Duke Magazine
Departments
Biblio-FileBooksForumGalleryGazette Mini-ProfilesCampus ObserverQ&ARegisterRetrospectiveSportsSyllabusExtra CreditHome
Retrospective: Selections from University Archives
Shhhh! Secret Societies at Duke
Bookmark and Share
Secrets revealed: The Tombs was a secret honorary society organized in 1903; the significance of the bells adorning members’ ankles in this 1907 photo remains a mystery.
Secrets revealed: The Tombs was a secret honorary society organized in 1903; the significance of the bells adorning members’ ankles in this 1907 photo remains a mystery.
University Archives

On the first and last day of classes, they wear black robes and sunglasses and shout an abbreviated form of the university motto, “Eruditio et Religio,” while walking the West Campus quads. Beyond their name, the Old Trinity Club, little else is known about their activities and selection. In the past, other secret societies at Duke have been more public, with group photos and membership lists in The Chanticleer. One such early society was The Tombs, whose members characterized themselves as an athletic humor society, and their legacy is one of humorous and intriguing yearbook photos.

The two best-known secret societies (an oxymoron?) were the Order of the Red Friars and the Order of the White Duchy. The Order of the Red Friars was a men’s secret honorary society founded in 1913 by members of the senior class at Trinity College. Originally, its mission was to promote school spirit at Trinity College; later the group declared its purpose was to foster loyalty and interest in the university through anonymous service in student organizations.

Each year’s group consisted of seven men, the Septemvirate, chosen by the previous year’s leaders, based on their character, scholarship, qualities, leadership potential, and outstanding service to the university. Tapping, or choosing, ceremonies were held in late spring and grew more elaborate over the years. In the final and most traditional form of the rite, a red-hooded and robed figure publicly tapped new men into membership on the steps of the chapel.

Throughout the 1960s, the order increasingly faced charges of elitism and had difficulty finding students who would accept membership. In 1971, a group of Red Friar alumni decided that the order had outlived its usefulness, and it was discontinued.

The Order of the White Duchy was founded in May of 1925 by the Order of the Red Friars. The Red Friars chose what they considered the seven outstanding female members of the Class of 1925 to organize a similar organization, although it was not to be a sister organization. From 1925 on, new members were tapped into the order by the seven members of the White Duchy from the previous year.

Although members of the student body knew of the White Duchy’s existence and the identity of its members, the order’s activities and projects were secret. The only way that members publicly acknowledged the order was by wearing a white carnation on a certain day every month.

The White Duchy’s members voluntarily disbanded the order in 1968 because they felt it was too elitist and no longer representative of the Woman’s College or the university.