A Brief History of Secret Societies in the Western World

Secret Societies have, understandably, become a mainstay of conspiracy culture in the Western World today. As Manly P. Hall, the knowledgeable chronicler of philosophical studies in the early part of the last century had written, “Secret Societies have existed among all peoples, savage and civilized, since the beginning of recorded history… It is beyond question that the secret societies of all ages have exercised a considerable degree of political influence.” Echoing this sentiment, though pursuing it to more sinister areas, science fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein, author of the libertarian epic The Moon is a Harsh MistressI, likened secrecy — and the societal groups who maintain it — to being, “the beginning of tyranny” itself.

In an even more conspiratorial tone, former New York Mayor John F. Hylan wrote similarly that, “The real menace of our Republic is the invisible government, which like a giant octopus sprawls its slimy legs over our cities, states and nation. To depart from mere generalizations, let me say that at the head of this octopus are the Rockefeller–Standard Oil interests and a small group of powerful banking houses generally referred to as the international bankers. The little coterie of powerful international bankers virtually run the United States government for their own selfish purposes. They practically control both parties, write political platforms, make catspaws of party leaders, use the leading men of private organizations, and resort to every device to place in nomination for high public office only such candidates as will be amenable to the dictates of corrupt big business.”

This persistent belief in a broad-reaching “secret” or “invisible government” of sorts, propelled ever-forward by the workings of international bankers that fund the efforts of the illustrious “one percent”, and a media elite that is compliant with the efforts of the aforementioned, is not entirely without some basis in fact. If anything, the recent revelations pertaining to the so-called “Panama Papers” may be the finest example of such affairs, and their relevance to the operations of secret groups in the world today.

Secret Societies and the “Panama Papers” 

The April 18, 2016 edition of TIME featured a short article on the Mosseck Fonseca affair, more commonly known as the “Panama Papers”, referring to a series of documents stolen and leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung starting in early 2015.

In the TIME brief (the only item that appeared in the print edition of TIME that discussed the scandal… a story well worthy of a cover story), the following passage appeared:

“In the U.S., the impact [of Mossack Fonseca] is sure to be felt at the ballot box. Many American voters already feel on a gut level that global capitalism is working mainly for the 1%, not the 99%. This has fueled the candidacies of both the socialist Bernie Sanders and the Billionaire Donald Trump. But the Panama Papers go beyond gut feelings to eliminate a key aspect of why the system is working— namely that globalization has allowed the capital and assets of the rich to travel more freely even than those of everyone else. The result is rampant tax avoidance, labor off shoring at a class of elites that flies 35,000 feet over the problems of nations and their taxpayers. “The 1% can move anywhere they want and profit handsomely from the relocation,” says Peter Atwater, a behavioral economist. “but the 99% are left with the aftermath—the empty buildings of a deserted Detroit, the toxic waste from chemical plants in West Virginia or the unsustainable tax liabilities of Puerto Rico.”

This passage illustrates, from a monetary standpoint, the benefits of globalism for its proponents. It underscores the fact that capital and assets can be very easily moved among the so-called “1%”, which thus allows them the benefit of such things as tax avoidance. That may not be all it allows them, however. There are also the benefits of being able to move funding sources smoothly, and quietly, for other things too… though we might leave this mostly to the imagination, such things as managed conflicts that occur outside official declarations of war, funding for intelligence programs that occur even beyond the purview of the Office of the President of the United States, and an untold number of similar things do spring to mind. Above all, it is this theme of globalization, the consolidation of power among elite groups and governments, and the ease of access or movement of large sums between them, that resides at the heart of virtually all of the notable secret groups and their operations throughout history. 

Thus, the actual role secret societies have played in western culture over the course of the last few hundred years is, as we shall soon see, not only relevant, but important in our broader understanding of political happenings throughout history, and especially since the beginning of the renaissance period. This remains true, both in terms of the historical underpinnings of modern western society, as well as the reality of international affairs occurring today; the aims and objectives of the secret groups that operate within the framework of western society remain just as relevant.

Defining What a “Secret Society” Actually Is

Before we can divulge which among the modern “Secret Societies” are most influential, and what the extent of their actual influence may be, it is important to first understand what secret societies are, why they are formed, and which ones actually remain in operation.

For instance, many people today are preoccupied with the existence of one alleged secret organization called “The Illuminati.” Taken to be the mother of all modern secret societies, they are said to have ties not only in politics and world affairs, but to Hollywood and the music industry just as well. And yet, there is very little evidence that suggests an “Illuminati” actually exists, at least in any modern sense (which we will address at greater length later). That is not to say, of course, that other modern groups, with goals similar to that of the historic Illuminati, might not still be in operation today; in fact, one particular group of this sort — Yale University’s Order of Skull and Bones — does come to mind, and later we’ll examine why some scholars actually link them to the original German Illuminati of the late 1700s.

