by Ron Rosenbaum
It’s the primal scene of American power, of Bush family values.
For two centuries, the initiation rite of Skull and Bones has shaped
the character of the men who have shaped the American character,
including two Presidents named Bush.
And last Saturday, April 14–for the first time ever–that
long-secret rite was witnessed by a team of outsiders, including
Using high-tech night-vision video equipment able to peer through
the gloom into the inner courtyard of the Skull and Bones "Tomb" in
New Haven, The Observer team witnessed:
• The George W. effect: intoxicated by renewed proximity to
Presidential power, a robed Bonesman posing as George W. harangued
initiates in an eerily accurate Texas drawl: "I’m gonna ream you
like I reamed Al Gore" and "I’m gonna kill you like I killed
• Privileged Skull and Bones members mocked the assault on
Abner Louima by crying out repeatedly, "Take that plunger out of my
• Skull and Bones members hurled obscene sexual insults
("lick my bumhole") at initiates as they were forced to kneel and
kiss a skull at the feet of the initiators.
• Other members acted out the tableau of a throat-cutting
It’s important to remember this is not some fraternity
initiation. It is an initiation far more secret–and far more
significant, in terms of real power in the United States–than that
of the Cosa Nostra. If the Bushes are "the WASP Corleones"–as the
ever more stingingly waspish Maureen Dowd has suggested–this is how
their "made men" (and women) are made.* It’s an initiation ceremony
that has bonded diplomats, media moguls, bankers and spies into a
lifelong, multi-generational fellowship far more influential than
any fraternity. It was–and still remains–the heart of the heart of
the American establishment.
Further revelations turned up by the Observer Bones
Investigation Unit include:
• The words to the secret Skull and Bones "death
• Copies of the Skull and Bones tax returns, obtained through
Freedom of Information Act requests, raise questions about the
legitimacy of the secret society’s claim to charitable tax-exempt
deduction status–particularly relevant considering recent criticism
of the Bush tax plan for favoring the privileged few.
• A possible explanation emerged in the course of the
initiation ceremony for George W.’s decision to run for President in
the first place.
‘The Devil Equals Death’
The Observer Mission Impossible expedition had its
inception several months ago with a phone call from Peggy Adler, the
research associate on my previous Skull and Bones piece in The
Observer (July 17, 2000). She is the demon investigator and
former Iran-contra committee staffer who, among other coups,
cross-referenced corporate boards to crack the "RTA code," the
corporate shell game by which the corporate shell of the Skull and
Bones society, the Russell Trust Association, shielded its paper
trail from prying eyes by changing its name to RTA Inc.
Ms. Adler said she had been approached by a member of the Yale
community who wanted to share with us a remarkable coup of his own:
He had found a way last year, in April of 2000, to audiotape the
Skull and Bones initiation ceremony. And he wanted to know if we’d
be interested in an attempt to videotape it this time.
And so one afternoon last December, shortly after the Bush
electoral victory had been certified, I met with the intrepid
fellow; he booted up his laptop and let me listen to the sounds of a
ceremony that had been the subject of fevered speculation for nearly
two centuries now.
Of course, there is more to Skull and Bones than the mystical
mumbo-jumbo of its rituals. The rituals are less important than the
relationships–the bonds of power and influence that develop between
Skull and Bones initiates after they graduate. But the
relationships are first forged by the rituals and fact that the
founders of Time Inc. and the C.I.A., as well as several Secretaries
of State and National Security Advisors–the men who made the
decision to drop the Hiroshima bomb, invade the Bay of Pigs and
plunge us into Vietnam, the Tafts, the Bundys, the Buckleys, the
Harrimans, the Lovetts–all took part in this initiation ritual may
have something to do with the real world power of those bonds. The
unspoken understanding, the comfort level with the clandestine, the
nods and winks with which power is exercised.
The initiation ceremony begins the process of inculcating into
the elect of the elite (just 15 out of 1,300 in every Yale class)
the same mystical sense of mission that allowed the British Old Boy
network to rule a worldwide empire.
The whole phenomenon is rarely looked into beyond the exotic
ritual trappings (although Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson talk
about the world-wide web of Bones foreign policy mandarins in The
Wise Men). But it’s something I’ve been investigating off and on
for a quarter of a century now. I am the Ahab of Skull and Bones,
pursuing the white whale (or white male) leviathan to the utmost
depths. As an undergraduate at Yale I lived next door to the Skull
and Bones Tomb, and back in 1977 I published the first outsider’s
investigation into Skull and Bones, its rituals and its influence on
American political culture (an updated version of that piece,
revised to include my chilly exchange with George and Barbara Bush
on Air Force Two, can be found in my recent nonfiction collection,
The Secret Parts of Fortune).
