Mysterious Chalkings Stir Memories of Swarthmore’s Once-Powerful Secret Society

Last Tuesday night, a strange chalking appeared in front of Clothier Hall, signed “Yours in 232.” While the College has outwardly refused to comment on what it considers to be meaningless pranks, a feeling of uneasiness pervades Parrish. To those in the know, it was a jarring reminder of a group they had thought long gone: the Book and Key society.

In this sesquicentennial year, it is appropriate to look back at the groups of students that have helped shape Swarthmore into the unique cultural and academic institution that it is today. In terms of impact on campus, one group of students deserves recognition above all others: Swarthmore’s very own secret society, Book and Key.

For most of the first half of this century, at seven minutes to seven each Thursday night, seven senior men in dark suits and garnet ties would arise from dinner and walk side by side to a small Egyptian-style temple at the end of Whittier Place. While the society was active, no one but members saw the insides of the windowless temple, whose outsides were adorned with stained glass depicting the four symbols of the order: a set of scales, a book, a key, and the mysterious numbers 232.

Book and Key members first saw the inside of the temple in May of their Junior year. As the March 28, 1966 Delco Times describes,

Selection for the Book and Key was a ritual. At a gathering of junior classmen, one would be tapped for membership every seven minutes until seven new members were selected. Tap night was on the first Thursday in May–at seven minutes before 7 p.m. […] The first visit to the Book and Key meeting House the following Thursday night was also a ritualistic affair. Every three minutes, a new member presented himself at the door–where he waited. Suddenly a ‘ghost’ hand would reach out the door and yank the new member inside, where initiation rites and a welcome dinner–cooked in a basement kitchen–awaited.”

In some years, the new initiates would not emerge from the temple until the next morning.

Members of Book and Key were selected because of their activity in college organizations and their perceived commitment to the college. Most were captains of sports teams, student council members, fraternity officers, or leaders in other student organizations.

For years, only those alumni who had been Book and Key members became members of the college administration. A 1957 Phoenix article explains one reason why:

With student government lacking in function, the significant undergraduate decisions were worked out in the secrecy of the Temple, then presented tactfully but emphatically to the College through the members of the Society. It was inevitable that, through the feeling of shared responsibility for the community, there evolved a group solidarity among members unequalled by any other ties on campus.”

In 1957, the group ceased the appearance of being an active organization given increased anti-elitist sentiment on campus. That said, rumors of the group’s continued existence persist to this day. Every few years, a chalking or two will appear in front of Clothier Hall (Clothier ‘90 being one of the original founding members of the society) signed “Yours in 232,” much as the invitations to join the society were many years ago.

Theories range from claiming that the chalkings are a prank handed down from senior class to senior class, carried out as a long standing tradition more than anything else; to the more conspiratorial theory that they indicate the continued existence of the Society, focused more on the acquisition and preservation of knowledge while still influencing College policy from behind the scenes. At press time, the college has refused to comment on what it referred to as “baseless speculation” on the Society’s existence.

What is not baseless, however, is the fact that last Tuesday night, a chalking with the date “4/26/14” signed “Yours in 232” was written in front of Clothier Hall by persons unknown. What does this message mean? Is this chalking just a prank, or is it something more? More to come as this story develops.

Disclaimer: This article is promotional material for the spring LARP, and while it may contain elements of historical fact, this piece is entirely fictional.

Portions of this piece (Paragraphs 2, 3, 4) have been adapted from a 1996 Phoenix article by Elizabeth Weber.

Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore Spring Larp 2014 – The Unbroken Seal.


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5 comments

  1. 0
    LRJordan says:

    “For most of the first half of this century”, begins the third paragraph.
    Which is inaccurate: given the dates used in the rest of this (fictional) article, the writer should have written “(F)or most of the first half of the 20th century,…”.

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