Secret Society Skeleton Painting

Early Trade Society
early 19th Century
oil and bitumen on linen
2270mm x 1420mm
  People’s History Museum, Manchester, UK
EMu user since 2000

Secret Society Skeleton paintingThis painting shows a skeleton, the Grim Reaper, holding a scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other. The painting is larger than life-size, rolled around a pole in a carrying box. Trade societies (early trade unions) used the painting during their initiation ceremonies. New members would be blindfolded and would recite a secret oath of allegiance. When the oath was done, the painting would drop down from the box, the blindfold would be removed and the new member would be presented with a stark reminder of their own mortality and of the damnation that awaited those who broke their promises.

The painting dates from the early 19th Century, a time when trade societies were illegal and meetings of this kind had to be held in secret. This is the only known secret society painting of its type in the world.

Acknowledgements: People’s History Museum