Friday, February 20, 2009


The New York Times reports today on the efforts of the descendants of Geronimo to recover his skull from its apparent present location squirreled away in a glass case belonging to the secret society Skull and Bones. That the skull (and perhaps an odd bone or two as well) resides at Yale is already a scandalous fact; that Geronimo's descendants must file a lawsuit to have a shot at having the remains returned is an absurdity; but it is a revelation to learn that the bones probably came to Yale in the first place as the graverobber booty of Prescott Bush, the grandfather of the 43rd President of the United States.

Skull and Bones tradition has it that in 1918--nine years after Geronimo's death in an Oklahoma prison--young Prescott Bush "broke into the grave with some classmates during World War I and made off with the skull, two bones, a bridle and some stirrups, all of which were put on display at the group’s clubhouse in New Haven, known as the Tomb."

This narrative is so fraught with significance that it would take a weighty tome to unpack it all--a tome which ought to be unnecessary because the moral of the tale is so very obvious, one might think, but might alas be very wrong in that assumption. Evidently the present membership of Skull and Bones is insufficiently wise to see reason simply to return Geronimo's bones to his family with abject apologies for past wrongs. The mental atmosphere that allows people to see the very bones of others as trophies and playthings is apparently not easily clarified of its pollutants.

What was in the mind of young Prescott Bush, assuming it really was he who stole Geronimo's skull? A schoolboy prank is one thing, you might say, but a Yale student is no schoolboy. For whoever stole the skull, it must have been a great joke, and a vaunting over a vanquished enemy of a larcenous war. It's easy to imagine the beer-drinking that preceded the act and the quality of laughter that attended it.

That snarky laughter echos though the continuing residence of Geronimo's remains at Yale, as tribute to the ethical blindness not only of Prescott Bush (who was a member of Skull and Bones under the blank gaze of that skull regardless of whether he stole it or not) but of all the POTUSs who have been members of that organization from that time to the present--a lineage that includes, among others, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. What keggers have the empty eyesockets of the great chief watched during its 90 years of imprisonment? What illegitimate wars have those graduates presided over?

"The past is not over," Faulkner famously wrote. "In fact, it's not even past." And some facts are so obviously invidious (not to mention embarrassing) that it's a shock to realize they need to be elucidated. This is an issue so broad and so egregious that even to bring it up may seem to some like a cheap shot. And so it would be, if it had been redressed decades ago.

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