Skull & Bones, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Skull & Bones, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

9 of the Most Exclusive College Secret Societies

Skull & Bones, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Skull & Bones, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many of the most prominent people in the world once belonged to an exclusive college society, from President Theodore Roosevelt to former British Prime Minister David Cameron. Some of these societies, based at the top universities, meet to debate issues of the day, while others focus on the literary, the philanthropic, fine dining, or hell-raising. One thing they all have in common: secrecy. Discovering the details of what goes on in their meetings or how to gain membership is fiendishly difficult, but what we know about 10 of the most exclusive college secret societies in the world is summarized below.

1. SEVEN SOCIETY, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA // GRAFFITI AND PHILANTHROPY

A Seven Society sign outside Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia. Image credit: Queerbubbles via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Seven Society of University of Virginia is so secretive that very little is known about its history, activities, or membership. It was rumored to have been established around 1905, when eight students made plans to get together for two tables of bridge but only seven turned up. It was probably originally based on a Masonic system, and its visibility is maintained by daubing the society’s symbol on college buildings.

Over the years a number of very generous gifts have been donated by the society (often revealed in theatrical fashion). For example, during the commencement address in 1947, a small explosion interrupted the proceedings and all assembled were surprised to see a check for $177,777.77 float dramatically to the ground. The amount was used to create a fund to help bail out any faculty member or student who found themselves in financial difficulties. Members of the Seven Society are only revealed on their death; at one time, a wreath of black magnolias in the shape of a seven was always placed at their grave.

2. THE BULLINGDON CLUB, OXFORD UNIVERSITY // DRUNKENNESS AND VANDALISM

The Bullingdon Club: the secret life of the mighty men who govern Britain

One of the most notorious, riotous, and exclusive of the college secret societies in the United Kingdom is the Bullingdon Club of Oxford University, which was founded around 1780. Its members are selected from the aristocracy and the most prominent banking, business, and political families in Britain. Former members have gone on to form a network of individuals in the top seats of power.

With such a successful alumni one might think that the Bullingdon must be an intellectual society, but it is far more concerned with fine dining. The club meets regularly for elaborate dinners and it has been alleged that many of these affairs have ended with restaurants being trashed, mischief being made, and the police being called. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson have been dogged by a famous photo of them all dressed up in their bow-ties and tails for a group photo of Bullingdon Club members in 1987—such was the toxicity of the photograph that it has been withdrawn from use as the politicians struggled to distance themselves from the hell-raising society.

It is rumored that the initiation ceremony is to have your dorm room ransacked by fellow members, and tales abound of drunkenness, vandalism, and strippers (perhaps unsurprisingly, women are not allowed in the club). Despite its bawdy reputation former members of this exclusive club have gone on to great things, perhaps proving that a misspent youth is no barrier to success.

3. SKULL AND BONES, YALE // PRESTIGIOUS POLITICAL ALUMNI

The Skull & Bones "tomb." Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous (and infamous) secret college societies in the U.S. is the Skull and Bones at Yale. Previous alumni include such notables as George Bush senior, George W. Bush, and John Kerry. Established in 1832, the very secretive society has just 15 senior members at any one time, who they meet twice a week in their windowless private meeting room known as “The Tomb.” Each year 15 new members are chosen to join the select club, and it is rumored new members each receive $15,000 and a grandfather clock. Prominent families often make up much of the membership and the subsequent success—both politically and in business—indicates the prestige and level of exclusivity that membership bestows. Many legends surround the group, the most famous perhaps being that in 1918 a team of Bonesmen (allegedly including Prescott Bush, father of George H. W. Bush) stationed near Fort Sill, Oklahoma dug up the skull of Apache leader Geronimo (who died there in 1909 after years as a prisoner of war) and took it back to their HQ as a trophy.

4. ORDER OF GIMGHOUL, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA // CREEPY ...

Gimghoul Castle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Image credit:THE evil fluffyface via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the spookiest college secret societies is the Order of Gimghoul, created in 1889 for students of the University of North Carolina. The society was originally called the Order of Droomgole after the mysterious disappearance of Peter Droomgole, who vanished from campus in 1833 after losing a duel with a love rival, but the name was later changed to Gimghoul because it sounded more sinister. The all-male Order of Gimghoul has its headquarters in a spooky castle on campus and is said to have its basis in Arthurian traditions of chivalry and honor. But with its creepy castle, fondness for satanic iconography, and veil of secrecy, the society’s reputation is more likely to send shivers down your spine than conjure images of noble knights.

