Famously Secret

For more than 100 years, the University of Virginia’s elite Seven Society has been the doer of good deeds. But no one knows who they are.

Illustration by Michael Witte

Nothing intrigues the world like a secret. And over the more than 100 years since (apparently) it was founded, the University of Virginia’s famously secret Seven Society has managed to keep its secret very well. Even in our intrusively nosy, compulsively confessional present, the Sevens (whoever they are) remain cloaked in mystery, maintaining their status as UVA’s most elusive and enigmatic secret society. Membership is revealed only upon the occasion of a Seven’s death, at which point, of course, there’s no getting any more details out of them.

Evidence, such as it is, suggests that the society was formed somewhere around 1905. Or at any rate, in that year its presence was first announced by the appearance of the society’s sign—the number “7” surrounded by the Greek characters Alpha and Omega, along with the flattened-eight-on-its-side “infinity” symbol—in the university yearbook, Corks and Curls

Why was it formed? Though likely apocryphal, the best origin story holds that eight students had planned to gather to play bridge and only seven showed. 

Well of course! Whose next thought under those circumstances wouldn’t be, “Hey, let’s start a secret society!”

But at that time, university life was lousy with societies, groups, fraternities and the like, and it seems no pretext was too small—“Albert didn’t show for bridge!”—that it couldn’t be reason enough to slap yourself with a cryptic name and call yourself a club. 

“If you go back and look at old copies of Corks and Curls, particularly at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, there was a club for everything,” explains Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam, a UVA alum (class of ’55) and the university’s not-altogether-retired history officer. The Z, IMP, TILKA, 13, Raven and Mystic Order of Eli Banana societies—all extant at the university today—were founded during this time. 

Illustration by Michael Witte

“There were clubs based on schools, there were clubs based on cities in Virginia,” says Gilliam. And, he notes, each of these clubs had a cheer.

Though maybe not the Sevens, because wouldn’t cheering have given them away? 

“I have not been able to find a cheer for the Seven Society,” acknowledges Gilliam. 

Or so he claims, but on the other hand, your author would lay odds that Gilliam—a walking embodiment of institutional memory at UVA, whose roots at the school go back to his childhood and beyond—might be a Seven himself, and thus possibly, on matters Seven Society, what they call over in the English department an unreliable narrator.

What’s true? What’s apocryphal? What’s a red herring deliberately thrown in your path by an ostensibly helpful source with an old-Virginia accent and a (misleadingly?) expansive manner? There’s no way to know for sure; you can’t fact-check a secret.

According to Gilliam, however, the Seven Society is the only one of the surviving societies from that era truly deserving the qualifier “secret.” The primary purpose of all these organizations appears to be support for the university and its traditions—with the possible exception of the IMPs (“Sometimes I think they exist mainly to torment the Zs,” says Gilliam) and the 13s (“Nobody, least of all the people who are members, has the slightest idea what they are supposed to be doing”). 

What the Sevens are known for is leaving things—often financial gifts, always in amounts that include the number 7, and sometimes in colorful fashion. Once a skydiver descended into the university’s Scott Stadium, bearing a gift and a Seven banner, during a football game halftime. Many years ago, a rock thrown through the window of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, across the street from the Rotunda, included two sums from the Sevens: one to support the church’s building fund and another to repair the broken window. At the fall convocation welcoming new students, a message delivered from the Sevens might include instructions like “look under the seventh chair in the seventh row and find the envelope taped under the seat,” says Gilliam. 

The gifts, large and small, have included $77.77 to fund a drinking fountain, $7,000-fellowships honoring graduate teaching assistants, $37,777 for the school’s women’s center, and $277.77 in 1984 to an undergraduate a few months shy of graduation and struggling to make ends meet, who had asked for the society’s help by sending a message in the traditional manner—leaving a letter at the Thomas Jefferson statue in the Rotunda.

Beyond these and a few other visible signs (the tolling of the chapel’s bells in seven sets of seven, seven seconds apart, upon a member’s death and a banner that appears at a deceased member’s funeral), verifiable evidence of the Seven Society is hard to come by. Who’s a member? How are they chosen? Can they play bridge?

“Perhaps I’m in a secret society and it’s so secret that I don’t even know it,” suggested undergraduate Katie Mendenhall in a UVA video exploring the enticing mystery of these organizations. 

A few years ago, the account @ImaUVAseven appeared on Twitter, claiming to offer tantalizing hints of Seven doings and traditions, such as “Secret: What many think is an infinity symbol in the insignia is actually a toppled 8, signifying that there’s nothing greater than a 7.” 

Gilliam’s opinion of this self-proclaimed Seven? “I would put that in the category of Nigerian princes who offer fabulous sums if only you will send them your social security and bank account numbers.”

Those who have verifiably been claimed (posthumously) by the Seven Society include a past-president of the university, a former secretary of state, a former Naval flight surgeon, an orthodontist, a professional pilot, an insurance executive, a beloved UVA professor of music known for the interest he took in mentoring students, and the president of a yarn company. The first woman known to be a member was Mary B. Proffitt, who served in the role of secretary to the dean of the university from 1912 to 1954 and took an active interest—for good or for ill—in the lives of the students, according to Gilliam. “My father and my older uncles all told me that if Miss Mary liked you, she could get you out of all sorts of problems,” he says. “If Miss Mary didn’t like you, you were doomed; you might as well leave the university.”  

No word, though, on whether or not she knew the cheer. 

This article was originally published in our October 2018 issue. 

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