Bookseller Henry Stevens, Jr. (1819-1886) achieved distinction as a builder of library collections in a career that took him from his home in Barnet, Vermont, to London, where he spent most of his life after graduating from Yale in 1843. As the letters in our Henry Stevens Papers suggest, his success relied to some extent on the network of contacts he developed in college—including the exclusive undergraduate societies he was invited to join. Yale’s undergraduate “secret societies” are the focus of researcher David Alan Richards, a semi-retired lawyer in New York City, who discovered that Stevens belonged to the Skull and Bones Society and served as librarian in one of Yale’s literary societies.
The Skull and Bones Society, restricted to a handful of senior undergraduates, has among its members many distinguished alumni, including both major candidates in the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush and John Kerry. Since its founding in 1832 this society has admitted only fifteen members annually, and these members are selected at the end of their junior year by the graduating senior members. David Richards’s forthcoming book will examine Yale’s secret societies, beginning with Phi Beta Kappa and progressing through Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and others into the modern era.
Henry Stevens, Jr., became the first and arguably the greatest Americana book and manuscript dealer. He collected Americana for the British Museum Library and Europeana for great American collectors, including James Lenox in New York and John Carter Brown in Rhode Island. The Henry Stevens Papers in Special Collections holds a collection of letters from young Stevens to his parents back in Vermont, and in one of these (dated August 6, 1842) he proudly announced his election to Skull and Bones:
There is a club that has existed in college for many years, made up of only 15 Students called the Skull and Bones Society. I have been elected as one of these 15. It is considered one of the greatest compliments that can be paid a student by his fellows to elect him to this honorary society. Two members of the faculty belong to it and several ministers of all denominations, both in New Haven and New York Washington and all over the country. Nearly every one of its members that have been out of college as long as 5 years are distinguished men. There are at least 10 young active [lawyers] in New York that belong to it. We meet once a week and often many of these old members are present and it is very interesting. The night before commencement many from Boston, Hartford, New York, Phila & Washington are coming on to attend an annual meeting. It will be a glorious time. One member in Congress will I expect be with us. I will tell you more of it when I see you.
If membership in Skull and Bones conferred success upon its privileged members, Henry Stevens, Jr., was certainly a prime example.
Contributed by Jeffrey Marshall,
Director, Special Collections