Starting in the early nineteenth century, Yale University has been home to a number of secret student societies, serving many of the same functions as student fraternities and sororities at other American universities. The oldest of these, the notorious Skull and Bones Society, was founded in 1832; its chief rival, Scroll and Key, came into being in 1842, and the third society, Wolf’s Head, appeared in 1883. By the end of the twentieth century there were approximately 18 secret societies active at Yale.

While each society has its own customs and traditions, the basic pattern set by Skull and Bones in its first decades remains common to all. Each year, a society selects a fixed number of new members – usually 15 – who are initiated before the beginning of their senior year. Membership was limited to male students until the second half of the twentieth century. The society initiations, like those of college fraternities elsewhere, combine nineteenth-century ritual melodrama and undergraduate pranks. Once initiated, members take part in regular meetings twice a week. The older and wealthier societies have buildings of their own – “tombs,” in Yale slang – where members dine before meetings and often spend much of their free time. After graduating, alumni are encouraged to remain involved with their society, network with other alumni, and assist them in their careers. See Skull and Bones Society.

The societies’ secrecy, their exclusiveness, and the penchant of members for helping one another in business and politics, have long made the Yale secret societies a focus for secret society opponents and conspiracy theorists. Most of the rhetoric has been leveled at Skull and Bones, as the oldest and most prestigious of the societies, and the one with the largest number of alumni in politics. The connection between the Bush family and Skull and Bones – both George Bush Snr. (US president 1989–93) and his son, George W. Bush (US president 2000–), were Bonesmen during their time at Yale – has led some conspiracy theorists to claim that Skull and Bones is “America’s most powerful secret society,” a title it nonetheless shares with many other potential claimants.

Further reading: Robbins 2002.


English occultist and Freemason, 1833–1913. Born in the Westmoreland village of Swindale, he moved with his parents to Lancashire in 1840 and nine years later settled in Manchester, where he would spend most of his life. At the age of 21 he became a Mason, but his interest in rare Masonic rites got him into trouble with the officials of the United Grand Lodge of England, and in 1862 he left regular Masonry behind for the less structured realms of irregular Masonic rites. He married in 1857 and led a quiet life, supporting his family as a bookseller. See Freemasonry; high degrees.

Yarker has been well described as “the universal purveyor of fringe Masonic rites” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From his office in Manchester, charters and patents of initiation flowed out to the four quarters of the world. During and after his life he was accused of making a living by selling degrees, but even critical historians nowadays admit that his main motivation was a passion for the higher degrees of Freemasonry and a desire to see them survive. The most important of the Masonic systems he operated was the Rite of Memphis and Misraim, which he created from the older Rite of Memphis and Rite of Misraim in 1871, but he was involved in one way or another with nearly every alternative Masonic rite in Britain, and corresponded with Masonic groups overseas. See Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Rite of Memphis; Rite of Memphis and Misraim; Rite of Misraim.


One of the two major systems of Freemasonry, the York Rite derives its name and some of its rituals from the English city of York, where operative stonemasons’ guilds have a very long history. Never as tightly organized as its major rival, the Scottish Rite, York Rite customs and practices vary widely from country to country. In America, where it includes nearly all ordinary Masons, it consists of four entirely independent units: the Symbolic Lodge, working the three standard degrees of Craft Masonry; the Royal Arch Chapter, working four degrees culminating in the Holy Royal Arch; the Council of Royal and Select Masters, working either two or three degrees, depending on state; and the Commandery of Knights Templar, working three degrees. In Britain, by contrast, the term “York Rite” refers only to the three fundamental degrees of Craft Masonry, the Past Master’s degree, and the Holy Royal Arch. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Freemasonry; Knights Templar; Royal Arch.

The York Rite is popular in the English-speaking countries, but has only a limited presence elsewhere in the world.


One of many secret societies in Italy in the tumultuous decade of the 1830s, Young Italy (La Giovine Italia) was founded in 1831 by Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72) and several other Italian liberals in exile in Marseilles. Mazzini and most of his associates were members of the Carbonari, the major European revolutionary secret society of the time, and borrowed much of the new organization’s structure and technique from Carbonari traditions. In place of the Carbonari emphasis on internationalism, though, Mazzini’s new organization accepted only Italian members, and its goal was a nationalist revolution leading to the creation of an independent Italian republic. See Carbonari.

From Mazzini’s headquarters in Marseilles, Young Italy established an extensive network of supporters throughout the Italian peninsula, distributed propaganda, and infiltrated the armed forces and government bureaucracies of several of the small kingdoms into which Italy was divided at the time. The most effective penetration was achieved in the Kingdom of Savoy in northwestern Italy, where large parts of the army were influenced by Young Italy propaganda. Meanwhile Mazzini, who was exiled from France in the spring of 1833, built up an army of Italian exiles in Switzerland and prepared for an invasion of Savoy to launch his planned revolt.

The Savoyard authorities discovered the plot in the summer of 1833, however; 14 members of Young Italy were executed, and many others imprisoned. This proved the beginning of the end for Young Italy. Members in other parts of Italy went to ground, fearing that they would be implicated by Savoyard members, and the planned rising in August 1833 never happened. Unfazed, Mazzini tried to launch the invasion of Savoy anyway in January of 1834, but his volunteers refused to cross the border in the absence of a revolt to support them, while members in Italy refused to revolt unless an army appeared to help them.

The complete failure of Mazzini’s plan led to the rapid dissolution of Young Italy. Unwilling to admit defeat, Mazzini built ever more grandiose plans for a general European revolt until the Swiss government expelled him from the country in 1836 and he went into exile in England. His later career as a writer and Italian revolutionary proved more successful, but secret societies played essentially no part in it.

Further reading: Hales 1956.