Secret Societies at Yale

January 4, 2023
By AdmissionSight

Secret Societies at Yale

What Are Secret Societies in College?

Secret college societies hide in the shadows of the Ivy League and many other prominent universities around the world. Despite rumors and stories about these exclusive clubs, what goes on behind closed doors is generally unknown, adding to the mystery and attraction. Since the founding of Yale’s first secret society, the Skull and Bones, in 1832, the university has seen significant changes in secret societies at Yale.

A lot of students are curious about “What are secret societies in college?” A collegiate secret society is typically made up of handpicked members who try to keep all aspects of their organization hidden.

The first secret society in the United States was created in 1750 by students at The College of William & Mary, who formed the F.H.C. Society. Thomas Jefferson, St. George Tucker, and George Wythe were among the most prominent members.

While “secrecy” and how closely they identify themselves with their university vary, most secret societies make a concerted effort to keep their affairs, members, initiations, and membership hidden from the public eye.

Some secret societies only invite senior-year students to their organizations, like in secret societies at Yale, allowing them to observe these students during their third year at university. These organizations are commonly referred to as “senior societies.”

The characteristics of most secret societies are similar in terms of the following:

  • Difficult membership requirements
  • Secret rites or rituals
  • Close-knit relationships among members

Many “secret” societies use the term loosely, focusing more on the “social” aspect. Throughout the year, and especially around graduation, secret societies look for ways to give back to their university by performing anonymous charity activities. In addition, some secret societies host literary debate groups, lecture speakers, and other events in an academic year.

How Do You Join a College Secret Society?

How do you join a college secret society? Every secret society has initiations, rituals, oaths, or handshakes that assist in identifying its members. Most societies restrict membership to a certain number of students or a specified class year.

While the screening process varies for each university, the original selection process for collegiate secret societies originated at Yale University. Their “tapping” approach began with a public notification inviting undergraduates to a meeting in the College Yard.

Members of the secret societies at Yale would wander through the crowd, tap prospective members on the shoulder, and accompany them back to their dorm rooms. Then they would ask whether they wanted to join their secret club, and the student might accept or decline the invitation.

Only seniors are admitted to secret societies at Yale, though this tradition may vary at different campuses. According to Skull and Bones alumnus David Alan Richards, author of “Skulls and Keys: The Hidden History of Yale’s Secret Societies,” this restriction aids secrecy by forming a small, close-knit group and preventing insider information from seeping out of the organization. Yale juniors are scouted by current members to see who will be chosen for the next secret society class.

Most institutions now have a less formal process, but it is still usually done in a public event. Some societies place sealed letters under potential juniors’ doors, while others send mysterious emails inviting them to rush parties.

Does Yale Have Secret Societies?

Does Yale have secret societies? Secret societies at Yale are traced back to its first secret society in 1832.  Although people don’t know much about Yale University’s hidden clubs, it was revealed that small are typically small but the collective alumni include some of the most prominent public leaders.

There were seven senior societies back in the day, and Tap Day was a public spectacle: the junior class gathered in Branford courtyard to see representatives from the organizations dash around the court, literally tapping the most famous men in the class for membership.

That public ritual was last done in 1952, but the societies continue to emerge from their tombs, windowless buildings constructed for secret societies, every April to engage in strange public exhibitions with their new members of the secret societies at Yale.

The tap tradition, which was originally limited to a single evening of membership offers and induction ceremonies, has evolved into a complicated system of interviews, pre-taps, and initiations with the growth of new organizations in recent years. The process can take weeks, giving rising seniors plenty of time to speculate before Tap Night comes.

Whereas the tapping process used to involve little more than 150 junior class members, there are currently at least 41 secret societies at Yale, with names ranging from the mysterious (Sphinx) to the playful (Whiskey and Coke). Most of them have roughly 15 members, which means that nearly half of the seniors now belong to one or more societies.

It is common for the campus to grow a few “underground” societies in addition to the seven established ones, the Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Wolf’s Head, Berzelius, Book and Snake, Elihu, and Manuscript. All these seven established secret societies at Yale have conspicuous buildings on campus and are now referred to as “landed” organizations.

As far as anyone can tell, the recent emergence of additional cultures is unprecedented. Societies typically operate discreetly behind the scenes, there has been little public debate about why this has occurred.

