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The Strange Saga of Geronimo's Skull

A century after his death, the Apache leader’s remains continue to make news  

July 1, 2009, 12:00 am

He wants the remains returned to Geronimo’s birthplace at the headwaters of the Gila River in southwest New Mexico, “for burial in the manner of his fathers.” He also wants a 12-foot bronze statue placed at the site.

News of the lawsuit went worldwide, predictably so. The story makes great copy. It has the unforgettable Geronimo at its center, the Bush family connection, Harlyn posing for Eastern media in his clean cowboy hat and beads, and a weirdo college club about which wild rumors abound—like members dining with Hitler’s silverware and initiates kissing Geronimo’s skull as a rite of entry.

It’s the journalistic equivalent of shooting buffalo from a slow-moving train on the Kansas prairie in 1869.

Only one problem: The theft of Geronimo’s remains almost certainly didn’t happen. According to the best evidence, the “one who yawns”—the translation of Geronimo’s Apache name, Goyathlay—rests right where he should, in the ground at Sill, beneath a cobblestone pyramid topped by a soaring eagle.

But out there somewhere, lost for 146 years, there really is the head of a great Apache leader, taken in the most violent and ignominious means imaginable.

With the exception of his family and a few historians, no one knows a thing about him.

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It’s rumored Prescott Bush helped dig up Geronimo’s bones to be used in rituals for the Order of Skull and Bones.

The Skull and Bones theft account stems from a document titled “Continuation of the History of Our Order for the Century Celebration,” prepared by the Order itself, in 1933, to mark its 100th anniversary. Even though some have called it a hoax, this history keeps popping up in published sources, including Alexandra Robbins’ 2002 book, Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power.

The text says the Geronimo “crook” was carefully planned, because “six Army captains robbing a grave wouldn’t look good in the papers.” This account continues: “The ring of pick on stone and thud of earth on earth alone disturbs the peace of the prairie. An axe pried open the iron door of the tomb, and Pat Bush entered and started to dig.”

After grabbing the skull, the men “quickly closed the grave, shut the door and sped home to Pat Mallon’s room, where we cleaned the Bones. Pat Mallon sat on the floor liberally applying carbolic acid. The skull was fairly clean, having only some flesh inside and a little hair. I showered and hit the hay…a happy man.”

Bonesmen refer to each other as Pat, for patriarch. In addition to Prescott Bush, the account names Henry Neil Mallon and Ellery James, all stationed at Sill in May 1918.

The story moves forward to the 1980s, when Ned Anderson, then chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, northeast of Globe, Ariz., was leading an effort to have Geronimo’s remains removed from Fort Sill and returned to the Southwest.

At the time, he’d never heard the rumor that some remains might be in New Haven. He learned of it from an anonymous caller directing him to a post office in Tempe. There, hidden behind a wall hanging, Anderson was told he’d find proof—an envelope containing a document along with a photograph.

The photo, supposedly taken inside the SKB Tomb, showed a skull in a display case, other bones, stirrups and a horse bit.

In a recent telephone interview, Anderson said the episode had hints of danger. The caller warned him to follow instructions exactly, saying he, the caller, was being followed by shadowy men who’d already rifled through his trash.

“It was risky,” Anderson, who now works for the tribe as a liaison with the Central Arizona Project, says. “I was told to be careful, because we were dealing with a secret society.”

The spy-novel theatrics led him to a bizarre, 1986 meeting in a New York City high-rise. There, according to Anderson, former Bonesman Jonathan Bush, brother of former President George HW Bush, and SKB’s lawyer, Endicott Peabody Davison, showed Anderson some bones in a fishbowl-like glass container on a conference table.

Davison told Anderson the remains had been tested and actually belonged to a 10-year-old boy, not Geronimo. He then shoved a contract across the table at Anderson and said, “We’d like you to review this, and if you’re satisfied with it, sign it.”

But Anderson refused, telling the men, “I have the photo right here, and the bones in the picture are different from the ones you’re showing me.”

Anderson now believes they wanted him to agree that the bones belonged to a 10-year-old and drop the matter. He could take the bones with him if he signed the contract, which stipulated that SKB did not have Geronimo.

“They wanted to shut me up, so we reached an impasse,” Anderson says. “It bothered me, these privileged men, military men who are supposed to look out for our interests, treating up Geronimo this way. It was the principle involved. I wanted justice.”
The story sounds too wild and outrageous to be believable. But Anderson has been telling it, unchanged, for 23 years.

The most recent entry in the saga of Geronimo’s skull came in the fall of 2005, when writer Marc Wortman, working in the Yale Library, found a previously unknown letter written by Winter Mead and dated June 7, 1918.

To fellow Bonesmen Frederick Trubee Davison—father of the Davison present at the Anderson meeting—Mead wrote: “The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and Knight Haffner, is now safe inside the T—together with his well worn femurs, bit and saddle horn.”

“I was electrified,” Wortman says of his discovery. “Here was contemporary evidence of something I always felt was apocryphal. The letter convinced me they had dug up somebody they at least believed was Geronimo.”

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