There is little else more synonymous with university life than the hazing to which freshmen newbies are subjected. Becoming part of a fraternity or sorority, or one of Princeton’s prestigious “eating clubs”, is sometimes more important to students than grades; indeed, if they select the right society it can be even more useful in securing a job than their grades. It’s a rite of passage, and one that separates the boys from the men, the cool from the uncool, the strong from the weak. At least, this is what people have been telling themselves for the last century or so.
Some of the society’s on this list – often secret, often difficult to get into, and almost always elitist to a certain degree – have been holding sway over university students and ivy leaguers since the 1800s.
The initiations sometimes tread a fine line of morality and ethical standards held by the rest of the world, and have long been a subject of discussion in the media, movies, and TV shows. And really, with reports that – for example – a Princeton University secret society allegedly forces incoming members to drink 21 beers in 42 minutes (known as the 21 Club) who can blame us for raising an eyebrow at these seemingly immature antics.
But maybe that’s just the bitter outsider not seeing the full picture. There are, after all, many public and highly successful figures who once were forced to endure the humiliation, pain and ritual of nearly mythologized hazings that include rumors of drinking ketchup, eating raw squid or even branding. It might sound bewildering, but what do we know? It could all be totally worth it. Their clubs are often secret after all – and who at some point or another hasn’t wanted to be in a secret club? Making it in isn’t even the hardest part; first you have to get noticed amongst the throng of fresh-faced wannabes to obtain an elusive invitation, and sometimes only a handful are chosen. The following is a selective list of some of the most notoriously difficult-to-penetrate societies in the United States.
10. The NoZe Brotherhood – Baylor
This collegiate secret society at Baylor University was founded in 1924. It started as a joke by a freshman with a large nose by the name of Leonard Shoaf, whose friends told him his nose was so big he could “form a club around it.” So, he did. The society grew in popularity and was known for occasionally publishing tongue-in-cheek humorous articles and playing pranks.
From its inception in the 1920s through to the early 1960s, members of the society were open about their participation, but they now keep their identities secret. Members travel in disguise with wigs and fake plastic noses – no doubt an homage to their founder. They hold a twice yearly “Unrush,” to spoof the recruiting system for initiations. Antics have included arriving at a Dr. Pepper Hour to spike the float drinks with Pepsi. Currently, their parody paper, The Rope – which is everything the student newspaper The Lariat is not – is a popular read amongst students.
9. Seven Society – College of William and Mary
A few years ago during a halftime football game, a skydiver floated down from the sky to hand over a cheque of $14,777.77 to Virginia University. A letter identified the philanthropists as the Seven Society, who were challenging students to submit ideas about how best to spend the money at the school.
The society is the longest continually active secret society of the University and is known for heartwarming charity and altruism including huge fundraising efforts for student loan funds. It’s rumoured they formed back in 1905 when seven students gathered for a card game and came up with the idea when the eighth never showed. The group is comprised of only seven seniors who are selected in their junior year. This society used to be public but is now heavily shrouded in secrecy. Their actions aren’t as funny as the NoZe brotherhood but they certainly leave an impression. An admissions officer, in 2003, found 12 umbrellas stamped with the number 7 after mentioning how helpful umbrellas would be during campus tours on drizzly days. Aw!
To contact this quiet society, one has to place a note at the bottom of the Thomas Jefferson statue inside the University’s Rotunda, and the only time a name is made public is when a member dies. A wreath of black magnolias shaped in a “7” is placed on the grave and the campus bell tower rings seven times, for seven second intervals at seven past the hour.
8. St. A’s – Columbia
Chapters of the Society of Saint Anthony Hall, also known simply as St. A’s, have expanded to universities across the country – but the society is still known for its mystery and elitism. “Gawker” once called it ‘WASPy’ and ‘exclusionary’. The other campus chapters are more informally known as clubs and fraternities but the St. A’s society that was founded at Columbia is infamous for its uber-wealth and snobbery.
Formed way back in 1847, it’s even been the subject of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories which refers – somewhat dismissively – to a St. A’s party hosted by the Yale chapter every year as the ‘Pump and Slipper’. Some of the society’s former members have been immortalized as inspiration for author Jack London, who met with a few members during his Klondike days (he was a cabin tenant of three Yale graduates who turned the cabin into a designated chapter house). London wrote characters based on their antics in “The Call of the Wild.” Today, the society retains much less of the secrecy that it had due to its expansion to other universities. It has fallen under scrutiny for leaked discriminative practices.
