Originally Published at Conspiracy Archive on 2013/06/04

Front door, Skull and Bones Tomb

Front door, Skull and Bones Tomb

I’m hoping someone knows, because I don’t have an answer. I did, however, find a few curiosities which only adds to the mystery.

In Antony C. Sutton’s America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones, there’s a reprint of an 1876 pamphlet detailing an account of a break-in at the Skull and Bones tomb at Yale. The description of the painting (or picture) in question is as follows:

Hanging on the wall towards High street was a handsomely-framed cushion of dark velvet, on which were fastened the pins of all the societies which have existed in college, including Spade and Grave, Bull and Stones, and the like. On the south side of the room is a fireplace, and above this a mantel and mirror. Upon the mantel were a Skull and Bones of silver, the skull about two inches in diameter, and engraved “32 from the S.E.C. of 1858;” another of bronze, a little larger than the silver one, and various other insignia relating to Skull and Bones. On the west wall hung, among other pictures, an old engraving representing an open burial vault, in which, on a stone slab, rest four human skulls, grouped about a fool’s-cap and bells, an open book, several mathematical instruments, a beggar’s scrip, and a royal crown. On the arched wall above the vault are the explanatory words, in Roman letters, “We War Der Thor, Wer Weiser, Wer Bettler Oder Kaiser?” [Who was the fool, who the wise man, beggar of king?] and below the vault is engraved, in German characters, the sentence;

“Ob Arm, Ob Beich, im Tode gleich,” [Whether poor or rich, all's the same in death.]

The picture is accompanied by a card, on which is written, “From the German Chapter. Presented by Patriarch D.C. Gilman of D. 50.” (Sutton, op. cit., p. 233)

It’s a pretty detailed description. We know what it looks like because there’s a postcard of it at the Yale University Library, Manuscripts and Archives, from a section that contains “Photograph albums of the Skull and Bones Society.”

German postcard included in a Skull and Bones photograph album originally owned by Chester Wolcott Lyman, BA 1882.

German postcard included in a Skull and Bones photograph album originally owned by Chester Wolcott Lyman, BA 1882.

Skull and Bones, as many are aware, is descended from another earlier society in Germany. The picture in the Tomb was a gift from the German chapter. It was there in the Tomb during the 1876 break-in, and then there’s a postcard dated 1882 with the same motif.

Today I went over to IlluminatiRex, a site that has some cool conspiracy comics on the New World Order, the Banking elite and secret societies, etc. His post today was called Top Ten Illuminati Symbols. Number 8 was “Skull.” He talks a bit about Skull and Bones and potential links to certain symbolism in the Regent degree of the Bavarian Illuminati. (It was first pointed out by Ron Rosenbaum; I wrote about it in my book along with other potential connections.)

What caught my attention was a colourized version of the one above:


I’m not exactly sure where he got it from and I haven’t emailed him to ask. However, it got me doing a bit of image googling on the words “We War Der Thor, Wer Weiser” and similar.

One of the first results I came across was here: “Carl Müller-Baumgarten (1879-1946): Graphik – Vanitas-Motivik, um 1900.” Seems this Müller-Baumgarten had done a sketch or drawing with the same exact theme in 1900, and someone bought it in an auction.


That is interesting. He was a relatively obscure artist, born in Leipzig and died in Munich. This is after the first known instance of it on our side of the Atlantic in the 19th-century. It certainly isn’t his own original piece then. He must have sketched it from an original he was looking at somewhere in Germany – from which the Skull and Bones Tomb drawing is based as well.

And then there’s this:


It’s a wood carving of the same thing: at the Cultural Institute in Gifhorn, Germany. Apparently, Gorbachev is its patron! Artists from Eastern Europe and Russia are trained there and it’s now known as the Glockenpalast.

What is going on here? Yesterday I was under the impression that this design was unique to the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale, only to find other identical examples. They’re all from Germany – the land of Skull and Bones’ original chapter.