As far as the legitimate secret societies operating in the modern world, and which actually bear some influence, groups like the Bilderbergers, the aforementioned Order of Skull and Bones, and the Round Table groups described by Georgetown University professor Caroll Quigley are probably among the most important. The Council on Foreign Relations (cited by Quigley as being one of the Round Table groups), as well as its subsidiary Trilateral Commission, each come to mind, although it might be argued that these groups aren’t true “secret societies” in the classical sense. They are merely groups, some of them international, which favor what we might call a “globalist agenda,” rather than actual secret fraternities with a stated number of fixed members that maintain secret knowledge, and control world affairs from behind the scenes.

Looking back through history, the concept of “secret societies” have been likened by anthropologists and historians to what was once called the Männerbund, a representation of all-male “warrior-bands” or warrior societies dating back to prehistoric times. Many modern secret societies, if not the vast majority, have been exclusive to male membership until just the last few decades; particularly those operating from within U.S. college campuses.

David V. Barrett’s book Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, presents an identifying structure for what may identify a secret society:

  • These groups have “carefully graded and progressed teachings”
  • The teachings are “available only to selected individuals”
  • The teachings lead to “hidden (and ‘unique’) truths”
  • These truths bring “personal benefits beyond the reach and even the understanding of the uninitiated.”

Arguably, a designation such as this would rule out many political, governmental, and international groups, as well as some “classical” secret societies. Thus, other simpler criteria for what constitutes a secret society would merely describe a group that operates secretly, claims to possess secret knowledge, and generally works to the benefit of those associated with the organization.

Manly P. Hall and the Esoteric Origins of Secret Societies

Manly Palmer Hall (1901 – 1990) was the master mystic and esoteric philosopher of his day. He was born in Canada in 1901, and by the time he was in his 20s, had relocated to the Los Angeles area and was rising to prominence as a Christian mystic. Through his charismatic speaking and knowledge as a researcher of the arcane, he raised the funds for self-publication of what became his magnum opus, a book called The Secret Teachings of All Ages. (As an interesting side note, the late J. Allen Hynek, former science advisor to the U.S.A.F.’s Project Blue Book, saved up and bought his first copy of Hall’s aforementioned book while still in his early teens).

Manly P. Hall was not just a respected lecturer and writer, but also had been one of the most learned scholars on ancient mystery traditions, which informed much of his work. Through the study of ancient rites and initiation into the mystery schools of the ancient world, the underpinnings of many secret fraternities can be realized, as described specifically in the first three chapters of Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Throughout parts of the rest of the book, an overview of the secret history of specific groups such as Freemasonry (of which Hall was a member), as well as Rosicrucianism were also given.

To summarize Hall’s commentary on secret societies, in ancient times, mystics would often band together, forming “seclusive philosophic and religious schools.” Fraternization among these secret groups led to the pooling of some of the greatest minds of antiquity, and as Hall notes, many of the resulting groups were “moralistic, rather than religonistic; philosophic rather than theologic.” Within these groups, sun worship often played a role, as with many religious and philosophical traditions found in parts of the ancient world that included Europe’s druids, as well as the ancient Egyptian religions that formed the basis of many later occult groups and their beliefs.

The Illuminati: Are They the Real “Architects” of Western Society?

The secret society known as the Illuminati most certainly existed. The group was founded by Dr. Adam Weishaupt on May 1, 1776, purportedly at the direction of the House of Rothschild. Weishaupt borrowed much of the organization’s structure from Freemasonry, and assigned classical nicknames to all of its initial members. The group then relocated to Germany in 1777 and established it’s base in Frankfurt, where its members joined and subsequently gained control of the local Masonic lodge. As their membership steadily grew, the Illuminists carried their operations in similar fashion to other parts of Europe, Africa, and even the Americas, where they courted the wealthy and sophisticated with aims of breaking down religious beliefs and, eventually, instituting a single world government.

Today, many proponents of conspiracy theories maintain that the modern version(s) of this same order actually are still in operation, and that their activities involve control mechanisms that still seek to further the globalist cause. Further assertions have been made that the famous Yale University secret society, The Order of Skull and Bones, may in fact represent an American branch of the very same group of European Illuminati (after all, founding Bonesman William H. Russell had traveled to Germany in the early 1830s, where he purportedly made associations with a fraternal organization, and was granted authority to bring a “chapter” back to America with him the following year).