Yalies, on the other hand, tend to form new groups, and for whatever reason, an increasing number of them have concluded that it’s better to start a senior society than to be discouraged and sad over not being tapped.

According to students, the new societies are more relaxed and casual than the established societies, which are rich in history and have attentive alumni to help preserve those traditions. Despite the opportunity to start from scratch, the new societies mostly follow the same model as the old ones: 14 to 16 seniors, chosen for their diversity of experience, gather every Thursday and Sunday, deliver detailed and personal “biographies” of themselves to their fellow members (today, a biography could run anywhere from four to six hours long, and it might even include some old family films and PowerPoint presentations), and engage in debates, dinner, and drinking.

While some of the new communities take pride in their nomadic existence, others have become landed, buying houses or apartments to use as meeting locations. While some discretion about society activities is still expected, membership is an open secret on campus, and students frequently chat openly about it.

As discussed earlier, the process of selecting members has developed as well. Contact with prospective members before Tap Night was once prohibited, but secret societies at Yale now hold conversations with candidates, albeit in private. A society council determines the dates for Tap Night and the prospective members can be approached for the first time.

According to members of several different societies, the normal procedure is for a society to compile an initial list of 40 to 80 people, conduct a first round of interviews, and then discuss cutting the list in half. Second-round interviews could be conducted in front of the entire society, or at a party with other prospective members. However, students claim that at least two societies, Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key, do not conduct interviews.

A week before Tap Night, societies may begin offering candidates membership. Candidates are not required to commit until Tap Night.

One caution raised by Richards is that secret organizations are now emphasizing diversity in their ranks. Students must stand out to be admitted, whether as an athlete, an activist, or other types of leaders in a community. Moreover, secret societies also want a wide range of experiences as well as diversity in other aspects such as color, gender, sexual orientation, and identity.

Top College Secret Societies in the US

It is no surprise that some of the most elite secret societies in the world call American schools their home. Here are the top college secret societies in the US, along with some interesting facts about each and their most renowned members.

Yale University’s Skull and Bones (Established in 1832)

Skull and Bones is undoubtedly the most prominent and well-known among the secret societies at Yale and among the Ivy League secret societies. Its infamous past is steeped in mystery and dates to 1832 when the club was founded.

Every year, the club selects 15 new members. Those chosen are known as Bonesmen and Boneswomen. All Bonesman and Boneswomen are sworn to secrecy and are barred from discussing what happens behind closed doors. Members gather twice a week in the Tomb.

View of Yale University building.

The Tomb is based on a rumor that in 1918, a group of Bonesmen (supposedly including Prescott Bush, father of George H. W. Bush) dug up the skull of Apache leader Geronimo, who died in 1909, and returned it to their headquarters as a prize.

To add to the prestige and exclusivity of this Yale’s secret society, new members are allegedly given $15,000 and a grandfather clock.

Famous members include:

  • George H.W. Bush
  • George W. Bush
  • Paul Giamatti
  • John Kerry
  • William F. Buckley
  • William Howard Taft

University of Virginia’s Seven Society (Established in 1905)

This secret society is based on beliefs and strange traditions. The Seven Society is so secretive that members’ identities are not revealed until after their deaths. Even the member reveal is cryptic, with a massive wreath of black magnolias in the shape of a “7” appearing on the deceased’s gravestone.

The largest mystery, though, is the discussion about how one becomes a member. Nobody knows if they are co-ed or if you have to be a University of Virginia alumni to join.

Aerial view of University of Virginia.

The number seven markings left around campus and their tremendous philanthropy to the university are the most tangible proof of the society’s existence. Their contributions are sent in letters with the following astronomical symbols: Earth, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Neptune, Uranus, and Venus. Donations and scholarships are distributed in multiples of seven. For instance, $777 or $1,777.

Furthermore, when it is seven past the hour, the college’s bell tower in the chapel sounds at seven-second intervals at the seventh discordant chord. There is so much evidence that this society exists, but people still know so little about them.

Famous members include:

  • John Lloyd Newcomb
  • Joseph W. Twinam
  • Edward Stettinius Jr.

Dartmouth College’s Sphinx Society (Established in 1885)

Dartmouth is a hotspot for college societies. According to its website, approximately 31% of seniors are members of society, and there are at least 14 on campus, with five of them keeping their membership hidden.

