Happy Halloween! Aside from the dressing up and eating candy until we’re sick, Halloween is traditionally a time reserved for honoring the dead. And what better way to do that than by looking at some death masks?
A death mask is a typically plaster or wax cast made of a person’s face after they’ve died. Many times these masks were used in effigy of the deceased, or used for artistic, historical, or scientific purposes. Below are some of the death masks in the New-York Historical Society’s Museum collection.
Many of the masks were part of the Phrenological Museum of Fowler & Wells, which opened in New York City in 1842. Brothers Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) and Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896) and their business associate Samuel Roberts Wells (1820-1875) were noted phrenologists who read heads to understand the subject’s “temperament.” Their Phrenological Cabinet displaying casts, skulls, and charts became a popular fixture in the city.
Silas Wright Jr. was a New York politician. He served as a Senator from 1833 to 1844, and as the 14th Governor of the state from January 1, 1845 to December 31, 1846.
John C. Calhoun was best known for being Vice President to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He also served as a Senator to South Carolina, the Secretary of War for President James Monroe, and the Secretary of State for President John Tyler. He lead the pro-slavery faction while in the Senate, and in 1837 asserted that slavery was a “positive good.” He died of tuberculosis at age 68 in Washington, DC.
You may remember Thomas Paine from your middle school American history unit. He was an English-American political activist best remembered for his “Common Sense” pamphlet, which advocated for American independence. Later he would go on to be arrested in France for supporting the French Revolution, and, thinking that George Washington had conspired with Robespierre to imprison him, wrote to Washington in an open letter, “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.” Paine died at age 72 in Greenwich Village, and the New York Citizen wrote “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.”
Sherman graduated from West Point in 1840, and afterward resigned from the army to pursue a career in banking and the law. He rejoined the army at the outbreak of the Civil War, was promoted to brigadier general, and succeeded Ulysses S. Grant in command of the Army of the Tennessee in 1863. When Grant assumed command of all Union armies, Sherman was placed in charge of the entire southwestern area. He died in New York City, and President Harrison ordered all flags to be flown at half-mast. Harrison said of Sherman, “He was an ideal soldier, and shared to the fullest the esprit du corps of the army, but he cherished the civil institutions organized under the Constitution, and was only a soldier that these might be perpetuated in undiminished usefulness and honor.”
George Washington Bowen was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and worked as a baker, weaver and shopkeeper in Newport. In several unsuccessful lawsuits he claimed to be the son and heir of Eliza Bowen Jumel, an American actress and socialite, who married Vice President Aaron Burr. They divorced on the day of Burr’s death.
Speaking of Aaron Burr, here’s his mask. He’s best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a fateful duel on July 11, 1804, while Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury and Burr was Vice President. He lived until he was 80, dying on Staten Island in 1836.