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Monday, February 23, 2009


How would students in Oregon deal with Skull and Bones?

A few years ago, I interviewed a Yale graduate for an article about his efforts to set a world record. The conversation turned to his alma mater and I made the mistake of jokingly asking him about Skull and Bones. You could have heard a pin drop. His face went blank and he grimly told me, "I can't talk about it." I asked him if he was serious and he repeated the same line more firmly, suggesting that he would walk out on the interview if I asked him further questions about the organization. I never did figure out if he had been messing with me or if he was truly a former "Bonesman" sworn to secrecy.

Conspiracy theories and outlandish allegations have surrounded the secretive student club for over a century, everything from bizarre initiation ceremonies to the elaborate plot by former members to help fund Hitler's war effort. On Friday, the New York Times ran an article about former United States attorney general Ramsey Clark's lawsuit over one of the most widely heard rumors about Skull and Bones. Supposedly, Prescott S. Bush, the grandfather of GW, once raided the grave of Geronimo and made off with his skull, two bones, a bridle and a few stirrups. Allegedly, all of these items are still on display within the group's clubhouse "tomb" at Yale. The lawsuit, on behalf of Geronimo's descendants, hopes to confirm the rumor and, if true, return everything to its proper resting place.

I first heard about Skull and Bones from an old episode of The Simpsons (Mr. Burns is a former member) and I still find it hard to believe that such an organization is still operating. Perhaps its continued existence is a testament to the indomitable traditions (and pompousness) of America's top universities. Several Ivy League schools in the country still have at least one secret society student club. But one place that you never seem to see these organizations? On the campuses of state universities.

I can just imagine what would happen to a secretive club like Skull and Bones at my alma mater, the student activist-clogged University of Oregon, if it was revealed, or even rumored, that its members possessed the stolen body parts of a Native American icon. A few hundred students would stage a sit-in in front of the clubhouse before kicking down the doors and, if the artifacts were found, stealing them back. Each member of Skull and Bones would then be ostracized and ridiculed on the streets and by every student publication on campus. The story would make the pages of The Oregonian and the campus would be flooded by TV news crews from all over the Northwest. Shortly thereafter, graffiti would cover every inch of the exterior of their clubhouse and maybe someone would eventually get around to burning the place to the ground.

No, seriously. All of this would happen. I guarantee it.

Maybe this is another example of how things are done differently on the west coast. Out here the stereotypical college student is more concerned with saving the world, whereas their east coast, Ivy League counterpart is too busy trying to run it.

Anyway, if my interviewee had been more forthcoming, one of my first questions would have been about Skull and Bones' cleaning staff. Regardless of its secretive, cult-like activities, somebody's gotta tidy up and dust off Geronimo's skull every once and a while, right? The heirs to America's most powerful families sure aren't going to do it.

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