Occasionally, a visitor to William and Mary will be talking to one of us and suddenly ask us a question. "What's the story," they want to know, "with these secret societies here at the College."
That's the problem with secret societies: they're secret. So nobody talks much about them. The origins of collegiate secret societies are shrouded in the mists of time and in, well, secrecy. The most famous of this group, of course, is Skull and Bones at Yale, but there are more than one secret society that show evidence of being alive and well at William and Mary.
Currently, there are at least three secret societies at the College, possibly more. The most well known is the Bishop James Madison Society, which some say is associated with Yale's Skull and Bones in some way. Founded in 1812, the group takes its name from the eighth president of William and Mary and a cousin of U.S. President James Madison.
Just because they're secret, doesn't mean these groups are completely invisible. The Bishop James Madison Society for instance, sponsors Last Lecture near the end of each academic year. Last Lecture is a final academic address by a retiring professor or other honored member of the campus community.
There also is evidence of a group called the Society of Sevens and another, all female, called the Alphas. You may (or may not) hear about the 13s, too.
These groups are never highly visible, of course, but they tend to make themselves more known around Commencement than at other times of the year. The Sevens sometimes post flyers in the spring recognizing some people for "excellence." Are these people newly initiated members of the society? Who knows? At least some members of the Bishop James Madison Society wear the group's distinctive quatrefoil emblem with their academic regalia.
And then there's the mystery of the F.H.C. Society (1750) - a secret society devoted to "fraternitas, humanitas et cognito" of which Thomas Jefferson was a famous member. A spinoff, the Flat Hat Club, was revived in 1916 and exists to this day.
Our secret societies aren't fodder for conspiracy theorists and their actions would no doubt disappoint fans of the Da Vinci Code, because their actions seem to consist only of anonymous philanthropic acts that benefit William and Mary and people at the College. There's none of the subversion of democratic institutions, assassinations or other dark manipulation of events to bring about the fulfillment of any of the group's nefarious goals.