ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
For decades, mystery has surrounded an elite secret society at Yale University, the Order of Skull and Bones. One legend has it that during World War I, bonesmen, as members are called, robbed the grave of Apache leader Geronimo.
According to the story, they then brought his skull back to Connecticut. Well, fact or fiction, Geronimo's descendants are taking it seriously. They are suing Skull and Bones to get the remains back.
From member station WNPR, Diane Orson reports.
DIANE ORSON: First, the scene of the alleged crime.
Mr. MARC WORTMAN (Author, "The Millionaire's Unit"): We're standing in front of the Skull and Bones tomb, their clubhouse.
ORSON: Marc Wortman has written a book about some members of Skull and Bones.
Mr. WORTMAN: And it literally looks like a tomb, a mausoleum of some great deity. It's got very small windows that are obscured and very large front doors with quite apparent padlocks on them.
ORSON: And now, the legend. The famous Apache warrior Geronimo, Goyathlay in his native language, died in 1909 after two decades as a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Nine years after his death, the story goes, members of Skull and Bones stationed at the army outpost dug up Geronimo's grave, stole his skull, some bones and personal relics and spirited them away to New Haven.
The grave robbers allegedly included Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W. The skull was put on display inside the tomb, so they say, or not.
Mr. WORTMAN: Skull and Bones has been silent for 175 years. Part of their mystique is that silence.
ORSON: Members swear an oath never to reveal what goes on inside the tomb. But while Marc Wortman was at Yale's Sterling Library researching his book about young men from the university who flew during World War I, he stumbled on a letter.
It was written from one bonesman to another, and Wortman was stunned to see a reference suggesting that the Geronimo legend could be true.
Mr. WORTMAN: And it says, 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.
ORSON: The letter from 1918 was written by Winter Mead to F. Trubee Davison, both confirmed Skull and Bones members, and the knight or new recruit was Charles Haffner, a bonesman stationed at Fort Sill at the time.
Now, 20 descendants of Geronimo have filed a lawsuit against Skull and Bones, Yale University and members of the U.S. government. It calls for the return of their ancestor's remains from New Haven, Fort Sill and, quote, "wherever else they may be found," unquote.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark represents the Geronimo family.
Mr. RAMSEY CLARK (Former U.S. Attorney General): Geronimo made it very clear, even before his surrender, that he wanted to be in his homeland, his native lands, 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.
ORSON: But Suzan Shown Harjo, president of Native rights organization Morning Star Institute, says it might not be possible to return Geronimo's remains.
Ms. SUZAN SHOWN HARJO (President, Morning Star Institute): I dare say that the remains of Geronimo that are in Oklahoma, with or without head, are probably no longer there.
ORSON: Twenty years ago, an Apache tribal chairwoman told Harjo that Geronimo's body had already been moved from Oklahoma to New Mexico. But Harjo says the lawsuit could clear up the mystery of a skull in Connecticut.
Ms. HARJO: You have the question of who? Whose head is it?
ORSON: We may never know, says Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache tribe. He's uncomfortable with the lawsuit and would prefer not to disturb Native human remains. Houser also disputes the idea that Apaches are traditionally buried in their homeland.
Mr. JEFF HOUSER (Chairman, Fort Sill Apache Tribe): 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. When somebody is buried, we traditionally do not revisit the grave. We don't make a big deal out of it.
ORSON: And there's a further complication. Alexandra Robbins, author of a book about Skull and Bones, says if bonesmen displayed Geronimo's skull in the Tomb at one time, it's likely not there now.
Ms. ALEXANDRA ROBBINS (Author, "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power"): 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. It's never going to surface.
ORSON: In an email, Yale University spokesman Tom Conroy says, quote, "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," unquote.
Efforts to reach members of Skull and Bones for comment were met with silence.
For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.