Secret Societies Once Clubs of Choice, Now Underground

The very mention of secret societies evokes sentiments of old boy networking and prep school exclusivity. Boisterous laughter and backslapping, quaffing beers and dining on fried oysters, brothers with names like Don Santo, Thersites or Fra Diavolo — these once took place on the very campus we now tread upon. Few students today know anything about secret societies, yet their legacy is tangible in unexpected walls of houses around Andover Hill. Indeed I was entirely unaware of them until I made my way to a cluster munch back in the winter at Davison House, home to Rebecca Sykes, Associate Head of School, and Elwin Sykes, Instructor in English. As I was admiring the architecture of the house, Barbara Chase, Head of School, approached me and asked if I knew that Davison had once been used as the quarters for a secret society. No, I wasn’t aware of that. In fact, I wasn’t aware that secret societies had even existed at Andover; I thought they were merely the wisps of fanciful rumors. But as I learned, Davison House was constructed in 1928 behind Graves Hall for the secret society Phi Lamda Delta (F.L.D.). Graham House, which students now merely glance at on their way to CVS or Bertucci’s, was once the home to the brothers of Auctoritas, Unitas, Veritas (A.U.V.). The list goes on—Alumni House for Kappa Omega Alpha (K.O.A.), Benner House for Alpha Gamma Chi (A.G.C.) and Newton House for Phi Beta Chi (P.B.X.). How then, I asked, did so many secret societies exist, and what led to their demise? As Fritz Allis writes in his historical account of Phillips Academy, Youth From Every Quarter, “The Andover Secret Societies were unique among American secondary schools. To be sure there were various kinds of fraternities at high schools, and some private schools also had exclusive clubs. At Exeter, for example, Societies existed until World War II, but they were a pale copy of the Andover institutions.” Secret fraternities first began sprouting in the 1870s as filler to the gaping hole in campus social life. For the seven most prominent societies, new houses were built independently from the school and explicitly for the purpose of accommodating its members. Needless to say, the faculty at the time did not receive these societies with welcome arms. In 1877, Headmaster Bancroft wrote to the Trustees: “Secret societies so-called have caused us some anxiety, but the Faculty have taken a positive stand forbidding them and it is hoped to quite crush them out next year.” During the earlier years of their existence, Andover required entering students to sign a pledge that they would not join a secret society. This administrative response drove the fraternities underground, forcing them to meet around midnight or before daybreak. Within a decade of the fraternities’ persevered existence, the faculty seemed to have adopted the motto that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em—or at the very least, regulate them. By 1883, secret societies had their own faculty guardians, who approved the fledgling members of a society. The Phillipian for June 17, 1884, commented on this change: “In the matter of discipline we note the recognition of secret societies—those ancient and omnipresent bugbears of the ‘powers that be.’…So far as we have been able to judge, this radical change of attitude has not been productive of any particularly dangerous results.” K.O.A., formed in September 1874 as the school’s first secret society, was the most prestigious of the societies. Before the administrative warmed up to the idea of fraternities, the members of K.O.A. employed various evasive techniques to avoid administrative detection; they varied their meeting times and locations, and even traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1881 to hold their annual reunion to escape faculty eyes. As with most secret societies, a major element of the selective membership involved the initiation rites—otherwise recognized as hazing. “In K.O.A. the ceremony involved visiting one of the local cemeteries at midnight, various kinds of tortures, running the gauntlet—though the novice was apparently punched rather than paddled, being baptized in a water tank, being hoisted in the air by a pulley, and finally being placed in a coffin, where he was cross-examined by the members,” Allis explains. A.U.V., the secret society to outlast them all until 1950, also boasted a peculiar set of initiation ceremonies: once A.U.V. and their faculty guardian had approved a pledge, they gave their new brother a card with a list of commands. He must sleep in the cemetery every night from midnight to five o’clock, he must not comb or brush his hair nor wash his face or hands, he should smoke nothing but a clay pipe with Lucky Strike tobacco and must not speak to anybody outside of A.U.V. In one initiation, a boy was so clobbered that he could not compete in the Andover-Exeter track meet. Although the induction into a secret society left the mortified pledge with a sore bottom, the fraternal benefits were admittedly impressive. The friendships formed in these organizations proved to endure like the bitter sting of the paddle. According to one initiate of the society A.G.C., a newly ordained brother experienced the “warm sense of belonging to a gallant company” following his induction. Moreover, alumni of the societies were fiercely loyal, often dishing out of their own purses to financially support their lifelong fraternities. And yet, by the 1940s, the faculty decided to opt for a new dictum: all good things must come to an end. Faculty and students who had been snubbed for fraternities became disenchanted with the secret societies, widely regarding them as elitist and damaging to the unification of the school. On April 30, 1943, the faculty, under the administration of Headmaster Claude Fuess, voted “that the existence of social societies, with restricted membership is not in the best interests of Phillips Academy.” But the fraternities would not wave a white flag of defeat. They called upon their alumni, one of whom telegraphed to Fuess: “I was called on the long distance telephone by a member of my old society P.A.E. who stated that the Andover Trustees planned to abolish the societies without giving them any hearing. I told him that this sounded so Fascist that I would not believe it.” With a deluge of similar letters and the fat in the fire, Fuess’s first attempt at the abolition of Andover’s secret societies failed by and large. Yet the next incoming Headmaster, Army light-colonel John Mason Kemper, carried Fuess’s campaign and made it across the finish line. After holding discussions with society leaders during the Commencement weekend of 1949, Kemper finally ended the discussion that had gone on since 1943. With the help of Bishop Henry W. Hobson, President of the Board of Trustees, the fraternities were required to disband and turn their property over to the school in what was a relatively quiet and fair process. “So the Societies disappeared from Andover Hill,” writes Allis. Almost. A mysterious black tub surfaces in front of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library or on the steps of Samuel Phillips Hall during Assessment Week. It is filled with cans of soda or candies, but by whom? The answer, it seems, is Truth, Unity, Brotherhood, or T.U.B., a revival of the secret society at Andover. According to Ruth Quattlebaum, School Archivist and Instructor in Art, T.U.B. has existed on campus for around eight to ten years, and consists exclusively of Senior males. Like the secret societies of old, T.U.B. is conspicuously furtive. The black tub is not the only deed T.U.B. has visibly done for campus: the large, blue wooden “A” in front of Morse Hall that flashed Christmas lights earlier this year has the letters T.U.B. etched onto its front. Multiple Senior pages in the 2002 Potpourri include dedications, namely: “TUB: Forever” and “TUB: Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis.” The brothers of T.U.B. also have societal names reminiscent of the days of A.U.V. or K.O.A. The names range from Roman and Greek icons—such as Agrippa, Cicero, Achilles, Hektor and Daedalus—to the outright peculiar—Hotzenplotz, Jebruckesbra and Buttafucco. A T.U.B. leader’s outline for an induction of new members for the 2003-2004 school year reads, “You want T.U.B. to seem impressive. Make it out to be a well-run, complex, large, well-funded operation. Then you will have new members’ enthusiasm.” The history of Andover’s secret fraternities may or may not have concluded in the 1950s; but one thing is manifest, the intrigue and covertness of the secret society continues to pervade campus air. The empty black tub at the end of Assessment Week is evidence to prove it. sif.