Secrets of the Tomb book by Alexandra Robbins reviewed by Emma Pollack-Pelzner

An initiation involving coffins and naked mud wrestling, thousands of dollars given to members upon graduation, and financial support of Adolf Hitler: these are some of the myths about the secret society Skull and Bones with which Alexandra Robbins opens her investigative book, Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. After an intriguing introduction filled with lurid tales, Robbins devotes the rest of her book to debunking these rumors and exposing the significantly less glamorous reality of Skull and Bones. Not only does the initiation involve drinking “blood” in the form of Kool-Aid, but society members receive no money upon graduation and have to make quite an effort even to access alumni connections.

The first half of the book provides an extensive history of clubs, societies, and social life at Yale. Robbins describes in rigorous detail the types of clubs that preceded today’s secret societies, including the literary societies of the early 1800s, “the first undergraduate intellectual societies in the country,” of which every undergraduate was a member, and the freshman, sophomore, and junior societies which came a few years later and included public, elaborate initiations but were still dedicated to intellectual pursuits such as speeches and debates. Through these and many other examples, Robbins argues that Yale has a long history of tradition, ritual and spirit.

Robbins provides so many examples in her unchronological history that she is likely to bore readers who are not connected to Yale or who do not have a deep interest in its history. They may be somewhat sustained, however, by Robbins’s vivid sentences and thorough reporting, perhaps a testament to her impressive biography which includes time as a reporter at the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately, her book is narrated in the expository voice of an extended magazine article (her research, in fact, began with a shorter piece in the Atlantic) and she never sustains an involved narrative that would carry a reader through the less interesting factual sections.

Things get more interesting when Robbins moves on from Yale’s history to the specifics of Skull and Bones and a tour of its tomb. Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 by William Russell after he had a falling out with Phi Beta Kappa. Secretary of Yale’s PBK chapter and valedictorian of his class, Russell was furious when a friend of his was not elected to this elite group. With his friend and 13 others, Russell broke away from PBK and formed a “bigger, badder, better society,” which met secretly to prevent the expulsion of its members. The idea for a secret society, as well as the name Skull and Bones, likely came from Germany, where Russell had studied during his Yale career. Skull and Bones may in fact have formed as a chapter of a German mother organization. Though it no longer claims any connection to other organizations, the tomb is still covered in German artifacts. German phrases are inscribed in the walls, and a print of an open tomb filled with skulls, books, and other objects is labeled “From the German chapter.” Even one of the society’s traditional songs is sung to the tune of the German national anthem, “Deutschland über Alles.”

In addition to the German memorabilia, Robbins exposes a tomb filled to the brim with “a potpourri of stuffed moose heads, candles, mannequin knights in armor, antlers, boating flags, manuscripts, medieval artwork, old photographs, a samovar, a Buddha on an elephant, a truck full of woolen blankets, and statuettes of Demosthenes.” Though it may be exciting for non-society members finally to learn of the secret goings-on of the Bones tomb, the reality is far from thrilling. As Robbins reports, “In its three stories and an attic, the Bones tomb houses a great morass of, simply, stuff . . . Though daunting on the outside, the inside of the tomb . . . resembles more the Victorian house of a pack rat.” Again going into laborious detail, Robins describes many individual paintings and artifacts in the tomb. Much of the decor is devoted, unsurprisingly, to the theme of death. A mummy lies on a mantel upstairs, and cups and mugs are shaped like skulls. The mood inside the tomb is more like a bad horror movie than anything truly frightening. The most impressive room in the tomb is the dining hall. Large windows line the room and overlook a hidden courtyard; their blinds are scrolls printed with Skull and Bones songs.

Robbins is even able to expose the “Inner Temple,” which is a significantly less cluttered large room decorated with a few key artifacts. Most interestingly, the Inner Temple, or IT, houses a skeleton which the members refer to as “`the Madam,’ out of their conviction that it was once Madame de Pompadour . . . one of the most influential women of the eighteenth century,” and a grandfather clock in front of which each Bones portrait is snapped. When the society was smaller, each alumnus was given a similar grandfather clock on his wedding day, but once the alumni group grew to its current proportions, the tradition was stopped for financial reasons. The IT is the primary location of the Skull and Bones initiation, to which Robbins also has unprecedented access. Though not involving coffins, nudity, or mud, the mundane reality of the initiation still sounds like fun. Robbins describes it as “a cross between an amusement park haunted house and a human pinball game, with the blind dizziness of a trip through a sandstorm.” A famous alumnus presides over the activities, which include teasing, introductions to the tomb, illuminations of the society’s traditions and history, an oath of secrecy, and lots of shouting.

One of the reasons Robbins may have been able to gain such extensive access to the tomb and to interviews with Bones members is that she herself was a member of Scroll and Key. Her bias is evident throughout the book, as Robbins never really addresses the elitism inherent in secret societies. In fact, the question of why a non-society reader might be interested in the room numbers on the second floor of the Skull and Bones tomb never seems to enter into her mind. Perhaps because of her own connections to the secret society community, Robbins comes to her reporting with the bias that societies are both good and of interest, and so fails to address explicitly either of these debatable assumptions. One of the strongest points she makes is when she considers the possibility that societies are not all they are cracked up to be, and that even alumni are disappointed with their reality. She suggests that perhaps alums continue to perpetuate the myths of Skull and Bones to make up for their own rather uneventful experience: “their cognitive dissonance becomes necessary in order to rationalize why they sacrificed every Thursday and Sunday night of their final year in college . . . to meet with a bunch of strangers in a relatively windowless building when the reward to a twenty-two-year-old in fact involves no money, dubious power, and diminished mystique.”

Robbins comes close to indicating the relevance Skull and Bones has on the rest of the world in one of her final chapters, where she enters into a dazzling illumination of the hundreds of Bonesmen who have held prominent positions at Yale and in the United States. Included in these lists are the names Bundy, Harriman, Buckley, Taft and, of course, Bush. Bonesmen have helped each other gain positions of prominence in a wide variety of economic and political fields. For example, Robbins describes George Bush, Sr.’s political ascent through a string of fellow society members who acted as mentors, employers and employees in the oil industry, connections to the Republican party, counsels for Bush’s son on legal and financial affairs, and held prominent governmental positions once Bush was elected president. Again, however, the “so what” element is missing. While Robbins lists the appointments Bush gave to Bonesmen during his presidency, she rarely elaborates on what effects these appointments had, or why it matters that these people were in Skull and Bones at all. Nor does she suggest that there is anything in particular that we can or should do about these connections. Additionally, Robbins never explains whether the power of these famous families arose from their affiliation with Skull and Bones, or if the secret societies are a byproduct of already existent power. Though her obvious admiration of societies indicates that she thinks the former is true, Robbins devotes this chapter to a whirlwind tour of famous alumni rather than a careful analysis of the facts in support of her answer.

Clearly, however, Robbins is convinced that the power of secret societies is of the utmost importance. She actually goes so far as to suggest that people believe the Skull and Bones myths out of a need for a controlling, causal force—they don’t like to believe that power can come out of nowhere. “People’s need for the Skull and Bones conspiracies to elucidate an underlying order,” she claims, “is similar to the need for religion to explain death and purpose.” Many Yalies would not equate secret societies with religion, and Robbins does not make her case clearly enough to convince us to do so. Ultimately, the importance and power of Skull and Bones lies primarily in its secrecy, not in its reality, and this secrecy is ironically exactly what Robbins so thoroughly strips away.