Museum Mysteries: Death Masks

When most people think of masks, they think of parties, but the tradition of a “death mask,” or a mask cast after someone’s death, has a much more morbid, yet historical meaning.

Death masks capture every wrinkle, hair, and pore in a final record of a person’s life. They are in some ways the best, most empirical, complete record of that person and how he felt, made most of the time just hours after his death. A common form of record-keeping until the mid-twentieth century, death masks were designed not only to preserve a person’s face as it looked at the time of death, but also to help the living confront their own mortality.

Death masks have been around since the beginning of recorded history; the oldest known mask is an Egyptian mask that is 5,000 years old. Among the most famous of death masks are Napoleon Bonaparte, Dante Alighieri, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Ben Franklin, John Dillinger, and Abraham Lincoln, who had several life masks made as well.

Traditionally buried with the deceased, death masks grew to become more utilitarian and symbolic somewhere in the Middle Ages. It became fashionable to make sculptures, busts, or engravings as well as portraits from them. Because the plaster or wax recorded the face in death, it can be somewhat easy to distinguish portraits or sculptures made from a death mask because the features in the artwork are somewhat distorted from artwork created during the person’s life.

If a famous person warranted a death mask but the face was rendered unrecognizable, casts were taken of the hands instead. It is rumored that John Dillinger’s face in death was so unrecognizable that his father thought his death mask was a fake. It turns out that Dillinger had had some secret plastic surgery done to disguise himself, and that, along with a fatal bullet exiting his face, caused many to question the validity of his mask.

The two masks shown above, belonging to Winfield Scott Stratton (left) and Artus Van Briggle (right), stand as stark reminders of two men who had very different impacts on early Colorado Springs life. Van Briggle’s mask, made just three hours after his passing at age 35, was constructed by his wife, Anne. Stratton’s mask, made at his death at age 52, was used to create two statues of him. One stands on the grounds at the Myron Stratton Home, and the other stands facing east at the intersection of Nevada and Pikes Peak Avenues. These men knew each other; in fact they died just months apart from each other in 1902. Stratton, who made millions from his Independence Mine in Cripple Creek, sponsored Van Briggle’s fledgling pottery studio.

What other weird and wonderful items await the intrepid historian in the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum? It’s free to find out, so come see these death masks as well as many other interesting items close up. The pictures don’t do them justice.

Other articles in the Museum Mysteries series:

Museum Mysteries: Hair Wreaths

Museum Mysteries: Glass Rake?

Museum Mysteries: Rag Doll

Museum Mysteries: Intertwined Hands

Museum Mysteries: Parfleche

Photo By: DeLyn Martineau