One of the reasons John Kerry lost to George W. Bush in 2004 was suspicion surrounding the candidates' mutual membership in the Yale frat-boy club, Skull and Bones.
In January of that year, Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now asked Alexandra Robbins, author of Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivory League and the Hidden Paths of Power, if Skull and Bones alumni cared who won the election. “No,” Robbins answered. “They describe it is a win-win situation. As long as there's a Bonesman in the White House, there are going to be many more Bonesmen in the administration.”
If the Bonesmen didn't care which of the two Bonesmen won, why should we?
Bonesmen. (Just felt like saying it again.)
Regardless of how differently Kerry might have governed the country, he was perceived as an elite insider, too similar to Bush to make a difference. Kerry's “no comment” attitude about the secret society only helped feed the darkest paranoia of every niche of conspiracy theorist.
No surprise, of course, that the tinfoil-hat crowd mistook a frat house full of egoistic rich kids scratching each other's backs for an evil cult responsible for everything bad in the world. After all, fringe thinkers are lucky enough never to get invited to frat parties. They can't be expected to get it that hazing, secrecy and looking out for your brother are par for the course.
Robbins' book wasn't about hidden power; it was about hidden paths to power: a networking organization of elitist college buddies who perform kooky rituals and spill their guts about their peccadilloes as a means of keeping one another from ratting each other out and to solidify friendships that lead to favors. It's not so different from, say, Scientology, the Mormon Church or The Little Rascals' He-Man Wimmen Haters Club (Skull and Bones only recently started admitting females to the clan). Bonesmen (and now Boneswomen) secure positions of power through Skull and Bones connections, but as an entity they don't really control or run anything more than a stuffy old gentlemen's club on a venerable college campus.
But even otherwise rational skeptics in 2004 fell under the spell of the spooky mystery of the Bush / Kerry Skull and Bones “coincidence” enough to wonder whether a cadre of satanic overlords really were pulling the levers behind the red, white and blue curtain.
Unfortunately, the election of Barack Obama has not completely dispelled the myth of the 800 or so living Skull and Bones alumni as “Ivory League” Wizards of Oz—Obama's an elite Harvard graduate, after all, and possibly a secret Masonic pod person from the Crab Nebula with clandestine allegiance to Skull and Bones, perhaps part of the great Illuminati conspiracy to enslave the world and hog all the single malt scotch—but at least the Skull and Bones thing got pushed to the paranoia back burner.
Then last week, Skull and Bones were disinterred from disinterest. The Associated Press reported that the secretive club, along with Yale University and the U.S. government, faces a federal lawsuit filed by the descendents of Apache warrior Geronimo, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his death. Geronimo's great-grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, claims that Skull and Bones stole some of the Indian warrior's remains in 1918 from a burial plot in Fort Sill, Okla., to keep in its New Haven clubhouse, “The Tomb.”
This legend has gained some credence since 2005, when Yale historian Marc Wortman discovered a letter written from Bonesman Winter Mead to Bonesman F. Trubee Davison in 1911. “The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and Knight Haffuer, is now safe inside the [Tomb] together with his well worn femurs, bit and saddle horn,” Mead wrote.
The story goes that George W. Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, and a couple of his fellow Bonesmen buddies, while stationed at the fort with a group of WWI Army volunteers, dug up Geronimo's, or perhaps a different Apache prisoner's, grave. The plaintiffs in the suit want whatever Indian bones the frat-boys may have pilfered turned over so they can be reburied in the southern New Mexico wilderness.
According to the AP, Harlyn Geronimo believes “strongly from my heart that [the dead Apache's] spirit was never released.”
This lawsuit is worth following for what it can teach us about the power of myth and the limitations of power. Skull and Bones' secret rituals, allegedly including the kissing of Geronimo's skull, give them an aura of mystique and the scary mark of indeterminate power.
Likewise, Geronimo, a medicine man whose real name was Goyathlay, was believed by his own people to possess supernatural powers when alive. In 1858, he returned home from a trading expedition in Mexico to discover that his wife, mother and three children had been massacred by Spanish troops in a raid. He became a fierce warrior, hell-bent on revenge, and his prowess in battle became legendary. In one skirmish, he survived being shot and a legend formed around the myth of his imperviousness to bullets.
There may not be much to gain in pointing out that indigenous spiritual beliefs are no more or less superstitious than the paranoid belief that Skull and Bones has unlimited power. But there is much to gain in thinking clearly about Skull and Bones.
If they are forced by the lawsuit to turn over the bones—and, of course, they must—their mystique will be diminished, and they will have to find some other skull to kiss. Such a public betrayal of their secrecy will reveal that, ultimately, they are subordinate to the rule of law and not the other way around. The case should prove to even the conspiracy-minded that the seemingly metaphysical power of the super-powerful is contingent.