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Connecticut Journal: Inside Yale's secret societies
New Haven, Connecticut has a bad rep. To most, it's at best a town you travel through on your way between Boston and New York. But as I've written recently in my travel series on New Haven, the town has experienced a tremendous renaissance in the last decade. And there's one phenomenon here that you won't find anywhere else. Read on:
There's a dirty little secret tucked into a corner of my basement, one that I share with the few dozen students who live in the Elizabethan manor of Rosenfeld Hall. It's the residential annex of Timothy Dwight, one of twelve residential colleges here at Yale. Though most of them go about their day, reading in the mahogany piano room to the right of the foyer or perhaps chuckling in "CSTD 340: Writing Comedy for Film and TV," which meets Thursdays in a small auditorium to the left, clueless that a secret society rests right beneath their feet.
There's Ryan, who politely listened as I gestured wildly (and at one point baited her with a mention of dead bodies and a sacrificial goat here and there), but after a minute promptly went back to her art history textbook. There's Caio, a roommate who was more interested in the etymology of Saint Elmo, the society behind the crypt, than fancying the possibility that pagan rituals and plots to rig the 2008 presidential election may be unfolding as we spoke. And then there's Karen, the Timothy Dwight master's assistant, who was a bit confused by the whole thing. "Really, we have a basement in RH? No kidding?"
A generic placard, the kind found on most doorways at Yale, guards the entrance: "Stair to Sub-Basement," newspeak undoubtedly for the lair of fantastic riches stowed away by wealthy alums of Saint Elmo, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft. I'm thankful he's not around at the moment, as I'm on all fours jimmying a hook fashioned from a wire clothes hanger through the bottom crack of the door, in an awkward dance to pull the handle down on the other side. To the left is a card scanner, which seems out of place for the tomb of the undead. Then, a click as the hook catches, and I'm in.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the place flooded in the monochromatic light of body-length florescent lamps, then annoyed these tomb-dwellers were not doing their share in meeting the building's 20% energy reduction quota. Metal steps circled down and around to a hallway somewhat narrower than a sidewalk (same concrete floors) but a much higher ceiling than what you would expect to get for a "sub-basement." The extra breathing room was being put to good use, with a stack of headboards jumbled on top of each other, climbing to the ceiling in a deadly game of Jenga.
In another precarious pile, boxes of adjustable window shutters. Beyond were the round coffee tables, chipped with the wood starting to warp. The air ducts, water pipes, and sewage conduits had to fight for space next to the tall armoires and spare pieces of moldy wall paneling. Surely the society was just wrapping up its fall cleaning, as I approached the open door at the end of the hall beckoning me forth.
Inside was the sacred heart of Yale's underground culture I couldn't wait to peek (or break) into. A large vaulted dome loomed victoriously over the crypt, with a smaller dome on each side, and occasionally interrupted by the ever-present fluorescent lamps. The walls were constructed from giant slabs of solemn stone and the floor from smooth marble. One end of the crypt was raised, with a threatening stone sarcophagus in the middle of the platform – the sacrificial goats must be right around the corner. Statues of skulls on angel wings completed the gothic décor. Yes, this is exactly how I would deck out my own society crib.
Then I began to notice the minor details. Like the puke green mattresses with unspeakable stains leaning against the back wall. More scattered boxes of castaway junk – broken sandblasters, twisted coils of wiring, cracked dining hall plates, administrative manuals. Even boxes of folded up boxes. A section of the wall was also peeling off; a rather deft trick for what I swore was Medieval granite, until I saw the exposed red bricks beneath a thick layer of stucco insulation painted gray. Several of the skull figureheads had broken wings or a chipped chin, looking like the sore losers of a fight outside Toad's.
Frankly, the place now place smelled and looked like the stale offspring of Pottery Barn and Home Depot, not exactly the gold-encrusted chamber of privilege I had in mind. That hasn't stopped students from using the place. Someone had stashed away a microwave in a corner. Another left a box of chemistry and physics textbooks. There were recently lit lavender candles, the kind that comes in packets of 50 at Walmart, on the sarcophagus and a now shriveled tulip. Not exactly my destination for a study break.
It turns out, from time to time, the crypt has been used as an "auxiliary storage space" for items like spare furniture pieces (or defiled mattresses). University records indicate the building was built in 1912, and known as Saint Elmo's Hall. In its heyday, the society boasted members like J.P. Morgan and James Roosevelt, but fortune turned, and they were forced to sell the property to Yale in 1962. While other societies have climbed in the unspoken rankings - Scroll & Key has $7 million in assets, more than Skulls & Bones - Saint Elmo has fallen off the map, with less name recognition than DSG (Drunk Senior Girls) or Fork & Knife. With no tomb, the best the society could do was a virtual home. Their website, www.st-elmo-society.com, has 82 registered members, albeit zero postings on the forum.
It's the real life version of the Priory of Sion, the secret organization in Dan Brown's bestseller Da Vinci Code. Skulls & Bones, Yale's oldest and most prestigious secret society-reserved only for a select fifteen lucky members of the senior class-boasts such alums like both Bush presidents, William Buckley Jr., and John Kerry.
They are also the only society with their own private island (on the St. Lawrence River between New York and Ontario). Many believe that the society is a "feeder organization" for America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In fact, the term "spook," nomenclature for a spy, originated on Yale's campus as a nickname for the secret society taps.
Each of Yale's dozen or so societies has a tomb where the twice-weekly gatherings-and decadent parties-take place. These tombs are easy to miss, even though they are quite a sight. Most are several stories high, supported by Greek columns, and have absolutely no windows. The gardens and interior are obviously off-limits to visitors, but you're free to walk around outside their gates. Skulls is at 64 High St. Scroll and Key (444 College St), Berzelius (78 Trumbull St), and Wolf's Head (214 York St) are also worth a visit.