7. Quill and Dagger – Cornell
This senior honor society formed in Cornell University is considered one of the most prominent of all societies, up there with Yale’s Skull and Bones. Even the New York Times wrote that it was seriously hard to get into, back in 1929, calling it “The highest non-scholastic honor within reach of undergraduates.” Names of all newly tapped members are published in The Cornell Daily Sun every semester, while meetings and activities remain closed.
Many members of the university’s staff are alumni of the society, and two sons, a grandson and grandson-in-law of the university’s president Jacob Gould Schurman were members. Between the years of 1913-1984, one former Quill and Dagger member could be found in the US congress every year. There are currently members in the Obama administration including Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris and Associate Counsel to the President Alison J. Nathan. It’s rumored that hotelier Andre Balias (who has been linked to high profile stars including Salma Hayek) is a Quill and Dagger alumni. This society’s activities may be secret, but clearly they’re doing something right.
6. Sphinx – Dartmouth
This society sounds a lot like something from the pages of Harry Potter. During a graduation here you may see some of the seniors carrying canes that are carved with Griffin, Sphinx and Phoenix symbols. The canes are the only identifier of society membership. Founded in 1885, The Sphinx is the oldest of all Dartmouth societies. It is all-male, giving it the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating men-only secret society in the US. Only a small number of students are tapped a year: 24 in total. While the names of these lucky few were once published this ritual has been dropped in recent years, adding to its mystery. The only time they ever reveal their allegiance to the group is during commencement, with the canes. It is believed that members meet in The Sphinx Tomb, located on the grounds and constructed in 1903. Some say there is a pool in the tomb, where members enjoy pool parties – a rumor that grew from reports of the tomb’s higher than average water bill.
5. The Black & White Society – Harvard Business School
This society at Harvard is basically known for one activity a year and arguably exists because of it: the black and white ball. The society invites roughly 300 students to its annual and super-exclusive masquerade event. The society’s slogan is “Only the Finest Individuals,” and sends private links to photos of the night for those who were invited. It’s been vilified as elitist by some, and shrugged off by others who see no harm in the private party. Others disapprove of its ongoing pride in selecting those deemed “finest” on a yearly basis. Either way, among a population of over 27,000, the percentage invited to this fete is small enough that you might as well buy a lottery ticket while you’re waiting for an invite.
4. Philomathean Society – University of Pennsylvania
The Philomathean Society gets the honor of being the oldest continuously-run literary society in the country, and the name actually comes from the Greek term for “a lover of learning.” The society is all about nerding it up, and members can often be found hosting tea with professors and sponsors. They publish a number of anthologies a year and are known to be the first publisher of a complete English translation of the Rosetta Stone, which was performed by three keen undergraduates. The society’s Latin motto means “Thus we proceed to the stars.” Safe to say you’re gonna need to be a bit of a brainiac to get into this one. Last year, the society celebrated its 20th anniversary.
3. Order of the Bulls Blood – Rutgers University
Created by five buddies in 1834, the Order of the Bulls Blood is the oldest Rutgers society by far, and is best known for pranks pulled off by new members as part of their swearing of allegiance. In 1875 they were already notorious, when it was believed they were behind a stolen canon from Princeton. Their club is so secret that many question its legitimacy and it’s considered by some as a hoax. Some alleged former members include Vice President Garret A. Hobart, the former FBI Director Louis Freeh, and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman.
2. The Chimemaster society – Syracuse University
On a more musical note, Syracuse is home to a private club of Chimemasters who have the distinct honour of playing the unique tower organ-style instrument called a carillon. Members have to climb a 70-foot ladder to get to the ancient instrument and up two three times a day they bang out some endearingly modern melodies, including Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” The group mostly consists of music majors, and while it isn’t technically a secret, it is super exclusive. Originally the Delta Kappa Epsilon rang the bells, before its sister sorority Alpha Phi took over during WWII. Now, membership is chosen by existing members.
1. Skull and Bones – Yale
The most widely well-known of all collegiate societies, in large part to George Bush’s involvement, was founded in ye olde days of 1832, when a dispute erupted between Yale’s existing societies. It is known for impenetrable elitism and secrecy. Rumors include its ties to organizations from the CIA to the Illuminati. In 2000 the movie “The Skulls” was based on rumor and speculation around the real society. In fact, though, the general public have very little knowledge of the society other than an incredibly fascinating Vanity Fair article published in 2004 about Bush’s involvement. When a rumour circulated that new members were branded, the former president allegedly responded that it was just cigarette burns…
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