Others are less convinced that the Illuminati still exists, at least as recognized under Dr. Adam Weishaupt’s original group. American author and Playboy editor Robert Anton Wilson once addressed the subject during an interview, in which he said the following to Richard Metzger on the subject:

Richard Metzger: You have studied the Illuminati for years. Have you come to any conclusion about their aims?

Robert Anton Wilson: Usually when people ask me that question, I give them some kind of a put-on, but I can’t think of a good and original put-on that I haven’t done several times before.

So I’ll tell you the truth, for once. After investigating the Illuminati and their critics for the last 30 years, I think the Illuminati was a short lived society of free thinkers and democratic reformers that formed a secret society within Freemasonry, using Freemasonry as a cover so they could plot to overthrow all the kings in Europe and the Pope. I’m very happy that they succeeded in overthrowing all the kings, I just wish that they had completed the job and gotten rid of the Royal family in England too, but they did pretty well on the continent. I’m sorry they haven’t finished off the Pope yet, either, but I think they’re still working on the project and I wish them luck.

Unlike the Illuminati, a better case for the existence of the so-called “Round Table Groups”, also known as Milner groups or “Milner’s Kindergarten”, may be made. Such groups, though their existence and influence is disputed by some scholars, may indeed have played significant roles in the formation of modern Western government and political institutions.

Caroll Quigley and the Round Table Groups

Caroll Quigley was one of the premiere historians of the last century, and students that passed through his classrooms included none other than future president William Jefferson Clinton. Over the course of his career, Quigley wrote on many occasions about a secretive group, which operated under various names in different jurisdictions around the world. In his own words, Quigley said that, “this Group is, as I shall show, one of the most important historical facts of the twentieth century.”

In his 1964 book Tragedy and Hope, Quigley described these “Round Table Groups” as secret societies founded in 1891 by Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Milner. The groups, their formation, and subsequent operations were outlined as follows:

“As governor-general and high commissioner of South Africa in the period 1897 – 1905, Milner recruited a group of young men, chiefly from Oxford and from Toynbee Hall, to assist him in organizing his administration. Through his influence these men were able to win influential posts in government and international finance and became the dominant influence in British imperial and foreign affairs up to 1939. Under Milner in South Africa they were known as Milner’s Kindergarten until 1910. In 1909 – 1913 they organized semisecret groups, known as Round Table Groups, in the chief British dependencies and the United States. These still function in eight countries. They kept in touch with each other by personal correspondence and frequent visits, and through an influential quarterly magazine, The Round Table, founded in 1910 and largely supported by Sir Abe Bailey’s money. In 1919 they founded the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) for which the chief financial supporters were sir Abe Bailey and the Astor family (owners of The Times). Similar Institutes of International Affairs were established in the chief British dominions and in the United States (where is known as the Council on Foreign Relations) in the period 1919 – 1927. After 1925 a somewhat similar structure of organizations, known as the Institute of Pacific relations, was set up in twelve countries holding territory in the Pacific area, the units in each British Dominion existing on an interlocking basis with the Round Table Group and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the same country. In Canada the nucleus of this group consisted of Milner’s undergraduate friends at Oxford (such as Arthur Glazebrook and George Parkin), while in South Africa and India the nucleus was made up of former members of Milner’s Kindergarten.” (Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, p. 132)

As noted by Quigley in the above passage, the Round Table Groups actually had their own publication, appropriately called “The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.” There is a website for this publication, commonwealthroundtable.co.uk, available online  today. Also, as Quigley noted in 1966 in Tragedy and Hope, the Council on Foreign Relations was identified as a “similar Institute of International Affairs”. This, if accurate, would indicate that the Round Table Groups, of which Quigley asserted so much power and influence, do still exist today, and not-so secretly.

The Council on Foreign Relations: A Modern Round Table Group 

The Council on Foreign Relations, which has its roots dating back to Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, may be one of the most “secret” of purported modern secret societies. It is often said that those who speak of official CFR business outside of meetings will be penalized with loss of their membership; the very definition of “secret” activities.

John Foster Dulles was an early member of the CFR, as was his brother, Allen Dulles, who went on to be the head of the CIA. Since Dulles’ tenure with the agency, virtually every CIA chief has also been a member of the CFR. However, the CFR’s influence doesn’t merely extend to the CIA; the State Department is equally involved in the group’s dealings.

As with many other secret societies, the CFR has its own magazine, Foreign Affairs, which serves as something of a public front for the organization, in periodical form.

Similar to the Council on Foreign Relations is the Trilateral Commission, widely likened to being one of it’s “front operations”, which unites Europe and North America with Japan. The brainchild of David Rockefeller (whose 350 members are picked by him), the organization came into fruition following talks that transpired during a secret 1972 meeting of the famous Bilderbergers.

