Skull and Bones: a conspiracy?

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Skull and Bones: A Conspiracy?

Charles Taft

While it may be impossible to truly trace the power and influence commanded by secret societies in American and World history, it is certainly easy to speculate. People are generally interested in how power is attained and who wields that authority. This is especially true in regard to groups and secret societies and the influence they might have had. Many groups, including Freemasons and Yale University’s Skull and Bones, have been rumored to have had a profound effect on American history. The Masonic connection to America’s founding, establishment and development is essentially undeniable, as many Founding Fathers (including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Hancock), Presidents (fifteen in total), and other persons of great influence (ranging from Henry Ford to Mark Twain to J. Edgar Hoover) were also active Freemasons (Penre “List of Significant Freemasons”). The connection of the Order of the Skull and Bones to American history, however, is not as well established and based almost entirely on speculation and coincidence.

On his website, Dan Brown explains, “My interest sparks from growing up in New England, surrounded by the clandestine clubs of Ivy League universities, the Masonic Lodges of our Founding Fathers, and the hidden hallways of early government power” ( He mentions Masons, the assumed primary focus of his next novel; however, the “clandestine clubs” he mentions are likely in reference to Skull and Bones1, one of the most famous, powerful, and secret societies in American history.

Skull and Bones, formed at Yale University in 1832 by William Huntington Russell and Alphonso Taft as a group for senior men, was primarily focused on creating a network of graduates, who are often Yale’s best students and leaders (Sutton, 5). It is unclear how deep the Skull and Bones connections go into American history and how much power those connections have generated. Most conspiracy theories, no matter how exotic, can only find their basis in the large number of members who held, and continue to hold, positions of great power, such as President William Howard Taft, son of Alphonso Taft, President and former Director of the CIA George H.W. Bush and both presidential candidates in 2004, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. The list of members is historically impressive and there is no denying that, “members of The Order are to be found in every segment of society: in education, in foundations, in politics, in government, industry, law and finance” (Sutton, 41)2. Through research and personal connections, I will attempt to determine the depth of Skull and Bones’ connection to American history.

* * *

According to Antony C Sutton, author of America’s Secret Establishment, Skull and Bones traces its history and origins back to 18th and 19th century Germany. It was there that in 1776, Professor Adam Weishaupt of the University of Ingolstadt founded The Illuminati3, a group of anti-government, Bavarian conspirators. This group was dissolved in 1786 by Bavarian police because of its desire to overthrow the government, but was, according to Antony Sutton, secretly reestablished after many years underground and existed well into the 19th century. This secret German society was reportedly introduced to Yale senior William Huntington Russell during a year’s study spent in Germany (Sutton 212). Upon his return in 1832, he, along with Alphonso Taft, established the Eulogian Club, an American chapter of that secret German society. The original club and the first American chapter “paid obeisance to Eulogia, the goddess of eloquence, who took her place in the pantheon upon the death of the orator Demosthenes, in 322 B.C., and who is said to have returned in a kind of Second Coming on the occasion of the society's inception” (Skull and Crossbones). The number 322 remains a significant number in the history of Skull and Bones, which is also referred to as Chapter 322 and that same number appears on all society stationary.4

Skull and Bones’ German connection, although denied for many years, was confirmed when in 1876, The Tomb, or the headquarters and meeting place of Skull and Bones, was raided and “the entrants found a card on which was written: ‘From the German Chapter. Presented by Patriarch D.C. Gilman5 of D. 50’” (Sutton 212).

Since its inception, Skull and Bones has “curled its tentacles into every corner of American society” (Robbins 4), including, but not limited to, education, finance, law, business, industry and media. The reason why so many conspiracy theories exist may be because Skull and Bones appears to have the most substance; members of The Order can be found in “just about every significant research, policy, and opinion-making organizations in the United States” (Sutton 25). As we have acknowledged, the list of members is definitely impressive, but there are also many members who exist just below the surface of great power, and remain major contributors to the undercurrent of power exhibited by Bonesmen.

William Averell Harriman, for example, was Skull and Bones class of 1913. The Harriman Family is consistently listed, along with seven or eight others, as one of the most prominent families in Skull and Bones history. Many Harriman’s were members of The Order, including William’s father and brother. Following in his father’s footsteps6, he established W. A. Harriman and Company, a major railroad company of the 1920s, and in the 1930’s, merged with Brown Brothers, an “old financial house whose partners were also members of The Order.” By the 1970s, a “relatively unknown private international banking firm of Brown Brothers, Harriman7” had assets of about one-half billion dollars. On top of that, at least nine of the twenty-six individual partners in the firm were all members of The Order (Sutton 22).

