be elected into the society there is of course a great deal of strife for it. Fifteen of the best fellows are elected, and no more can be. I have been elected and of course I may draw the inference without vanity that I stand among the fifteen best out of a class of 120 students.”

Skull and Bones had taken in thirty-four men from Alpha Delta Phi since its Yale campus founding in 1836, and only four from Psi Upsilon since that fraternity’s establishment in New Haven in 1838.3 The Yale College chapter of “A.D.” took an important part in the national fraternity government and the shaping of its policy; the first songbook and, with two exceptions, all the national catalogues until 1860, were likewise issued from Yale.4 Given these numbers and the significance of the Yale chapter, the virtual absence from the elected Bones delegation for 1843 of anyone from A.D. (a single man), and the presence of fully seven from Psi U (more than all the prior years combined), and the omission of the two Psi U members who were First Presidents of Linonia and of Brothers, as well as of two of the three Psi U members who were editors of the Yale Literary Magazine, all suggest a catastrophic upset of initial intentions.

The careful balance shown by Sibley’s list, with five candidates from A.D. and an equal number from Psi U, seems to demonstrate that the electing seniors of Bones were trying to overcome the rift between the two junior societies by offering election to the best men of each. When they went for initiation, however, on July 5, 1842 (the evening before Presentation Day and by that year the day of Bones’ initiation), peace could not be made by the seniors’ offer to join together the leaders of two groups already at each others’ throats. John Huntington, the head of the Alpha Delta faction, was asked to withdraw, and two of his friends and brothers in A.D., including William Kingsley, determined to join him in his exile. Keys lore has it that, at a spot now occupied by McClellan Hall in the northwest quadrant of the Old Campus, near the old Laboratory Building, while on the way home from the abortive initiation, Kingsley suddenly addressed his companions with a declaration: “Huntington, we must have an opposition.”5

For his part, oblivious to the pending birth of his new society’s rival, Henry Stevens wrote his mother the following month: “There is a club that has existed in College for many years, made up of only 15 students called the Skull and Bone Society—I have been elected as one of these 15—It is considered one of the greatest compliments that can be paid a student by his fellows to elect him to this honorary society—Two members of the faculty belong to it, and several ministers of all denominations both in New Haven & New York, Washington and all across the country. Nearly every one of its members that has been out of College as long as five years are distinguished men. . . . We meet once a week and after[wards] many of these old members are present and it is very interesting. The night before commencement many from Boston, Hartford, New York, Phil’a & Washington are coming on to attend an annual meeting. It will be a glorious time. One member in Congress will I expect be with us. I will tell you more when I see you.”6

William Kingsley’s own recollection of these events has been preserved. His older brother Henry in the class of 1834 (later longtime treasurer of Yale, from 1862 to 1886) had been in the very first Bones delegation to be elected, and the younger Kingsley was a member of A.D., the primary junior fraternity feeder to Bones. He thus seemed well situated to be chosen for Bones, “but at this time a great excitement had arisen in the ‘Alpha Delta Phi.’ A member of our [junior] class was John Robb from Alabama. He had a brother in the Sophomore class and when we [A.D.] came to select from that class, he said that his brother must be the first man elected. The rest of the society were indignant, and no one would vote for Robb’s brother. We had many meetings one after another, but in the true spirit of a Southern secessionist, Robb said that nothing should be done until his brother was elected. We would not be intimidated or bull dozed, and matters rose to a high pitch and for weeks the thing was fought over until we expelled Robb from our society.”

Robb, Kingsley further reported, “went up to college and collected a crowd of ‘Psi Upsilon’ and a lot of other men[,] the most of them fiery and hot headed Southerners, and they came down to our society room in the 4th storey of what was known as the Leffingwell building, corner of Chapel and State, with the avowed intention of pitching us out of the window. In some way we learned that they were on the steps coming up. One of our men, John Huntington, had a pistol and we all hurried to the State St. end of the Hall, and in a moment saw a crowd of excited fellows coming up headed by John Robb. They called to us that they would pitch us out of the windows. John Huntington aimed his loaded pistol at them and said, ‘If you advance one step I will fire.’ I stood close to his side. After blustering a while they thought ‘discretion the better part of valor’ and retired, leaving us victors for the nonce. We went forward and quickly elected 15 men of the next class [for A.D.] and John Robb’s brother was not among them.”7

Because of Henry Kingsley’s prior membership in Bones, William, although not on Sibley’s list, thereafter received an invitation to join his brother’s senior society. With his proposed clubmates, including Isaac Ely, he was ordered to go to the office in the Old Laboratory (built in 1782) used by Professor Benjamin Silliman the younger, of the Bones delegation of 1837, the class three years behind Henry Kingsley. As the ritual had evolved, candidates were thereafter sent over to the Bones’ rented rooms at the corner of Chapel and College Streets.

When the initiates arrived at 9:00 P.M., on July 5, 1842, they found that a large proportion of those present were from Psi Upsilon, including John Robb, Thomas Moody of Georgia, and many of Robb’s friends. Kingsley’s memoir continues: “They gathered in one corner and whispered together; they were evidently corresponding with men of the [Bones] society. There seemed to be some difficulty, for nothing was done. At last a committee of old graduates of the society, at about 12 [midnight] or 1 o’clock, came down and told us that so large a number of men [of the Psi U group] refused to join if John Huntington [of A.D.] did, that they could not admit him. I said, ‘John Huntington is an “Alpha Delta Phi” man and we must stand by him.’ [Isaac] Ely said that he would, and so we sent word that we would not enter the society.” The Bones graduates tried to calm the waters, according to William’s account: John Shelden Beach, a lawyer practicing in New Haven and a member of the club of 1839, argued with young Kingsley “and tried to make me join,” to no avail, and he and Ely withdrew with their A.D. friends Brandegee, Hall, Huntington, Nourse, and Skinner.8

Kingsley then proposed to form another society, and Huntington and Isaac Ely’s brother David responded enthusiastically to the proposal for a meeting the next morning, July 6, Presentation Day. Juniors Brandegee, Anthony Keasbey, and others agreed to join if Kingsley would bring in Edward Gilman. The subsequent brief meeting took place at 8 A.M., in senior Isaac E. Hiester’s room at 124 North College, where he served as temporary chairman. Committees made up of the juniors and seniors present were formed, to devise a name and a badge, to draft a constitution, and to locate and furnish suitable meeting rooms. That meeting closed with a resolution that thirteen specified juniors be requested to meet two days later. The seniors then gathered in the Old Chapel for the Presentation exercises, and listened to the delivery by the class orator of 1842, Newton Edwards (of Skull and Bones).9

William Kingsley’s account was prepared, of course, without knowledge of the Sibley list. Only by creating a chart of thirty-three names (see the second page of this chapter), made up from combining the Sibley list with the lists of the members of the respective, final Bones and Keys delegations for 1843, is it possible to discern that six men from that list, the “outsiders” by lack of class distinctions, went to Skull and Bones, and five went to Scroll and Key, leaving the older society to find nine replacement candidates. These included John Robb, the Southerner Thomas Moody mentioned in the Kingsley memoir, two other Southerners—Washington, D.C.’s Christopher Grammer and Georgian Julian Baratte, president and librarian, respectively, of Calliope—and a man from Ohio. To make fourteen, the newly formed Scroll and Key had to gather in nine more, including Kingsley himself and Isaac Ely. Seven of the new Keys members were Phi Beta Kappa—compared to three for Bones—and two, Frederick Munson and Edward Robbins, neither on Sibley’s list, were among the five elected editors of the Yale Lit.—with none in Bones. In the Keys group, only one was from the South (an Alabaman), and only one from the West, with eight hailing from Connecticut, three from New York, and one each from Massachusetts and New Jersey.

