Read Caption
IMP and Z tags on the UVA campus, with Jefferson's beloved Rotunda in the background.

Secret Societies in Charlottesville

“You’re eavesdropping,” I said with a laugh, nodding at the handsome coed sitting next to me and my friend. He looked slightly embarrassed, then admitted to the charge. “I just felt the need to jump in and correct a few things” he said, his face going from slightly red to very serious. “You all don’t know the whole story.”

A friend and I had ducked into a pub across from the University of Virginia campus to escape the rain after taking a private tour of the Rotunda – university-founder Thomas Jefferson’s pride and joy. We had been talking about the Sevens because as legend has it, the only way to contact the secret society is by placing a letter by the founding father’s statue in the building’s upper entrance hall.

The church bells had just finished their eerie echo. All of this — the tour, the rain, the bells, the letters, our eavesdropper’s tone — was making for a perfectly scripted whodunit.

“If you’re a member of the Seven Society, you have to do more than just meet secretly and paint your logo on walls,” he went on. “The Sevens have been doing good on this campus for more than 100 years.”

Doing good? I’m here for that. Why not indulge in a bit of mystery to balance out the warm fuzzies that are sure to abound as my road trip continues. Yesssss. I felt like rubbing my hands together slowly. 

“You always know when it’s them, because the number 7 keeps showing up – and it’s usually money that they donate. $177,777 for interest-free loans in the 1940s, $14,777 delivered during a football game by a sky-diver. It’s always about the 7s.”

I had to find them out. An underground group of masked do-gooders. But, still, college kids, and college kids love to talk – especially when they have a few Bud Lights in them. I’ll promise them they’ll be featured on a Nat Geo blog, block out their faces, change their voices like they do in “COPS.” Oh man – this was going to be easy.

It wasn’t going to be easy.

In fact, it wasn’t going to happen at all.

These weren’t just well-meaning rich kids playing out what they saw in that horrible film “The Skulls.” This was a lifetime commitment. This would get you sit-downs with important people, a good job right out of school. You’d just have to find a way to hide that fat check to the society from your spouse each year — and only when you died would it be revealed that you were a Seven. And even that would be done darkly.

At your funeral, a flag would be raised above the mourners with a number seven on it, a wreath of black magnolias in the shape of a 7 would be laid on your grave, and a carillon (purchased for the school by the Sevens) would chime every 7 seconds at 7 past the hour.

But surely people talk, right? In this day and age, with all of our smart phones and pocket cameras, no one can keep secrets anymore.

“He doesn’t know anything about the Code of Honor, does he?” asked the fraternity boy to my friend, a UVA alumna. She smiled and shook her head.

View Images
More secret society tags, but no 7s.

Oh, my god – secret groups, black flowers, sky divers — and now a code?! Dan Brown would have an embolism. 

He said anyone who comes to the university must pledge that they have “neither given, nor received help on this assignment.”

“And it goes beyond that,” he continued. “You can leave a bag, an iPhone, a laptop right here at the bar, and it won’t be stolen… Not by any UVA student.”

He went on to describe other secret societies on campus – the Z Society [semi-secret, kind of cheesy, according to him] and the IMP Society [very cheesy, just there to party] – and explained how putting your mark on university property was a campus tradition (and sanctioned by the university). Just look around, he said, you’ll see them.

The next morning, I did just that (after grabbing a coffee and bagel at the famed Bodo’s). As I strolled through the UVA grounds, I saw Zs everywhere — almost always accompanied by a tacked-on IMP. I saw them on houses, buildings, steps, walkways.

But I didn’t see any 7s.

Who were these people?

What good was being in a group if you could never speak of it? Why give money without wanting – in the very least – a bit of recognition?

Unless, of course, they’re simply a good bunch of guys.

But if they’re just a good bunch of guys…

Then why the masks?

Follow the Good Traveler’s adventures on Twitter @GoodTraveler and on Instagram @GoodTraveler.