Skull and Bones is essentially comprised solely of these old-line American families, through legacy and intermarriage. These old line American families, such as the Whitneys, the Bundys, the Lords, the Rockefellers, the Harrimans, and the Tafts, all have at least three things in common: Money, Power and Skull and Bones. These families are also English Puritans, who’s “ancestors arrived in North America in the 1630-1660 period,” and they maintain their power and connections by intermarrying “with financial power or invited in sons of money moguls” (Sutton 17).

The Whitneys, like the Harrimans, are a classic example of the old-line, power family associated with Skull and Bones. The Whitney’s first appeared in Skull and Bones in the 1850s, however little is known about these initiates. William Collins Whitney (1841-1904), Bones class of 1863, is “a fine example of how members of The Order rise to fame and fortune” and he essentially began the prominence of the Whitney family in American history (Sutton 20). After Yale, William Collins Whitney practiced law in New York for many years and became actively involved in Democratic Party affairs. He was an opponent of Tammany Hall and helped Samuel J. Tildon defeat the corrupt William Magear “Boss” Tweed in their race for Governor of New York. In the 1880s he supported Grover Cleveland in his quest for the White House and upon victory, Cleveland named Whitney Secretary of the U.S. Navy (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). It was here that he became a “power behind the throne” and directed “the often scrupulous activities of a cluster of capitalists known as ‘the Whitney Group’” (Sutton 20). Little is known about the actions of The Whitney Group, but he was nonetheless a major influence in the Cleveland administration.

William Collins Whitney is significant in Skull and Bones history for more than just his accomplishments. His family history, and the family history of those like him, are major reasons why so many conspiracy theories exist surrounding Skull and Bones. William Collins Whitney married Flora Payne, the daughter of Standard Oil8 Treasurer Oliver Payne and sister of his Yale classmate (but non-Bones member) Oliver Hazard Payne. Before the marriage of W.C. Whitney and Flora Payne in the late 1860s, the Paynes had not been a part of Skull and Bones. However, they were a very wealthy American family; Oliver Payne became very rich through his work for Standard Oil and Flora Payne’s brother, Oliver Hazard Payne, acquired great wealth by establishing the American Tobacco Company and the U.S. Steel Corporation, and is considered one of the 100 wealthiest Americans to have ever lived (Scott J. Winslow). Their wealth only helped contribute to the fortune of the Whitney family and to continue its legacy. The two sons of Whitney and Payne went on to become members of Skull and Bones and one, Harry Payne, married Gertrude Vanderbilt, a member of the Vanderbilt family, which was another prominent and powerful family in not only Skull and Bones history, but America’s as well. The line of intermarriage between powerful families continued as the son of Harry Payne and Gertrude Vanderbilt married and divorced Marie Norton, who went on to marry William Averell Harriman (Sutton).

After his time at Yale, William Averell Harriman (the aforementioned member of the powerful and wealthy Harriman family) was a major, but quiet, contributor to American history and went on to hold many important positions throughout his life. Under President Harry Truman, he was the United States Secretary of Commerce, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and later the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Under President John F. Kennedy, he was named an Ambassador at Large as well as the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern affairs and helped with the Vietnam peace talks (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). As an expert on communism, he was the first American to talk with Yuri Andropov, the leader of Russia at the time, since the death of his predecessor Brezhnev. This is significant because, at the time in 1983, Harriman was just a private citizen and held no official position in the Reagan Administration (Sutton 20).

Another prime example of the kind of person that emerged from Skull and Bones was John Hersey, Bones class of 1936. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of Hiroshima, A Bell for Adano and The Wall was yet another member of Skull and Bones with international connections that brought him into contact with those is power in many countries.  He was, in fact, born in China, in the city of Tientsin, but attended Yale and Cambridge.  Later as a correspondent for Time9 he had access and justifications for being anywhere, working on any story that interested him.  As an author of novels and later a Professor at Yale he moved through Europe, Japan and China with ease, especially after having spent years in Time’s Chungking bureau and as a field reporter during World War II (Encyclopedia Britannica Online).

