Secret societies have been a part of University of Virginia student life since the first class of students in 1825. While the number of societies peaked during the 75 year period between 1875 and 1950, there are still five societies (Seven Society, Z Society, IMP Society, Eli Banana, T.I.L.K.A.) active that are over 100 years old, and several newer societies (the Purple Shadows, the A.N.G.E.L.S. Society, 21 Society, P.U.M.P.K.I.N., the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, The Order and the Bondsmen). The earliest societies, Eli and Tilka, functioned as social clubs; the Sevens, IMPs, and Zs have built a record of philanthropy and contribution to the University; and some of the later societies have focused on recognition or disapprobation of positive and negative contributions to the University.
The earliest secret society at the University was probably the no-longer-secret Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, which at its 1825 founding was secret, with expulsion the penalty to any member who exposed the society's secrets.. Student society activity for the first period of the University appears to have been confined to similar literary societies, including the Patrick Henry Society, Philomathean Society, Parthenon Society, Columbian, and Washington Society, which were not secret societies; only the last is still active.
At the same time, Greek organizations that were purely social in function (today's fraternities) began to play a role in student life. In 1853, students petitioned the Faculty to set up a "secret" colony of Delta Kappa Epsilon. The first request was rejected by the Faculty, coming as it did on the heels of years of riotous behavior; according to University historian Philip Alexander Bruce, the faculty feared "orderly spirit of the student body acting as a whole or in segments, whether organized into secret fraternities or into Calathumpian bands"; in another session or two, the chapter became established, and other Greek fraternities followed. It can be said generally about the early UVA fraternities that the only "secret" aspect of them was their operation and meeting location; the membership was not kept secret.
The growth of student organizations was interrupted by the Civil War, but resumed thereafter with the establishment of additional fraternities. A few secret societies are recorded during the years 1865 - 1878, of whom the only one of any note is the Dedils, most notable for being shut down by the Faculty after their minutes were found where they had been dropped by the drunken president of the organization.
The Eli Banana Society, established in 1878, represented a new kind of secret society at the university. The new "ribbon society" tended to operate as an upperclass society, drew its members from the "upper class", and sought to exercise control of other student groups such as the Jefferson Society. Other ribbon societies included T.I.L.K.A., the Lotus Society, the O.W.L. (a semi-secret society drawing its membership from the newspaper, magazine, and yearbook staff), the Zeta (later the Z Society), and O.N.E.
The suppression of Eli Banana in 1894 and of the Hot Feet/IMP Society in 1908 coincided with the rise of academic societies, including the semi-secret Raven Society, whose members are initiated in a secret ceremony but is otherwise public. At around the same time, the Seven Society, a group so secret that its members are not made known until their death, appeared. The Seven Society established a new model for secret society operation on Grounds. While the ribbon societies were observed to draw their membership from the fraternities, and the IMPs and Zs from the ribbon societies, the Seven Society's extreme secrecy meant that the society had no apparent formal connections to the social secret societies. At the same time, its exclusive focus on philanthropy meant that, unlike the Elis and Hot Feet, it functioned as an important contributor to the aims of the University. The Sevens tap not only student leaders, but also University administrators and high-profile personnel. They take their secrecy so seriously that they only tap individuals for membership at locations off Grounds. It has been suggested that the IMP Society is composed of the Sevens underlings. The other societies founded after 1905 likewise define themselves in relation to supporting the University, whether through recognizing notable or notorious individuals (P.U.M.P.K.I.N.s, 21 Society, Sons of Liberty) or upholding University traditions (Purple Shadows). The A.N.G.E.L.S. Society both reaches out to students who may be struggling or simply those who display kindness or other laudable characteristics.
The T.I.L.K.A. Society, commonly called Tilka, was founded in 1889 as a ribbon society after the model of Eli Banana. The name of the society is said to reference "five mystical words," though these are unknown. The society rose in prominence after the Elis were suppressed in the late 1890s, capturing most of the student offices.
Like Eli Banana, the Tilkas combined a focus on student leadership with a social function. Dabney notes that from the 1920s to the 1950s both organizations regularly sponsored formal dances at the university. The organizations were sufficiently integrated into student life by the late 1940s that a Virginia Glee Club album of University songs included the Tilka anthem ("Come Fill Your Glasses Up for T.I.L.K.A.").
Notable members of T.I.L.K.A. included founding member and UVA Law professor Raleigh C. Minor, past UVA football quarterback and alumni association president Gilbert J. Sullivan; and University president Frank Hereford.
The Society of the Purple Shadows, named after a line from the poem "The Honor Men" that refers to the purple shadows of The Lawn, was established in 1963. The group's stated mission is "to contribute to the betterment of the University and to safeguard vigilantly the University traditions." The group is notable for appearing in public in purple hooded robes that have drawn comparison to Ku Klux Klan attire.
Past activities of the Purple Shadows have included anonymous political statements. In the 1970-1971 term, the society gave an ambiguous welcome to Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Annette Gibbs, whose responsibilities included the advising female undergraduate students at the newly coeducational university, by tying the doors to her office shut with a purple ribbon. In 1982, following the decision of Dean of Students Robert Canevari to ban the traditional Easters celebration, the group left a letter and a dagger expressing their displeasure. The Dean filed charges against the group with the University Judiciary Committee, which were never answered.
The principal contribution made by the Purple Shadows today is ongoing support of the honor system. The Shadows leave notecards for first year students during Convocation to formally welcome them to the Honor System; present the James Hay Jr. award for contributions to the honor system; and send letters in defense of the honor system when the existing single sanction system is challenged. The group has taken other stands recently, including encouraging students to end the practice of chanting "not gay" when The Good Old Song is sung.
