The bizarre truth about campus secret societies

Rushing, hazing, pledging -- these rituals give fraternities and sororities an air of exclusivity. But on American campuses, some clubs are even harder to get into, and far more mysterious: secret societies. They create lifelong friendships. Some also foster intellectual snobbery, alliances to rule student governments, and lifelong, often impenetrable, power networks. The most well-known is probably Skull & Bones at Yale, whose alumni include two Presidents Bush. But other secret societies seem to have copied the Skull & Bones formula -- dead body imagery + strange rituals -- and have kept the intrigue going far beyond New Haven, Connecticut. Here’s a Secret Society primer -- on the ones we know about.

Burning Spear

Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL

Est. 1993

Members include former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, and a host of local politicos. Burning Spear doesn’t exactly lay low on campus, hosting speakers and banging a big drum at home football games. But the leak of alleged internal documents reveal bigger goals. The documents describe Burning Spear's commitment to diversity and to FSU. They also extol the benefits of an “elite” secret society unencumbered by: “red tape, political posturing, or tedious elections to go through.” For a time, Burning Spear claimed to control a political action committee that supported FSU alumni political candidates. Asked about the leaked documents, student Joseph Brown told Fusion: “The business conducted by Burning Spear is completely private and has remained that way since its founding. Any documents available to the public cannot be authenticated."

The Machine

University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL

Est. 1914

Perhaps no collection of Greek-system aristocrats has wielded as much local influence as the Machine, (officially Theta Nu Epsilon) a collection of about 30 representatives culled from the most popular fraternities and sororities on Alabama’s campus. Student government candidates who have dared to run against the Machine’s nominee have faced death threats, boycotts, knife attacks and cross burnings. The Machine has also been accused of resisting efforts to include more black students in Greek life. Still, the Machine’s alumni historically end up as powerful lobbyists, business leaders and politicians. We sought comment from the Machine but were unable to identify any official representative of the secret group. Fusion did reach out to students we believed were members. They either didn't respond or told us they were not members.

Quill & Dagger

Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

Est. 1893

Quill and Dagger members make up a long list of Olympians, businessmen, and politicians. Alumni include two national security advisors and two World Bank presidents. Attorney General Janet Reno and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg were given honorary memberships, since the society didn’t accept women when they were undergrads. Five members of George W. Bush’s administration were in Quill and Dagger; at least four members of Barack Obama's were. Also included, most male members of the Coors beermaker family. The organization in the 1990s experienced discord when some minority members publicly complained of racial bias, but documents leaked in 2012 suggest relations have become more harmonious: members refer to one another as “soulmates.”

Order of Angell

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI

Est. 1902

Est. 1902. This senior society, composed of about 25 leaders from various campus organizations, wasn’t very secret until the 1970s, when it stopped publishing membership rolls. Formerly called Michigamua, its rituals were crude appropriations of Native American traditions; members would coat themselves in red paint and call themselves “Great Scalper” or “Wise Chief.” After a backlash from Native Americans, members agreed to change their ways, but as recently as 2000 were still found to have converted a campus water tower into a “pseudo-wigwam.” Today, the Order calls itself an “honor society” and once again publishes its roster. Members include Gerald Ford, footballers Brian Griese, Bo Schembechler, and Lloyd Carr, and at least four U of M presidents.

Cadaver Society

Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA

Est. 1957

There are said to be two major secret societies on W&L’s campus. The Sigma Society was founded in 1880 and has something of a George Washington fixation (initiations are reportedly held on the president’s birthday and include tributes to him). The mystique around the Cadaver Society is decidedly cooler. Its logo -- a skull in the letter C -- can be found around town. Rumor has it the society consists mostly of pre-med students, who have the run of underground private tunnels accessed through certain doors and sewer covers across campus. According to campus legends, they still meet in black capes and hoods after dark.