The TC publishes much of its work in the magazine Trialogue, in addition to its periodically published “Triangle Papers.” David Rockefeller described the TC thusly in a Wall Street Journal piece: “[It is], in reality, a group of concerned citizens interested in fostering greater understanding, and cooperation among international allies.” However, Winston Lord, who served as president of the Council on Foreign Relations between 1977 and 1985 and also a former U.S. State Department official, once quipped that, “The Trilateral Commission doesn’t run the world, The Council on Foreign Relations does that!”

The Bilderberg Group

Among the more popular secret organizations of the modern era is the Bilderberg Group, whose name is borrowed from the location of the group’s first meeting, the Hotel de Bilderberg in Oosterbeek, Netherlands, on May 29—31, 1954. The meeting was spearheaded by exiled Polish politician Józef Retigner, who proposed a private, international conference with the aim of promoting “Atlanticism”, or in essence, strengthened American and European relations, in response to concerning anti-American trends that were beginning to emerge in parts of Europe.

Retinger brought this concept to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, a leader who, early in life, had been affiliated with the Nazi party’s honorary “Reiter-SS”, but later joined the Allies and fought with the RAF against the Axis powers in World War II. Prince Bernhard (who would go on to serve as the initial chair of the Bilderberger meetings) began coordinating with Retinger and the Belgian prime minister, Paul Van Zeeland, among others. Soon the CIA director, Walter Bedell Smith, was approached about cooperation with the group as well, who tasked Charles Douglas Jackson, an advisor to president Dwight Eisenhower, with planning in advance of the initial 1954 meeting. 

Fifty “delegates” from eleven different Western European countries, as well as eleven Americans, comprised the group’s first meeting. The objective had been to draw two prospective attendees from every nation, in order to represent both conservative and liberal views from each location. The success of the initial 1954 Bilderberger gathering resulted in arrangements for an annual conference in the years that followed.

Succeeding Prince Bernhard of Netherlands, who resigned as Bilderberger chairman in 1976 due to controversies surrounding the Lockheed Scandal, Lord Peter Carrington assumed the position (today, at age 97 Carrington is the sole surviving member of Winston Churchill’s government). Carrington was succeeded by Étienne Davignon, former vice-president of the European Commission.

Today, The Bilderbergers maintain their annual scheduled meeting, expanding the range of the subjects they address to include such themes as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, while old staples like globalization remain among the more familiar topics to the group, as described at their website. That’s right, they have a website, in which the previous year’s attendees list, as well as the topics on their agenda, are posted for all to see. This can be viewed at http://www.bilderbergmeetings.org/.

On a final unrelated note, though one of interest in the broader context of secret groups and their meeting places, the fourth Bilderberger meeting (1957) took place on Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia. It was financed with a sum of $30,000 from the Ford Foundation (which also funded later Bilderberger conferences in 1959 and 1963). The small spattering of islands off the Georgia coast have long held an appeal among such elite groups. For example, the famous gathering that assembled plans for institution of the Federal Reserve chose Jekyll Island for its meeting in 1910, organized under the auspices of a “duck hunt”; more recently, a group of world leaders and technocrats gathered on Sea Island, Georgia, to strategize against the perceived threat of Donald Trump’s political success in the 2016 primary election season.

Secret Societies and the Formation of the Federal Reserve

On the subject of the Georgia Coast and its long history of visitation by elite globalist groups, perhaps the earliest of these meetings had been the famous gathering of bankers who descended on Jekyll Island in 1910, with aims of instituting a national banking institution. This was, in fact, the third time such a government banking operation would appear in our nation’s history; prior to what became the Federal Reserve had been the the Second Bank of the United States, which collapsed in 1841 after massive government defunding by President Andrew Jackson. Once the bank eventually failed, it’s president, Nicholas Biddle, was arrested under charges of fraud, though he was eventually acquitted, and soon died thereafter. Incidentally, Jackson’s presidency was the last in which the federal budget was balanced, although some economic historians argue that national debt was already declining prior to Jackson’s direct involvement.

The story of the Federal Reserve begins in the early years of the last century, as the National Monetary Commission was being formed by Congress in response to the 1907 Banker’s Panic (also called the Knickerbocker Crisis). Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, who became the Commission’s chair, was tasked with reviewing banking policies in the United States, which he compared with data on banking methods he gathered during subsequent trips throughout different areas of Europe. After reviewing and comparing various economic systems, Aldrich sent invitations to a number of influential U.S. bankers in November of 1910, asking them to join him on what was publicly acknowledged only as a “duck hunt” on Jekyll Island, Georgia; the real objective, however, had been to meet and discuss various ways the banking system in America might be reimagined, with interest in preventing future economic crises like the panic of 1907. 

