We Got Our Start at Yale University
Yale in 1845 was far different from today's college. It was hard going for any student. Discipline was swift and strict, handed out by both student and faculty alike. There was mandatory attendance at chapel every day, and there was little to occupy a student's attention aside from his academic work.
Yale was unlike most other American colleges in that it had been patterned after Cambridge University in England where class loyalties and traditions were extremely important. As a result, hazing and bullying by upperclassmen towards their younger classmates was common. Thus a fraternity system developed that was strongly focused around class ties.
As a man entered Yale as a freshman, he was encouraged to join one of the freshmen societies, Kappa Sigma Epsilon, Delta Kappa, or Sigma Delta. Freshmen would be met at the New Haven train station by sophomores and invited to join one of the fraternities. Once the new members were secured, initiations would take place. Conducted by the outgoing sophomore class, the initiations into these societies were mainly to test the nerves of the freshman, and thus were quite vigorous. Once the night's festivities concluded, the upperclassmen would hand over the society to the freshman and leave. The new members would then elect their officers and perfect the organization of the society for the upcoming year.
Membership in a secret society in each successive class became more important socially and in campus politics in each successive year. The freshman fraternities were nearly all encompassing. In the sophomore class, there were two fraternities at most and at times only one. The sophomore fraternities admitted between twenty and thirty men from each class, and vied to admit only the most promising men based on their freshman records.
The junior class fraternities, Alpha Delta Phi, Psi Upsilon, and Delta Kappa Epsilon, pledged men secretly during the students' first two years, and initiated them at the end of their sophomore year. In the 1850s, Psi Upsilon and Delta Kappa Epsilon eclipsed the older fraternity Alpha Delta Phi, and battled unrelentingly for the most promising pledges.
The senior societies were local organizations and were the most prestigious. The senior societies each pledged fifteen members from each class. There were usually three senior societies, with two competing heavily for the leading men of the class, and the third society failing and being replaced at intervals.
None of the freshman fraternities established chapters outside Yale College, and Alpha Sigma Phi is the only surviving sophomore society. Each of the junior fraternities was a chapter of national organizations. The senior societies, Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Wolf's Head, continue to exist locally at Yale, their affairs still shrouded in an aura of mystery.