Scroll and Key Society

Yale University
New Haven, CT

Est. 1841

Given Yale’s notoriety for Skull & Bones, it’s not surprising that the campus has inspired a host of other secret societies, including Book and Snake, Wolf’s Head, and -- we kid you not -- Porn n’ Chicken. Of these, the most notable is probably Scroll & Key. Every year, 15 seniors -- men and women -- are invited to join this exclusive group. Its distinguished alums include former Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti, musician Cole Porter, Dr. Benjamin Spock and descendants of Mayflower families. Also journalist Fareed Zakaria, ex-CIA chief Cord Meyer Jr., pols including Cyrus Vance, Dean Atcheson, and several Vanderbilts and Rockefellers.

Lion's Paw Senior Society

Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA

Est. 1908

To join, inductees must first be members of one of PSU’s other secret societies, Skull & Bones or Parmi Nous (which means “Among Us.” Late football coach Joe Paterno was a member.). The societies reportedly wield significant power in student elections and school administrations. Lion’s Paw member and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, told the university newspaper back in 1990 that the group, “It’s nothing you would ever understand.” Lion’s Paw has faced criticism for the secrecy, though, and today have a website, on which it promises to broaden “visibility and cooperation with the University…”

Order of the Greek Horseman

University of Georgia
Athens, GA

Est. 1955

This society secretly selects five top fraternity men each year to become campus leaders. These five reveal themselves at a banquet at the end of each school year. Two Horsemen were detained by cops in 2000 after witnesses reported seeing two young men blindfolded in the cargo hold of a Toyota 4-Runner. The group was allegedly on its way to a secret initiation. No charges were filed. One of those horsemen, it turned out, had just been tapped by UGA to give an anti-hazing seminar. The Horsemen are said to have adopted a funky horse sculpture in a field outside of Athens as their symbol.

Skull & Dagger

University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA

Est. 1913

This is ostensibly an honors society, but it’s known primarily for staging elaborate annual pranks that mostly just annoy everyone. Their hijinks have included wrapping bicycles in cellophane, having fake security guards stop students for wearing sunglasses, and announcing a costume contest where free Coachella tickets would be given away -- but resulted in students showing up in crazy dress with no reward. Skull and Dagger’s penchant for secrecy may be an attempt to avoid punishment more than anything else. Former members include football standouts Reggie Bush and Matt Barkley, as well as thriller novelist Brad Thor.

Seven Society

University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Est. 1905

According to one history of this group, if you want to get in touch with its members, leave a letter on the Thomas Jefferson statue in the campus rotunda. Alumni -- who include Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, a CIA cofounder -- reportedly make financial donations to the school in amounts that end with the digit “7” -- like $1,777 -- and sign letters with astronomical symbols. These elite are identified publicly only after death, “when a wreath of black magnolias in the shape of a ‘7’ is placed at the gravesite.”

Order of Gimghoul

University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC

Est. 1889

If you’re male, outstanding, lucky, and into Arthurian legends role-play, maybe you can be tapped to join this Tar Heel society, which owns its own million-dollar castle. The society Membership rolls are reportedly kept secret for 50 years, and little is known about its modern-day activities, although campus librarians have said that it remains active -- and that they have an agreement with the order to maintain documents for archival purposes. One episode of Fusion’s The Chris Gethard Show was dedicated to trying to track down and out Gimghoulians.

Skull & Bones

New Haven, CT

Est. 1831

In addition to its famous “tomb” -- a windowless, Egyptian-style building where meetings take place -- Skull & Bones owns its own island in the St. Lawrence River. Membership was all-male until 1992. Co-founded by the father of President William Howard Taft, the group has also included George Bush, Jr. and Sr.; Secretary of State John Kerry; two Supreme Court justices; a few secretaries of defense and war; and conservative icon William F. Buckley.

Society of Stewards

Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

Est. 1982

This shadowy all-male, conservative, Catholic group has aroused the ire of other students for years and, until recently, had a stranglehold on student government. After fending off criticism for sexism and elitism, it declared itself dead in the late 1980s but later re-emerged. Leaked emails reportedly from the group suggest the cash-rich members spend some time debating “whether the Stewards should buy themed cufflinks or opt for Brooks Brothers ties instead.”