Many of the most prominent people in the world once belonged to an exclusive college society, from 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 is fiendishly difficult, but here's what we know about nine of the most exclusive college secret societies in the world.
1. Seven Society, University of Virginia
The Seven Society of the 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 or carving the society’s symbol on college buildings.
Over the years a number of very generous gifts have been donated by the society, and 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
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 current Prime Minister 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.
3. Skull and Bones, Yale
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
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
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
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.
7. Porcellian Club, Harvard
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 include: 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, claiming that allowing female members could increase “the potential for sexual misconduct.”
8. The Apostles, Cambridge University
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. 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
Cloaked in secrecy, very little concrete information 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.
This list originally ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.