Making Death Masks: 1912

William McKinley death mask
William McKinley’s death mask, 1901. DC Public Library Commons

RENE BACHE’S BUDGET

HOW DEATH MASKS OF CELEBRITIES ARE MADE

CLARA BARTON THE LATEST OF A LONG LINE THUS IMMORTALIZED.

U.S.J. Dunbar, the National Museum’s Sculptor, and His Weird Work—Masks of Priceless Historic Value—Why a Life Mask of Every President Ought to Be Made—The Masks of Presidents Lincoln and McKinley.

Washington, D.C., June 15.

When Clara Barton died, the other day, a death mask was made of the face of this most famous women by the sculptor of the National Museum, U. S. J. Dunbar, who has probably done more of that kind of work than any other man living. Among other masks he has obtained recently were those of “Fighting Bob” Evans, senator Carter of Montana, and the multimillionaire copper king, Thomas J. Walsh, whose daughter married Edward B. McLean, the present owner of the historic Hope diamond.

Custom has decreed that each president shall leave behind him in the white house a painted portrait of himself. It would be at least equally desirable that “life masks,” which are made in the same way as death masks, should be preserved of all the presidents, not only because of their historic value in themselves, but more importantly for the help they would give to sculptors in the production of accurate busts and statues. The same remark may be said to apply to other distinguished men. So far as death masks are concerned, it is entirely customary nowadays for the surviving relatives of a person who has been eminent in any walk of life to receive applications for permission to make such a reproduction of the features of the defunct—the idea being either that the family may wish to buy it, or that it may be of value for sculptural purposes.

It is not unnatural that many people should refuse; or that, having declined, they should be sorry afterward that they did so. Only a short time ago, when Justice Harlan died. Mr. Dunbar asked the privilege of making a mask of the great jurist. The family was unwilling, however, having beard of a case where injury was done by the process, the skin of the face being badly torn. Of course, anything may be bungled, but there is not the slightest danger of accident of the kind when the work is done by an expert.

McKinley’s Death Mask.

President McKinley died Saturday, September 14, 1900. At once on bearing the news, E. L. A. Pairsch, a New York sculptor, wired secretary Cortelyou for permission to make a death mask, and, the request being granted, took a train for Buffalo, arriving there at 9 p. m. the same day. He took the mask at the Milburn residence the next morning, at 7 o’clock, 29 hours after life had become extinct. It was delivered to Mr. Cortelyou at the white house on the following Tuesday, and is now preserved in a glass case at the National Museum.

The mask looks wonderfully like the sculptured face of Napoleon, whom the original in life was considered so markedly to resemble. It lies on a cushion of purple velvet—the face being inclined slightly forward, as if the head were reposing on a pillow—and wears the peaceful expression and slight suggestion of a smile which are characteristics of the faces of the dead.

In regard to this matter, Mr. Dunbar expressed some very interesting ideas. For one thing, he states that the expression assumed by the face of a dead person is merely the physical result of attitude. If a dead man be left lying on his face, or on his side, for a number of hours—as may easily happen in case of a murder, or even of sudden death in a lonely place—his features will become set in a distorted way, and may even assume a look of horror. Thus one reads occasionally that an individual who has met his fate through violence “still wears a terror-stricken expression” — the implication being that the latter reflects the state of his feelings at the moment of his demise.

The fact is, however, that if the individual thus tragically done to death had promptly been laid flat on his back, his face would have assumed an entirely peaceful expression. The facial muscles, after life has departed, are absolutely inert, and, responding to the influence of gravity, fall into position accordingly. People ordinarily die in bed; the body is placed on its back, and, when the head is in this attitude, all the muscles of the face smooth themselves out. Those of the forehead and about the mouth which by their contraction express anxiety or pain are wholly relaxed, giving the look of a “peace that passeth all understanding,” so sadly familiar to us all.

Why the Dead Smile.

The beginning of a smile in a living person, is a relaxation of the muscles at the corners of the mouth. Hence it is that the face of a dead person wears usually a slight smile—a smile of a peculiar kind, inscrutable, as if of knowing at last all that has been in life so mysterious and puzzling. But it is an expression happily suggestive of an unutterable calm, devoid of suffering.

It happened a few years ago that the wife of a retired admiral in the navy, residing in Washington, was thrown out of her carriage and killed. Incidentally, her face was much disfigured. Her husband had no portrait of her, and so got Mr. Dunbar to make a cast of her left hand, wearing the wedding ring—this being afterward reproduced in marble.

The making of such casts of dead people’s hands, or of hands and arms, is not at all uncommon. One was taken by Mr. Dunbar from the right hand of chief justice Waite, of the United States supreme court, and another of the hand of Frederick Douglass, the-famous negro statesman…. In two instances, also, he has made casts of women’s feet, because they were unusually beautiful, and surviving relatives wished to preserve them.

The sculptor does not use a death mask as a model after which to make a slavish copy for bust or statue. It helps him by measurements, and by preserving such details as wrinkles and the outline of the hair where the latter meets the face. But the main thing gained by it is the reproduction of the bony structure, which does not alter after death, as the muscles do. In some cases a skull is actually modeled from the mask, by measurements of the latter, and upon this the muscles are anatomically laid, in clay, with the help of photographs of the living man, if any are procurable. By such means, with the employment of adequate skill, a counterfeit presentment of remarkable accuracy is obtained—fundamentally mechanical, that is to say, but supplemented in the finishing processes by the artistic talent of the sculptor, for the production of lifelike expression.