And so it was momentous for me to actually hear the sounds of the
Skull and Bones initiation on that laptop. But in listening to it,
awe gave way to a mixture of puzzlement and embarrassment–and an
even deeper, unsatisfied curiosity.
In part it was the fact that the ritual was heard but not seen.
My Yale source had found a previously unexploited perch from which
to record the sounds of the ceremonies, but could glimpse them only
incompletely. He reported a figure dressed like the devil, another
one in a hooded-skeleton costume and others in robes. The thing that
stood out for me, listening to it, was what I’ve come to think of as
"the death mantra."
Yes, the death mantra–here it is, the three-line Skull and Bones
initiation-ritual theme that has bound three Presidents (including
the present one) to their secret society:
‘THE HANGMAN EQUALS DEATH!
THE DEVIL EQUALS DEATH!
Most of the speculative lore about the Skull and Bones ritual has
centered on its death fixation. Beyond the obvious
skull-and-crossbones insignia, of course, the most persistent story
is that initiates spend their senior year in the basement crypt of
the Bones Tomb taking turns lying in a coffin and, in two long,
intense, psycho-drama autobiographical sessions in said coffins,
recount their personal and sexual history to the other 14 chosen
ones. The better to bond for life with those they know best and
prepare for their destiny as stewards of the ruling class.
The death-centered imagery, the injunction to initiates that they
must "die to the barbarian world" and be reborn in the Elysian
company of the elect of "The Order," as they call it, is what makes
Skull and Bones as radically different from a college fraternity as
the Gambino family is from the "hunting and fishing club" that was
their nominal headquarters.
The hangman equals death. The devil equals death. Death equals
What the hell is going on there? Is it a puzzle in logic, like
"All men are mortal. Socrates is mortal …"? Does it solve out to
"The hangman equals the devil?"
Could one detect a capital-punishment theme here–the hangman as
executioner presaging George W.’s prolific execution rate as Texas
governor? "George W. equals death," you might say.
And what about the devil? (Well, the figure dressed like the
devil.) Is that the secret they’ve been covering up ever since the
society was founded in 1832, the offshoot of a German secret
society: devil worship? A fulfillment of the paranoid fantasies of
the fundamentalist right, who believe the Eastern establishment
is a front for Satanic conspiracy.
Probably not, but it made me more eager to participate in this
year’s caper: the attempt to see as well as hear it, to capture it
all on video–for educational, historical and journalistic purposes
to document a defining rite of passage of the American ruling
Oh, yes–before we get to the night-vision videotape, there was
one more thing, the embarrassing part of the audiotape, the
OOGA-BOOGA part. Part of the ceremony on the tape involved an
initiation master ordering the neophytes to fetch bones and uttering
the (I guess) fake Tarzan-movie "native" chant "OOGA BOOGA." It left
me feeling embarrassed for Skull and Bones. Hard to ever take
seriously again anyone whose defining life-mission moment includes
an OOGA BOOGA.
But as it turned out, "OOGA BOOGA" was not evident in this
year’s ceremony, as far as we were able to tell. Perhaps it was an
improvisation, like this year’s impersonation of George W. ("I’ll
ream you like I reamed Al Gore") was.
The Observer Mission Impossible Force met to plot strategy
an hour before sunset on initiation night, Saturday, April 12. It is
not widely known, but Tap Night, which occurs on Thursday, is not
generally the same as initiation night. The good stuff happens on
Saturday night, and already limos are cruising the quiet streets
that crisscross the Yale campus, conveying initiates of other secret
societies to their rituals. Bones initiates come on foot, knock on
the massive triple-locked wooden door of the Tomb and are conveyed
to the first stage of the ritual. But we are getting ahead of
Let me just mention how much I admired the intrepid Yale members
of the Observer Bones Task Force for displaying the kind of
curiosity, initiative and heretical, skeptical impulse apparently
absent on most Ivy campuses, if you believe David Brooks’ recent
Atlantic Monthly cover story on get-along-go-along premature
careerists. The guys on my team will make more of a real
contribution than any of the smug secret-society types.
First on the agenda was a quick examination of the Bones
income-tax filings, which an outside consultant to the team had
obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. He and Peggy
Adler pointed out to me a couple of dubious assertions on the Form
990’s (Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax), which called
into question certain of the grounds for charitable exemption. In
particular, there was the assertion in the 1997 RTA Incorporated
filing (Part VI, line 80b) that the organization was not "related …
through common membership, governing bodies, trustees, officers etc.
to any other exempt or non-exempt organization."
Contradicting that assertion is information on the filing of the
Deer Island Club Corporation. Deer Island is the private island of
the Skull and Bones Society, located in the St. Lawrence River. It
is the place where Bones members bring their families for summer
get-togethers. It is wholly owned and run by Skull and Bones
members, apparently contradicting Bones’ claim of "no relationship"
to another exempt organization, and appearing to contradict the
strictly educational and charitable mission for which RTA gets its
exemption for Skull and Bones.
