People often ask here what role the senior (or "secret") societies play at Yale, and the answer is often: not all that much, partly because they're secret.
Case in point: there's an article in the Yale Daily News today revealing that the Aurelian Honor Society--founded in 1910--lost its meeting room in SSS (a Yale building) because of an alcohol violation. My point: despite attending Yale myself, and having two kids there, I have never, until today, even heard of the existence of the Aurelian Honor Society. Perhaps I'm just out of touch.
My D is a member of one of the "landed" societies I read about in the above ^article. I have seen the "tomb" from the outside but not the inside yet. It looks quite impressive. She is having an exciting time with it all, supposedly developing deep bonds with her fellow members.
I have never heard of the Aurelian Society, either, and I thought I knew people in almost all of the senior societies. It had a dedicated meeting room in SSS? That's so odd! Was it a Sheffield legacy, like Berzelius?
I've also never heard the term "landed" societies, which implies that there are a bunch (like Aurelian, I guess) that are "not landed". I've never heard about those societies at all. What I thought of as the senior societies all had some real estate, although not necessarily something you would call a tomb.
Also . . . drinking violation? What the heck? Drinking constituted a pretty big part of the program of every society I knew. I spent a lot of time in one where I happened to have a bunch of friends, but I passed on the opportunity to join because I didn't want to drink that much with the same people week in and week out.
Clearly, there has been an explosion of society-formation over the past 30 years.
It's true that meeting new people was one of the great things about the societies, the way they hashed up the class across existing friendship lines. I met a bunch of cool people I had never met before because they were my friends' senior society friends. I know of one such connection that turned into an important (at least in one state) political alliance for the people involved, who met because several friends of one were in a society with the other.
With the exception of Bones and a few others, I don't know that any of them were really secret. Over half of the ones that were around when I was a senior regularly held events that were either open or had a large invitation list, and members brought in guests (like me) all the time.
It's outrageous if these things are really organized as 501(c)(3)'s, and not 501(c)(7)'s (social clubs, which are tax exempt for the most part but donors to which do not receive a charitable deduction). My guess is that the Herald got it a little wrong. Key and Bones may have affiliated 501(c)(3)'s, but I have to believe that each of them has a (c)(7) in there somewhere.
Yes, and more than a single room. I recall an entry rotunda with murals, main living room with couches, fireplace, etc., large kitchen and the meeting room shown in the YDN article about the alcohol violation.
About their origins, I only know what's on Wiki (however accurate that is.)