The famous Houdon bust of Washington, by far the most satisfactory existing likeness of that great man, was made from a life mask—which, of course, is much more desirable for the purpose than a death mask. Houdon, a French sculptor of celebrity, was asked by Dr. Franklin to come to this country for the purpose of taking the mask; he did so. and, before his departure, made a mask also of Franklin himself, which is represented today by a bust in the possession of the American Philosophical society, in Philadelphia. How much more valuable these are, historically speaking, than any ordinary sculptured likeness is obvious enough, inasmuch as they present to view the very features of the two men, molded direct from the originals.

Making a Life Mask.

A life mask is made substantially in the same way as a death mask, the person to be “taken” lying flat on his back while the operation is being performed. But there is this difference, that breathing must be provided for; and the immortal Washington, while the plaster of paris was waiting to “set” on his face, had to get his supply of air through a small glass tube inserted in one nostril—the tube being provided with a flange to prevent it from falling out.

In later days a quill has been used more commonly for the «same purpose. But it is not really necessary, for, if the work be carefully and skillfully performed, one nostril may be left free of plaster, the substance being merely smeared around it. The “subject” is always cautioned to be very careful not to breathe through his mouth; for, if he should do so, some of the moist plaster might be carried into the opening of his windpipe, and hardening there, choke him to death.

Abraham Lincoln went through this rather distressing operation on two occasions. The first time was in 1860, when it was performed by a Chicago sculptor, Leonard W. Volk. He had then no beard. Casts were made at the same time of both his hands, clenched into fists, and one of them holding a rod. Again, 60 days before he was assassinated, another life mask was made of him by Clark Mills, of Washington. He then wore the chin beard which is so familiar as a feature of his physiog­nomy. Both of these masks, and the hands as well, are now preserved in the National Museum. They are not, however, the only existing copies, whereas the mask of McKinley is unique, the mold having been destroyed immediately after it was taken.

One reason why a life mask, or, next best, a death mask, is so desirable from the viewpoint of the sculptor, is that the two sides of nobody’s face are exactly alike. The sides of the mouth differ, and the eyes are not alike, as one may see by observing any photographic portrait that shows the full face. The proportions of the two sides of a face always differ somewhat, and the sides of the nose are invariably more or less unlike.

Noses Turn to Right.

Walking along the street, any observant person may notice that 99 of every 100 people he meets have noses that turn markedly to the right. Now and then is seen a nose that turns decidedly to the left. It will be found that in these exceptional instances the owners are nearly always left-handed. Now why should this be so? Mr. Dunbar thinks it is because of the fact, which he says is beyond question, that right-handed persons use the muscles on the right side of their faces much more than those on the left side. On the other hand, left-handed individuals make much more use of the muscles on the left side. This would tend to pull the nose in the corresponding direction. It may be, however, that the constant use of the handkerchief for wiping and blowing the nose, even from early childhood, has something to do with the matter. But there is no doubt that in a great majority of faces the right side is the more expressive side. A curious fact, attributable to the cause of which Mr. Dunbar speaks, is that one—anybody, that is to say—begins to smile first on one side of the mouth. Thus it happens that in a full-face photograph the person represented is often grave on one side of the face and slightly smiling on the other—this being due to the effort at a beginning of a smile which is made in response to the photographer’s suggestion to “look pleasant.” Sleep has often been called the “sister of death,” though not so appropriately as most people imagine. Not only does the face of a sleeper lack the pallor of death, but the facial muscles are alive and do not relax like the inert muscles of the dead. Hence it is that the expression of the face of a sleeper is not in the least like that of the same individual when life has departed.

Is a Simple Process.

The process of making a death mask is simple enough. To begin with, the face is covered with vaseline, and a silk thread is laid along from the top of the head to the neck, for the purpose presently to be described. Then a thin coat of plaster-of-paris is applied all over the face with a soft brush, including the ears. It is deemed important to include the ears because they have a great deal to do with expression—much more, indeed, than is commonly supposed.

This first coat of plaster is allowed to “set” partly. It fills all the interstices, preserving the wrinkles and other details. More of the material is not put on at first because its weight would cause the face muscles to sag. The second coat of plaster is made to cover not only the face, but also the hair, the latter requiring to be reproduced merely in a rough way. Before it “sets,” the silk thread is pulled out, so as to divide the plaster mass into two halves, making it easy to remove afterward. When hard, it is taken off, and the halves when fastened together form a perfect mold of the face. A cast made from this mold is the death mask. After greasing the inside of the mold with vaseline, the fluid plaster is poured in and made to spread itself over all parts of the inside of the mold. Pieces of burlap saturated with the same fluid are then introduced, and over these more plaster is poured. As soon as the stuff has become hard the mask is detached from the containing mold, and requires only a little touching up, to remove irregularities, in order to make it a perfect reproduction of the face of the person. It will be understood, of course, that the burlap is to render the mask less fragile.

When, during the French revolution the human fiend Marat was murdered in his bathtub ‘by Charlotte Cordray, the famous Mme. Tussaud, eager to procure so valuable an addition to her collections, went immediately to the house and took a death mask of the victim. This was no very extraordinary performance for her, inasmuch as she had been accustomed day after day to be on hand at the guillotine and to take masks from the heads of important personages as fast as they dropped into the fatal basket—a task which may be said to have had a certain important usefulness, inasmuch as thereby the physiognomies of many individuals of historic note were preserved.

El Paso [TX] Herald 14 June 1912: p. 23

For a post on Halloween deaths by mask, see Death Masks.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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