Even if someone finally identifies what the original German chapter of Skull and Bones Yale is/was, it seems unlikely that this design will be unique even to them. There’s a deeper tradition surrounding it that hasn’t been explained, or that I’m unaware of. Obviously, the motifs involved are in the tradition of Memento mori or perhaps Vanitas, but what is the precise origin of this distinct piece of art? Who was the original artist? When? Where? and Why?


Comments from the first post worth including:

Ross June 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Hey Terry, here’s an article I found on the Medieval Dance of Death iconography. Here’s a relevant quotation from the article…

Usually, a short dialogue is attached to each victim, in which Death is summoning him (or, more rarely, her) to dance and the summoned is moaning about impending death. In the first printed ”Totentanz” textbook (Anon.: Vierzeiliger oberdeutscher Totentanz, Heidelberger Blockbuch, approx. 1460), Death addresses, for example, the emperor:

:Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
:Sceptre and crown are worthless here
:I’ve taken you by the hand
:For you must come to my dance

At the lower end of the ”Totentanz”, Death calls, for example, the peasant to dance, who answers:

:I had to work very much and very hard
:The sweat was running down my skin
:I’d like to escape death nonetheless
:But here I won’t have any luck

The dance finishes (or sometimes starts) with a summary of the allegory’s main point:

:”Wer war der Thor, wer der Weise[r],”
::”Who was the fool, who the wise [man],
:”Wer der Bettler oder Kaiser?”
::who the beggar or the Emperor+?
:”Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich.”
::Whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”

Here’s the full article. Hope this is helpful to you.


Terry Melanson June 10, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Very interesting. Thanks. That 15th century book may be the origin of the words then.

Ross June 10, 2013 at 8:00 pm

It seems that way. I guess the traditional assumption of most modern conspiracy scholars has been that the Skull and Bones motto must ultimately be derived from the Illuminati Regent Degree, written of by Robinson. Speaking for myself anyway, I always assumed that if there were a connection between the two groups, than the Bonesmen must have eschewed the Illuminati’s Enlightenment humanism for some kind of Victorian era nihilism. The “character of man” being replaced by “all are equal in death.”

However, now that we see that the Bonesmen’s motto precedes the historic Illuminati by at least 3 and a half centuries this certainly changes things. The original motto and dance of death tradition are obviously meant to convey that men of all stations are equal, at least in their mortality. It seems that the Illuminati attempted to morph this sentiment to promote egalitarian, anti-class system sentiments. I guess the question is, does this completely undermine the strongest piece of evidence for an Illuminati/Skull and Bones connection or is it still possible that the use of the iconography and motto by the Bonesmen indicates that the motto was returned to its classical death centred phraseology to complement the fraternity’s macabre name and symbolism?

I’m not sure if their is any further evidence on a connection between these two groups, other than the fact that Skull and Bone’s allegedly grew out of a German fraternity and the Illuminati was of course German (and of course the fact that both are secret societies that started at universities) Any thoughts?

Terry Melanson June 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Well I didn’t find much when I wrote my book. My own contribution was 1) to point out that SB practically worship Demosthenes in their holy of holies – room 322 (and found a similar homage in a University that was a traditional haunt of the Illuminati); 2) the book Tristram Shandy, and its characters, were/are given special treatment in SB’s rituals (Illuminati initiates as well were admonished to read the book and the second head of the Order – J. J. C. Bode – had even translated the work for the German audience); 3) SB and Illuminati had similar methods of introspection, even a life history, for their masters to inspect (and hold over them perhaps).

It’s all speculation and doesn’t really add to much. Perhaps these elements were also present in the original Studentenorden groups from which the Illuminati may be traced, as well as the Greek letter societies on this side of the Atlantic. Russell, when he went over there, most likely was exposed to the same traditions as were the young members of the Illuminati.

Curiously, on the German SB wiki page, they point out the fact that Russell wasn’t listed as a member of the student societies in Germany. Apparently there’s a book that lists members from 1798 to 1910. During his stay there, however, most of them had been banned or were monitored by the state. So, it may not be possible to get the entire truth, if the society he was involved with were hiding from the government and had not provided lists of members.