Phrenology bust modeled on a human death mask

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The Morbid Anatomy Museum recently acquired a 19th-century phrenological death mask. Liza Young, a museum studies student at St. John's University, tracked down its history.

First, though, Young supplies a quick reminder of what phrenology was meant to do and what that meant about the people whose heads were most likely to end up as the models for practice busts.

To briefly sum up the essence of a fascinating practice, each lump of the skull was believed to correspond to a particular moral or immoral temperament localized within a specific area of the brain, which would swell or dip in relation to the volume of the temperament’s presence.

In order to hone the new science, phrenologists studied the skulls of exceptional characters on the opposing ends of the spectrum: the most brilliant of men and the most errant. However, the only abundant cache of skulls available was provided by the local executioner. Yes, following death by guillotine or some such unfortunate fate, scientists would make a cast of the head, now relieved of its body, and study the plaster copy for the lumps of the brain that would, they believed, mark the subject as the criminal he was now known to be. While it cannot be stated indisputably that the bust in question was cast from a criminal (the length of his neck suggests he was not guillotined, unlike these men), it is safe to say that he was indeed dead. This conclusion is evidenced by the opening of his eyes, which would have been unbearable for a living model. Understanding the ultimate end of the model is very likely as close to identifying him as I will able to come, so let’s put a pin in that and move forward to where this man lived out his life before it was cut short.

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