Feb
19

Skull and Bones: Let's Open the Doors

Our youngest son went to Yale, graduating with a slew of honors a year ago. Of course we are proud of him, but, when the lights are out, and the animals are all down for the night, we would sometimes wonder about him.

"Do you think he is?" my wife would wonder.

"I don’t know. I wonder, too." I would reply.

"Why don’t we just ask him?" She would say, hopefully.

"Because if he told us he would have to kill us." I was matter of fact.

Isn’t that the ethic of secret societies? Swear a blood oath to silliness and keep silent to the grave. For the life of me, I cannot understand the allure of secret societies. And now the most exclusive little club of all, Yale’s Skull and Bones, has been sued in a federal court. At issue is whether club members robbed Geronimo’s grave, bringing back to New Haven the Apache warriors skull and femur, together with a horses bit and a saddle horn.

A recent editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine described the society as a "fortress separate from the university." The magazine claims there is evidence that members of Skull and Bones at least robbed a grave they thought was Geronimo’s.

The secret order of self-appointed nabobs is housed in a mausoleum-like structure near Yale’s campus and just blocks from the New Haven Superior Court. The building sits there, year after year, looking squat, and smug, and self-satisfied. Were I a burglar I’d target the place just for sport.

A letter written in 1918 and recently unearthed in a Yale archive strongly suggests that Geronimo’s remains are in New Haven. Some think that Prescott Bush, the forebear of Bush I and Bush II, was one of the thieves.

One of Geronimo’s great grandchildren hired William Ramsey Clark to bring the action for recovery of the remains. Suit has been filed under the Native American Graves Protection and Reparations Act. The suit names, among others, Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Army Secretary Peter Geren, Yale University and the Order of Skull and Bones.
I am a reasonably creative and known from time to time to stretch the known boundaries of the law, but President Obama? Isn’t he a Harvard and Columbia man? It is difficult to conceive of a role for him in the suit, as it for the Secretaries of Defense and Army. But the Order of Skull and Bones? Have at them, I say.

Fouling a grave is regarded as desecration by Native Americans, and, frankly, by just about anyone else with a pulse. We may arise from dust and return to dust, but the memory of those long gone is the closest we come to immortality. Perhaps these inchoate and shared memories of the dead are the source of the unseen hope for an afterlife.

Yale, of course, denies comment on the suit. In the university’s case, that is more than sound management of litigation. The university, like the Order of Skull and Bones, regards itself as somehow apart the nation as a whole. Try subpoenaing a university official sometime. The university responds as though it is an insult. "Why we’re older than the United States. What is this piffle?" it’s lawyers all but snort.

I say permit discovery in the case, at least as to the Order of Skull and Bones. Permit an inspection of its playpen in New Haven. Let an archivist read its secret rolls. And when members howl in court for a protective order, deny it. There is now an action pending in federal court. No good cause justifies keeping a supper club’s list sealed, secret and stowed away in a dusty vault. Especially if the blue blood of its members is stained with the taint of grave robbing.

I am willing to bet my son is not a member. I like to think he has more sense than that. Perhaps this litigation will settle the matter once and for all.

Reprinted courtesy of The Connecticut Law Tribune.

UPDATE: Here is a link to the letter, courtesy of an email I just got from an interested reader. She also reported that the president and others are sued as the action seeks return of all of Geronimo's remains, wherever they are kept. http://yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2006_05/images/Yale_Alumn_Magazine.pdf
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis

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