The consultant argues in a memo that the purpose of the 80b
question on the Bones deduction claim form "is to prevent tax exempt
charities from undertaking non-charitable activities by hiding them
in another corporation. This is of course precisely what RTA Inc. is
accomplishing through the Deer Island Club Corporation. In order to
conceal this arrangement however RTA Inc. denies its connection to
In fact, he goes on, "RTA and the DICC are so closely linked that
for all intents and purposes RTA Inc. does own Deer Island despite
its claims to the contrary."
I’m not going to go into the whole tax issue here. Perhaps the
Bones shell corporation has a good and valid reason for claiming
that it has no connection to the Bones private-island country
club.** Perhaps this sort of thing goes on all the time among the
private charities of the privileged. I don’t think Deer
Island will become George W. Bush’s Whitewater. But one might think
that a scrupulous White House counsel would want to look at the kind
of tax information George W.’s secret society is filing on his
behalf. Particularly since he’s promising enormous windfalls for the
privileged, the tax breaks his secret society takes should be
utterly beyond suspicion. Does the President, I’d like to know,
claim his Skull and Bones dues as a charitable deduction, when the
only charity seems to be providing a club house and country house
for the privileged? The RTA filing claims Skull and Bones exists
"for the benefit of Yale University." But Yale–which celebrates
three centuries of luminous atainments this weekend–ought to
question what "benefit" it gets from chants of "lick my bumhole" and
the mockery of Abner Louima.
Anyway, as night came falling and we choreographed the evening’s
caper, I felt that we were carrying on an old-fashioned,
longstanding tradition: the natural reaction of the democratic
(small D) tradition to elitist power that conceals itself within the
cloak of privilege and secrecy. And for me, it was a culmination of
my own quarter-century quest, one that had become personalized
lately by the fact that our Skull and Bones President had been a
classmate of mine at Yale.
‘Run, Neophyte, Run!’
At last, zero hour approached. For two centuries, the outside
world had wondered and fantasized about what was about to happen,
what actually went on in the fabled Skull and Bones initiation.
There’s a long tradition of Yale secret societies (including Bones)
raiding other secret societies to capture their ritual artifacts. In
the 1970’s, an all-woman break-in team published photographs of the
Bone’s Tomb’s interior. But tonight, for the first time ever, we
would attempt to capture the actual secret initiation ritual and
bring it to light for anthropological study. Our team’s equipment
included three night-vision-capable digital-video cameras, one tape
recorder, a stepladder and two walkie-talkies. (I could never get
mine to work.) Because of a recent injury which limits my mobility,
I was stationed at a listening post with my tape recorder while the
video-cam team proceeded to their more perilous perch at the forward
base (as those of us in special ops call it). We planned to
rendezvous afterward for me to view the tape.
We split up just as the whoops and groans, the screams and moans
began to emanate from inside the Tomb and the masters of the Skull
and Bones initiation began establishing the posts they’d man for the
occult psycho-drama to come.
From my post, I could see through an open window shadowy figures
walking very close above my head. Later I’ll put my audio
impressions together with the video-cam record the other team
obtained for a more complete picture, but first let me transcribe
some of the notes I made from listening in. Fragmentary as they are,
they capture some of the strangeness, and perhaps the kind of
disorientation the initiates themselves experienced there in the
courtyard of Skull and Bones.
First, there was the guy posing as George W. He seemed to be a
bit disgruntled at being given this role–a feeling he expressed by
calling out in his George W. drawl to another "Patriarch" (as
they’re called): "I got the power to bomb the crap out of China and
they give me this station."
Then someone–one of the initiates?–called out "Uncle Toby!" (Many
Bone ritual personae are taken from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram
Shandy– you gotta give them credit there for good taste.)
"Uncle Toby!" the cry repeated.
"Shut up, neophyte."
"Take that plunger out of my ass, Uncle Toby."
Presumably, this mocking Louima reference was a ploy to scare
initiates into thinking Uncle Toby was going to give them the
That cheerful rectal theme was followed up by:
"I’m gonna ream you like I reamed Al Gore!" from the George W.
Followed by "Help me! It’s the devil!"
And then "George W." really getting into it: "I’m gonna
kill you like I killed Al Gore."
Silence. Then a door opened. Voices–half of them, it seemed,
women–were screaming: "Run! Neophyte! Run, neophyte!"
(The neophytes are, of course, the new initiates.)
From my post, I could only see hooded figures racing about in the
darkness above my head, accompanied by cries of:
"Find the femur!"
And (again): "Take that plunger out of my ass, Uncle Toby!"
Then silence for awhile. The neophyte seemed to have gone back
inside the Tomb. After which one of the Patriarchs complained, "We
ought to get better blood than this fuckin’ syrup, man."