William Kingsley’s reminiscences are themselves sometimes problematic, having one major error, and one glaring omission. The major error is the identification of John Robb as an Alabaman, to give flavor to the charge that he had “the true spirit of a Southern secessionist.” Robb was born and died in Philadelphia, and practiced law all his life there.10 The curious omission is any mention of William’s brother Henry, of the class of 1834. Only one year separated John Hunter Robb and his younger brother James Madison Robb, for whom John was to fight so hard to get into A.D. that he was expelled as a result. William was eight years younger than his brother Henry, who lived all his life in New Haven, and was almost certainly in that city on election day in 1842. Why is there no mention in William Kingsley’s memoir of his elder brother’s view on William’s repudiation of Bones? Was it perhaps Henry Kingsley, rather than John Beach, who was the Bones elder arguing with William that day, but whose name could not comfortably be mentioned in these reminiscences of “Societies” dictated in his declining years to his daughter, Henry’s niece?11

Whatever the explanations for these two anomalies, it is clear that William Kingsley made a choice, a choice for his A.D. fraternity brother, John Huntington—who became the first elected senior leader of Scroll and Key—and against his real brother, Henry Kingsley, in proposing “opposition” to Skull and Bones. All those years later, Kingsley remembered John Robb as having the spirit of a secessionist, but Robb did not “secede” from A.D.: he was on Kingsley’s telling expelled. In truth, the roles of Robb and Kingsley were reversed. Despite his memoir’s charged and obscuring choice of words, it was instead William who showed, on that election day, what has since been amply demonstrated by sociologists of sibling rivalry: that eldest children like Henry Kingsley identify with parents and authority, and support the status quo, whereas younger children like William are “born to rebel.”12


William Huntington Russell’s group of junior class friends proposed to found a senior society in 1832, and so created their own first delegation of 1833. With Scroll and Key, the idea had come from a junior, William Lathrop Kingsley, and in this new society’s case, certain outgoing seniors of 1842 simultaneously created with the incoming juniors of 1843 two delegations. Thus, the dozen seniors of the class of 1842—one chosen by student election for class poet, one a former president of Linonia, four Phi Beta Kappans, and four receiving appointments at the Junior Exhibition or commencement or both, one of whom had been elected one of the five editors of the Yale Literary Magazine (at that time, along with the offices of class orator and class poet, the highest honor bestowed by the class)13—shared only a couple of months together between the society’s founding in July and their graduation in August, but their subsequent careers and composition are nevertheless worth examining.

The chair of the founders’ meeting held on July 6, 1842, in his room, Isaac Hiester of Pennsylvania, became a lawyer and served in Congress. His career was outshone by his fellow Pennsylvanian and the star of the senior class Keys delegation, John Addison Porter, class poet for 1842, and later professor of chemistry at Brown (1850–1852) and Yale (1852–1864). Named in his honor is Yale University’s annual prize for the best work of scholarship in any field, established in 1872 by his senior society. When Porter was serving as professor of Analytical and Agricultural Chemistry in the infant and struggling Yale “Department of Philosophy and the Arts,” the first of the series of gifts to the college for a scientific school, eventually amounting to considerably over a million dollars, came from Porter’s father-in-law Joseph Sheffield, after the marriage of his daughter to Porter in 1854.14

Others of the Scroll and Key founders also led careers of particular distinction. Ohioan Leonard Case Jr. went on to found the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland in 1881, merged with Western Reserve University to become today’s Case Western Reserve. Theodore Runyon of New Jersey progressed from mayor of Newark and chancellor of his home state to United States ambassador to Germany (1893–1896). The other eight members of Scroll and Key of the class of 1842 had more conventional careers in law, the ministry, and the teaching professions, but it is clear that there were promising men in the class that Skull and Bones was not taking in, whom a new senior society could accommodate and honor by election.

At a second meeting on July 8, again in Hiester’s room, with six seniors and thirteen juniors present, the decision to proceed was concluded, although only eleven of the thirteen juniors were firmly in favor. During the third meeting, on July 11, with fourteen juniors and four seniors present, the room committee reported that it had located suitable premises next to those of Alpha Delta Phi on the fourth floor of the Street and Leffingwell building, located on the south side of Chapel Street near the intersection with State Street. (The “halls” of the secret societies had to be in city buildings, since the groups had no formal recognition from the Yale College administration despite so many tutors being members, and secrecy as to the meeting place was virtually as important as secrecy regarding the nature of society proceedings.15)

A subscription of $167 was raised at this meeting to furnish the room, which Kingsley was to remember was “fitted . . . up very expensively.” The accoutrements included most prominently a great marble head of Jove, reputed to have comes from the ruins at Agrigento in Sicily, purchased from Ithiel Town, a noted local architect and antiquary; the cost, $57, equaled almost half the annual expenses for a student’s college year at the time. Two seniors presented the establishment with an engraving of “lovely nymphs, who wearied in the chase slept on rural banks, while around lay the deer they had taken and above stooped the curious satyrs.” Other furnishings included black velvet hangings on the walls, two rented sofas, some mahogany chairs and a rocking chair, a costly carpet, some tables with coverings, a hat stand, and spittoons. These young men intended a retreat more grandly furnished than any of their dormitory rooms, and wanted these decorations to be permanent, befitting what their constitution was to call “the home of friendship, the hall of literature, and the studio of the fine arts.” And, as Kingsley’s memoir records, “We bought a live eagle which was kept in our room and also used frequently.”16

Their occupancy here was not a long one: on a Sunday in December of 1842 the upper floors of the Street’s Building caught fire, and only “a few papers” were able to be saved by members who went up the firemen’s ladders and broke the windows with their fists. The bust of Jove, having fallen three flights, was gathered in smoke-blackened pieces, and the eagle flew away out one of the broken windows.

Oddly, on December 7, 1842, there was also a fire in the Bones club’s rooms at 460 Chapel Street in the building shared with Linonia, causing the members to have to relocate their meetings until the following January 19; the records not damaged by the water used to extinguish the flames were saved, and no one except the members entered the rooms before the firemen arrived. The sequence of these calamities (the Bones rooms, then Keys’) and the proximity of the two fires (occurring within two consecutive weeks) is highly suspicious, but it is not possible now to know if some neutral turned arsonist to send a message. There was a happy ending for the Bones club of 1843, however: upon moving back in, they broke out the two bottles of Madeira laid down in 1836 by the club of 1837 for the society’s centenary celebration and drank them, some ninety years before time.

The Keys members named a new house committee to find a new home. This, a small three-room apartment, comprised of an “ante-room, Temple, and dressing room,” was more romantically described as “the Sanctum Sanctorum and the Inner and Outer Courts,” but struck an initiate of 1849 as “a stuffy and unventilated nook” which “suggested, as the coffin-shaped table did also, premature entombment.” It was located on the fourth floor in Mitchell’s Building, on the south side of Chapel Street and somewhat closer to Church Street. Jove’s bust was repaired and painted black; self-levies on the classes of 1843 through 1848 gradually replaced the lost furniture and furnishings, and the first gowns were provided before the initiation of their successors by the class of 1843.

A third, more spacious accommodation was engaged by the class of 1850 on the fourth floor of the Leffingwell Building, also known as the Law Building because it housed Yale’s law school, on the northeast corner of Court and Church Streets. The society contracted with the builder to arrange the entire “sky parlor” of the top floor to their liking, with a ceiling of black velvet—fifty-seven yards’ worth—and a “grand banquet hall.” This was to be Scroll and Key’s home for the next twenty years. (In an article about the groundbreaking in 1869 for the construction of the present Keys tomb, the College Courant reported that these Church Street quarters were “the only college secret society hall, so far as we know, which has never been entered by outsiders; its peculiar location has made it almost inaccessible to the uninitiated.”) The rival society was clearly surpassed: Skull and Bones was still using “a small hot room, so far as one could judge,” on the third floor of 460 Chapel Street, above the rooms of Linonia, in use since before 1842.17


The new fellowship of course required a name. “Bones having set up Demosthenes as its patron saint,” writes Lyman Bagg, “Keys seemed determined to ‘go one better’ and claim the recognition of the great Zeus himself.” Two phrases were chosen, “Collegium Sanctum Pontificum” (“Sacred Pontifical College”) for the society, and “Collegium Conservat Jupiter” (“May Jupiter preserve the College”) as the trailing motto; the letters “C.S.P.” and “C.C.J.” were thereafter to be printed with the society symbol or cut, the former phrase above and the latter below it (although the name “Scroll and Key” was sometimes prefixed), in society printings. In campus publications such as the Yale Banner, which first began publishing annual issues regularly in 1842, “Scroll and Key” was used from the year of the society’s founding through 1849; then until 1859, both the American name and the Latin initials were employed. Thereafter, only “C.S.P.” and “C.C.J.” appeared in the Banner above and below the cut of their symbol, into the late 1860s, when “Keys” understandably came into use as campus shorthand for the group.18