Historian Tyler E. Bagwell, writing for Jekyll Island History, describes the once secretive, though now very famous affair that led to the formation of the Federal Reserve Bank:

The 1910 “duck hunt” on Jekyll Island included Senator Nelson Aldrich, his personal secretary Arthur Shelton, former Harvard University professor of economics Dr. A. Piatt Andrew, J.P. Morgan & Co. partner Henry P. Davison, National City Bank president Frank A. Vanderlip and Kuhn, Loeb, and Co. partner Paul M. Warburg. From the start the group proceeded covertly. They began by shunning the use of their last names and met quietly at Aldrich’s private railway car in New Jersey.

In 1916, B. C. Forbes discussed the Jekyll conference in his book Men Who Are Making America and illuminates, “To this day these financiers are Frank and Harry and Paul [and Piatt] to one another and the late Senator remained ‘Nelson’ to them until his death. Later [, following the Jekyll conference,] Benjamin Strong, Jr., was called into frequent consultation and he joined the ‘First-Name Club’ as ‘Ben.’” This book as well as a magazine article by Forbes is the only public mention to the conference until around 1930, when Paul Warburg’s book The Federal Reserve System: Its Origin and Growth and Nathaniel Wright Stephenson’s book Nelson W. Aldrich: A Leader in American Politics were published.

A little more than two decades later, the controversial researcher of political conspiracies, Eustace Mullins, would author another book, Secrets of the Federal Reserve, after meeting and receiving instruction from the expatriate poet Ezra Pound. Mullins discovered Pound during a visit with friends to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Mullins had been working at the Library of Congress at the time, and later asserted that Pound was a political prisoner, rather than a patient at the hospital).

However, the most popular book on the secret dealings that instituted the Federal Reserve is G. Edward Griffin’s aptly titled, The Creature From Jekyll Island. In response to criticisms of his narrative regarding the Fed and its operations, Griffin has stated that, “until specifics [of error] are brought to my attention, I stand on everything I have written. … There is nothing about my work that merits being classified as a conspiracy theory.”

The Business Plot of 1933: A Plot to Overthrow FDR

The “Business Plot”, while still cited by many as an alleged affair, in likelihood did represent a valid takeover attempt, in which the U.S. President was to be overthrown with the help of influential bankers, and replaced with a fascist government.

On November 20, 1934, the McCormack—Disckstein Committee hearings began (under the United States House of Representatives Special Committee on Un-American Activities), in which a statement was released which alleged that evidence of a plot had emerged in its preliminary findings.

The pivotal character throughout these hearings had been Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, one of 19 men to receive the Medal of Honor twice, and one of three to be awarded both the Marine Corps Brevet Medal and the Medal of Honor, all for separate actions.


Butler claimed during the hearings that there were “wealthy businessmen” who had been plotting to create a fascist veterans’ organization, which could be used to force a coup d’état to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Once successful control had been gained, General Butler was to be named “Secretary of General Affairs”, and on the pretext that Roosevelt’s failing health, the President would essentially have fallen into an advisory role in the new government.

Butler further stated that Gerald C. MacGuire had been the one that sought to recruit him, telling Butler that he would have the backing of an army of 500,000 men, as well as finances. During the hearings, Butler went on to implicate a number of the most prominent businessmen in America in this plot, as well as many notable military veterans. In the end, the McCormack—Dickstein committee did not publish any of Butler’s allegations in its findings, because they were considered hearsay.

Butler remained outspoken against the affair even after the hearings, despite an article in the New York Times that labeled the entire affair a “gigantic hoax”. Historians still debate how close anyone may have come to an actual coup d’état, although most acknowledge that Butler’s recollection of events did represent, to some extent, a factual plot that had been underway.

Secret Societies: Hitler’s Private Financiers

In the broader context of world affairs spanning the last century, by now it would come as little surprise to any observant student of history that members of secret fraternities and elite organizations have played a role in some of the most pivotal events in the formation of modern western society. In some instances, this also involved business arrangements that would provide financial support to enemies that include Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. 

One of the most notable members of a secret society to have had financial ties to Hitler and the Nazis had been Prescott Bush, who became a member of Yale University’s Order of Skull and Bones in 1916 (during his time with the order, it is likely that Bush may have participated in the theft of Native American leader Geronimo’s skull). Following his time at Yale, Bush would become a director and shareholder of companies that, according to a 2004 Guardian article, “profited from their involvement with the financial backers of Nazi Germany.”