The quintessential Skull and Bones product, however, was Henry L. Stimson, Bones class of 1888. Stimson was a statesman who served in five presidential administrations between 1911 and 1945 and exercised major influence on U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1930s and 1940s (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). He took Skull and Bones and his commitment to the society very seriously and remains one of the best examples of how Bonesmen use the post-graduation network. After attending Harvard Law School, Stimson received his first job on Wall Street from Sherman Evarts, Bones class of 1881. William Collins Whitney appears again, this time as the biggest client of powerful New York Lawyer Elihu Root, and proceeds to persuade Root to hire Stimson after he became restless with his first job on Wall Street. Stimson not only reaped the benefits of Skull and Bones, but helped other Bonesmen out as well. When he was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York he hired Thomas D. Thacher, Bones class of 1904, as his assistant and later, when he went on to work in Washington, Stimson brought with him another young assistant, Arthur E. Palmer, Bones class of 1930. As Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover, Stimson hired Harvey H. Bundy (Bones class of 1909 and member of the “old-line” Bundy Family) as special assistant. And finally, in 1940, Stimson was appointed Secretary of War by Franklin D. Roosevelt, where he hired Harvey H. Bundy again, this time as an assistant secretary, Robert A. Lovett, Bones class of 1918, as another assistant secretary and George L. Harrison, Bones class of 1910, as a special assistant (Robbins 182-4). Perhaps the most important Skull and Bones connection for Henry Stimson was his association with William Howard Taft. In 1911, Stimson was one of two former Bonesmen (the other being Franklin MacVeagh, Bones class of 1862) that were part of William Howard Taft’s eleven-man cabinet, where he served as the Secretary of War. Later, in 1929, Taft, as the Chief Justice of the United States10, swore in Stimson as the Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover.

William Howard Taft’s own connection to Skull and Bones run deeper than most. The Taft family has literally been part of Skull and Bones since its inception; many families have remained associated through intermarriage, but the Taft’s have remained a major part of Skull and Bones through to today. At least nine Tafts have been Skull and Bones members, from co-founder Alphonso Taft, Bones class of 1833, to Thomas P. Taft, Skull and Bones class of 1971 and great-great-grandson of Alphonso Taft. The Taft family is the first family in Skull and Bones history to have four generations be bonesmen.

The accomplishments of the first graduating class of Skull and Bones, aside from those of the two founding members, are fairly unimpressive. The Skull and Bones class of 1833, conspiratorially speaking, did very little; some found work in state legislature and others in the Senate, but nothing “much greater than we would expect from the cream of a Yale class.” Alphonso Taft, however, went on to be the Secretary of War in 187611, the U.S. Attorney General in 1876-7, the U.S. minister to Austria in 1882-4 and finally the U.S. Ambassador to Russia in 1884-5 (Sutton 20).

Two of Alphonso Taft’s sons went on to become Bonesmen themselves. William Howard Taft, who has been mentioned many times before, was Bones class of 1878. He was the 42nd United States Secretary of War, the 27th President and the 10th Chief Justice. His younger brother Horace Dutton Taft was an educator and lived a much more subdued life, but was successful nonetheless. A member of the Skull and Bones class of 1883, Horace Dutton Taft went on to establish the Taft School, where he remained headmaster until 1936. According to the Taft School website, most of the graduates during Taft’s tenure as headmaster of the school went on to attend Yale University (

The son of President William Howard Taft, Robert Alphonso Taft, was also a Bonesmen, graduating class of 1910. Robert A. Taft was a prominent 20th century Republican leader. He served in the U.S. Senate for fourteen years and became known as “Mr. Republican” for his belief in traditional conservatism. He was strongly against the New Deal and hoped to instead bring “efficiency to government and let business restore the economy.” He co-authored the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which greatly restricted the activities and power of labor unions and remains, for the most part, in effect to this day. He was a steadfast isolationist and together with Herbert Hoover, he believed in and called for “fortress America” and the “principle of the free hand” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). His election into Skull and Bones was widely publicized, even garnering a New York Times article, because his father, a former member, was the President of the country at the time.

Most theories of a possible conspiracy surrounding Robert A. Taft have to do with this unwavering commitment to isolationism and desires to keep America as far away from other countries as possible. Taft was the ultimate isolationist, certainly leaving open the possibility of his doing whatever it took to achieve that foreign policy result. As James Patterson writes in his book, Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft, “Taft was almost as suspicious of the European nations as he was of Roosevelt, and his speeches came perilously close to sounding xenophobic” (Patterson 197). Some, including many newspaper columnists, saw his dedication as an attempt to protect America, “a way to be a part of the world, without running it” (Moser). Others, however, saw his devotion as ignorant and suspicious, and even a fellow Bonesmen questioned his loyalty: Averell Harriman once claimed, "Taft would execute the foreign policy of Stalin” (Moser).

* * *

The link between political power in America and Skull and Bones has been constant, from Alphonso Taft in the founding class to George W. Bush today. It represents a true consolidation of power. Built on their common bond as ‘Bones’ men, the members of Skull and Bones have always left Yale knowing that a loyal network of contacts await them, often providing short cuts to positions of power. And while Skull and Bones has served to consolidate power on one hand, it has had the ability to also proliferate that power into almost every corner of American corporate and governmental life. Today Skull and Bones is co-educational, and while the concept of the ‘old boys network’ is fading in an era of more equal opportunity, the Skull and Bones connection is still a ticket into places many cannot easily go.