Voting on a design by senior Henry Scudder, appointed at the first meeting in Heister’s room “to furnish a name and badge,” the members established the scroll and key as the society’s symbols, and thus its name to the outside world. “The Eagle,” the minutes of July 20, 1842, record, “being the bird of Jove, represents the Genius of the society, an emblem of power, superiority and lofty aspiration. Descending from above, he brings to us the Key of Knowledge, by which we are to unlock the arcana of science and art. The Key therefore represents the mysteries connected with the society, the directions to which are contained in the Scroll accompanying. The Hand signifies the receiving of the Key and Scroll, or the initiation into the rights and mysteries of this compact. The Chain which forms the outline of the badge is composed of fifteen Links, representing the fifteen members of the society united together in an indissoluble bond of fellowship. The Chain also indicates that unity of feeling and interest which exists among it members, and the cultivation of the social affections spoken of in our [constitution’s] preamble.”19

The original badge was of the same size and shape as the first Bones pin, a rectangular gold plate engraved with the eagle—perhaps inspired by their mascot, which was Jove’s bird borne on Roman army standards—poised above, suspending the scroll, with a right hand below, grasping the key. This form was still worn in the 1860s by a single member at a time, presumably as a mark of office, in place of the then redesigned plain gold pin of a key lying across a scroll, used to this day, Less romantically, it has been said that the scroll depicts the “Declaration of Independence from Scull and Bone,” and the key to the Bones temple won by a Keys man in a card game.20

Because commencement for the class of 1842 was near, scheduled for August 18, they were quick to find a jeweler to execute the design, even before selecting their fifteenth junior on August 11. At a special Saturday meeting two days later, a resolution was passed that the juniors proclaim the society’s existence by appearing with their badges on Monday, August 15, “at the breakfast table” in the common dining hall. The New Haven papers ran accounts of the galvanizing effect on campus of this display.21 (By 1856, according to a published glossary of national college words, this display had its own name: “The word ‘swing’ is used for coming out with a secret society badge; 1st, of the society, to swing out with new badges; and 2nd, of the men, intransitively, to swing, i.e., to appear with the badge of the secret society.”22)

Showing further talents as publicists, they printed a brief notice in the New Haven Daily Herald on the eve of commencement, reading below a plain cut of their symbol: “A stated annual meeting Will be held at the Society’s Hall, This Evening, at 9 ½ o’clock. Aug. 17. By Order.” The preceding page featured this news item: “We have had several inquiries with regard to a society which has attracted considerable attention in College. We are not in the secrets of the fraternity, but understand that the members are among the leading students in College. We know not what its name is; it may be nameless, but for a full exposition of its character, design, etc., we refer to a cut of its badge in this day’s paper!”

Badges were hardly exclusive to the two Yale senior societies. The New Haven weekly newspaper the College Courant in its issue of July 17, 1869, quoting Alexander Pope’s line “Pleased with a ribbon, tickled with a badge” observed: “We Americans, to judge from the number of pins and badges of every kind you see in walking through the streets of any city, are growing like [the French], and between temperance societies, masonic orders, college societies, old army corps, and so on, no one can complain of lacking chances to swing out a pin of some kind.”

At Yale the badges came to possess a special resonance and were a source of psychological pressure to commit to a society’s proffered bid before Tap Day—to be “packed,” to ensure the reward. “During Presentation week,” reported the College Courant, “and the rest of the term, those who have not received elections to the ‘Skull and Cross Bones’ or ‘Scroll and Key’ societies, see those who have, sporting their pins and enjoying themselves, and they naturally feel some chagrin. To this no reasonable exception can be taken; but the feeling is so strong that under its influence, when still fresh, a crowd is likely to be packed. Men know the expense, the toil, the worry connected with starting or securely establishing a new society, or with resuscitating an old one; they know they will be thrown in with some whom they would not associate with elsewhere; they know the ridicule, open and secret, that they subject themselves to in college; the risk of failing to get a crowd the next year; the little good the society can do them here, and the little honor it can bring them after leaving college, and yet the ruling passion is still strong after three years of experience, and—they don the pin.”23

Publicly, with its non-Greek, outwardly American name in three words from Middle English, a symbolic badge, coded language prominently published, and an annual membership of fifteen, Scroll and Key was tracking—and pronouncing its instant equivalence to—Skull and Bones in all these respects. Privately, and in a way Bones was not known to have structured itself with a formal founding document, they strove to explicate their vision and purpose. The preamble of their Constitution provided:

. . . that the love of beauty is the peculiar distinction of a noble mind; that it is wise therefore to cherish an enthusiasm for perfect forms of grace, whether seen in the works of literature, science, or art . . .

We believe that such studies and pursuits develop the best affections of the heart, and the highest powers of the intellect, and afford a foundation for friendships which are cemented by elevating the character of thoughts, and by giving a decided tone to the finer sentiments of the soul.

In this belief we propose to ourselves the study of those principles of taste which govern in literature and art, of those qualities which excite admiration in the characters of great men, of those features which please or awe in nature; of all things, in short, which are admitted into that portion of the soul, where love and friendship reign.24

These sentiments closely echo the robust idealism of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address to the Alpha of Massachusetts at Cambridge in 1837, “The American Scholar,” wherein he proclaimed that “if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. . . . The study of letters shall no longer be a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of man and the love of man shall be a wall of defense and a wreath of joy around all.” In his essay “Nature” of 1836, the sage of Concord had said, “The high and divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy, is that which is found in combination with the human will.” Emerson in 1841 seemed almost to anticipate the next year’s founding of Scroll and Key itself and its chosen patron in “The Over-Soul”: “And so in groups where debate is earnest, and especially on high questions, the company becomes aware that the thought rises to an equal level in all bosoms. . . . It arches over them like a temple, this unity of thought in which every heart beats with a nobler sense of power and duty, and thinks and acts with unusual solemnity. . . . The action of the soul . . . broods over every society . . . and Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us.”25

Emerson had become a favorite lecturer on college campuses in the 1840s and 1850s. He visited New Haven to speak six times between 1852 and 1868, writing in a letter “the beautiful town—city—is it not? of New Haven . . . always appears to me eminently attractive.” Andrew Dickson White, Yale and Bones 1853, recalled that Emerson’s lectures on the college circuit “made the greatest impression on me.”26 Although Emerson did not talk specifically about student societies, “he confronted a young man with the crisis of his individual ambition and his need to make decisions. . . . Emerson laid out an ideology that established young manhood as the critical period of genesis for the maturing mind, a period when the success or failure of a developing life hung in the balance.” He justified the dissatisfaction of college youth with the American system of education and its incongruous fit with the modern occupational world.27

A speaker who told young men to respect their own private minds, to make the special cast of that mind the basis of an individual life, captivated them. In Emerson’s romantic metaphor, “education as a mirror no longer reflected the general state of the community. More radical than politics, religion, and the law, education as a lamp threw light on the new opportunities of the student as a young man.”28 Every man might be a specialist, every profession was honorable: “One man is born to explain bones and animal architectures; and one, the expression of crooked and casual lines, spots on a turtle, or on the leaves of a plant; and one, machines, and the application of coil springs and steam and water-wheels to the weaving of cloth or paper; and one, morals; and one, a pot of brandy, and poisons.”29 Each man had a social contribution to make, but that demanded the active involvement of the individual in his personal development. The debates and friendships of the senior societies were a part of the path to that end.

The phraseology of Scroll and Key’s constitution reflects as well the artistic faiths and political creeds of the age: in politics, Jeffersonian democracy; in the arts, the Romantic movement; in social theory, the perfectionism associated with Brook Farm and the Mormons; even the concept of human progress toward a not-so-distant millennium. At their constitution’s close, following the articles of government it established, the Keys delegation of 1843 dedicated themselves to “the study of literature and taste,” and their meeting place to be “the home of friendship, the hall of literature, and the studio of fine arts.” “The general idealism of their time,” writes their official historian, “invited them to set up an organization which would afford a freer scope than the curriculum to expressions of the individual which were not exclusively scholastic.”30

The named qualifications for admission were “morality, amiableness of disposition and manners, good literary acquirements, a superior order of talents, and a total disconnection with any other rival Society.” The constitution gave effect to the society’s purposes by stipulation that “at each regular meeting, orations, or an oration and a poem, shall be read by two of the members, who shall have previously volunteered, by those pre-appointed. And it is recommended that the productions of the group embrace a great variety of subjects, of matter, and of style, as is consistent with literary excellence.” Following these presentations of oration and poem, a “familiar debate” was to be held “on some literary question, drawn by lot at the time upon which each member shall speak at least once. . . . In general, these exercises should be conducted so as to combine intellectual improvement with the cultivation of the most intimate friendships31 (emphasis supplied).

