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November 5, 2004

Death masks
Posted by Teresa at 06:00 AM *

Death masks—plaster casts of a person’s face, taken shortly after death—are an old technology. The Thanatos Death Mask Gallery collects images of them, providing what are at times startlingly immediate pictures of long-dead faces. For instance: Benjamin Franklin, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph Smith, John C. Calhoun, Dante Alighieri, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Napoleon, Robespierre, Nicolo Machiavelli, Jonathan Swift, John Wesley, Lorenzo di Medici, and Henry VII of England; also Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Addendum: One of the reasons I listed and linked to so many masks is that the site’s thumbnails aren’t labeled, and its site index doesn’t work. Since I’m already doing it, might as well go on:

Composers: Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin (1) (2), Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler (1) (2), Franz Schubert, and Richard Wagner.

Writers and Philosophers: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gustave Flaubert (1) (2), Johann Goethe (1) (2), Nikolaj Gogol, Heinrich Heine, Victor Hugo, John Keats (1) (2), Friedrich Nietzsche, Alexander Pushkin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller, Sir Walter Scott, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Leo Tolstoy, and Voltaire (possibly touched up?).

Scientists: Thomas Alva Edison, Sir Isaac Newton (same mask, different photo), Blaise Pascal, and Nikola Tesla.

Artists: Paul Gaugin and Theodore Gericault.

Other Notables: Phineas Gage (railroad worker), Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mary, Queen of Scots (repainted by what has to be a modern hand), Pope Pius IX, Chief Seattle, Sir Charles Edward Stuart, and Pancho Villa. (via)

If anyone’s interested, the Thanatos gallery has them in order alphabetically by first name.

[Update: The links above are broken; the site is now here:

Comments on Death masks:
#1 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 10:02 AM:

Those are cool, if a little grim. I feel all Goth just looking at them.

I told my wife I wanted a death mask done, and that I wanted her to mount it on the ceiling over her bed so that she would have to sleep under my dead face.

She patted my shoulder and said "Yes, dear."

#2 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 10:45 AM:

Do note that life masks are also an old art (at least as old as the hollow straw, anyway), and can be quite safely created in the privacy of your own home, provided you use the right moldmaking material (moulage, the right stuff, does not set rock-hard, and if things go what forensic experts call "whoopsy," can be torn open by the subject's jaw).

It saves all kinds of curious arguments with busy hospital staff, and the subject gets to admire the finished product, which will doubtless be a topic of conversation and a source of innocent merriment for years to come.

I'm not suggesting we have a roomparty or anything, you understand. Though it'd probably be tidier than oobleck.

Perhaps there should be an anthology, called something like AFTERMATHOMS, in which various skiffians tell stories of Interesting Future Things To Do with Stiffs. And then again, perhaps not.

#3 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 11:34 AM:

Speaking of Life Masks, there's a story in The Times (Virgin sacrifice at the new moon required, yada-yada) this week about digital reconstructions of George Washington's face as a younger man than we are used to seeing him based on an available life mask of him. Pretty cool stuff.

#4 ::: Matt Runquist ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 12:19 PM:

Wow, who knew Robin Williams was such a dead ringer for Isaac Newton? Does Neal Stephenson know about this?

#5 ::: Jason Kuznicki ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:35 PM:

When I worked at the tiny Bibliothèque Port-Royal in Paris, the reading room was dominated by a tall cabinet atop which sat the original death mask of Blaise Pascal. Just seeing it made me nostalgic for Paris all over again.

I know, Iknow, you're supposed to be nostalgic about long walks beside the Seine... Thanks for the link, though.

#6 ::: Nicholas Rogers ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:57 PM:

On Matt Runquist's note, does anyone else think that Niccolo Machiavelli looks surprisingly like Charlton Heston?

#7 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 03:24 PM:

Machiavelli must have smiled a lot.

(at least as old as the hollow straw, anyway)

Does that mean that before there were hollow straws, there were not-hollow straws? Just like there were square wheels? And blank stone tablets?

#8 ::: Barbara ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 04:53 PM:

Does John Wesley really have a smirk?

Some of them look just right, and some are totally wrong for my mental image. Napoleon had much finer features that those with which he's usually portrayed. Chopin was surprisingly almost pretty. They should have left the glasses on Joyce. Thanks for this link. I postponed finishing the historical society's newsletter for a good hour.

#9 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 03:02 AM:

Since several people had remarked how certain masks looked like other people (the Newton/Williams is really eerie) I was on the lookout for resemblances. And I thought, wow, that guy really looks like Alfred Hitchcock. Which wasn't surprising as it turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock.


