9 of the Most Exclusive College Secret Societies

A Seven Society sign outside Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia
A Seven Society sign outside Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia
Queerbubbles, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

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

The Skull and Bones "tomb," or clubhouse, at Yale
The Skull and Bones "tomb," or clubhouse, at Yale
m01229, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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

Gimghoul Castle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Gimghoul Castle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
THE evil fluffyface, 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

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

Fencing gear connected to the Corps Hannovera Gottingen
Kresspahl, 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.

7. Porcellian Club, Harvard

The bookplate of the Porcellian Club at Harvard
The bookplate of the Porcellian Club at Harvard
Houghton Modern, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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


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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.

7 Very Victorian Ways to Die

A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."
A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."

In the 19th century, the Grim Reaper was seemingly around every corner. A glass of water, a beautiful dress, or a brightly colored piece of wallpaper could all spell your doom. Poor sanitation, dangerous working practices, and widespread poisons meant that even those in their prime of life were not immune to sudden death. Thankfully, today's scientific advances—and better regulation—have massively improved life expectancy, although some of these dangers still lurk.

1. Flammable Fashion

In the 1850s and '60s, the trend for huge crinoline skirts boomed. These large structured petticoats covered with fabric gave the impression of a voluminous skirt, whereas previously, the look had been achieved by wearing numerous layers of skirts, which was both hot and cumbersome. Crinolines became popular in part because they were light and easy to maneuver.

There was, however, a downside to their design—crinolines, often made of diaphanous materials such as silk and muslin, were highly flammable. Numerous newspapers reported on the scores of women who had the misfortune to get too close to a naked flame. Fanny Longfellow, wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, died in 1861 after her dress went up in flames when a lighted match or small piece of paper fell on her. Longfellow himself attempted to extinguish the flames, but his wife's skirts were so flammable it proved impossible to save her life. Another sad example was Archduchess Mathilde of Austria, who in 1867 is said to have pulled the classic teenage move of hiding a cigarette from her father behind her back and inadvertently set her dress ablaze.

Newspaper reports abounded with editorials on the perils of flouncy fashion, and offered various solutions (sometimes perhaps in jest). The Tablet in 1858 recommended, “We would … suggest that every lady wearing a crinoline, should be accompanied by a footman with a pail of water.” Needless to say, this was not a practical solution, but trends soon moved away from crinolines and the threat of fire lessened.

2. Opium Overdoses

A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)
A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)

Quieting fractious babies has always proved a challenge, but in the 19th century a seemingly wonderful solution was offered: opium. Tinctures of opium, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, were widely used as method to soothe sickly or teething infants. Although it might seem horrifying by modern standards to drug children into listlessness, in the 19th century opium was an extremely popular medicine and, before the days of aspirin, was commonly used as a painkiller and sleeping aid.

Godfrey’s Cordial was especially popular among working-class mothers who often had to return to work soon after the birth of a child. It became not uncommon to dose babies with Godfrey’s to make sure the child remained in a stupor until the mother returned from work. Unfortunately, accidental overdoses were frequent—in 1854 it was estimated that, in Britain, three-quarters of all deaths attributed to opium were of children under 5 years old. Fortunately, better regulation has meant that children’s medicines are now tightly controlled today.

3. Cholera Contamination

Many of us take it for granted that we can turn on the faucet and drink a glass of clean water. However, in the 19th century, as the populations in Europe and America ballooned and increasing numbers of people moved to cities, the infrastructure struggled to cope. Many slums had open sewers in the streets and an unreliable water supply, and communal wells and water pumps were often contaminated with raw sewage. This meant that water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhus became rife.

The cholera outbreaks of the 19th century originated in India, but with the growth of global trade networks it soon spread around the world. A pandemic around 1832 ensued when the disease reached Britain and America for the first time. Several other pandemics swept the world, killing 23,000 people in Britain in 1854 alone. Physician John Snow mapped the cases of cholera in London's Soho that year, and traced the cause to a single water pump that was located near a cesspool. The pump was removed, and cholera cases dropped dramatically. As scientific understanding of the spread of water-borne diseases improved, public water supplies were cleaned up, and the last documented cholera outbreak in the U.S. was in 1911.

4. Arsenic Poisoning

A jar of poisonous Paris Green
Chris goulet, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Colorful green wallpaper was the height of fashion in the Victorian era, largely spearheaded by pre-Raphaelite artists and designers. The green pigment often used, known as Scheele’s Green, had first been developed in 1775 by German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, and the key to its vibrant shade was the use of arsenic. Although arsenic was known to be poisonous if eaten, at the time it was thought to be safe as a color pigment.