In other words, the “program” of Scroll and Key was very like the exercises of the historic literary societies, Phi Beta Kappa, Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and Calliope, only with many fewer members in a more intimate setting, and very likely resembling the first senior society’s program as well, given Bonesman Henry Kingsley’s conversations with his younger brother William over the years about the doings of Skull and Bones, and William’s role as leading founder of Keys.32

The most pronounced difference between the old literary societies and the new senior societies is to be found not so much in the practice of debates or the broad variety of topics but, in the language of the Scroll and Key constitution, in “the cultivation of the most intimate friendships.” That was the new ingredient in Yale class societies, initially forged by Bones and now annealed by exact replication, in form and membership number, in Keys. A collateral consequence was that, like Bones, Keys was not a “chaptered” organization: it was to refuse all applications for charters from other colleges and universities.33


Like its older rival, Keys paired internal secrecy with public proclamations which could be read by all, but comprehended completely only by initiates. “The posters, which, until within a few years [of 1872] were put up about the college yard and elsewhere at Commencement season, for the benefit of graduates,” Bagg recorded, “displayed an eagle poised above the ordinary emblems, with no print—in addition to the inevitable letters—except the day and hour of the meeting—‘9 P.M.’ perhaps—or the numeral ‘142.’ A small, seal-like wood-cut of the society, displays the clasped hands upon an open scroll, with “Adelphoi” in Greek capitals at the top, ‘1852’ below, and at the bottom two hieroglyphic characters, the one like a Gothic ‘T,’ the other like an old style Greek ‘Γ’ while the only trace of the key is its head, which projects from the top of the scroll. Another, steel-engraved seal represents the eagle, looking down from above upon the central scroll and key, upon which the letters are indicated, while an open right hand reaches up from below. The framework of the device is made up of fifteen oblong lengths, and its shape cannot be better described than by saying that if there were sixteen links it would be an eight pointed star.”34

The posting of placards or notices was another way the two senior societies kept their names and symbols before their classmates, and not just at commencement ceremonies for the guidance of returning graduate members. The diary entry of professor of Greek James Hadley for March 5, 1851, is illustrative: “Difficulty at prayer on Thursday night, when Blackman [not from Keys, but a “neutral”] attempted to take down a Scull and Bone notice, and had been more or less abused by Crampton, Dana, Alexander, and Beman, Seniors of that Society. Admonitions to the offenders. Renew our [faculty] rule of no notices in the Chapel.” Another squabble over society posters seems to have occurred in the fall of 1857, when students affixed notices to the “Chapel Elm.” The freshman fraternity Kappa Sigma Epsilon punctured the dignity of the Bones in defacing a meeting announcement. The Yale Review of March 1857 reported on “the terrible affray of last term between the former institution [unnamed, but having a ‘mystic emblem’] and ‘Sigma Eps,’ relative to ‘posters,’ in which though no skulls or bones were broken, it would seem that some must have been cracked. If this be the case, we hope the ‘Eulogians’ will become reconciled to their freshman brethren, and the college world would again be entertained by their caricatures on common sense. We marveled that the ‘Troubadours’ [Scroll and Key] did not ‘roll up their scroll’ in sisterly sympathy.”35

Communications among Keys members, meant of course to be seen by their contemporaries, were equally ornate. “The invitations to the ‘Z.S.’—or ‘bum’ [undergraduate slang for feast] held at the middle of the first and second terms—are printed,” reported Bagg, “within a scroll-like design from which the key is absent; or else with the ordinary cut at the head of the note. The company of the ‘brother’ is simply requested upon the appointed evening, and he is directed to answer the secretary, which officer is designated by the letter ‘G.,’ and is his ‘in truth.’ Aside from these initial letters there is no mystery about the affair, which is either printed in gilt or, if in black, has mourning bands about the edges of the page. All society communications are also forwarded in black-edged ‘return’ envelopes, as in the case of Bones, sealed in black wax with the society emblems and letters. . . . The anniversary of Commencement night used to be announced among the ordinary advertisements of the city papers, in connection with the society cut. More recently, at the head of their editorial columns of Commencement morning, ‘C.S.P.—P.V.S. 9.P.M.—C.C.J.,’ or something of the sort, appeared, between double rules of black.”36

Keys also issued catalogues (the first covering the three classes of 1842 through 1844) with printed lists of elections of the new club or “convivium” forwarded each year to every graduate member (the “veteros”) in connection with the invitation to the celebration of commencement night.37The men of Keys each had two names within the society, one for an office and one personally chosen, as with Bones. The names for their offices did not change: Zanoni was the senior leader, Anselmo the secretary, and Periander in charge of the physical properties of the hall, while the various other functionaries of the year’s crowd were assigned the names Chilo, Eumenes, Belus, Arbaces, Nichao, Nolero, Thales, Prasatagus, Mago, Guelph, Pirones, and Glaucus. Their society or “pontifical” names varied, with a classical cast: Charon, Orpheus, Polus, Milo, Margias, Phryius, Clodius, Adonis.38 From 1864 onward, a card-sized photograph of each new group of fifteen was similarly distributed: in it, the central figure Zanoni held a large gilt model of the society badge (the two sets of three letters inscribed on the scroll) and each of the end men grasped a large key, pointed toward the center of the group. Eight were seated, including the three holding symbols, and the remainder, the “upper court,” stood. Enlarged photographs of the same image were framed and hung in the rooms of graduates.39

Now that there were two competing senior societies, the election process began to be formalized. After the candidate lists had been made, a whole night was spent in the election. Since no junior in those days was ever pledged or spoken to in advance, the excitement prevailing among the “likely men” was intense. Both societies’ senior class delegations marched in a body, Skull and Bones at midnight and Scroll and Key about an hour later, each led by a marshal conveying a bull’s-eye lantern marked with the society’s symbol. The Bones contingent also traveled with a human skull and femur; their Keys counterparts bore a large gilt scroll and key some two feet in length. They processed from dormitory entry to entry along the Old Brick Row, offering elections in the gloomy rooms. With the blinds drawn and the door shut and all lamps extinguished, the lantern was aimed at the prospect’s face, and he was asked if he was “prejudiced in favor of any society.” An affirmative answer meant that he had pledged Bones, and the Keys crowd decamped. If he instead said no, election was offered. Those accepting Keys were then dispatched to report on their acceptance, and on any known decisions for Bones by their classmates. When fifteen candidates had been secured, both group processions returned to their respective halls. The next morning the societies marched from their halls in a body to Chapel, partly as a bit of impressionism, partly a kind of theoretical covering of their work by a quasi-religious ceremony.40

Following the Civil War, the Keys practice was for two members, one a senior, the other a graduate, each carrying one of the exaggerated keys, to proceed together to the room of each chosen man. “The Senior raps sharply with his key upon the door, and, both stepping in, says, ‘I offer you an election to the so-called Scroll and Key. Do you accept?’ If the answer is Yes, both Keys men shake the Junior by the hand, and tramp back to their hall, where the result of the first election is received before a party starts out to confer the second, and so on for the others. On this account the elections progress much more slowly than the case of Bones, and more opportunities are given to the rabble in the yard to yell, “Keys! Keys! Keys!” and surge about the bearers of those implements, whose approach is usually announced, by self-stationed outposts, in the neighborhood of the State House steps. . . . There seems to be no very great significance in the order in which the elections are conferred, except that the one first received is perhaps to be interpreted as especially honorable; but on the other hand this is sometimes offered to a man, who is by no means the society’s first choice, in order if possible to anticipate Bones in securing him.”41

So, the beginning forms and initial traditions were in place, but before the decade was out, Scroll and Key was struggling: in 1850, instead of the normal complement of fifteen, it was only able to attract seven new members for the delegation of 1851. “We are but seven,” one of them wrote, “and why? Because in this our class of ’51 there seems to be a stampede to that foster-child of Linonia—Skull and Bones; to use a low idiom, the class of ’51 flocked to Skull and Bones like Buzzards to a carrion, and to my certain knowledge are as well pleased with what they have found.”42The reasons for the flocking were more complicated.


