Uncloaking the Origins of Collegiate Secret Societies - Atlas Obscura
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Uncloaking the Origins of Collegiate Secret Societies

Hippol Castle, headquarters of the order of GimghoulHippol Castle, headquarters of the Order of Gimghoul. (Photo: Theevilfluffyface/WikiCommons)

Inside a medieval-style castle on the wooded grounds of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, members of the Order of Gimghoul engage in Masonic-style rituals, the details of which are a mystery to the non-initiated.

Over at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, women known as the fairies of Freya don dark robes and take late-night walks by the glow of a candle.

Collegiate secret societies, and the mysterious behavior that goes along with them, are very much alive in America.

Secret societies bring impressionable undergrads together to make career-enabling connections, forge personal bonds, and, of course, drink. Many are founded in honor of campus legends and incorporate centuries-old imagery and customs—the druids, the masons, and the knights of the round table are popular influences. Yale’s Skull & Bones Society, established 1832, has perhaps the greatest name recognition, but there are plenty of others that inspire fascination. Take UNC’s Gimghoul, originally called the Order of Drumgoole, which was founded by five UNC students in 1889.

The logo for Yale's Skull & Bones secret society

The logo for Yale’s Skull & Bones secret society. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

Dromgoole got its name from a bit of campus lore. In 1833, a duel purportedly took place between UNC student Peter Dromgoole and a mysterious drifter. Standing right where the castle is now, the pair apparently dueled over the affections of a Miss Fanny until, according to the prevalent version of the story, Dromgoole was killed and buried beneath a large, bloodstained rock on the property. Legend holds that Miss Fanny frequented the site, pining for her lost love. She eventually died of sorrow, became a ghost, and haunted the property. (Veracity check: records at UNC show that a Peter Dromgoole applied to UNC in 1833. However, he failed the entrance exam, and many people claim he left for Europe and never came back.)

According to Gimghoul’s archives, the Order of Dromgoole founders soon changed their name to the spookier sounding Order of Gimghoul, “in accord with midnight and graves and weirdness.”  Over time, the men-only group “consolidated its beliefs and customs into a combination of the Dromgoole legend and the ideals of Arthurian knighthood and chivalry.” In 1926, Gimghoul members pooled their money and built the castle in the UNC woods. To this day, the anonymous order offers scholarships and holds secret ceremonies in the castle, which is equipped with secret-keeping slatted windows.

Gimghoul has a formidable history, but it is far from being the oldest secret society. That honor goes to the Flat Hat Club, founded at the College of William and Mary in Virginia way back in 1750. Flat Hat was created primarily as a drinking club at the famed Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. Thomas Jefferson was a member and allegedly claimed the society “served no useful object.” Though the Flat Hat Club disappeared from college life for decades, word is that it has been revived in modern times.  

Members of the Flat Hat Club in the 1921 College of William and Mary's student yearbook Members of the Flat Hat Club in the 1921 College of William and Mary’s student yearbook. (Photo: Internet Archive/flickr)

One of the strangest and longest running societies is Mystical Seven at Wesleyan in Connecticut, founded in 1837. One of the seven student founders, Hamilton Brewer—“the sacred brewer,” according to university scholars—helped invent “a complex, arcane set of practices and rituals, including pseudonyms, a special calendar, a vocabulary and their own code of parliamentary procedure.” Members call themselves “Mystics,” and refer to the University as the land of “Willburia,” after a former college president. Everything is centered around the number seven—their former seven-sided clubhouse, their seal, and their songs.  

A sign of the Seven Society in front of "Maury Hall" (named in honor of Matthew Fontaine Maury) at the University of Virginia.A sign of the Seven Society at the University of Virginia. (Photo: Queerbubbles/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

An obsession with the number seven, considered magical and sacred in many ancient traditions, can be found in several other well-known collegiate secret societies, including the incredibly wealthy Seven Society of the University of Virginia. Founded in the early 1900s, supposedly when only seven members turned up for a two-table bridge game, it has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the University—all in an elaborate manner that emphasizes sevens. According to UVA historians, during commencement in 1947, there was a small explosion, after which a check for $177,777.77 floated from the stage. In 2008, a check for $14,777.77 was delivered to the University at Scott Stadium by a skydiver carrying a large “Seven” flag. Members’ names are only revealed upon their death, and during their funeral the UVA Chapel bells “toll in increments of seven, every seven seconds, in a dissonant seventh chord, for seven minutes,” says UVA’s magazine.

The original members of the Mystical Seven.The original members of the Mystical Seven. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

Perhaps the most mirthful of all secretive college organizations is the NoZe Brotherhood of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. In 1924, a joke regarding a student named Leonard Shoaf’s nose, which was said to be “of such great length and breadth of nostril” that you could “form a club around it,” led to the formation of the NoZe. Members have their own language, wear rubber noses and wigs to protect their identity, and publish a satirical campus magazine called The Rope. Their officers have titles like the Bearer of the Enlightening Rod of Elmo, the Lorde Mayor and the Shekel Keeper. The group is known for its notorious pranks, which have included dropping 4,000 ping-pong balls in the University Chapel, and repeatedly painting a campus bridge pink.

The NoZe Brotherhood, circa 2002The NoZe Brotherhood, circa 2002. (Photo: cjosefy/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0

Due to their secretive nature, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain just what these organizations are up to. Although Rutgers University in New Jersey has a very well-known society, the 115-year-old Cap and Skull Society,which meets in front of an actual human skull wearing a graduation cap, it is also home to a group so elusive that it probably doesn’t exist at all. Known as the Order of the Bulls Blood, it was supposedly founded in 1834—or possibly 1875. It has been said that the group has been pranking the campus for over a century, and that its members include former NBA commissioner David Stern. One former student claimed to have been “tapped” by the organization in the early 2000s.  However, the order is almost certainly a hoax, started during the 1990s, when the internet made creating the history of a society as easy as opening a Wikipedia page. When asked about its existence, an official at the school wrote back, “We do not have any information on this alleged secret society here at Rutgers.”

Of course, since the key to these secret societies is that members remained tight-lipped, “no information” may very well mean “none of your business.”