This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue.
When I moved into my dorm in East Wheelock during freshman fall, my eyes were immediately drawn to the strangely Egyptian, slightly ominous, gray tomb located just a few steps away from my dorm on East Wheelock Street. The tomb is home to Sphinx — Dartmouth’s oldest senior society that is still in existence today, according to an article on Dartmouth’s website. Though Sphinx was my first introduction to the world of senior societies at Dartmouth, by no means are they the only such organization on campus.
According to the Office of Greek Life website, there are currently 14 senior societies recognized by the College, though that website lists no identifying information about these societies other than their names. I turned to the Rauner archives instead to find information about the early development of societies on campus. The College’s first senior society — the Society of Social Friends, or “Socials” — was founded in 1783, and maintained a student-funded and student-managed library, restricting its holdings to members only, according to an article on Dartmouth’s website. However, this society is now defunct.
In 1886, the all-male society Sphinx was founded. The Sphinx Centennial Souvenir Program from 1985 says Sphinx was created by men of the Class of 1886 who wanted to elect Seward Livermore to the position of Class Marshal. These men began holding meetings to discuss campaign plans in Thornton Hall but continued to meet even after Livermore was elected. Slowly, the group dwindled to 14 men, and five of these men were then tasked with solidifying the group into a secret organization. These men picked the Sphinx as their emblem because it was “always indicative of silence and secrecy,” according to the Souvenir Program.
By 1901, members of the group wanted to have a permanent home on campus. The Tomb was designed by William Butterfield and construction was completed in 1905, according to a 1991 article from The Chronicle of Higher Education by Lawrence Biemiller. On Easter morning 1932, a fire broke out in the Tomb, and the interior was destroyed. The plumbers and carpenters who worked on the repairs were “sworn to secrecy,” according to Biemiller’s article. Though the interior of the Tomb remains a mystery, a 2012 article in The Dartmouth by Myrel Iturrey suggests that the inside of the Tomb contains — or contained at one point in time — a piano, billiard tables, card tables, books, and magazines, based on a 1922 letter addressed to William McCarter confirming the installment of these items.
Though the Sphinx holds the title of the oldest society still in existence today, Casque and Gauntlet was founded only very shortly afterward, in March 1886, according to the Casque and Gauntlet website. The society was created with service in mind, and members were meant to lead by example in “strengthening the moral fibre and raising the standards of the student body,” according to a 1936 speech delivered at a Casque and Gauntlet meeting by A.E. Hadlock. Casque and Gauntlet Trust acquired a building at 1 South Main Street in 1894, and from this time until 2020, this building was home to members of the senior society, according to a January 2024 article on Dartmouth’s website. As the costs of maintaining the building rose and financial pressures worsened, in 2020, the Trust closed the building to undergrads and began renting it to Dartmouth. At this time, the Trust created a separate, self-governing and nonresidential senior society that continues to exist today. The society is “exclusive yet non-secret,” and became co-ed as of 1979, according to their website. On January 24, 2024, the College announced that it had purchased the Casque & Gauntlet building.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, non-senior societies formed, according to “A History of Dartmouth College” by Frederick Chase and John Lord. Junior society Turtle formed in 1901 but died in 1912, and sophomore society Theta Nu Epsilon was established in 1893, but died in 1903 as its value was “uncertain.” Information about these non-senior societies is extremely limited.
Though these non-senior societies no longer exist, other societies that formed around that time still persist today. According to “A History,” senior society Dragon (all-male) was formed in 1898, and Palaeopitus (co-ed) was founded in 1900, with the latter becoming an open society with a large ex-officio membership in 1902. The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s brought with them an increase in the number of societies. In 1975, Fire and Skoal — a non-secret, co-ed society — was founded, and in 1978, Cobra became the first all-female society, according to an article on Dartmouth’s website. Phoenix, another all-female society, was formed in 1982, according to a 1996 article in The Dartmouth. Griffin, a co-ed society, was founded in 1995 with the intent to perform service and “improve the quality of life” at Dartmouth, according to a 1995 The Dartmouth article. Abaris announced its formation in 1996, as a co-ed society that aims to give student leaders a forum to discuss relevant issues, according to the1996 article.
In addition to these societies, the Office of Greek Life website lists the existence of Andromeda, Atlas, Chimera, Olympus, Pyxis and The Order of the Sirens, although no information was available about these societies in Rauner’s archives.
Though these societies were founded with varying missions and at different times, the process of joining one has been standardized across all College-recognized societies. According to a 2023 article in The Dartmouth, the process of recruiting members to join a society is known as “tapping” — a joint process involving both the societies and the Office of Greek Life during each winter term and spring term. Each recognized society creates a list of members of the junior class to tap, then sends this list to the Office of Greek Life, which lets the society know which juniors are single-taps (recruited by one society) versus multi-taps (recruited by multiple societies). Societies then narrow down their lists and officially tap students. In 2023, the tapping process commenced on Feb. 14.
Despite the wealth of information surrounding some societies and the tapping process, rumors still abound about less known aspects of the societies. Ever since stepping foot on campus my freshman fall, I’ve heard the rumor that Sphinx has the highest water bill in Hanover. Biemiller’s article cites a 1946 pamphlet from “the archives” that discusses “Cleopatra’s Swimming Pool,” implying that a pool is the reason for this allegedly high water bill. Biemiller also writes that “an alumnus claims to have seen a motorcycle on [the Sphinx’s] roof, and to have had a classmate who scaled its walls — only to be assaulted at the top by someone wielding a stick.” Additionally, a 2016 Town and Country article by Nadine Jolie Courtney alleges that members of the Sphinx “reportedly have access to underground tunnels” connecting the basement of the Sphinx to Alpha Delta.
As the Sphinx is one of the most visible societies on campus due to the Tomb, many rumors center around it. Yet, Jolie Courtney also writes that Dragon has “a rumored estate in Quebec, and initiation rituals allegedly borrowing from Welsh Druids.” Additionally, at the beginning of freshman year, each woman-identifying first-year receives “The Red Book,” a gift to first-year women “from Senior Women at Dartmouth.” The book is delivered anonymously, and the pages of the book are replete with snake emblems. Though my evidence is anecdotal, these signs point to the book being the work of an all-female society — perhaps Cobra, given the snakes.
Despite the mysteries surrounding these societies during the year, graduation provides many bystanders with an opportunity to learn which students were members of these societies. Members of most societies carry canes with them at graduation, carved with an emblem of their society. One notable exception is Dragon, whose members do not carry canes, and whose membership remains secret. Though the cane tradition is now associated with societies, it was originally associated with an earlier tradition denoting upperclassmen. College rules “in the early days,” according to a 2013 article by Bill Platt on the Office of Greek Life’s website, said canes should be carried only by upperclassmen, as “a cane was an accouterment of a gentleman, and freshmen were too young and immature to have attained such a distinction.”
Ultimately, it’s unsurprising that rumors continue to abound surrounding these societies. After all, if every student on campus knew everything about each society, they wouldn’t be very secret. Though we may never know the answers to some of the most popular rumors — unless any member of the Sphinx wants to share their floor plans — senior societies have served as a key fixture of campus for centuries.
As the tapping process commences soon, keep an eye out. You never know which of your classmates might be carrying a cane at graduation.