The all-male Sphinx Society is the most well-known secret society at the Ivy League school. Each year, just 24 juniors are shoulder-tapped to become members of “the Krewe.” These select few are granted access to the Egyptian Tomb, which serves as their headquarters.

Dartmouth campus

Sphinx headquarters allegedly gives members access to underground tunnels around campus, as well as an indoor pool known as Cleopatra’s Swimming Pool. The identities of Krewe members are kept disguised until graduation when they unveil themselves by strolling around campus with canes adorned with Sphinx symbols.

Washington and Lee University’s Cadaver Society (Established in 1957)

Another group that has released so little information that it’s uncertain whether it still (or ever) existed is the Cadaver Society. Many people believe that members of the Cadaver Society are pre-med students with leadership skills, strong academic grades, and a love for university traditions.

Washington and Lee University front building

The society’s sign which is a skull and the letter C is written over campus as the most tangible evidence of this club. They are reported to roam the campus at night, clad in black and wearing skull masks to signify their symbol.

Like any good secret society, they appear to have a lot of money and frequently make charitable donations to the college. The Cadavers reportedly gave $150,000 to repair the frat residences in 1988.

University of North Carolina’s Order of Gimghoul (Established in 1889)

The Order of Gimghoul is one of the most terrifying secret societies, named after Peter Droomgole, a University of North Carolina student who inexplicably vanished from school in 1833. Its name was altered from the Order of Droomgole to something more menacing.

View of UNC campus.

Membership is by invitation only, and it is open to both students and professors. What happens behind the castle walls is unknown to people. There was only a little photo evidence of the society, though the club’s origins can be traced back to Arthurian legend and the Knights of the Round Table.

Princeton University’s Ivy Club (Established in 1879)

Although Princeton forbids students from participating in secret societies, the Ivy Club is completely open about its activities.

The Ivy Club has strict membership requirements. Candidates must sit for ten interviews with members of Princeton University’s oldest “eating club,” the Ivy Club. The interview procedure could take up to 7.5 hours over a few days. Following the interviews, their 130 current men and women vote on whether to accept the new candidate. If one of the members rejects the candidate, they are not admitted.

princeton campus

Eating clubs have been a tradition at Princeton for over a century. Princeton has six selective clubs and five open clubs, but none are more selective than the Ivy Club. Membership costs $9,550 a year and includes full access to the club’s three-story brick mansion behind iron gates, as well as daily meals at the clubhouse. The meal choices changes from day to day.

The Ivy Club also provides members with the option to participate in community events and fundraisers.

Famous members include:

  • Lauren Bush-Lauren
  • James Baker
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Michael Lewis

Harvard University’s Porcellian Club (Established in 1794)

The Porcellian Club was one of North America’s first college societies, founded in 1794. Its slogan is “dum vivimus vivamus” which means “while we live, let us live.” Non-members are not permitted to attend Porcellian parties or get-togethers, therefore no one knows what transpires behind closed doors.

The mascot of the club is a pig. Members of the club can be identified by the apparel and accessories they wear that have pigs or pig heads printed on them. The clubhouse, known as the “Old Barn,” is a three-story mansion right across the street from Harvard Yard.

a building in Harvard, one of the oldest schools in the US

Membership is by invitation only and is competitive. Only members are permitted inside, and the constantly drawn shades ensure that visitors cannot even get a glimpse of the inside (which is said to have changed very little in the club’s 200-plus years).

The only exceptions to this norm were Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower, but each received this honor just one time.

Famous members include:

  • Winklevoss twins
  • Teddy Roosevelt
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes

Membership options are limited given the tiny number of secret societies on college campuses, even in secret societies at Yale. While secret society membership appears to be a valuable networking tool, it only represents a fragment of the collegiate experience.

The richness of life at Yale extends far beyond the confines of the classroom. Hundreds of campus organizations outside the secret societies, including approximately 100 athletic teams, over 50 performance groups, and 60 cultural clubs, are attended by students. If you want to make your experience more worthwhile, you can join these clubs.

Yale University is one of the top universities in the country and one of the most competitive admissions. To secure your spot in Yale enrollment, you should make sure to prepare your application materials ahead of time and present the best grades and test scores as well as compelling essays. AdmissionSight assists hundreds of students to get into extremely selective schools each year. If you need an expert’s help, AdmissionSight would be the best pick for you. Book an initial consultation with AdmissionSight today!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up now to receive insights on
how to navigate the college admissions process.