The P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Society appeared sometime prior to 1967, when the earliest known dated citation of the group was published in the Cavalier Daily.; its purpose is to recognize "meritorious service" to UVA. The earliest account of the group takes a humorous tone, claiming a connection to a 14th century "Societe de la Citrouillie" and establishing the society's secret "mystic" motto, "When the Corn's in the bin, Gourds are on the vine." The group distributes actual pumpkins, along with letters of commendation, annually. The society historically also presented a rotten gourd to an individual whom it felt deserving of criticism, but this practice was ended in 2000.
The Angels society is one of the newer societies, possibly founded as recently as 1998. A.N.G.E.L.S. have been known to reach out to individuals within the community who may be grieving or struggling, as well as encourage those who display kindness or other laudable characteristics by presenting them with a white rose.
Other secret societies have appeared on Grounds in the last ten years, including the 21 Society and the Sons of Liberty. The 21 Society announced its founding on June 21, 1999, citing "direct challenge(s) to student self-governance" and claiming an intention to "unify the politically active students of the University." The society has subsequently contributed to the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The Sons and Daughters of Liberty were established in the early 2000s, and are said to pursue liberty while decrying tyranny. Though the judgements passed by the SDL are done in secrecy, it is well known and documented that they stand firmly against the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, the most notable debating society of The University. The SDL began when the Sons of Liberty were founded in the early 2000's. Shortly after, the Daughters of Liberty were founded, and the two combined in 2011 to form the Sons and Daughters of Liberty. The group appears to mimic the ideals of the original Sons of Liberty, a group of well-known rebels during the American Revolution. They are known to write and speak with the dialect of the 1700s, and date their writings 1773. Once every year, on the eve of Thomas Jefferson's birthday, the SDL post lists of 13 individuals they deem "Rebels", and a limited number of individuals or organizations they deem "Tyrants". These lists are posted around the University. Short explanations accompany the list of Tyrants, and the Jefferson Society is always listed as a Tyrant. The SDL are also known to march down the Lawn on George Washington's birthday, placing a wreath and letter by his statue on the south end of the Lawn.
When spotted in pubic, the members of the SDL can be easily identified by their clothes. They garb themselves in colonial dress, and typically wear the American flag around their necks. Though the outfits differ between individuals, they all wear colonial tricorns, as well as white masks to conceal their identities. It is not clear how many members are in the society.
The SDL are known to carry out pranks and stunts around The University, a notable prank being the dumping of tea down the chimney of a lawn room in 2008. The lawn room belonged to a member of the Jefferson Society, and the act was sternly looked down upon by members of The University, prompting an apology from the SDL. Since then, the group appears to have maintained its devious nature on a less damaging scale, and acts against the Jefferson Society may be witnessed throughout the year. In April of 2012 the SDL gifted the Jefferson Society with a cake containing a whole, uncooked fish. On the same night, a well-known member of the Jefferson Society was coaxed from his lawn room, only to have what appeared to be flour dumped on him from the balcony above. Previously, the SDL have entered the debate hall of the Jefferson Society and rearranged furniture, placed the pedestal in a bucket of tea, and carried out other harmless pranks. In the fall of 2011 there was an incident where artwork and furniture in the Hall was damaged, but it has since been confirmed that the SDL played no part in this. Though the SDL commonly poke fun at the Jefferson Society, they have also been known to bring lightheartedness to the student body by interrupting meetings, streaking libraries, and raucously decrying tyranny to any who may listen.
There is no known way to contact the SDL, though some claim to know select members. The SDL have no known enemies besides the Jefferson Society, and no clashes with other secret societies have taken place. The tapping rituals and processes, like those of other societies, is not known. The group appears to have no connection to the student-organized company of volunteer soldiers, also called the Sons of Liberty, who conducted training drills on the Lawn in 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Rotunda Burning Society is a secret organization, presumably founded sometime after 1974 and before 1993, that commemorates the 1895 burning of the Rotunda by burning an effigy of the building each year at the base of the south steps.
Little is known about the Order of the Claw and Dagger, save their contribution to the recent capital campaign for the McIntire School of Commerce; their logo is now found on the side of Rouss Hall on The Lawn next to that of the IMP Society. The Delphi Society is a secret organization apparently connected to the McIntire School of Commerce; They have recognized faculty contributions and have sponsored scholarships for students.
In addition, The Yellow Journal, the University's humor publication, functions as a secret society in that it is published anonymously and members are publicly unknown. Historically, the publication has always been published anonymously though throughout the 1980's and 1990's the nature of the paper and its members were not secretive.
The following is a list of some of the known secret societies at the University of Virginia. Much of the information has been paraphrased from information compiled by University Guide Service alumni and former University Guide Service historian Charles Irons.
This list includes societies that are well attested by reliable sources. It excludes some societies, such as the Raven Society, that have public membership and therefore are not secret societies by definition.
|IMP Society (Hot Feet)||1902||Semisecret||Active|
|P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Society||ca. 1967||Secret||Active|
|Rotunda Burning Society||betw. 1974 and 1993||Secret||Active|
|The Six Column Society||2000||Secret||Active|
|Sons and Daughters of Liberty||bef. 2005||Secret||Active|
|Order of the Claw and Dagger||bef. 2007||Secret||Active|
|Society of the Dawn||bef. 2010||Secret||Active|
|The Delphi Society||2011||Secret||Active|
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