Short answer: It’s a Senior Society, that is a fraternity.
Long answer….prepare yourself for some Deep History, and Real Thought.
Its focus is on an ancient, and almost forgotten art, one whose roots predate Academia itself, and could even be considered its origin. The Knights (as current members are called) pledge themselves to the example of Demosthenes
(the great orator of Greece) and the “goddess” Eulogia, a word with the double meaning of “good speaking” and “blessing”: in the early Christian Church it referred to bread left over from the Eucharist
which was given away to schoolchildren or the poor as an act of charity. In short, the study of Rhetoric
, and, perhaps,a sharing of life’s blessings through fellowship. (Yale began as a divinity school, after all.)
It does this by two means: first, each Sunday of the school year, one member is chosen to speak on the easiest topic in the world — that is to say, an autobiography. They may speak for up to one hour, after which there might be other Tomb business, refreshments, general discussions, and suchlike. On the following night, the lucky member is cross-examined on their story, with an emphasis on inaccuracies, lapses in memory, and outright lying. No holds are barred here to trip up the speaker: soliciting sexual details (called “Connubial Bliss”), insults, and every kind of logical and emotional rat screwing is admissible. This also goes on for an hour, or until it’s obvious there’s nothing left to say. This trains the young Knight in the art of “thinking on their feet”: keeping a professional composure under pressure, coming up with good answers on the fly, or at least, artful stalling.
The second is to hold debates, and it’s here that the much-discussed nature of its membership reveals itself. Yes, the creme de la creme of Yale College is there. But there are also other members, the University’s dregs and its exotics: someone who is in at most danger of flunking out, one member who’s the first person in their family to go to college of any kind, a ladies’ man, an international student, even a few women. One member is simply chosen at random. You can probably understand why: if all the members are more-or-less the same, then you’re going to get the same arguments from both sides. Pair up an old-money heir with a fellow who’s flipping burgers part time, an evangelical Puritan with a party monster, a self-described PUA with an actual feminist, and you have some chance of an interesting discussion. Have them self-select, and you only get debate nerds. Summon them for slightly mysterious reasons, hint at some lavish reward for joining, and you have a lively, and quite convivial group indeed, in which everyone knows everything about everybody. Far from distancing people into an elite, the system aims at fostering empathy.
There are only fifteen Knights (and/or Ladies) at a given time, all in their senior year of college, after which one ascends to being Patriarch (or Matriarch) for life. However, this doesn’t come with any other honors, financial renumeration, or social advancement, outside of some potentially unlikely friendships. There are no branches of this organization elsewhere, and, outside of Alumni Week, no formal meetings of Patriarchs are ever held. One, and only one, member at any given time is a legacy, that is, someone whose parent or relative was in the group.
OK, you might say, but why all these spooky trappings? And why does it seem that so many of the rich and powerful have been members? First, since they were dealing with potentially sensitive details about people’s lives, they had to build up a great deal of trust among the members and take care to insure that all these biographies remained private. In their earliest days, this was a major problem, since they tended to meet in disused classrooms, rooms rented from shops, and private rooms in restaurants. Anyone lurking just outside the door, a waiter, or well, anyone, could easily overhear them. So it was that they took to posting signs on the door, warning in no uncertain terms that they were not to be disturbed or snooped upon. One of these signs featured a skull and crossbones, in emulation of the insignia of Freemasonry, which was quite in vogue right then, and the name stuck. In 1856, they acquired their own building, just outside The Old Campus, decorated it in various human and animal remains and morbid paintings that were the 19th century version of heavy metal posters, and over time, established an elaborate series of locks and passwords to deter the “Barbarians” without. In time, about fifteen other clubs have followed suit, and Tap Week (when new members are chosen) is a high point in the college year, with costumed and masked heralds bearing invites and guiding blindfolded or hobbled initiates to their Tombs. (Who gets whom is printed in the Daily the next morning.) For tourists who crave a little of the mojo, Shell and Bones is a popular reataurant on nearby City Point.
But, well, aren’t you supposed to get (a grandfather clock, a check for $15000, fixed up with a suitable job or spouse, set for life, valuable business contacts, etc.)? Isn’t this just another conspiracy of the High and the Mighty to consolidate their power? Admit it, the non-elite members are merely tokens, probably taking the role of servants to the more privileged!
Well, I do have a little personal information on this. Ted Shay, my mother’s childhood friend, was a Bonesman. He lived out a long life as a local lawyer, and lived in a modestly upscale house (well, it had an in-ground pool) with his wife and son. On a visit, I noticed no such clock. If he was “set for life”, it appeared that he had done so on his own, not through some mysterious benefactor. He attended the Catholic Church, then, as now, frowns on the occult, and at one time disliked the conflict of interest inherent in joining the deistic Freemasons.
So, what are we to take away from all this? Yes, they are practicing ancient arts, which really do have the potential to be a game-changer in many careers. They enjoy each other’s company, and yes, they are both really choosy, and paradoxically, really inclusive at the same time. Photographs taken during a group outing show an Asian woman, a Black man, several generic Preppies, and one fellow who appears to be Middle Eastern. And so be it!