Skull and Bones, of course, mounted a determined, year-by-year resurgence in class prestige after the election disaster of 1842. By virtue of its head start of a decade, its members had “crooked” significant items of Yale memorabilia for their society’s rooms, with one very recent prize about which they were probably indiscreet: the Bully Club. Riots between gown and town—firemen, or off-duty sailors in New Haven port—had been a feature of the college’s history since at least 1799, and by 1806 the office of college bully (a title bestowed by the people of the town, although in use at English universities for a similar student system) came into existence; the students turned the epithet into a title of distinction and, in proper feudal fashion, made it an all-college elective post. The college bully commanded his class in its rushes in fights with the town toughs, but it was his particular honor to lead them in the commencement exercises, and head the line of march at the time of presentation of diplomas. The officeholder was possessed, “by right of physical superiority, of the Bully Club,” a black knotty stick, first passed down from powerful hand to powerful hand by bully Isaac Preston (valedictorian of his class of 1812, and later judge of the Supreme Court of Louisiana), although the biblical-minded proclaimed that it came straight from Hiram, King of Tyre, while the classical lot swore that it was the original bludgeon of Hercules.43

The post of college bully had been held in the class of 1841 by Bones member Henry Sturges, the largest man in the class at six feet two inches and two hundred fifty pounds. By abolishing the position of this class officer in October 1840, the Yale faculty made him the last college bully. Sturges presented his badge of office to his senior society.44 Lucius Robinson, class poet of 1843 and Bones, wrote a poem which began:

The “Temple”—now so rich and rare

Was never furnished fully

Until they consecrated there

The Club of the College Bully.

Sweet bully, sin has fled like dew

At the Faculty’s parching tones, boys—

Let it rest in peace till the Order anew

Is endowed by the Skull and Bones boys.

Robertson’s poem also celebrates his society’s possession of “The drum, that whilom used to raise/The calliathump alarum,” and “The old card table . . . /Of relics much the oldest/For seventy years handed down/To him who played the boldest.”45 The drum was one of many instruments used on Christmas Eve, the night of the college year’s noisiest demonstrations, and on graduation sounded the march of the procession of seniors when they crossed the campus to form a circle in front of the Lyceum, around the college bully who there resigned his office and symbol to his successor in the junior class. The drumheads were inscribed with the signatures of all the class bullies. The faculty ended the disturbances in 1850 by the simple expedient of ending the term before the arrival of Christmas Eve. The drum was retired to the office of President Day, who allowed it to be used at the Junior Exhibition of 1842, “in the service of song” in the chapel, from whence it disappeared. The card table had been owned by a card and chess-playing club established by the class of 1837, used first in rented rooms, and then in North College, where the college authorities took alarmed notice; when the club disbanded in 1845, its furniture was dispersed.

As Bagg wryly noted in 1872, “when anything of the kind disappears, this [the Bones hall] is surmised to be its final destination.” Other treasures reputed to have found a home on High Street include the college gong from the treasurer’s office (or perhaps from the original “Commons Hall” which ended in 1842); a small college bell from West Haven, crooked from an exhibit by a returned missionary, as a curiosity connected with heathen worship; the banner emblazoned “Yale” created by students from New Haven in Boston who carried it in a procession in the latter city in honor of President William Henry Harrison in 1840, retained and presented by William Tappan Eustis of the club of 1841, and later carried in a public procession in New Haven for President Zachary Taylor (father of Richard Taylor, Bones 1845); the tongue of “the hated College Bell,” stolen not from the college but from the sophomores who had removed it “from its high position;” the old college punch bowl and ladle, banished from active use under President Day following temperance reform; the constitutions of defunct societies; and examples of the society badges of all Bones’ rivals and juniors.46

Not all such “relics” were summarily and secretly appropriated. After the disbanding of Calliope in February 1853, the portrait of the society’s patroness was purchased at auction for $18 by Henry White of the Bones club of 1851 as agent for the Bones club of 1853 in July of that year, prevailing against an agent bidding for Keys.47 As for the college bell cast in England used to summon the collegians to prayers and recitations under President Thomas Clap in the 1740s, it had been relegated to the New Haven alms-house when a larger bell was purchased by Yale to summon a larger, if not sleepier, student body. When New Haven constructed a bigger alms-house in 1852, four members of the Bones club of 1853, namely James Whiton, Andrew Jackson Willard, George Asbury Johnson, and Andrew Dickson White, banded together using their recently won Townsend Prize premiums to make the purchase of the Clap-era bell.48

Other relics were acquired by gift from members and alumni. A bust of Demosthenes, copied from the one in the Vatican Museum, was presented to the society at the convention held in July 1858 by Daniel Coit Gilman (1852), on behalf of the society’s mythical “German chapter.” He also brought back from his three years of study in Europe and left in the tomb a print of an open burial vault in which four human skulls lie, with the legend, from an initiation rite of the Illuminati, Ob Arm, ob Reich, im Tode gleich (“Whether poor or rich, all are equal in death”), with his card on which is written, as a joke, “From the German chapter. Presented by Patriarch D. C. Gilman, D.50.”49

Both the students and the senior societies made collections of memorabilia—abbreviated to “memorabil,” a word made popular by the Lit.—such as programs, silk badges of societies, examination papers, posters, invitations, or pieces of a sophomore’s shirt or hat band.50 Like all antiquarians, the memorabil hunter valued a thing for its rarity more than its worth, and so the senior societies prized especially objects of historical or other college-wide importance.

This led, in the 1850s and ’60s, to the practice of “crooking,” inflicted by upperclassmen on lowerclassmen, by individuals on anyone, and by the societies of all classes upon each other and the college. “Almost anything was apt to disappear from anywhere,” writes Keys’ historian, “and since, regardless of the identity of the original thief, the stolen object was certain to be seen sooner or later by a thief with society affiliations, all such articles tended to accumulate in the society halls. The Senior societies, with their memberships of prominent Juniors holding prominent offices and of men who had belonged to all the lower-class societies, were in an especially favorable position for this sort of thing, and practiced it without shame. ‘Thus we hold this property,’ said a member of Scroll and Key referring to a ‘crooked’ boating flag in 1860, ‘by a double power, the right of original ownership and C. S. P.’s privilege of “crooking” whatever the members choose; but it should be observed that the latter is by far the best title.’”51 In a letter published in the Yale News for June 6, 1878, purporting to be written by a new Bonesman in the class of 1879 following his initiation, the mythical senior writes: “The two base-balls used in the game with Harvard this year, are not yet in the case, as the one which has been stolen from the Captain of the nine has not yet been gilded and inscribed, and the second one the most earnest search has failed to discover, as it is probably on College St., in Keys hall.”

Since no official repository existed or had been conceived by college officials for Yale memorabilia of some major historical, social, or athletic interest, the sequential disappearance of this or that college object or treasure—the college gong from the Treasurer’s office, the presidential punch bowl, the tongue of the college bell—was apparently accepted for decades without ethical reflections hindering the undergraduates’ fun. From this attitude of benign neglect, the societies inferred acquiescence, reasoning that what was so purloined were only mementos of college history in former years and, as such, might as well be preserved in some secure place. What places were more secure than the tombs of the senior societies?

“Crooking” was thus seen as morally different from unlawful plundering. The distinction was not sharp: new Bonesmen upon initiation were told not to steal things, but to look for “relics.” In time, however, a sense of general campus ownership of some items did arise, and the theft of the championship prize flags from victories over Harvard in the last half of the 1860s, “crooked” by the president of the Yale Navy for use in the initiation of the crowd of 1873 into Scroll and Key, was to lead to widespread revulsion among the neutrals and considerable damage to that society’s reputation, at a time when both senior societies were under severe attack for their “poppy-cock.”


In addition to its reputation for having crooked or otherwise acquired the best memorabilia, from the class of 1844 forward, Bones again sought the best men among their classmates. The club of 1844, the first after the debacle of the spring 1842 elections which chose the club of 1843, with no men from A.D. and four from Psi U, included a president of Linonia, an editor of the Lit. (and Townsend Premium winner), the man giving the First Philosophical Oration at commencement (and winner of the Berkeley Premiums for Latin and Greek), and two other commencement orators. Of its other, nonacademically distinguished members, Orris Ferry, was to serve as a congressman and senator from Connecticut, interrupting that service to be a brigadier general in the Union Army; Samuel Fisk was president of the Massachusetts Medical Society; Joseph Cornell was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army; and William Washburn was elected successively congressman, governor of Massachusetts, United States senator, and member of the Yale Corporation.

