Secret societies: Do they still haunt the campus?

Shhh... it's a secret.

You've seen them appear randomly around campus, cloaked in black robes and moving in a seemingly organized pattern, shouting mysterious words and gesturing with their arms.

But it is not Halloween they are celebrating.

They are the remnants of a culture that used to be prevalent at Duke-secret societies.

By far, the grandest era of secret societies at Duke came during the '40s and '50s, when two organizations gained an influential role in campus life.

The Order of the Red Friars sprung up in 1913 at Trinity College with the mission of creating a spirit of loyalty and interest in the school. Senior members selected seven new junior initiates during public ceremonies in front of the Chapel.

"There was a tradition of a lot of this type of stuff on college campuses," said University Archivist Bill King. "Duke's were really only quasi-secret. People knew who they were."

These initiations, or "tappings"-so called because new members were tapped on the back to signify that they had been chosen-usually took place in late spring. One shrouded member would stand in front of the Chapel early in the morning to signify that the tappings would be that day, King said. Soon, students would gather to see who the new members would be.

Typically, secret society members were campus leaders, and of no surprise to the rest of the student body.

"One of the functions of a university is to foster leadership, and these secret societies were a way of recognizing leaders," said Tom Harkins, associate University archivist.

Members of the society included such campus legends as George Allen, William Few, Thomas Southgate, William Wannamaker and Hollis Edens, among numerous others whose names still figure on Duke's campus.

The tapping ceremony each year ended the society's public role, however. All activities were kept secret, and many students wondered if the group was active at all. It was not until this decade that an agreement with the University to seal the records ended, and the role of the group was revealed.

According to minutes from the group's meetings, members of the Red Friars were affiliated with various student organizations, including student government, The Chronicle and the Undergraduate Judicial Board, where they could further the society's aims. During its existence, the group helped create University policies and was, according to the archives, "privy to information not widely known on campus."

Harkins said that one of the most mysterious efforts of the group was the creation of the pecularily-placed plaque in front of the Chapel that states the aims of Duke University. Until the society's minutes were unsealed, no one knew who had funded the plaque.

One of the more influential steps taken by the group was the founding, in 1925, of the Order of the White Duchy, a female counterpart to their organization. Initially, the Red Friars selected the seven members of the Duchy, but connections between the societies ended after that.

The Duchy no longer exists today, but at the time it too helped create University policies and secretly influenced student life. Members were usually student leaders, and past ones include such famous names as Mary Biddle Semans and Elizabeth Dole.

The tappings of the White Duchy were also public, and were characteristically performed by senior members wearing white robes. The only other public notice of the group was that members wore white carnations once a month. Harkins said that according to legend, Dole received six white carnations upon being named Secretary of Transportation in 1983.

But what happened to the popularity of such groups at Duke? According to archives at Yale University, for example, there are still eight secret societies at Yale, including the infamous Skull and Bones, founded in 1832.

"I guess we all like rituals and secrets. To some extent these societies provide opportunities for exclusiveness... but in this day of inclusiveness, I think these societies have found that they don't have a very prominent place," said Sue Wasiolek, assistant dean for student affairs.

When the Red Friars disbanded in 1971, the members, as well as alumni, made the collective decision to end the group because it seemed too elitist and student interest had waned.

King added that towards the end of both the Duchy's and the Red Friars' existence, they were mocked on campus by groups including The Order of the Chair, which used a toilet at imitation tappings and dressed people in humorous costumes.

Such outside pressures, and a college environment much different from that of the 1940s, resulted in the secret societies' demise... or did it?

The hooded members occasionally seen on campus today are believed to be a modern-day version of the Old Trinity Club. This secret society was not as notorious and much less is known about it. It was apparently made up of seven senior men, as were most of the societies in Duke's past, but the details of its history ends there.

"I believe the Old Trinity Club still exists, although I know very little about its current existence," said Wasiolek. A 1979 picture in The Chronicle shows a man wearing a black robe and sunglasses, much like today's group does. The caption identifies him as a member of the Old Trinity Club.

Members of the current society declined to comment due to pressure from within the group to maintain the sanctity of the organization. Otherwise it wouldn't be a secret, now would it?


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