Skull and Bones is an undergraduate senior or secret society at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. It is a traditional peer society to Scroll and Key and Wolf's Head, as the three senior class 'landed societies' at Yale. The society is known informally as "Bones," and members are known as "Bonesmen." Until 1971, the organization published annual membership rosters, which were kept at Yale's library. There are no official rosters published after 1982 and membership for later years is speculative. Some news organizations refer to them as a power elite.
The society's alumni organization, which owns the society's real property and oversees the organization, is the Russell Trust Association, named for General William Huntington Russell, who co-founded Skull and Bones with classmate Alphonso Taft. The Russell Trust was founded by Russell and Daniel Coit Gilman, member of Skull and Bones and later president of the University of California, first president of Johns Hopkins University, and the founding president of the Carnegie Institution.
- Frederick Ellsworth Mather - Democratic member of the New York State Assembly (1854–1857)
- Phineas Timothy Miller - American physician
- William Huntington Russell - Connecticut State Legislator, Major General
- Alphonso Taft - U.S. Attorney General (1876–1877), Secretary of War (1876), Ambassador to Austria-Hungary (1882) and Russia (1884–1885), father of William Howard Taft
- George Ingersoll Wood - American clergyman
Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 after a dispute among Yale's debating societies, Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean Society, over that season's Phi Beta Kappa awards; its original name was "the Order of Skull and Bones."
Skull and Bones selects new members every spring as part of Yale University's "Tap Day", and has done so since 1879. Recent Tap Days were held on April 20, 2009, and April 15, 2010. Every year, Skull and Bones selects fifteen men and women of the junior class to join the society. Skull and Bones traditionally "tapped" those that it viewed as campus leaders and other notable figures for its membership. The Tapping ceremony has always been a public event at Yale. The traditional form was followed for generations:
Every year, ... about 200 hopeful juniors gather on the grass in Branford College court (until 1933 they stood by the Fence in front of Durfee on the old campus). At the stroke of 5, senior members of the societies, wearing their pins, black ties and blue suits, march through the crowd, tap their men. A tappee hustles to his room, followed closely by his tapper, or shakes his head (refusal). Each society picks 15. Tapping usually ends when the Battell Chapel clock strikes 6, but in 1936 Wolf's Head, turned down by 17 tappees, went on tapping long after dark to fill its quota. —Time Magazine
The process of Tapping, as an admission process for a university secret society, with wide variations, have been passed on to other universities, such as University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Missouri. The longest and most elaborate Tapping process is still Yale's.
Skull and Bones has developed a reputation with some as having a membership that is heavily tilted towards the "Power Elite." Regarding the qualifications for membership, Lanny Davis, writing in the 1968 Yale yearbook, wrote: If the society had a good year, this is what the "ideal" group will consist of: a football captain; a Chairman of the Yale Daily News; a conspicuous radical; a Whiffenpoof; a swimming captain; a notorious drunk with a 94 average; a film-maker; a political columnist; a religious group leader; a Chairman of the Lit; a foreigner; a ladies' man with two motorcycles; an ex-service man; a negro, if there are enough to go around; a guy nobody else in the group had heard of, ever ...
Like other Yale senior societies, for much of its history Skull and Bones membership was almost exclusively limited to white Protestant males. While Yale itself had exclusionary polities at various times during its history, the senior societies were even more exclusionary. Catholics had some success attaining membership in such groups; Jews less so. Sports was the means by which some of these excluded groups eventually entered Skull and Bones, through its practice of tapping standout athletes. Star football players were the first Jewish (Al Hessberg, class of 1938) and black (Levi Jackson, class of 1950) students to be tapped for Skull and Bones.
Yale became coeducational in 1969, but Skull & Bones remained all-male until 1992. An attempt to tap women for membership by the Bones class of 1971 was opposed by Bones alumni, who dubbed them the "bad club" and quashed their attempt. "The issue," as it came to be called by Bonesmen, was debated for decades. The class of 1991 tapped seven female members for membership in the next year's class, causing conflict with their own alumni association, the Russell Trust. A second vote of alumni in October 1991 agreed to accept the Class of 1992.
Among prominent alumni are President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft (son of a founder of the society). John Kerry, Stephen A. Schwarzman, Founder of Blackstone, Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of President Obama'sCouncil of Economic Advisers, Harold Stanley, co-founder of Morgan Stanley and Frederick W. Smith, Founder of Fedex are all reported to be members.
List of Bonesmen