The Keys crowd for 1844, by way of contrast, included more members of Phi Beta Kappa, six to Bones’ four, and six members of A.D. (with one Psi U initiate), but for those with class distinctions, only two editors of the Lit., the president of the smallest literary society Calliope, a commencement orator who had been president of Brothers in Unity, and two other commencement orators. None later served as a high state or federal political official, or head of a professional society, or general officer in the Civil War to come. The older society seemed to attract the stronger candidates that year, and it was later alleged by a member of the Keys crowd of 1844 that “the Skull and Bones being that year quite under a cloud . . . [i]n desperation, at the close of the year, and with the aid of some of the resident graduate members [tutors and others living in New Haven] . . . sought to rescue their lost fame, and succeeded in secretly pledging men, into whose hands we expected to place our own society. We were caught by surprise, and had to take inferior, though good men.”52

By the next year, with the class of 1845, eleven of Bones’ fifteen men were Phi Beta Kappa (to Keys’ five), the deficit from Alpha Delta Phi had been reversed—nine, to Keys’ four, while Psi U was not neglected, with four to Bones and one to Keys. Class distinctions from both groups seem to have been light: Bones tapped a president of Linonia and editor of the Lit., who became class orator; Keys tapped a commencement orator who won the English Composition prize. The class of 1845 was not, in after life, a distinguished Bones club (it included one United States District Court judge, and four senior Confederate Army officers), and one of those was CSA Lt. General Richard Taylor, son of the eighth president of the United States, Zachary Taylor. The Keys crowd of 1845 all had successful professional careers, but only three (Carter Harrison, member of Congress and assassinated mayor of Chicago; Isaac Peet, principal of the New York Institute for the Deaf; and James Tappan, speaker of the Arkansas House and Confederate brigadier general) attained some national political or educational distinction.53

The members of Kappa Sigma Theta, the first of the sophomore societies at Yale, founded in 1838,54 sensed this weakness, and in October 1845, with the cruelty of the clever young, published the Yale Banger (named after the wooden stick the students carried in case of a fracas with the townies), containing burlesques of the symbols of the senior societies. The skull of the Bones symbol had its cranium cut off, to serve as a punch bowl, with the two femurs placed inside as toddy sticks. The caricature of the Scroll and Key cut depicted the scroll inscribed as a “Declaration of Independence and Rejection of the Skull and Bone,” signed at the foot by the “great seal,” which consisted of the proverbial fox reaching after the equally proverbial sour grapes.55

Keys’ existence for the first dozen years was a precarious one. In only three classes before 1852 did it obtain the regular number of members (fifteen), which Bones never varied in electing, but ranged from seven—the lowest, in ’51—to fourteen.56 The gaps were filled by “honorary members,” inducted as a reward for “their great exertions on behalf of the society” in recruitment of members, and the catalogue lists for the lean years always showed fifteen names.57

Furthermore, the lèse-majesté of Keys in challenging Skull and Bones could, once conceived, be repeated, and Keys itself had not one but two new rivals, “Dart and Star” and “Sword and Crown.”58 The latter, complete with elaborate badge, is noted in Belden’s book of 1843, along with Dart and Star, and is classed with the contemporaneously born Scroll and Key as “professed rivals of the Skull and Bone.” The secret exercises of Sword and Crown, he wrote, “are said to be of a literary character” and the “number of members, the requisite qualifications for membership and the manner of wearing the badge in this and [Dart and Star], are the same as in the others.”59 Edwin Bulkley of the Keys club of 1844 was later to write that “. . . good men—and who had choice of being with us—were carried away by the anti-secret society epidemic of the period, and went into an organization called Star and Dart, in the expectation of breaking all down, by making societies numerous and common.”60

The badge of Dart and Star—by 1849, when its cut was published in the Yale Banner for that year, called “Star and Dart”—was a burlesque upon the badges of both Bones and Keys: the framework was an exact copy of the Bones pin, and the engraved central design showed the eagle of Scroll and Key, matter falling from its beak as it pecks at the shattered skull lying at its taloned claws, represented as having mastery over Bones, while a dart in the upper left corner aimed at the eagle’s back shows destruction about to fall on Jove’s bird. A star in the upper left corner of the cut, Belden explained (perhaps suggesting his own membership), “demonstrates the prosperity and final success of the [Dart and Star] society over its rivals.”61

This design as a wood-cut copy surmounted a notice in a local paper: “Nos in vita frates sumus. C.2954 a. F ∞ [D on its back to right, L on its back to left]. There will be a general meeting in New Haven on Thursday evening, Aug. 15. 1844. Yale College, Aug. 10.” Doubtless posters to the same effect were also displayed about the college buildings at such seasons. There was a hiatus in the new society’s existence after 1845: the Yale Banger ran a “death notice,” reading: “Died during the past year, the Chi Delta Theta, and Star and Dart societies of the Senior Class. ‘Nil mortuis, nisi Bone-um,’ which may be translated, ‘they would not have died but for the Skull and Bones’” (instead of the proper translation of the motto correctly spelled in Latin, “Of the dead, speak nothing but good.”)62

The Yale Tomahawk, first published on December 5, 1848, by sophomores in Alpha Sigma Phi, ran a similar deprecatory notice: “The President and Vice President [of Star and Dart] will meet, immediately after ten, at North College, to weep. After the weeping, the third and last member of the Society will expatiate upon the virtues of the deceased; when the entire corps wilt proceed to the grave-yard. Juniors who have been pledged to the Star and Dart, will attend the funeral without further invitation.” The society was revived in the class of 1849, and the Yale Bannerpublished the names of fifteen members in the class of 1850 and eleven in the class of 1851, below the society cut and the numeral “2954.” Whether it had a hall of its own, or regular weekly meetings and exercises, or had pretensions to equality with Bones and Keys, or “died by choice or necessity,” all remain uncertain.

The members of Star and Dart were not of quite the class eminence of those tapped for Bones and Keys, but nor were they nonentities. The Dart club of 1850 included the valedictorian and president of Brothers in Unity (Martin Kellogg, who went on to become the president of the University of California), the class orator, one commencement orator and three other members of Phi Beta Kappa, the president of Linonia, the vice president of Brothers in Unity, four men from A.D., and five from Psi U. Leonard Woolsey Bacon of that club became a well-known preacher and author, receiving a DD from Yale in 1879. The relative lack of distinction of the eleven members of the club of 1851, however, presaged the society’s demise. While including an editor of the Lit., the president of Linonia, and a commencement speaker, there were no members of either A.D. or Psi U, and only one member of Phi Beta Kappa, David Page Smith, who became professor of Medical Theory and Practice at Yale. Still, that year Star and Dart found eleven men, when Keys could only find seven.

Sword and Crown quickly disappeared, and Star and Dart finished with the class of 1851,63 but their mere listing together in Belden’s book as equivalent groups, without sharing our after-knowledge that of the three, only Keys would endure, indicates the severity of the challenge Keys immediately faced in attracting members so as not to meet the others’ fate. William Atlee of Keys’ 1851 delegation later wrote about his delegation’s experience (which must have had some precedent in earlier years’ elections) to David Trumbull (class of 1876) that “there was considerable skirmishing among the societies, and in some way we did not get our full number. There was a third society then, ‘Star and Dart,’ and it made some confusion.”64

This unhappy yield of seven in the spring of 1850 also reflected the third threat to the continued existence of Scroll and Key, the steady decline of the founding members’ initial enthusiasm and ambition. The records of the class of 1844 show the drift away from program discipline: November 9, “A few . . . came straggling in . . .”; November 23, “At last . . . a goodly number were present, allowing for the usual toothaches, engagements, and other good excuses . . .”; January 23, “In the absence of all the appointed performers . . .”; January 30, “Only a scanty number were present . . .”; February 19; “After a protracted inter-regnum of some two weeks . . .”; April 2, “Though several of our number were absent . . .” Failure to prepare the exercises, lateness, unauthorized absences, and early departures continued through the succeeding clubs. By 1847, essays and conversations grew more perfunctory, and society record-keeping became intermittent, then ceased altogether. Wine, punch, and cards displaced the orations and play readings, dancing, singing, storytelling, amateur instrumental music, whist, and other merrymaking became the norm rather than the occasional exception.

The records of 1849 are in stark contrast to the sentiments of the Constitution of 1843. “Now Liquor is an Honorary Member of C.S.P. and . . .his virtues are in the mouths of his fellow Members . . . And the punch was made; for Lemons, and Pineapple, and Sugar, and Rum, and Water (so little, that it couldn’t go down alone) had met together and said, ‘Let us be Punch,’ and they were Punch. Then the spirit descended like a dove, and made glad the hearts of all.” After seven years, Scroll and Key had become, in a member’s later expression of distaste, “a convivial club,” and by 1848 attracted a sarcastic catchphrase for the society: “Lo, it is still here.” (Skull and Bones, at the time, was no less “convivial”: one graduate was to remember a Bones supper at which only he and the society servant John Creed were sober.)

