, , , , , , ,


Death mask of Tutankhamun. Image by Roland Unger via Wikimedia.

There is something deeply fascinating about looking into the faces of the long-dead. Whether you find yourself gazing at the desiccated remains of ancient Egyptian Mummies, pondering the fate of the often brutally murdered bog-bodies, or staring into face of a long dead ancestor given immortality of sorts via the medium of portraiture or post-mortem photography.

There is clearly a very visceral difference between staring into the actual face of the dead as opposed to their likeness.  However,  sometimes it is possible to come across a likeness so uncanny that it bridges this gap;  where a three dimensional portrait creates a truly intimate and accurate record of how a person looked at the point of death.

A very brief history of the death mask

Death masks of one description or another have been popular in many cultures for thousands of years.  The gold mask of Tutankhamun is possibly the most famous example, although other cultures have just as many, his mask was part of the mummification process and was intended to guard and strengthen the soul on its journey to the afterlife [1].  In the Roman period, noble families had their galleries of imago – wax casts of their venerable ancestors, brought out for processions.  After the murder of Julius Caesar, his entire body was cast and taken in procession.  By the Middle Ages, European Royalty were using wax or wooden effigies of the deceased in their funeral rituals – that of Henry VII is still in existence at Westminster Abbey. Fast forward to the eighteenth and nineteenth century and the great and the good, such as Walter Scott, Coleridge and Mendelssohn, were taking life and death masks to preserve their features for posterity.

Death mask of King Henry VII, Westminster Abbey.

Before the advent of photography, a life or death mask was the most accurate, and not necessarily flattering, likeness that it was possible to get of an individual.

L’inconnue de la Seine – death mask of a Parisienne suicide.

But there is a darker side to death masks (no irony intended).  They were not only used by the great and the good for the edification of posterity, the use of death masks in particular had a more macabre purpose.

In the nineteenth century the police often utilised death masks to help with the identification of unknown corpses.  In the time before effective refrigeration, a corpse would not stay fresh for long.  Places such as the Paris Morgue often resorted to death masks when bodies had deteriorated and could no longer be put on display (masks were later superseded by post-mortem photography).

During the nineteenth century, the death mask took on a new and insidious purpose.  It was used to illustrate the dubious tenants of a very popular new science, designed to categorise the human character and intelligence based on physical traits.

The rise of Phrenology 

Franz Josef Gall. Public domain via Wikimedia.

In 1796, Franz Joseph Gall would set in motion a ‘scientific’ school of thought whose more negative connotations still reverberate to this day.

At the end of the eighteenth century, opinion was divided as to how the brain worked.  Some thought the brain was a homogenous whole, while others thought that specific areas of the brain controlled specific functions.   Gall was of the belief that the development of the brain, with its over or under-developed areas, would influence the shape of the skull.[2]

Gall felt this view was strengthened when he examined the skulls of a group of pick-pockets and identified that each had a pronounced bulge over their ear, which he took to be the area of the brain associated with lying, theft and deception.  He followed this up with extensive (but unscientific) research in prisons and asylums. While his conjectures went far beyond the empirical evidence, his work was the first tentative steps towards understanding and identifying criminal behaviour.

Phrenology Head. Source unknown.

His ideas were enthusiastically taken up and developed in the first half of nineteenth century, his method promised to identify those with criminal potential before they had the opportunity to commit a crime.  Phrenological Societies boomed – London boasted 28 in the 1820’s and the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh was founded by one of Phrenology’s great luminaries – George Combe and his brother Andrew.  The Edinburgh society is credited with laying the ground for Evolutionary theory. [3].

Not only did this research focus on the living, it focused on the dead as well, particularly those of the criminal classes.  Hence the number of death masks of notorious criminals from that age (although not only death masks were taken: while William Burke’s mask was taken after his execution, the slippery Hare, who turned Kings evidence, had his mask taken in life).  Masks were an ideal way to capture and study criminal physiognomy.

