What if the founding of Cornell University was actually part of an elaborate conspiracy to create a so-called “new world order?” What if Cornell’s founding president was part of an intricate network of influence linking the country’s most powerful businessmen, educators and politicians? What if the man immortalized by the bronze statue on the Arts Quad had some sinister ulterior motives during his twenty years as president of the University?
It just so happens that some conspiracy theorists believe all that to be true. Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder of Cornell, graduated from Yale in 1853, having edited the Yale Literary Magazine, rowed on the crew team, joined multiple fraternities and won numerous oratory and literary awards. At the conclusion of his junior year, he was one of fifteen students tapped for Skull and Bones, an organization surrounded with intrigue and mystery.
Founded in 1832 by the father of U.S. President William Howard Taft, Skull and Bones recently reentered public awareness due to films like The Skulls (2000) and The Good Shepherd (2006) as well as the 2004 presidential election, which featured two members of the society: George W. Bush and John Kerry.
But is there any truth to the rumors? Is Cornell actually connected to a controversial group credited with controlling the world? I’ll present the facts; you decide.
Andrew Dickson White was crucial in developing the educational ideals upon which Cornell was based. It was White who convinced Ezra Cornell not to donate his wealth to an already existing upstate New York college, and White who proposed the State Senate bill for Cornell University’s establishment. He was elected the school’s first president, serving from 1866 to 1885. After his resignation, he remained involved in the University, participating as a trustee and advisor until his death in 1918.
Both White and Cornell were good friends with an Ithaca native and Skull and Bones member (or Bonesman), Francis Miles Finch. Upon Cornell’s founding, Finch became a charter trustee, legal advisor, lecturer and later, dean of the Cornell Law School. Was Finch’s involvement in Cornell’s founding related to his common allegiance with White? Or, was it simply due to his residence in Ithaca? But the plot thickens as Yale alumni joined the fledgling Cornell faculty. …
In 1867, as Cornell’s trustees attempted to gather a faculty, the first name proposed by White was Evan W. Evans, another Bonesman. Evans would become the first official faculty member of Cornell University. Shortly thereafter, the first Cornell professor of physics was appointed, Bonesman Eli W. Blake. This pattern would continue for the remainder of White’s reign.
In 1870, the professor of Latin was fired for drunkenness, and Bonesman Tracy Peck was hired. In 1881, Bonesman Moses Coit Tyler was hired by the University as the country’s first chair of American history. Tyler’s biography reveals that he met White at a Skull and Bones meeting when Tyler was a senior and White was a graduate student. According to correspondence, White offered Tyler a professorship as early as 1871, and even asked if he would consider being Cornell’s president in 1880.
Daniel H. Chamberlain, Bonesman and former governor of South Carolina, was hired to the law faculty in 1883. When Cornell’s School of Philosophy was created in 1890, the first person hired was a local Ithacan and Bonesman, Charles M. Tyler. History indicates that he was first considered for the faculty in 1881, when White was still president.
With the founding of Cornell Medical College in New York City in 1898, four Bonesmen physicians were hired nearly simultaneously. Coincidence? A further look reveals that the medical school was endowed by Oliver H. Payne, a Yale alumnus who left school early to enlist in the Civil War. However, Payne’s brother-in-law was a Bonesman whose two sons would also become Bonesmen. The founding faculty also included Lewis A. Stimson (father of Henry L. Stimson, a Bonesman who would become Secretary of War and Secretary of State) and W. Gilman Thompson, a nephew of Bonesman Daniel Coit Gilman.
Gilman was actually one of President White’s closest associates at Yale. When Johns Hopkins University was founded in the 1870s, its trustees approached White for help in finding a university president. Correspondence between White and Gilman shows that they discussed the matter, calling it the “Baltimore scheme” since the Hopkins trustees were based in that city. The “scheme” was successful, and Gilman served as Johns Hopkins University’s first president from 1875 to 1901. Gilman did his part by hiring Bonesman William H. Welch to the faculty in 1884 and appointing him first dean of the School of Medicine in 1893.
Interestingly, White was publicly silent about his membership in Skull and Bones. His voluminous autobiography fails to mention it, despite a full chapter on his activities at Yale. White’s own diary, spread across sixty-nine volumes, disappeared after his death. It wasn’t until 1951 that a Cornell librarian discovered it locked in a suitcase and hidden in the library stacks, surrounded by books. Concealed with the diaries was an especially unique item: White’s personal Skull and Bones membership book. Was the Bones book hidden by White himself?
White’s experiences with Yale’s oldest and most prestigious secret society clearly influenced him heavily. While a professor at Michigan, he allegedly founded a similar organization called The Owls, and he encouraged the creation of a society system at Cornell University. He would later serve as U.S. ambassador to Germany and Russia, both popular positions for Skull and Bones members. Bones founder, Alphonso Taft, was ambassador to Russia less than a decade before White.
Was Andrew Dickson White acting in the interests of Skull and Bones while serving as president of Cornell University? Was it a coincidence that so many Bonesmen joined the Cornell faculty during his lifetime? After White’s death, it was years before the next known Bonesman arrived at Cornell. Such questions will probably never be answered, but it’s entertaining to speculate on how things might have worked behind the scenes. I’ll take off my tinfoil hat and let you make your own conclusions.
Corey Earle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Walking Backwards appears alternate Wednesdays.