Efforts at reform were not lacking: the crowd of 1848 decided that literary exercises were already well provided by Linonia, Brothers, and Calliope, and that they really needed a greater “opportunity for improvement in the elegant art of conversation,” in addition to scheduling original essays or poems. Structural change was also effected. In the pure democracy of the founders’ constitution, there was no final source of power: the articles could only be amended by a vote of all active members, thus putting reform at the mercy of the weakest man, and the officers were elected three times a year, in every term, so the tenure was impracticably brief. Under the leadership of Cyorian George Webster of the class of 1848, new authority was given to the senior officer, so that each member “shall do whatsoever he commandeth him: he shall say ‘Go there’ or ‘Go here,’ and each [member] shall go even as [the officer] has directed.”65

Still, new practices in a small group whose members only abide together for one year take time to become the new traditions, and considerable damage had apparently been done to the campus reputation of Scroll and Key. With assaults from two sides, from a revived Star and Dart and from a resurgent Skull and Bones, in the spring of 1850 much of the solid element in the class of 1851 went again to Bones: the class salutatorian and Clark Prize winner, the president of Linonia and philosophical orator at commencement, three presidents of Brothers, the president and also the librarian of Calliope, an editor of the Lit., the winner of the Berkelian Latin Premium, the winner of the first prize for Latin Translation—and two men without any class prizes who went on to otherwise undistinguished careers as a merchant and high school teacher, respectively. Of the Bones fifteen, nine were members of Phi Beta Kappa.

In his memoirs published in 1903, former Yale president Timothy Dwight reflected on his senior year of 1848–49 in Bones (without explicitly naming it), making it clear that family wealth was far from requisite for election. “We were a democratic community,” he remembered, “with small temptation on the part of any among our number to indulge in aristocratic feeling, so far as that feeling had relation to the sphere of money. During a brief portion of my Senior year—as my family home was closed at the time—I took my meals with a club the members of which, about fifteen in number, were classmates of mine. These classmates, I think, were all of them, with the exception of three or four, men who either received financial aid from benevolent funds or were obliged, for want of sufficient means, to support themselves throughout their course of study, partly or wholly, by their own efforts. They were, however, among the leading men in the class in the different lines of college success and prominence—much more truly so than most of those who were regarded as the richer members of our class brotherhood. They were most influential in every way and most highly esteemed by every one.”66

Dwight’s reminiscence also perhaps makes clear why the Yale faculty, even beyond those professors who had been in delegations of Bones and Keys in their undergraduate days, never seriously moved to ban the senior secret societies in New Haven, as was to occur by administrative edict in 1857 at both Harvard to the north and Princeton to the south. When campus student leaders were elected year in and year out, and their later fame in politics and the professions across the nation brought reflected glory to the college, these societies became settings for display of Yale College’s primary product, a good character—for only men of character, “those who were intelligent, honest, poised, and dependable, could attract the attention of the upperclassmen who selected their successors for the societies, and of their classmates, whose opinion was decisive in determining class leadership, to be elevated to the most prestigious societies.”67

The Bones choices, however, were never exclusively the outstanding scholars and high achievers in the class. James Luce Kingsley, professor of Latin Language and Literature (and father of Henry, 1834 and Bones, and William, 1843 and Keys), asked his nephew and student Daniel Coit Gilman (1852 and Bones, living with his uncle’s family while an undergraduate), “How is it that they make up the Skull and Bones Society? There are A and B, who are the leading religious men of the class, and then there is C, who is dissipated and loose, in the highest degree. There is such a one, who is the Valedictorian, and such a one, who is hopelessly out of sight, below a second colloquy. There is X, who has all the refinement of an early education in the midst of wealth and social privileges, and Y, who has never risen above the impolite roughness of his boyhood. There is one, who has commanding influence in the College, as a speaker or writer, while another is without the slightest power in either direction—a man of no prominence in any respect whatever. How can you explain it?” Gilman’s answer is not recorded.

The pattern held over the succeeding classes: fourteen years on, the Bones club of 1865 contained the valedictorian, the salutatorian, the DeForest Medal winner, the class poet, the winner of the senior class debate and English composition prizes, three of the five Lit. editors, and the Wooden Spoon Man, but also four men lacking faculty or student honors, who later became, respectively, a businessman, a lawyer, a doctor, and an artist.

Even if the Bones choices sometimes seemed quixotic, this did not help Keys. Eleven more classmates moved to Star and Dart, and C.S.P. was left with seven in the class of 1851, a delegation they filled in with four others elected during the senior year, when they held only scattered meetings (the class of 1850 had recorded only one, their initiation). Yet, like the Bones club of 1843, the Keys crowd with their next election snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. They seriously considered whether to revive Star and Dart, or to form a new society, or to make a concerted effort to reverse their fortunes in the next election, for the class of 1852. Choosing the last course, they succeeded in the effort: Keys that year attracted all three first presidents of Linionia, Brothers, and Calliope, the DeForest Prize winner (best oration by a senior in a competition), the class orator, one philosophical orator and three other commencement orators, and the first of the five men to be elected editors of the Lit.

The Yale College enrollment in the class year of Bones’ founding, 1832–33, was 354; two decades later, the number was 447, a 26 percent increase. The number of talented young men was simply greater, producing in the membership of the two senior societies remarkable constellations. Jacob Cooper, himself professor of Greek at Rutgers, in a memoir of his Bones clubmate and classmate William Preston Johnston prepared for a reunion of their class of 1852, noted it to be “a remarkable fact, that the founders of three great universities of our country, which, like that of Berlin, started out at once as thoroughly equipped teaching powers, were here together at the same time. Two of them, Presidents Gilman [of Johns Hopkins] and Johnston [of Tulane], were members of the same class; and President White [of Cornell], of the next; while all three were brought into the closest companionship by becoming members of the same senior fraternity. We have no other example in our country, nor, in fact, in the world, of three great universities being founded severally, and fully equipped, by the genius respectively of three men, undergraduates and companions at one time and in the same college. Nothing at Oriel College [Oxford] in the palmiest days of Whately, Keble, and Newman, can parallel this. . . . Gilman, Johnston, White, created their corporations de novo, and inspired into them the breath of life.”68

The Bones clubs of 1853 through 1855 included the three men who became salutatorians of their respective class years, two of the three winners of the DeForest Prize, eight of the fourteen Townsend Premium men, and the president of the Yale Navy (a sign of things to come on the Yale sporting scene). In one of those wonderful pairings which the senior year at Yale sometimes threw up, Andrew Dickson White of Bones and the class of 1853 was to become the president of Cornell University, twice ambassador to Germany, and ambassador to Russia. His classmate Randall Lee Gibson, of Keys, was in later life a large slaveholder (and had an unknown great-grandfather who was a “free man of color”). A United States senator from Louisiana at his death, Gibson at Yale had helped overcome resistance to White’s election as editor of the Lit., where “a very considerable body of Southern students and their northern adherents declared against” White for his vocal anti-slavery sentiments.69

Gibson’s prominence in the class and presence in Keys was another echo of the elective strategy of Bones adopted by Scroll and Key: they too were soon tapping Southerners. There had been only one in the first delegation, of 1843, then six in 1844, four in 1845, three in 1846, six in 1847, four in 1848, five in 1849, six in 1850, and (a proportional) three in the deficient, seven-man tap of 1851. Four Southerners joined in 1852, three in 1853 and 1854, and two in 1855.

After its first decade and partly as a result of the Keys initiative, Skull and Bones was electing relatively fewer men from below the Mason-Dixon Line: two in 1844, five in 1845, three in 1846 and 1847, four in 1848 and 1849, none in 1850, three in 1851, one in 1852, two in 1853 and 1854, and only one in 1855 (thirty, to Key’s fifty-one). The Bones partiality for the mid-nineteenth-century equivalent of “Armenians” had not ended, of course: that society in 1838 and 1841 tapped two sons of the plantations from Brazil, and in 1855 collegians from Quebec and from Hawaii, then still a Pacific island kingdom ruled by King Kamehameha. Keys tapped a Nova Scotian in 1852, but no other foreigners in the dozen years after its founding.