#10 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 03:30 AM:

Andy - not square wheels, triangular wheels. Remember, all evolutionary processes must start at their least efficient but geometrically regular origins.

#11 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 07:27 AM:

Is there any particular reason you didn't link to the Shakespeare one? Are all of these supposed to be authentic? I could've sworn I'd read that there was no likeness of Shakespeare known to have been made from life, and while I suppose a death mask technically isn't "from life," I'm still suspicious.

#12 ::: Merrill ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 10:02 AM:

I assume original "straws" were made from straw, and other hollow stems of plants, so the definition may include hollowness.

LIFE MASKS: Use vaseline/oil/grease on eyebrows, eyelashes, hairline. Very painful, possibly dangerous otherwise -- please believe this. You might like to rub in some cream to the whole face some hours before, just to make removal a bit easier. Particularly applies to plaster, but you still need something for silicone, etc.

#13 ::: JeanOG ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 10:33 AM:

There is at least reason to believe that some of the earliest depictions of Shakespeare are based on the same source: a swelling distorting the left eyelid. The mask also reportedly shows a tumor in the left tear duct.

Which definitively proves nothing, of course, until and unless one of those depictions is accepted as genuine. But the mask does seem to be at least related to the bust at Charlecote Park, the Droeshout engraving, and the Chandos and Flower portraits.

#14 ::: d. brenneman ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 04:42 PM:

In my opinion, Beeethoven looks like an emaciated Schwartzenegger. Unsettling...

#15 ::: d. brenneman ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 04:47 PM:

oops. make that "Beethoven". Also, John Dillinger looks like a fatter John Waters.

What is it that spurs people (or perhaps just me) to compare people to (current) celebrities?

#16 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 05:10 PM:

Because if you said John Dillinger looks *exactly* like my Aunt Edna, no one would be able to agree or disagree with you.

#17 ::: d.brenneman ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 07:29 PM:

Michelle said:

Because if you said John Dillinger looks *exactly* like my Aunt Edna, no one would be able to agree or disagree with you.

too true. among the old dame's many frailties was a decidedly mannish countenance.

wasn't there something in "Virtual Light" about this.. cops comparing wanted men to various celebrities, because the associations were easier?

I really find death masks fascinating. A friend of my sister kept her mother's death mask in the living room-- it was pretty amazing.

#18 ::: Leslie ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 08:44 PM:

Mary Kay,

I did the same thing with Hitch. As for the Newton/Williams resemblance, I don't see it for some reason. Frederick the Great looks like, I don't know, an Escher drawing or something.

My nominee for "most what you'd imagine": Dante.

#19 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 08:49 PM:

One of the more famous/notorious Australians was Ned Kelly, hanged on 11th November, 1880 in what's now a museum building called Old Melbourne Gaol. They also have a display of deathmasks, including Ned's: Ned Kelly death mask

There are a couple of photos of Edward Kelly, in youth & 'maturity' -- he was about 22 when hanged -- so you can directly compare the masks (several copies are 'round) to them. In fact, a mask was used to compare a disputed skull relic quite recently You can get an idea of some of the issues surrounding him from some of these links too.

#20 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 10:04 PM:

Those who want to see William Corder's death mask (and some more gruesome things) can look here. William Corder killed Maria Marten in the Red Barn. (Alas, this is the Google Cache -- the original site is down.)

#22 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 11:51 PM:

Teresa - Pardon my ignorance, but what is an FLK?

I rather doubt that it stands for Freakin' Looney Killer.

#23 ::: kate martin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2004, 01:35 AM:

FLK = Funny Looking Kid, which has kind of been phased out but used to be seen fairly often on Actual Official psych/hospital charts.

Essentially, they looked kind of... off, and sometimes that indicated other problems.

(My partner works in a psych hospital, don't mind me.)

#24 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2004, 07:57 AM:

A part of Corder's appearance may come from the violence of his hanging. He didn't have a good one, as such things go.

#25 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2004, 11:00 AM:

