Geronimo was in prison in Fort Sill, Okla., when he died in 1909. Legend has it that nine years later, members of Yale's Skull and Bones society who were stationed at the army base absconded with his skull.
Geronimo was in prison in Fort Sill, Okla., when he died in 1909. Legend has it that nine years later, members of Yale's Skull and Bones society who were stationed at the army base absconded with his skull. Getty Images
The Skull and Bones clubhouse — also known as "The Tomb" — is secured with a padlock. Members are forbidden to reveal what happens inside the building.
The Skull and Bones clubhouse — also known as "The Tomb" — is secured with a padlock. Members are forbidden to reveal what happens inside the building. Diane Orson
For decades, mystery has surrounded an elite secret society at Yale University called the Order of Skull and Bones. One of the organizations most storied legends involves the skull of Apache warrior Geronimo, who died in 1909 after two decades as a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, Okla.
As the story goes, nine years after Geronimo's death, Skull and Bones members who were stationed at the army outpost dug up the warrior's grave and stole his skull, as well as some bones and other personal relics. They then sprinted the remains away to New Haven, Conn., and allegedly stashed the skull at the society's clubhouse, the Skull and Bones Tomb.
To make matters even more intriguing, legend has it that the grave-robbing posse included Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W.
A Letter Offers Clues
All of this is speculative; Skull and Bones members swear an oath never to reveal what goes on inside the Tomb. But author Marc Wortman says that when he was at Yale's Sterling Library researching The Millionaire's Unit, his book about young men from the university who flew during World War I, he stumbled on a letter that seemed to confirm the rumor.
Written from one Bonesman to another, the letter, which is dated 1918, reads:
The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and the Knight Haffner is now safe inside the Tomb, together with his well-worn femurs, bit and saddle horn.
Now 20 descendants of Geronimo have filed a lawsuit against Skull and Bones, Yale University and members of the U.S. government (including Barack Obama), calling for the return of their ancestor's remains from New Haven, Fort Sill and "wherever else they may be found."
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark who represents the Geronimo family says that Geronimo made it very clear — even before his surrender — that he wanted to be in the Apache lands of southwestern New Mexico.
"When he met with Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, in March of 1905, his request was that he and the other Chiricahua Apaches who were prisoners of war be permitted to return to the headwaters of the Gila River ... adding that if he couldn't return in his lifetime, that he wanted to be buried there," says Clark.
But Suzan Shown Harjo, president of The Morning Star Institute, a Native rights organization, says it might not be possible to return Geronimo's remains. Twenty years ago, an Apache tribal chairwoman told Harjo that Geronimo's body had already been moved from Oklahoma to New Mexico. And even if the lawsuit turns up a skull in Connecticut, "then you have the question of who? Whose head is it?" says Harjo.
The Mystery Abides
We may never know the truth about Geronimo's remains, says Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache tribe. Houser is uncomfortable with the lawsuit and would prefer not to disturb Native human remains. He also disputes the idea that Apaches are traditionally buried in their homeland.
"Unlike what was stated in the complaint, Apaches do not like to disinter remains, and there is no tradition of burying them in their birthplace. Apaches were nomadic people," says Houser. "When somebody is buried we traditionally do not revisit the grave. We don't make a big deal out of it."
And there's a further complication. Alexandra Robbins, author Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power says that even if Bonesmen displayed Geronimo's skull in the Tomb at one time, it's likely not there now.
"There are, at any one time, approximately 800 living members of this organization across the world. So any of them could have put the skull anywhere by now. And it's never going to surface," says Robbins.
In an e-mail, Yale University spokesman Tom Conroy wrote: "Yale does not possess Geronimo's remains. Yale does not own the Skull and Bones building or the property it is on, nor does Yale have access to the property or the building."
Efforts to reach members of Skull and Bones for comment were met with silence.