It was only later that I learned what the blood was for: the
whole throat-slitting "barbarian" tableau after the
But first there was a different kind of kissing being referred
to. There were cries of "Lick my bumhole, neophyte!" "Lick my ass,
neophyte!" "Do you like my bum, neophyte?" (Despite these heartfelt
pleas, we did not witness any of those acts being consummated.)
The bumhole tribute was followed by more cries of "Get the
femur!" and at least part of the death mantra I’d heard before:
"DEATH EQUALS DEATH."
Following which, "George W." chimed in with "I’m the President of
the motha-fuckin’ U.S.A."–apparently just for the sheer pleasure of
saying it. (He was sounding more like the real George W. all the
It began to be clear that what was going on outside in the
courtyard was the climax of an initiation ceremony that began inside
the Tomb. There, it’s reputed, the initiates must first enter into a
coffin and "die to the barbarian world," to the world of "savages"
(all but the Skull and Bones elect), in order to be reborn as a
member of "The Order." Then comes the skull-kissing and the
Two hours later, after all 15 of the initiates had burst out to
be harangued and scared, I approached the rendezvous point with the
night-vision camera team. This was the moment of truth: The
night-vision team wasn’t sure what their digicams had picked up.
With their own eyes they’d gotten evocative glimpses, but the
playback on the camera’s swing-out view screens would be the first
time, so far as we knew, any outsider had really seen the legendary
ritual. A ritual three Presidents, a few Supreme Court justices,
maybe a dozen Senators (including 2004 Democratic Presidential
contender John Kerry–which would mean a head-to-head, Skull-to-Skull
smackdown with George W.), several Secretaries of State, literary
and cultural luminaries including John Hersey and William F.
Buckley, had all undergone.
The footage was ghostly, it was grainy–but from the angles of the
night-vision cams, we were able to piece together a narrative of
what happened when the initiates emerged one at a time from the
preliminaries inside the Tomb.
First they were led forward by a figure in a devil costume. Not
really a sinister, Satanic-looking figure but, as one of the team
put it, "More like Satan’s Little Helper."
A shrill, menacing and sometimes blood-curdling chorus of cries
and screams and imprecations accompanied the emergence:
"Hurry, neophyte!" "Run, neophyte!"
"Find the femur, neophyte!" Along with the occasional "Lick my
bumhole!" "Remove the plunger!"—type outcries.
The devil figure pulled them into a white tent in the courtyard
where, we think, they found their femurs and emerged with what
looked like a thigh bone, although it was impossible to tell whether
it once belonged to a human or not.
When they reemerged from the tent, they were led to the
centerpiece of this part of the ritual.
They were forced face-to-face with a shocking tableau: a guy
holding what seemed like a butcher knife, wearing a kind of
animal-skin "barbarian" look, stood over what seemed to be a
woman covered in fake blood and not much else. The neophyte then
approached a skull a few feet away from the knife-wielder-and-victim
tableau. The neophyte knelt and kissed the skull, at which point the
guy with the knife knelt and cut the throat of the prone
figure. (Well, pretended to cut the throat.)
I’m not sure what it all means. I’ve yet to decode the mystical
significance of this, although I do love to think of former
President George Bush kissing the skull. Obviously, it has something
to do with subservience. Kiss the skull of power. Bow down to The
Order. But what about the "barbarian" cutting the throat of his
Does it mean "One dies to the barbarian world"? Does it mean
"Death to the barbarians"? Does it endorse cutthroat tactics? Is
that how they enforce silence and secrecy?
I plan to continue my relentless study of the hermeneutics of the
Bones rituals, myths and symbolism based on these new revelations,
and perhaps with the help of a Bones graduate who feels the time has
come to lift the veil on the silly (and no longer even secret)
symbolism of their society. (Contact me privately c/o The Edgy
Alliance, 577 Second Avenue, Box 105, N.Y., N.Y. 10016.)
All that death imagery, though: Maybe it’s meant to be a first
ritualistic confrontation with Mortality, the skull as a memento
mori designed to instill in the "neophyte" a sense of the
gravity of one’s mission in life.
In that regard, consider the direct relevance of at least one
aspect of the ritual to George W. That recurrent phrase: "Run,
Think about it. When George W. was first considering the fairly
serious shift from baseball-team owner (whose major achievement was
trading away Sammy Sosa) to governor of Texas, or when he was
considering the shift from one-term governor of Texas to President
of the United States, what decided him–what made him think he could
pull it off, despite years as a semi-permanent neophyte? Could it be
that what he heard, echoing in his brain, down the corridors of the
years, was the injunction from that long-ago April night when he was
a Skull and Bones initiate? When he bent down to kiss the skull and
heard, resounding in his ears, the command: "Run,