Behind the hood
For decades Duke's top seniors joined secret societies. Now the rituals and the members are revealed.
By: Emily Almas
Last update: 1/18/06 at 11:36 AM EST
When I started this story—about Duke’s secret societies, about what might have happened and what did—adrenaline kept me going on the hopes that I would find their sordid tales. My intentions were not the best the day I traipsed into the University Archives, in hopes of revealing information on the secret societies of years past.
There were supposed to be tales of covered-up crimes, love triangles, murder, secret kickbacks and rigged politics. Secret societies connote power, old money, politics, conspiracy. These were the people who were supposed to know who killed JFK. After all, isn’t that what secret societies do?
The facts were all I had—boxes of society records, some of which had been opened to the public a decade ago, after a 25-year moratorium. But I craved context; I pored through pages of memos and to-do lists and correspondence, looking for greater meaning, looking for something no meeting notes or handwritten list could provide.
Watching a dozen or so young men, dressed in black robes and dark sunglasses, was the closest I, like many Duke undergraduates, had ever gotten to secret societies. My freshman year of college, I saw them chanting Duke’s motto, “Eruditio et Religio,” and making hand signals in front of the Duke Chapel. But who were they? Were the robe-clad chanters remnants of Duke’s long-since declined secret society system?
Though the sunglasses added a tiny hint of mystique to today’s incarnation of Duke’s secret society, those beneath the shades were not hard to identify. Still, this robe-wearing, motto-chanting group quickly disappeared into the woodwork, just as quickly as it had emerged, and it seemed that no one on campus wanted to talk about it.
But I did. My interest was piqued. Perhaps I have always wanted to be a member of a secret society myself, to have a feeling of connection with history, a feeling of accomplishing something greater.
Maybe I’m just always on a hunch.
“Men with secrets tend to be drawn to each other, not because they want to share what they know but because they need the company of the like-minded, the fellow afflicted.” —author Don DeLillo
Duke had its own secret societies, such as the Order of the Red Friars, the Order of the White Duchy and the Old Trinity Club—prominent in their heydey but defunct for decades. Though their influence has long-since waned, these groups have not lost their influence on Duke’s campus—or their bonds of secrecy.
But in the weeks since I first picked through the accordion-style archive folders, reading about luncheons with provosts and to-do lists, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the odds I will discover a murder cover-up or reveal a secret bank account are slim to none. And today, in the absence of the type of campus climate that allowed the original secret societies to flourish, Duke’s future for clandestine organizations looks grim. No tombs and chants, no handshakes and passwords.
As I delved into the depths of the society files, fear crept in: I was reading about the secret lives of some of Duke’s most decorated alumni—people who today are powerful politicians, such as 1958 Duchy member U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., or philanthropists that have sat on the Board of Trustees and donated millions of dollars to the University. Would I get expelled from school for betraying their secrets? My mind became muddled by membership lists that count, among others, two of Duke’s most well-known alumni—future art museum namesake Raymond Nasher ’43 and novelist and convicted murderer Michael Peterson ’65.
Sifting through the old notes, learning about the competition between two rival secret societies and about what brought down the system, I’m still searching for my elusive lead, some hidden tidbit scandalous enough to make it worth the secrecy. What were all of these men and women hiding? And why?
“Speak no words and follow me. I challenge you to a quest which shall make of you a better man.”
—challenge given to newly tapped Red Friars
William Preston Few, Marshall Pickens, Thomas Southgate and Robert L. Flowers—I can imagine these Friars, both initiated and honorary, giving this charge to a young, freshly-scrubbed recruit. It would have been the first Thursday in May, probably a sunny morning. On the Chapel steps, sun glaring in their eyes, the scarlet-robed Grand Friar pinned a red carnation to each tap’s lapel. The tapping rituals began each year at 7 a.m. when the Chapel bell would ring seven times for the seven new initiates. Wearing their ritual dress of scarlet red robes and a red hood, a Friar brother would instruct the newly tapped members to reappear wearing a suit and tie that night by the Chapel, $25 in hand.
Their motto? Uno animo.
Their password? Fellowship.
Their color? Scarlet.
Their flower? The red carnation.
I wish I could say I had my own Deep Throat, that I had penetrated some internal source, a brother who leaked me a secret dossier with this information. But it was listed on simple scraps of paper in the University Archives, there for me, or anyone, to find. It’s hard to imagine how the Red Friars’ original seven members in 1913 would feel about their society secrets being quite so exposed. The tenets that these men agreed to—purpose, history, honor and secrecy—mandated its rituals be kept secret. Something that, oddly enough, is still true today.
“You know the easy cop-out would be to say it was all secret,” Bill Kenerly, a member of the Friars’ class of 1967, laughs.
I hope that in telling me this, it means he’s going to say more.
I don’t tell him that I already know the oath, the motto, the password or the color. That I have already read the initiation ceremony rites, that I’ve already read the instructions for when, where and how a respectful young man joins among the ranks of Red Friars.
“Even though it’s been nearly 40 years for me, I would still have to respect that oath of secrecy,” he says.
This response surprises me, but perhaps it should not. After all, secret societies are about secrets, about rituals and promises, about brotherhood and commitment. Just because the society has faded, the group’s loyalty to that bond has not. I wonder if William H. Wannamaker or George Allen, had they been alive today, would have told me their society secrets.
The Old Trinity Club, a secret society rumored to have been established before Trinity College’s move to Durham and a rival to the Red Friars, tapped its new members in much the same vein.
“I didn’t know [Old Trinity] existed,” says Jim Frenzel, a member of the Club’s class of 1967. “When I got tapped I had no clue what we were doing. I thought it was a joke.”
The societies weren’t simply for the men. In 1925 the Red Friars founded the White Duchy, an honorary secret society for women. Each year the White Duchy hand-picked a set of seven rising seniors, tapping the chosen women at seven in the morning, after ringing the East Campus bell seven times. Virginal white hoods and robes replaced the Friars’ fiery red.
Dressed in their full-length robes and white face-masking hoods, Duchy members would tap young women on the East Campus lawn by extending their arms and pinning white carnations to the new members’ chests.
It was the striking resemblance between the White Duchy and Red Friars’ tapping outfits and the dress of the Ku Klux Klan that eventually raised concerns. Some say non-members may have feared a link more tangible and sinister than similar ritual costumes between the societies and the Klan.
Continued in "Behind the hood (cont.)"