Death mask of Burke and life mask of Hare. Edinburgh University. Image by Kim Traynor.

Social Darwinism: born bad and ‘degenerate’ races

While fashionable people flocked to phrenology saloons in the nineteenth century (seeing it as a form of ‘scientific’ fortune-telling due to its supposed ability to predict behaviours) on another more insidious level it was being used to cement ideas of racism and eugenics.

It is hard to believe now, but there had been an ongoing debate amongst the thinkers of the Enlightenment as to whether people of different races were actually different species.  Even great thinkers such as Voltaire and Linneus supported this idea of polygenism.  This created a drive to categorise and measure different races using racial anthropological physiognomy.  Masks, both life and death, played a part in this as did Phrenology, which identified characteristics based on racial stereotypes and well as social stereotypes.

Excerpt from ‘Crania Americana’ by Samuel Morton. 1839. Used to promote racist ideas of the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Image from Vassar Collection.

By the nineteenth century, the view was that while all races were the same species, the non-white races had somehow ‘degenerated’ from the original ‘whiteness’ of Adam and Eve, due to various factors such as climate or food(?!) Clearly this was all based on racist conjecture and stereotyping and had very little to do with actual science.  As the Step Back in History Vlog, Scientific Racism, points out,  there was a purpose behind this, it was to was to create a moral justification for white Christian nations to enslave other people based on race, and to colonise their lands. [4]

John Beddoe whose book provided a pseudo-scientific basis for racism. Public domain.

This is just as insidious as it sounds, and was taken up enthusiastically by American Slave owners and British Colonialists alike to justify the oppression of other people based on race, and to promote the idea of paternalistic colonialism.   An example of this kind of racism can be found in John Beddoe’s The Races of Man, published in 1862, which managed to ‘prove’ the Irish were non-white, therefore ‘degenerate’, using racial anthropological physiognomy to justify British Imperialism against the Irish,  contributing to a century and a half of violence and oppression.

You don’t have to be an expert on twentieth century history to see just how evil this line of thinking gets.

Franz Muller death mask. Metropolitain Police Crime Museum.

Racial stereotypes were not the only stereotypes that phrenology helped to promote. Social Darwinism, the idea that theories of natural selection could be applied to sociology and politics, promoted the idea that some people were simply born bad, and that using ‘scientific’ techniques, criminal types could be identified before any criminal act had been committed.  It was here that phrenology and death masks combined in the study of criminal physiognomy.  Many examples of criminal death masks can be found today, notable examples are in Norwich Castle Museum, Edinburgh University and The Metropolitan Police Crime Museum in London.

Norwich Castle Museum

Norwich Castle Museum boasts a collection of death masks belonging to some of the most notorious murderers of the mid-nineteenth century.   They were created by  Giovanni Bianchi, a Tuscan who moved to London in 1836, and later moved to Norwich.  Between 1837 to 1854, he worked at Norwich Castle producing the death masks of executed criminals.

Norwich Castle. Image by Lenora.

When a condemned criminal was hanged, the bust maker had to move quickly.  To get the best casting, he had to take the mould within a few hours of death, or else bloating would distort the features.

Greenacre’s death mask. Norwich Castle Museum. Image by Lenora.

Robert Wilkins in his Fireside Book of Death outlines the process for taking a mask: first, liberally apply oil to the face to avoid any adhesions, then (if the subject is living) insert tubes into the nostrils, lay thread across the face then build up layers of plaster.  This is allowed to harden,  then the mask is removed usually in three pieces, using the threads laid on the face.  Before the advent of quick drying materials, it could take some time for the plaster to dry, and could be quite a claustrophobic experience.  Obviously, if the subject was dead, this was much less inconvenience to them. 

