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Collection highlights: Secret Society Skeleton painting

Secret Society Skeleton painting

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 from the box, the blindfold removed and the new member was presented with a shocking reminder of their own mortality.

The image is a stark reminder of the damnation that waited for those who break 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. At the People’s History Museum the painting is hung in a mock secret society meeting room where James Hogarth has just become a member of the Tinplate Workers’ Society. The scene depicts the skeleton painting still hanging on the wall while The Bible James swore on and the gun held to his head as he recited the oath both lay on the table.

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