5. FLAT HAT CLUB, WILLIAM AND MARY // AMERICA’S FIRST COLLEGE SECRET SOCIETY

The F.H.C. club, also known as the Flat Hat Club—although its initials are thought to actually stand for its stated aim of “fraternitas, humanitas et cognito” (brotherhood, humanity and knowledge)—was established way back in the 1750s and is thought to be America’s first secret college society. Thomas Jefferson was famously a member of the club in the 1760s, although he was said to have remarked that he felt the society served “no useful object.” Membership of the society lapsed during the Revolutionary War but has reportedly since been revived twice: in 1916 and again in 1972.

6. THE CORPS HANNOVERA GOTTINGEN, GEORG AUGUST UNIVERSITY, GERMANY // ACADEMIC FENCERS

Kresspahl via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Corps Hannovera Göttingen was established in 1809 for the gathering of students from Hanover, Germany, and has since grown into a network of groups based on the principles of academic fencing (also known as mensur). Mensur is distinct from the sport of fencing in that despite the wielding of weapons it is perceived as an intellectual discipline for developing good character. Practitioners of mensur face each other with protection around their eyes, bodies, and necks, and aim for the unprotected areas of the face; it's thought that this noble style of dueling breeds superior powers of concentration and scars to the face are worn like a badge of honor. The German Corps, like American Secret Societies, likes to keep details of their meetings private, but it is known that these all-male groups are formed from the upper classes and remain an exclusive and elusive membership. The most famous member of the Corps Hanover was Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, who was an enthusiastic member of the dueling club.

7. PORCELLIAN CLUB, HARVARD // ALL-MALE CLUB

This exclusive finals club was established in the 1790s and is named after the Latin for “pig,” since their first meeting included a hog roast. As with many of these elite college societies, only those from the “right” families can secure membership. Alumni includes: President Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., yachtsman Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, polo player Thomas Hitchcock Jr. and the Winklevoss twins. Members often wear neckties adorned with a pig’s head to signal their membership of the club and their headquarters is nicknamed the “Old Barn.” The Porcellian was thrust into the news in April 2016 after the rigidly all-male society refused to allow female members, somewhat bizarrely claiming that allowing female members could increase “the potential for sexual misconduct.”

8. THE APOSTLES, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY // LITERARY GREATS AND SPIES

The Apostles are a secret society dedicated to intellectual debate on ethics, morals, and religion. They were established in around 1820 by George Tomlinson, who later went on to be Bishop of Gibraltar, and they gained their name because the organization was founded with 12 members. Over their history, the Apostles have included some of the foremost thinkers of the day and membership is generally made up from the elite students from King’s, Trinity, and St John’s Colleges in Cambridge, UK. The famous Bloomsbury group, which went on to shape the intellectual climate of the early 20th century, had its roots in membership of the Apostles, with Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey all doing their time in the club.

The Apostles gained notoriety during the Cold War when it was discovered that three Russian spies from the infamous “Cambridge Five”—Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—were Apostles. To become an Apostle, a potential recruit must be nominated by an existing Apostle, and they only gain membership once members have unanimously agreed on them (the select group has welcomed female members since 1970). All Apostles must swear a secret oath and sign their names in a leather-bound book, which contains the signatures of all previous members and is the most treasured possession of the exclusive club.

9. THE CADAVER SOCIETY, WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY // BLACK CLOAKS AND SKULL MASKS

Cadaver_society

Cloaked in secrecy, very little concrete is known about the Cadaver Society of Washington and Lee University, but the rumors of this secret society are so intriguing it deserves a mention. It is thought that members of the Cadaver Society are mostly pre-med students with the best grade averages and they are said to wander the campus at night, dressed in black, their faces covered with skull masks as they scrawl the sign of the society (a skull and the letter “C”) around the place.

Certainly the graffiti is one of the most tangible signs of this clandestine group, but the society is also visible through its philanthropy: in 1988 the Cadavers reportedly gave $150,000 to the university to renovate the frat houses. Perhaps the most alluring rumor about the Cadavers is that they travel around campus via a series of secret tunnels, and one of the more far-fetched stories says that the Cadavers are a branch of the mother of all secret societies—the Illuminati.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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