Skull & Bones & Geronimo

Wall Street Journal - May 8, 2006

Dig Through Archives Reopens the Issue Of Geronimo’s Skull

A 1918 Letter Points to Theft, But Grave Was Unmarked; Skeleton in Bush Closet?


Historians agree that Geronimo died of pneumonia in 1909 and was buried in a prisoner-of-war cemetery at Fort Sill, Okla. But whether the Apache warrior’s remains still rest there is a matter of growing dispute.

The grave of the famed warrior has long been rumored to have been robbed during World War I by a small group of young military officers that included Prescott Bush, the president’s late grandfather, and other members of Yale University’s secretive Skull and Bones society.

Now a 1918 letter, newly unearthed from Yale archives, offers some intriguing new clues. In it, one Skull and Bones member reports that Geronimo’s skull and other remains had been exhumed and taken to the society’s headquarters, known as The Tomb, in New Haven, Conn. The letter is made public for the first time in the new issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

The tale of the possible theft first surfaced in the mid-1980s, when some Apache leaders received a cache of purported Skull and Bones documents from an anonymous source. The alleged desecration sparks outrage among many Native Americans.

“Who in the hell would do such a thing?” asks Raleigh Thompson, a former council member for the San Carlos Apache Tribe who has taken part in efforts to bring Geronimo’s remains to its Arizona reservation. “I guess it’s the way my elders used to explain to me that white people are,” he adds. When the great Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was killed in 1877, his people buried him in a place that remains hidden, expressly to prevent grave robbing.

In the 1918 letter, one senior Bonesman, as society members are known, tells another about the robbery. “The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club,…is now safe inside” the Tomb, wrote Winter Mead, who would graduate from Yale the next year and go on to become an insurance salesman. He died in the early 1950s.

The document was discovered in the Yale archives by Marc Wortman, a former writer and editor for the alumni magazine who was researching a book about World War I fliers from Yale. “The letter is the first genuine evidence that Skull and Bones members believed they had Geronimo’s skull,” says Kathrin Day Lassila, the magazine’s editor. “And it is the first evidence from the very time that the grave robbery apparently occurred.”

Even so, there is no indication the letter writer or the recipient, F. Trubee Davison — who went on to become director of personnel at the CIA and who died in 1974 — took part in any grave robbery. Many historians maintain that, if there is a skull at The Tomb, it is unlikely to be Geronimo’s since there is no evidence that his grave was ever disturbed.

David H. Miller, a history professor at Cameron University, in Lawton, Okla., says Fort Sill records indicate that until 1920 — two years after the purported robbery — Geronimo’s grave was unmarked and covered by thick brush. “I don’t think Prescott Bush dug up the bones,” he says, “because I don’t think he could have found the grave.”

Towana Spivey, director of the Fort Sill museum, has researched the story for 20 years and thinks it’s a hoax. One piece of evidence he has gathered is an 1878 photograph showing several members of Skull and Bones standing around a skull on a pedestal. Mr. Spivey, an archaeologist, says the same photo appeared in a publication after Geronimo’s death with a caption indicating that the skull belonged to the Apache warrior.

Such debunking is unlikely to defuse the long-running dispute. It features a society long associated with the nation’s elite — including both President Bush and his adversary in the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry — and a frontier icon revered among Native Americans for being the last man to muster effective resistance to white expansion.

Through the years, Skull and Bones leaders have never responded in any detail to the Geronimo story. In a 1988 interview with the Arizona Republic, the late Endicott P. Davison, a lawyer and society member — and son of F. Trubee Davison — did deny that its members had taken part in a purported plot to steal the skull of Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary. Recent officers and directors either refused to comment for this story or did not return calls.

The Bush family stayed silent when the Geronimo question arose during presidential campaigns. Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, declined comment for this story. The president’s uncle Jonathan Bush, who the Apaches say has negotiated with them on the matter in the past, turned down an interview request.

Symbols of death have been a part of the lore of Skull and Bones since the secret society was founded in 1832 by William H. Russell, scion of a wealthy Connecticut family. Through the years, the society has been accused of obtaining the skulls of notables ranging from Martin Van Buren to Che Guevara. In her 2002 book, “Secrets of the Tomb,” Alexandra Robbins wrote that at society headquarters, “Dozens of skeletons and skulls, both human and animal — elk, buffalo — grip the walls.”

The Apaches, who are divided into seven bands, have their own views about death. They “are extremely superstitious about handling remains or anything associated with burial,” says Mr. Spivey, the Fort Sill museum director. He adds that tribal sensitivities are the reason electronic probes and other sensing devices have never been used to determine whether all of Geronimo’s remains are still in his grave.

Born in 1829, Geronimo led a band of renegades who kept up a sporadic fight against both Mexican and American forces in the Southwest after the Apache chiefs gave up. Pursued by more than 5,000 troops, he and his small band finally surrendered in 1886. Geronimo was considered so elusive, brutal and prone to escape that the government sent him and his band across the country – first to Florida, then to Oklahoma — but by the time of his death, the once-fearsome warrior had converted to Christianity, appeared at various Wild West shows and marched in Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade. More than 700 mourners attended his funeral at Fort Sill.

Two years after Geronimo’s death, vandals struck the grave of Quanah Parker, a prominent Comanche chief also buried at Fort Sill. That led some Apaches to start a rumor that they themselves had moved Geronimo’s remains.

Mr. Spivey says Fort Sill records show that Prescott Bush was stationed at the base in 1918. Mr. Bush died in 1972. Fourteen years later, leaders of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, in Arizona, received an anonymous package containing a photo of a skull in a display case, said to have been taken at Skull and Bones headquarters. It also contained what was said to be a society log detailing the night Mr. Bush and his cohorts allegedly dug up the remains. The society has not publicly confirmed or disputed the accuracy of the documents.

Mr. Thompson says he and other San Carlos Apache leaders flew to New York several times in 1986 to talk with Jonathan Bush and other Skull and Bones members about getting the remains back. Mr. Thompson says that, at their last meeting, Skull and Bones representatives brought a skull and offered to let the Apaches have it if they would sign a paper promising not to discuss the matter publicly.

Tribal leaders refused because, among other things, the skull appeared too small to be a grown man’s. Even so, Mr. Thompson says, he was shaken emotionally for months afterward. “It was not an old man’s skull but it was there in front of me and it was somebody’s and they dug it up somewhere,” he recalls. “I didn’t touch it.”

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