According to the article, which appeared on September 25, 2004:

The Guardian has obtained confirmation from newly discovered files in the US National Archives that a firm of which Prescott Bush was a director was involved with the financial architects of Nazism.

His business dealings, which continued until his company’s assets were seized in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act, has led more than 60 years later to a civil action for damages being brought in Germany against the Bush family by two former slave labourers at Auschwitz and to a hum of pre-election controversy.

The evidence has also prompted one former US Nazi war crimes prosecutor to argue that the late senator’s action should have been grounds for prosecution for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The article went on to note the long-running discussions online about a purported “Bush/Nazi connection,” calling the bulk of the allegations “inaccurate and unfair”, and likely the result of modern conspiracist thinking. This was not the case, however, with the documents released in 2004, which actually substantiated many of the controversial claims:  

[T]he new documents, many of which were only declassified last year, show that even after America had entered the war and when there was already significant information about the Nazis’ plans and policies, [Bush] worked for and profited from companies closely involved with the very German businesses that financed Hitler’s rise to power. It has also been suggested that the money he made from these dealings helped to establish the Bush family fortune and set up its political dynasty.

Bush wasn’t the only one, however. Fellow Bonesmen George Herbert Walker and W. Averell Harriman were also involved in companies with such assets. In fact, Harriman’s banking business had been the main Wall Street connection for German companies during the Second World War. These also represented the bulk of the U.S. financial interests of Fritz Thyssen, financial backer for the Nazi party until 1938.

On October 6, 1917, the institution of The Trading With the Enemy Act classified business dealings or transactions made for profit with enemy nations of the United States illegal; furthermore, any funds or assets resulting from such business operations were eligible for seizure by the U.S. government. Thus, Harriman’s operations in New York City were seized and held until after the war, following Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States.

The Order of Skull and Bones: Yale University’s Secret Society

Of all the true Secret Societies and college fraternities, Yale’s Order of Skull and Bones may be the most complex and influential. It is renowned for its ties to American Intelligence, particularly with the formation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the modern CIA.

The organization began in 1832, and was founded by William H. Russell, along with 14 other Yale undergraduates. Russell purportedly was introduced to the workings of a European secret society while studying in Germany one year earlier, as indicated in a tract that was published in 1876 by a group calling itself “The Order of File and Claw.” The paper ousted Skull and Bones as “a chapter of a corps in a German University… General Russell, its founder, was in Germany before his Senior Year and formed a warm friendship with a leading member of a German society. He brought back with him to college, authority to found a chapter here.”


It is interesting to note that similarities do exist between the Order of Skull and Bones and the European Illuminati (though it should be further observed that the alleged origins of the Rosicrucian order are also based in Germany, with its famous “Father C.R.C.”). However, it is the connection between Yale University’s Skull and Bones and American intelligence agencies that is perhaps most telling. Members of the U.S. government who have attended Yale are often Bonesmen; among the most well known have been some of the aforementioned members of the Bush family.

A list of notable past members of Skull and Bones reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” of American politics over the last two centuries. To name just a few:

  • William Howard Taft – Class of 1878
  • Percy Rockefeller, Class of 1900
  • William Averill Harriman – Class of 1913
  • Prescott Bush – Class of 1916
  • Robert Lovett – Class of 1918
  • Henry Luce – Class of 1920
  • H. J. Heinz II, Class of 1931
  • Potter Stewart – Class of 1936
  • George Herbert Walker Bush – Class of 1948
  • William F. Buckley Jr. – Class 0f 1950
  • David McCullough, Class of 1955
  • John F. Kerry – Class of 1966
  • George W. Bush – Class of 1968

The Cadaver Society: Another “Skull and Bones” Group?

Another collegiate secret society whose actions and symbolism is at least similar to Yale’s Skull and Bones is the “Cadaver Society” at Washington and Lee University. Of particular note is the fact that each of the groups, as is the case with many such secret fraternities, makes references to death in their names and symbolism, and members gather for meetings in a secret hall which is referred to as a tomb (more on the persistence of this sort of imagery amidst fraternal groups in a moment).

Among the defining characteristics about the Cadaver Society, this group operates almost in complete secrecy, unlike the Sigma Society, also located at Washington Lee University. There have long been assertions that the Cadaver members traverse the college campus by a system of tunnels that run beneath it, though the images of these purported passageways that appear online leave an awful lot to the imagination.

However, despite the negativity associated with the fraternity’s imagery, they are actually known for a host of beneficial endeavors (as is the case with many secret societies at American Universities). There is even a Cadaver Society scholarship, which began in 1997 according to the website for Washington Lee. The scholarship is awarded to an incoming freshman student every four years. Candidates are intended to be deserving students with strong character traits, academic achievement and an appreciation of the school’s values and traditions.