In 1862 an investigation was carried out after several children from the same family sickened and died within weeks of each other in Limehouse, London. Dr. Thomas Orton investigated the case and concluded that the children had been poisoned by the arsenic in their bedroom's green wallpaper. Arsenic coloring was also used for dresses, hats, upholstery, and cravats. The poison was sprayed on vegetables as insecticide, and even added to beer. Restrictions on its use in food and drink were only added in 1903. Today, historic houses have had their arsenic wallpaper removed, and arsenic-dyed clothes in museum collections are generally kept safely behind glass.

5. Fatal Factories

By the 19th century, rapid industrialization across Europe and America had led to thousands of factories producing everything from fabric to munitions. Numerous adults—and children—were employed in these factories, providing ample opportunity for death and injury.

The cotton factories of Manchester, England, for example, could kill you in a number of ways. First, the air was thick with cotton fibers, which over time built up in workers’ lungs, causing breathing difficulties and lung disease. Then there were the whirling, grinding machines that might catch your sleeve or hair, dragging you into the loom. Children were employed to clean under the machines and retrieve dropped spindles because their small size allowed them to move about under the moving machines—but a trip or a loss of concentration often proved fatal. The huge number of accidents and deaths in factories eventually led to increased regulation—reducing working hours, restricting child labor, and making the machines themselves safer.

6. Sudden Spontaneous Combustion

Some Victorian scientists believed that alcoholism could cause spontaneous combustion. This idea caught the public imagination, and the theory was used by Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1853) to explain the death of the drunken rag and bone man Mr. Krook. In Victorian accounts, the victims were typically overweight and were heavy drinkers, and their bodies had seemingly burst into flame, leaving only their legs intact. Needless to say, the threat of spontaneous combustion was soon seized upon by the temperance movement, who used the supposed link to alcoholism to scare people away from the demon drink.

For example, The Anatomy of Drunkenness by Robert Macnish (1834) described the various types of drunk and devoted a whole chapter to the risk of spontaneous combustion. Macnish recounted a number of case studies, including that of Mary Clues—an inveterate drinker who was found almost entirely incinerated excepting one leg, while the room around her was more or less undamaged. Despite the widespread discussion of spontaneous combustion in the Victorian era, it's now generally considered highly unlikely if not impossible. Modern forensic science has in part explained the phenomena through the “wick effect,” wherein a body on fire produces melted fat that seeps into the clothes, causing a long, slow, self-contained burn that may look like the result of spontaneous combustion—but almost certainly began with an external source.

7. Pestilent Pox

Smallpox has been around for over 12,000 years. Europeans brought the disease to North and South America in the Age of Exploration, killing up to 90 percent of indigenous populations. Smallpox was still prevalent in the 19th century and killed about 30 percent of its victims. Those that survived were often blinded or badly scarred by the virulent pustules. To give some idea of the scale of fatalities, in just one year, 1871, over 50,000 people died of smallpox in Great Britain and Ireland alone.

In 1796 the English doctor Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had caught cow pox appeared to be immune to smallpox. This led Jenner to create the world’s first vaccine. As with many new developments, it took a number of years for vaccination to catch on, but once it did the incidence of smallpox began to fall. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease exterminated—the first virus ever to be completely eradicated world over—thanks to a sustained program of vaccination.

Australian Pals Claim to Have a 25-Year-Old McDonald's Quarter Pounder in Their Possession

PeJo29/iStock via Getty Images
PeJo29/iStock via Getty Images

What's older than Google, Netflix, and Tom Holland? A Quarter Pounder from McDonald's that's been traveling Australia for a quarter of a century. As 7News.com.au reports, the hamburger was purchased from a McDonald's restaurant in the mid-1990s, and roughly 25 years later it shows no signs of rot—a fact that's somehow more repulsive than the alternative.

Adelaide residents Casey Dean and Eduard Nitz bought the Quarter Pounder with Cheese in 1995 with their friend Johnno who was visiting from out-of-town at the time. Unable to finish the patty, Johnno asked his friends to hold on to it for him until his next visit.

He couldn't have guessed the implications of his request. After the meal, Nitz tossed the boxed-up hamburger into his cabinet at home where it would sit until he moved out. The Quarter Pounder remained in pristine condition, so instead of throwing it away, Nitz handed it off to his sister before going to live overseas. She ended up bringing it with her on various moves across the continent. Then, in 2015, Casey Dean became the official guardian of the indestructible sandwich.

As it nears its 25th birthday, the Quarter Pounder is still far from the nasty, moldy mess you'd expect it to be. That's because McDonald's hamburgers aren't very moist to begin with, so they dry out faster than they can decay. It's the same reason beef jerky can last so long; in other words, there are no mystery chemicals at play.

The same phenomenon can be seen in one of the last McDonald's meals ever purchased in Iceland. The unspoiled burger and fries from 2009 are currently on display at a small hotel in the country.

[h/t 7News.com.au]

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