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Secret Societies at Princeton in the 19th Century

by Iliyah Coles ’22

A couple of decades after The College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University in 1896) was first established, there were only two known social clubs in existence at the school. These were “the well-meaning club” and “the plain-dealing club,” which eventually evolved into the Whig and Cliosophic societies that we still recognize today. The two societies merged in 1928 and is now known as Whig-Clio. In the 1760s, these two clubs were the biggest part of social life at the college, and students usually joined one or the other. As time passed, though, more and more alternatives to these two clubs began to emerge. Many of them were well-known among students and faculty alike. Others, however, were more underground and became closely-kept secrets. These secret societies ultimately changed social life at Princeton, and sparked a debate about whether or not the school should discourage them.

The presence of secret societies was not fully made known until around 1852, with the rise of Greek life on campus. However, the Princeton University archives contain written letters from students to faculty, pledging to resign from secret societies that date back to 1832.

Student pledge to withdraw from all secret societies except the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies and not to join any other secret society while students at Princeton, November 17, 1832. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 212, Folder 18.

However early they were discovered, students and faculty were in constant debate about the impact of these societies, with the faculty eventually vowing disciplinary action to those involved in them. One student found to be wearing a badge of a secret society, Samuel Betts, Class of 1856, was “in the pursuance of the Order of the Board of Trustees, dismissed from college.”

Selection from the Minutes of the Faculty of the College of New Jersey, October 1, 1855. Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118), Volume 6.

A letter from 1912 found in his alumni file suggests that after Betts was dismissed in 1855, he might have gone to Nicaragua, where he was eventually killed. It is probable that the badge Betts was caught wearing was one from Phi Kappa Sigma. Betts’ name is listed in the 1858 member roster of the organization with an asterisk next to it, probably indicating his death.

1858 membership list for Phi Kappa Sigma. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 212, Folder 12.

Though there is evidence of students being disciplined for participating in secret societies, there is also evidence that not every society member was caught. The Greek secret society rosters list hundreds of student members. And, much to the chagrin of faculty, the Class of 1864 wore their secret society badges immediately after graduation.

Mourning badge for Phi Kappa Sigma, 1863. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 212, Folder 2.

Also, Mercer Hall, the only public hall in Princeton at the time, was home of several Masonic lodge rooms until the fire of 1874. The Masons are the oldest, most widespread, male-only organization in the world. Princeton’s Masonic Lodge was established in 1765, with Richard Stockton and John Witherspoon both members. Several students belonged to Masonic orders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In “Masonic Lodge Built on Proud Foundation,” an unnamed author writes, “Through our West Gate have come the professor and the mechanic, the student and the clerk, who traveled side by side seeking the great light of Masonry.

This image is found on the inside cover of the Sigma Psi Catalogue, 1856. It appears to imply that the secret handshake of the society will grant its members access to the heavens. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 212, Folder 22.

In response to the growing number of secret societies, James McCosh stated his position on the matter: 

The authorities of the College here, Board of Trustees and Faculty, are unanimous in holding that these [secret] societies are most injurious to the discipline and morals of the college. We have no doubt of our right to legislate as we have done.

It is likely that this statement was in response to the pushback administration was receiving from alumni. Around 1875, some alumni sent a resolution calling for Trustees to reverse the decision to ban secret societies, but the resolution was denied and fraternities subsequently began to disappear.

On December 22, 1875, the Daily Graphic’s front page editorial cartoon envisioned College of New Jersey (Princeton) president James McCosh as a stork eating the frog-faculty while his predecessor, the log John Maclean, looked on. Three groups of students from three different fraternities watch from the background. The scene is reminiscent of Aesop’s fable, “The Frogs who Desired a King,” and references controversies over secret societies.

With the rise of eating clubs, it seems that secret societies are not as necessary as they used to be. Eating clubs take the role of that social need while also allowing for selective membership and induction rituals. Of course, this isn’t to say that secret societies no longer exist. Maybe they’re just functioning exactly how they’re supposed to.



American Whig Society Records (AC011)

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Cliosophic Society Records (AC016)

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton University Archives Collection on the American Whig-Cliosophic Society (AC023)

Undergraduate Alumni Records, 19th Century (AC104-02)

For further reading:

Allen, Dean A. “History of the Undergraduate Social Clubs at Princeton.” Social Problems 2, no. 3 (January 1955): 160-165.

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