Dark Symbols: Skulls, Bones, and Coffins in Fraternal Imagery

The obvious tones of darkness, death, tombs, and secrecy pervade many modern Secret Societies. Manly P. Hall described in his The Secret Teachings of All Ages that the ancient Druidic mysteries included initiation rites that incorporated initiates who were buried alive within a coffin; this is very similar to the modern stories of members of Skull and Bones laying in an open coffin during their initiations. According to Hall, the coffin that was featured in the Druidic mysteries of Europe was representative of the death of the Sun God; this heliocentric belief system is another them that we find throughout the history of thought and development associated with secret societies.


Also, more simply, the associations with dark and macabre imagery no doubt has the pleasant effect of presenting an air of intimidation; in other words, the fearful imagery dissuades others from inquiring too deeply about the operations of such secret groups. One college fraternity in North Carolina, at UNC Chapel Hill, had been formerly known as The Order of Dromgoole, named after a historic character in the area, Peter Dromgoole, who disappeared in 1833. The group purportedly changed its name to “Gimgoole” instead, believing that the new name sounded more dark and mysterious.

However, in such cases one might still argue that the presentation of ghostly, macabre imagery actually serves to attract interest in secret societies and fraternal groups, rather than warding off public interest.

JFK and Secret Societies: A Catalyst for Assassination?

“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.”

These were among the words spoken by President John F. Kennedy on April 27, 1961, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Speaking before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, Kennedy’s speech that day had been titled, “The President and the Press”, and had famously addressed the innate concerns of Americans in relation to the shadowy world of secret societies. Had this been proof that Kennedy was waging his own personal war against secret organizations, and what does this further suggest about reasons for Kennedy’s assassination two years later?

Little, or in reality, perhaps none at all, since Kennedy had actually been making a case to the press that day for the necessity of broader government secrecy.

To put things in the proper context here, one must first recognize that the mention of “secret societies” did not appear until about midway through the speech, though when presented out of context (as it so often has been misrepresented), one might be led to think he begins with those words. Hence, the impression is given that Kennedy had been explicitly discussing secret organizations and their operations, though the truth is quite the contrary.

Earlier in the speech, Kennedy appears to have been talking about the decisions he, as President, must make. He addresses the publishers of periodicals and newspapers, asking for their support as a military leader, and in the passage immediately before the one where he mentions secret societies, Kennedy said the following: 

“This deadly challenge imposes upon our society two requirements of direct concern both to the press and to the President — two requirements that may seem almost contradictory in tone, but which must be reconciled and fulfilled if we are to meet this national peril. I refer, first, to the need for a far greater public information; and, second, to the need for far greater official secrecy.”

He then follows with the famous passage where secret societies are mentioned; this is obviously in acknowledgement of the expected disdain members of the press would have with Kennedy’s mention of “greater official secrecy.” To quote the final passages from the speech:

“It was early in the Seventeenth Century that Francis Bacon remarked on three recent inventions already transforming the world: the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press. Now the links between the nations, first forged by the compass have made us all citizens of the world, the hopes and threats of one becoming the hopes and threats of us all. In that one world’s efforts to live together, the evolution of gunpowder to its ultimate limit has warned mankind of the terrible consequences of failure.

“And so it is to the printing press — to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news — that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”

So in conclusion, taken in proper context, it would be difficult to make a strong case that this particular speech had much to do with Kennedy’s assassination, let alone anything really having to do with secret societies.

The Freemasons in the Modern World

Freemasonry has long been one of the most prevalent secret societies, and throughout the ages, their influence in the world has indeed been very great. Many key players in history have been Freemasons, including the American founding fathers, as well as many present-day members of law and government.

Centuries ago, Freemasonry’s members included virtually all the most influential figures in government, and in truth, historic secret societies like The Illuminati in likelihood actually grew out of thought and movements largely founded in Freemasonry. Within the last few years, it has even come to light that Freemasons in England may likely have worked to protect their fellow members by covering up certain inquiries into catastrophic events, such as the sinking of the Titanic.


Today however, Freemasonry may not realistically have the pull it once had. Lodges are obviously still in operation, and there are many members of the Masonic order that are involved in civic and charity work with their lodges. However, with the massive amount of data that is now available about Freemasonry, its history, and its esoteric secrets, few would be able to present a legitimate argument that the Freemasons are still the “secret architects” of world affairs.

In likelihood, however, there are probably many members of this secret order who still serve in other areas of influence, including some of the international groups associated with broader movements toward globalism discussed here.