Once removed this produced a very accurate cast with facial pores, eyelashes and whiskers often visible.  This mould would be filled with wax or other materials to make the final bust.  While living subjects might expect to wear a cap to protect their hair during the casting of the back of their heads, criminals had their head shaved before the cast was taken, so that the phrenologists could have a clear canvas to work on.

Corder’s death mask. Norwich Castle Museum. Image by Lenora.

Bianchi immortalised such notorious individuals as Daniel Good, a murderer hanged at Newgate, whose successful evasion of the law led to the creating of the Detective Branch in London; Samuel Yarham, who murdered Harriet Chandler in Norwich in 1846; and James Bloomfield Rush, who, in 1849, somewhat sensationally went on a bloody rampage one winters night at the home of Isaac Jermy, the Recorder of Norwich.  His shooting spree left Isaac and his son dead, injured his daughter-in-law and seriously wounded a maid. [5]

It is hardly surprising to discover that phrenologists studying criminal physiognomy were not the only ones interested in obtaining images of the criminal dead.  An indication of the popularity of public executions and sensational crimes, as well as the speed at which death masks were produced, is given in The Norwich Mercury. Following the hanging of  James Bloomfield Rush in 1849, the Mercury described the grisly process for the benefit of those unable to attend:

“After hanging the due time, the body was cut down, and in the course of the afternoon the head was shaven and a cast taken of the features and the skull by Bianchi of St George’s Middle Street in this city.  The remains were then buried, according to the sentence, in the precincts of the prison.” [6]

A further indication of the public fascination with sensational crime (and grisly souvenirs) is provided by Sir Robert Bignold of Norwich Union fame, who wrote:

“The clerks of the Norwich Union took the morning off, which was quite in accordance with the precedent on execution days, and no doubt Bianchi the modeller did a good trade. It is even probable that some of the Norwich Union clerks were among his customers, for we have it on good authority of the chief clerk that it was not unusual for the staff to buy the casts of murderers on those days and hide them in their office desks.” [7]

Death masks, it would seem, also fulfilled a less scientific and more profitable niche in Victorian popular culture.

The end of the line

While phrenology continued to be of interest to some even into the twentieth century, it had always had its critics.  By the middle of the nineteenth century its star had waned and it was seen more as a novelty than a real way to identifying criminal types.  By the end of the nineteenth century, death masks of criminals had also become largely obsolete as the spread of cheaper methods of photography ushered in the age of the criminal mug shot.

Behind bars, even after death. Death masks at Norwich Castle Museum. Image by Lenora.

Today, Phrenology is relegated to a pseudo-science for its wild conjectures going  way beyond the empirical evidence, and its use in promoting the invidious so called ‘scientific’ racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -the repercussions of which can still be felt today.

Nevertheless the concept that specific parts of the brain relate to character, thoughts and emotions, did influence early psychiatry and psychology and eventually sow the seeds of neuro-psychology.

One fortunate by-product of the nineteenth century’s obsession with criminal physiology is we now have a series of lifelike and accurate portraits of the lower and criminal classes. Prior to photography images of these, mainly poor, working class people would not exist, or would be known only through distorted illustrations in the popular press of the day.

And if we think were are beyond judging a book by its cover, we should think again. The myth is still peddled that beautiful people have beautiful lives in this Instagram-ready age.  In addition to this, developments in AI technology may mean that both governments and corporations in the near future will be judging us all on our appearances and targeting us accordingly, so, be warned!

Sources & Notes

Corden, Joanna, 2013, ‘Death Masks‘ on the Royal Society Repository website. [1]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Phrenological_Society [3]

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-norwich-castle-museum-dungeon-death-masks-1-6029246   [5]-[7]

Fitzharris, Lindsey, Dr, Under the Knife: The Phrenology Head, YouTube [2]


Wilkins, Robert, 1990, ‘The Fireside Book of Death‘, Hale





Step back in history,  What is scientific racism? YouTube [4]


Stratford’s death mask. Norwich Castle Museum image by Lenora.