Momentous events in human history will forever generate conspiracy theories. And whenever people are suspected of believing that their particular 'ends' justify their means, or whenever powerful people are selective and secretive, conspiracy theories will be right behind.  Sometimes those theories are true, and the occasional proof in court of an actual conspiracy only serves to stimulate endless more variations and speculations.  Skull and Bones neatly fits all of those theories.  Members of skull and Bones drift in and out of many important events of the late 19th and then the 20th century, holding positions of power shared and proliferated by the mysterious connections created behind the closed doors of "The Tomb" on High Street on Yale's campus.  The windowless building itself promotes the thoughts of conspiracy theorists, and Skull and Bones has never done anything to dampen them.  Conspiracies are not necessarily evil or even wrong, but they do operate out of sight, and in this country that alone promote a feeling that events move on without proper supervision or control.

Works Consulted

Anderson, Judith Icke. William Howard Taft: An Intimate History. New York, NY: Norton and Company, 1981.

Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs - The Election That Changed the Country. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

“Dan Brown.” Biblio. 28 Oct. 2007 .

Dumenil, Lynn. Freemasonry and American Culture 1880-1930. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 29 Oct. 2007 .

Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 29 Oct. 2007 .

Moser, John. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. 5 Nov. 2007 .

“New World Order.” Wikipedia. 8 Oct. 2007 .

“The Order of Skull and Bones.” Crystalinks. 8 Oct. 2007 .

Patterson, James. Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft. Boston, MA: Houghton Miflin, 1972.

Penre, Wes. “List of Significant Freemasons.” Illuminati News. 28 Oct. 2007 .

Robbins, Alexandra. Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League, and The Hidden Paths of Power. N.p.: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

Rosenbaum, Ron. “Skull and Bones.” Esquire Magazine Sept. 1977. 8 Oct. 2007 .

Scott J. WInslow and Associates. 12 Nov. 2007 .

“Skull and Bones.” Wikipedia. 8 Oct. 2007 .

“Skull and Bones: Secret Yale Society Includes America’s Power Elite.” CBS 13 July 2004. 8 Oct. 2007 .

Skull and Crossbones. 29 Oct. 2007 .

Sutton, Antony C. America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull and Bones. N.p.: n.p., 1983.

“William C. Whitney.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 5 Nov. 2007 .

1 There are many other fraternities and secret societies in New England institutions, including the Porcellian Club at Harvard, however their connections to power are less obvious, not as widespread and will not be explored in this paper. Dan Brown himself attended Amherst College and was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity (“Dan Brown.” Biblio), as was William Howard Taft during his time at Yale.

2 Personally, I remain skeptical about the great power of Skull and Bones, especially in reference to theories such as the New World Order, which claims groups like these are slowly taking over the world. My father was a member, five years after Senator John Kerry and three years after President George W. Bush, and the Taft family has been a major factor in Skull and Bones history, but the idea of world domination seems too far-fetched.

3 Illuminati is a name often given to secret groups; some real, some fictitious. In modern times, conspiracy theorists use it to refer to “hand behind the throne” groups, typically those associated with the New World Order; groups not so different from Skull and Bones.

4 Some, including the Skull and Crossbones website, argue that Skull and Bones is referred to as Chapter 322 because of the date of Demosthenes' death, while others, including Antony C Sutton and Alexandra Robbins, argue that the number is an homage to the original organization in Germany; “They adopted the numerological symbol 322 because their group was the second chapter of the German organization and founded in 1832” (Robbins 4).

5 Daniel Colt Gilman was Bones class of 1852 and “a key activist in the revolution of education by The Order” (Sutton 65).

6 Harriman’s father, Edward Henry Harriman, was a wealthy railroad executive. At the time of his death, he controlled the Union Pacific, the South Pacific, the Illinois Central, the Central of Georgia, the Wells Fargo Express Company and other railway companies.

7 Brown Brothers Harriman and Co. remains in existence today. It is the oldest and largest partnership bank in the US, with over $44 billion in client assets (

8 Standard Oil was founded by John D. Rockefeller (who’s grandson was John Rockefeller Prentice, Bones class of 1928) and was one of the world's first and largest multinational corporations.

9 “Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, both Bones 1920, reportedly came up with the idea for Time in The Tomb, which still may hold the minutes and memos regarding the founding of the magazine” (Robbins 120).

10 William Howard Taft was the only man to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the United States.

11 “The first of many members of The Order to hold this post down into the 1950s” (Sutton 20)

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