Bohemian Grove: The Greatest Men’s Party on Earth

Bohemian Grove is the name of a 2700-acre summer camp in Monte Rio, north of San Francisco. It is home to what is known privately as “the greatest men’s party on earth”, which is held there annually to a host of political and wealthy elites, although it was initially formed in 1872 by five San Francisco journalists as a drinking club.

Virtually every Republican U.S. President since Herbert Hoover has been a member, and backroom deals that have occurred there included Ronald Reagan agreeing with Richard Nixon (who has famously spoken about his distaste for Bohemian Grove) that the former would stay out of the 1968 election.

Over the years, a number of wild claims about what has transpired during “rituals” taking place at Bohemian Grove have appeared online, which alleged everything from sadistic torture and abuse, to occult rituals involving leading members of the U.S. government. Despite all this, perhaps the most controversial story in recent times involving Bohemian Grove dealt with conspiracy talk radio host Alex Jones, who managed to infiltrate the place a number of years ago. Jones produced a short documentary on his experience, featuring video footage he managed to obtain while there (the film can be seen online here). In the film, Jones did manage to capture images of a grand ceremony that he called one of their “bizarre, ancient Canaanite, Luciferian, Babylon-mystery religion ceremonies.”

Jones is, in fact, one of a handful of others that have purportedly “infiltrated” the Bohemian Grove, where along with bizarre rituals, there are also a number of other frivolities that occur. Welsh journalist and documentary film maker Jon Ronson wrote of the club that, “My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally they seemed trapped in their college years.”

In truth, Ronson’s may be among the fairest assessments ever made of the Bohemian Grove and its annual club members.

The Oculists: A Secret Society Hidden Behind Secret Cyphers

In 2012, journalist Noah Shachtman wrote an article for Wired about what is called the “Copiale Manuscript.” It is one of possibly hundreds of enlightenment-era manuscripts that employs secret coded language, the likes of which were often used by secret societies during that period (with little doubt, the Illuminati could have been such a group).

Upon being at least partially “cracked” in 2012, the Copiale document revealed the operations of a secretive group called the Oculists. This organization, operating under the guise of those promoting interest in esotericism and, as the name implied, anatomy of the human eye, had actually been recording and transmitting — in coded language — the highest rituals of Freemasonry… those which lower-ranking members would not have had knowledge.

Shachman wrote that, “The Oculist master apparently understood these coded documents in a way that today’s interpreters do not. Despite years’ worth of attacks on their cipher, the Oculists’ secrets have not been pried loose, at least not fully. What they saw in their initiation chambers may never again be seen.”

A Secret History of the West?

Schachman had previously likened the use of modern cryptography to reveal hidden messages in texts like this to being the discovery of a veritable “secret history of the west,” a concept which underscores the broader influence such secret groups have had over the last several centuries.

The same term was used by historian and philosopher Nicholas Hagger in his 2005 book, The Secret History of the West: The Influence of Secret Organizations on Western History From the Rennaissance to the 20th Century. This book is, in the opinion of this author, one of the best and most authoritative books on this subject, refraining from much of the overt sensationalism present in modern “conspiracy” themed literature. 


Though the discussion of secret societies is often relegated to the same areas of “fringe” culture as many modern conspiracy theories, there is historical precedent for their existence, as well as their continued operations and influence in Western Society. Noted historians like Caroll Quigley have broadly discussed their influence, as well as their importance in world affairs, which ranges from forward-thinking efforts toward improving international relations, to the stranger, ceremonial aspects of groups like Yale’s Skull and Bones and the neo-occultism displayed at Bohemian Grove.

What, then, do we learn from studying secret societies? As Manly P. Hall and many others have noted, the attraction toward secret fraternities, and the institution of ritual, are innate to humankind. Such secretive workings beneath the happenings of the everyday have helped facilitate intellectual growth and innovation since time immemorial; but by virtue of their secrecy, there is in equal measure a level of distrust for such groups, and their operations… however noble their actions may be intended.

Thus, much of the work of secret societies becomes likened to the stuff of legend, despite bridging areas between myth and reality. These bring together knowledge from the esoteric occult history of our ancient world, and that of the modern era, in which political and economic globalization are chief tenets of what some call — to borrow a term used many times in decades past — a “New World Order.”

In conclusion, secret societies — despite their prevalence in “conspiracy culture” afforded us by modern media available online — have played a pivotal role in western society over the last several centuries. While the long-term influence of certain notable “secret” groups may remain debatable, in the broader scope of world history, it can nonetheless be argued that a proper understanding of the role and function of various secret organizations in global affairs is fundamental to understanding international politics… as well as global affairs as they continue to play out in the world today.

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