Here's the complete list from

Alban Berg
Albert Lortzing
Alexander Pushkin
Alfred Hitchcock
Amado Nervo
Andre Gide
Antoine Wiertz
Battista Sforza
Benjamin Franklin
Bertrolt Brecht
Bjornson Bjornstjerne
Blaise Pascal
Bruce Lee
Cesar Vallejo
Charles Ives
Charles Sainte-Beuve
Charlotte Wolter
Chief Seattle
Conde de Mirabeau
Cyriel Verschaeve
Dante Alighieri
Dr. John Yonge
Eduard Morike
Ezra Pound
Fjodor Dostojevski
Frank Wedekind
Franz Lizst
Franz Rosenzweig
Franz Schubert
Frederic Chopin
Frederic Chopin (2)
Frederick Deeming
Frederick the Great
Friederich Ebert
Friedrich Hebbel
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (2)
Friedrich Schiller
General Robert E. Lee
Giacomo Leopardi
Giovanni Bottesini
Gotthold E. Lessing
Guido Gezelle
Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler (2)
Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert (2)
Heinrich Heine
Heinrich von Treitschke
Hendrik Tollens
Henry VII
Hermann Hesse
Hugues de Lamennais
James Joyce
James Joyce (2)
Jean-Jacques Rosseau
Johann Goethe
Johann Goethe (2)
Johann Gottfried Schadow
Johannes Brahms
John Calhoun
John Dillinger
John Keats
John Keats (2)
John Wesley
Jonathan Swift
Josef Kainz
Joseph Hoffner
Joseph Smith
Julius Caesar
Karel Ledeganck
Karl Krause
King Charles XII of Sweden
King Teti
Leo Tolstoy
Lorenzo Medici
Louis Vierne
Ludwig van Beethoven
Martin Luther
Mary Queen of Scots
Max Scheler
Napoleon Bonaparte
Nicola Tesla
Nicolo Machiavelli
Nikolaj Gogol
Oliver Cromwell
Pancho Villa
Paul Gauguin
Peter Lorre
Phineas Gage
Pope Pius IX
Richard B. Sheridan
Richard Wagner
Rio Reiser
Robert Musil
Ruben Dario
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Scythian Queen
Sir Charles Edward Stuart
Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton (2)
Theodore Gericault
Thomas Edison
Torquato Tasso
Ulysses S. Grant
Unknown 1
Unknown 2
Unknown 3
Unknown 4
Unknown 5
Unknown 6
Unknown 7
Unknown 8
Unknown 9
Unknown 10
Vicente Barbieri
Victor Hugo
Vincent Price
Walter Hunscheidt
Walter Scott
Wilfrid Laurier
Willem Bilderdijk
William Cullen
William Hunter
William Shakespeare
William Sherman

#26 ::: Kathy ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2004, 01:50 PM:

"What is it that spurs people (or perhaps just me) to compare people to (current) celebrities?"

Unless you are one of those folks who has pictures of loved ones hanging around your living and working space, you probably see the celebrities lots more often than anyone you don't live or work with daily.

#27 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2004, 04:18 PM:

I think the most poignant is that of Franz Lizst, who if I recall correctly died while undergoing torture with m&ms.

#28 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2004, 04:47 PM:

I didn't know they had M&Ms back then.

#29 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2004, 11:37 AM:

Laura: "I didn't know they had M&Ms back then."

M&Ms were first developed for their offensive capabilities by the early military-industrial complex. Only after enough nations had developed similar candies of their own, obsoleting M&Ms' worth as a deterrent, were they "released" to the general public where they became known for their more benign properties. However, one can quickly see the military underpinnings in their design:
- doesn't melt in hands: useful when eating candy while operating a flame thrower
- melts in your mouth: a potential vehicle for a measured dose of toxin that would render your agents unable to be interrogated.

#30 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2004, 01:29 PM:

However, one can quickly see the military underpinnings in their design

The color-coding is obviously very important too. Maybe someone with the appropriate security clearance can tell us what the colors stand for.

#31 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2004, 06:21 PM:

Of course, if it's hot enough, they melt in the bag before you get them to your hands.

#32 ::: alan ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2004, 06:58 PM:

Isaac Newton: No, not Robin Williams.

The black and white one looks exactly like Woody Harrelson in the People vs Larry Flynt, while the color version looks exactly like the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

#33 ::: Wendy ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2006, 09:21 AM:

As for Mary Queen of Scots death mask, it was indeed painted by a modern hand. None other than Max factor himself. I know this because I saw it in person. The gentleman i spoke to abou tit was not pleased that it had been painted as it placed a beauty point-of-view that was not of the proper time. There is another as well, and even if I make a greyscale of the max factor one, it does not to me, look like it matches. One site claims that it may not be genuine so as to not make any Catholic martyr relics.

#34 ::: Cherita ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2006, 05:07 PM:

A site I found with between 30 and 50 masks.

I think people associate with certain celebrities because they are always looking for the familiar. It's comforting. The reason it's usually celebrities is because we are bombarded with images of them.

#35 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2008, 09:30 AM:

None of the links work! :(

#36 ::: Matthew L Lena (Boston) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 08:23 PM:

What is often said to be a death mask of Phineas Gage is in fact a life mask, taken about 1850 by Harvard Professor of Surgery Henry Jacob Bigelow. See

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