Bubble wrapping death masks

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

My wife and I are in the process of relocating from Brooklyn to New Haven. So far, the most tedious part of the move has been packing up the collection of death masks we acquired once upon a time in a fortuitous eBay bonanza:


The majority of these heads are gazillionth-order plaster cast reproductions (knock-offs of knock-offs of knock-offs) of originals held in the Laurence Hutton Collection at Princeton. Several are actually life masks, originally cast by sculptors.

In roughly bottom-to-top, left-to-right order, the faces in this photo belong to:

On the ledge: Abraham Lincoln, Laurence Barrett, Sir Richard Owen, Robert E. Lee, John C. Calhoun, William Tecumseh Sherman

The bottom six hanging on the wall: Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonio Canova, John Keats, Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith, Jean-Paul Marat

The next highest six: Franz Liszt, Napoleon Bonaparte (well, maybe), Frederick the Great, George Washington, William Blake, Oliver Cromwell

The next highest five: Jeremy Bentham, Aaron Burr, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edward Kean, Ulysses S. Grant

And the top row: Jonathan Swift, Maria Malibran, David Garrick, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Moore.

On another wall not pictured we've got: Robespierre, another Abe Lincoln, Frederic Chopin, Pope Pius IX, Benjamin Disraeli, Benjamin Franklin, and John Dilinger. Plus there are a few more whose names I've forgotten in storage.

If there's one death mask I wish we had, it would be the Inconnue de la Seine.


  1. The Napoleon mask looks eerily familiar. Martian Manhunter and Destro both came to mind but I just can’t place it..

  2. If there’s one death mask I wish we had, it would be the Inconnue de la Seine.

    Personally, I’d go for Agrippina the Younger, or any of the Julio-Claudians. I love the idea of parading through the streets wearing your dead ancestors’ faces every year.

  3. Frederick the Great and Aaron Burr have really tiny heads.

    Seeing these is kind of eerie. Some look obviously dead, while Sir Richard Owen looks mysteriously pleased with himself.

  4. Aaaah, faces & names.

    “If we all had the same name and the same face, there’d be less trouble you’d see”….

    Disappearing into the wall. Or for these dead guys, is it onto the wall? This all seems off the wall, kinda.
    Perhaps better to be a hole in the wall.

  5. Excellent if eclectic collection.
    It’s like a 3D view into the past.

    When you see Dante’s death mask it is faithful down to the moles and palsy in his face.

    Death masks are an incisive view to a world beyond our modern documentation.

    Thanks for sharing your marvelous collection.

  6. That’s THE sweetest collection I’ve ever seen! When you fill out applications forms, do you put in the ‘Hobbies’ section ‘Collect death masks’?? XD

    #16 I live just along the road from where Burke & Hare used to roam :)

  7. why is there only one woman? was it not fashionable to make death masks of women, or is it not fashionable to collect them?

  8. I have L’Inconnue de la Seine, or a copy rather, given to me by a relative way back in the 1970’s; I sure it was found at a tourist shop or flea market in Paris; shouldn’t be too difficult to find another.

  9. Whether or not Napoleon’s death mask is actually Napoleon, I recognized is RIGHT away from the original, which hangs in my alma mater’s library.

  10. Fascinating collection indeed!

    just some clarification, your beethoven death mask is actually his life mask. At death, he was quite emaciated, and his temporal bones were removed during his autopsy before casting his death mask, making him look more like gollum than beethoven.

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