It should be noted that there were, by 1855, simply fewer Southerners to choose. Seventy-two Southerners were attending Yale in 1850, and by 1860, only thirty-three were (while Harvard and Princeton, at sixty-three and one hundred thirteen that year, respectively, were at virtually their numbers of Southerners of ten years before.) After the abolition of the Missouri Compromise, the general sentiment at Yale “favored almost any concession to save the Union.” Against that common grain, wrote Andrew Dickson White in his memoirs, the anti-slavery sentiments of Yale president Theodore Dwight Woolsey and his classmate of the class of 1820, the Rev. Dr. Leonard Bacon, pastor of New Haven’s Center Church, “were supposed, at the time, to endanger the interests of Yale by standing against the fugitive slave law [enacted September 18, 1850] and other concessions to slavery and its extension. As a result, Yale fell into disrepute in the South which had, up to that time, sent large bodies of students.”70

Yale’s assistance in sending Sharps rifles to the Northern emigrés in Bloody Kansas at the urging of Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr. and Henry Ward Beecher was publicly resented. A letter to the North Carolina Standard in the fall of 1856 noted that the student catalogues of the Northern universities had only a few Southern names, but “shame upon those few.” He specifically alluded to Yale and the so-called Beecher Bibles. “We are proud of such names as Harvard and Yale, and feel that such benefactors of the human race should be held in everlasting remembrance by a grateful country. But their laudable objects are being frustrated by . . . fanatics that have obtained possession of the government of the schools their charity has founded. . . . Southern young men see their professors and fellow students, in the name of the college—nay, of the very class of which they are members—buying religious rifles to shoot their own brothers that may be seeking honorable and profitable employment in Kansas. These colleges have been turned from their legitimate channels and been perverted into strongholds of fanaticism; and from being links of union between all parts of the country, have become hot-houses for the nurture of artificial statesmen of the Garrison school and manufactories of ‘bleeding Kansas’ tragedies.”71

Southerners, who had constituted roughly 13 percent of the undergraduate student body in 1845–46, made up less than 9 percent a decade later, a number that was to fall below 4 percent by 1860–61. The class that entered Yale in 1853 contained thirty men from Southern or border states (twelve from the lower South, eight from the upper, and ten from the border); 1860 had fourteen (four upper, two lower, eight border); and the class that entered in 1861 saw only three, all from border states. The nadir was reached on Sunday, January 20, 1861, when Southern students raised a secession flag on the battlements of Alumni Hall, which was stormed by northern students who removed it, as pictured for the nation in dramatic drawings appearing in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Review.72

The rough equivalence of the drawing power of the two societies after Keys’ first decade only lightly masked the oscillation inherent in the pattern of the annual elections in a senior class still no more than one hundred in number. Keys began, perhaps unconsciously but soon deliberately, to emphasize the “set of men,” the group, as against the selection (often, against a competing Bones tap, doomed to defeat) of the individual achiever. Both societies aimed to find and secure for membership men who combined intellectual distinction with the prized qualities of character and amiability, but (in the words of Keys’ historian), “since such men are never plentiful and the number of them that a given society can attract still smaller, [a society] will often be faced with the choice of taking achievement without the other virtues or the other virtues without very much achievement.”73

The next decade was to find Bones and Keys each grasping the opposite horns of this dilemma, with enormous consequences for the development and reputation of each. Bones was also to change the dynamic and up the ante by building a windowless “tomb,” an effort which was soon to be replicated—but first by the new junior fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, not Scroll and Key. And both senior societies were to be affected by substantial changes in new collegiate social activities. These included the creation of the Yale Navy and its commodore, the first of the Yale teams and the tradition of athletic honors; the revitalization, under a newly prominent office of president, of the music society which had performed at the college religious exercises, now rechristened the Beethoven Society, acquiring (in a break with Puritan tradition) an organ in 1851 and, for better communal singing, publishing a book of Yale songs in 1853, the first songbook of any college; and the metamorphosis of a student lampoon of the Junior Exhibition into the “Society of Cochleaureati,” soon recognized as the nine “best fellows” in the class, and that group’s best of all, the Wooden Spoon Man.

In the same coming decade, the graduate members of both of the senior societies were also to organize themselves for the first time in corporate form, becoming the Russell Trust Association and the Kingsley Trust Association—in their respective names, appropriately honoring the primary founder of each—thus securing perpetual legal life in the Connecticut state capital. This enabled the ownership of land, and the subsequent construction of the societies’ famous “tombs.”


Benjamin Tucker Eames


Congress (R.I.)

Henry Stevens


leading American bibliographer and antiquarian bookseller

Orris S. Ferry


Congress (Conn.)


U.S. senator, Conn.


brigadier general, Union Army

Samuel Fisk


president, Massachusetts Medical Society

William Barrett Washburn


governor, Mass.


U.S. senator, Mass.


Alumni Fellow, Yale Corporation

Constantine Esty


Congress (Mass.)

Richard Taylor


lieutenant general, CSA


leader, Army of the Tennessee

Leonard Wales


U.S. District Court judge, Del.

Joseph Backus


Fellow, Yale Corporation

Henry Baldwin Harrison


governor, Conn.


Alumni Fellow, Yale Corporation

Stephen Kellogg


Congress (Conn.)

Rensselaer Nelson


U.S. Distict Court judge, Minn.

Dwight Foster


attorney general, associate justice Second Circuit, Mass.

Henry Hitchcock


dean, St. Louis Law School


president, American Bar Assoc.

Augustus Brandegee


U.S. Congress (Conn.)

William Barker Clarke


Yale professor of Divinity

Timothy Dwight


Yale professor of Sacred Literature


Yale president

Francis Finch


dean, Cornell Law School


associate judge, Court of Appeals, N.Y.

Franklin Fisk


president, Chicago Theological Seminary

Henry Martin Dechert


president, Commonwealth Title & Trust Company

Ellis Henry Roberts


Congress (N.Y.)


U.S. treasurer

Rufus Crampton


president, Illinois College

Edward Evans


professor of Mathematics, Cornell

Richard Haldeman


Congress (Pa.)

Robbins Little


superintendent, Astor Library

James Vose


professor of Rhetoric, Amherst

Jacob Cooper


professor of Greek, Logic, Rutgers

William Crapo


Congress (Mass.)

Daniel Coit Gilman


Yale professor of Geology


Venezuelan Boundary Commission


first president, Johns Hopkins


first president, University of California


first president, Carnegie Institute


president, American Oriental Society


president, American Social Science Association


president, National Civil Service Reform League

William Preston Johnston


chief of staff to CSA president Jefferson Davis


professor of English, Washington & Lee University


president, Louisiana State College, later Tulane University

George Griswold Sill


lieutenant governor, Conn.


U.S. district attorney, Conn.


Alumni Fellow, Yale Corporation

Thomas Frederick Davies


Episcopal bishop, Mich.

George Johnson


attorney general, Calif.

Albert Emmett Kent


founder, meatpacking industry


donor, Kent Chemical Laboratory

Andrew Dickson White


first president, Cornell


Venezuelan Boundary Commission


ambassador to Germany (twice)


ambassador to Russia


president, American delegation to Hague Peace Conference


first president, American Historical Association


president, American Social Science Association

James Morris Whiton


originator, American inter-collegiate sports, first Yale PhD

Carroll Cutler


president, Western Reserve College

John Worthington Hooker


professor of Hygiene, Amherst

Luton Burrit Morris


governor, Conn.

William DeWitt Alexander


surveyor-general, Hawaii


president, Oahu College

Charles Johnson


professor of English, Trinity College

Charles Mellon Tyler


professor of Ethics, Cornell

Henry Yardley


professor of Homiletics, Berkeley Divinity School


Leonard Case


founder, Case School of Science

John Addison Porter


Brown, Yale professor of Chemistry

Theodore Runyon


chancellor, N.J.


U.S. ambassador to Germany

William Lathrop Kingsley


editor, The New Englander

Charles H. Crane


surgeon general, Union Army

Isaac Atwater


chief justice, Minn.

Carter Harrison


Congress (Conn.)


mayor of Chicago

Isaac Peet


president, New York Institute for the Deaf

James C. Tappan


speaker of House, Ark.


brigadier general, CSA

Daniel Bonbright


dean, Northwestern University

John Walker Fearn


professor of Spanish, Tulane


U.S. minister to Romania, Serbia, and Greece

Jacob Cooper


proefessor of Greek, Rutgers

Homer Baxter Sprague


professor of Rhetoric and English, Cornell


president, University of North Dakota

Randall Lee Gibson


brigadier general, CSA


president, trustees, Tulane University


Congress (La.)


U.S. Senate (La.)

Charlton Thomas Lewis


Yale professor of Greek


president, Troy University


deputy commissioner, Internal Revenue Service

George Shiras Jr.


associate justice, U.S. Second Circuit

Benjamin Cutler


president, Western Reserve College

Charles Goddard Child


U.S. district attorney, Conn.


Martin Kellogg


professor of Ancient Languages


president, University of California

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