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Death Mask Interlude

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

 From the videotaped interview, it was on to the New-York Historical Society, repository of so many amazing and fascinating objects and works of art that it made me gasp, just walking through a back hallway. Familiar paintings—a Childe Hassam streetscape of NYC—just hanging there, not behind glass or anything…ga-aaw-lee! Great big cases of heads! Oh!

I stopped, riveted as I always am by death masks. Far left, Houdon’s idealized sculpture of a handsome George Washington. Next, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s death mask. Agggh! It was like having him right there in front of me, with his crooked nose and scraggly beard and weary eyes. Well, I’m assuming it’s a death mask, since it was done the year he died, and he doesn’t look particularly alert. 
Sherman served as General under Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, and was notorious for his "scorched earth" approach to conquering Confederate strongholds.

Two over from that, the death mask of Seminole leader Osceola who, but for his high cheekbones, didn’t look much like a Native American to me. (His is the death mask on the left in the photo below). So I did a little reading. Osceola, who claimed to be a full-blooded Muscogee, was born Billy Powell in Alabama to a mixed Muscogee and Scottish mother and an English trader. Nevertheless, he rose in the Seminole ranks, leading a small band of warriors during the Second Seminole War when the US Army tried to kick the Seminoles off their lands. He was captured by being tricked into thinking he was arriving for treaty negotiations, and died of malaria shortly thereafter. So even though he had scant Native American blood, Osceola still got the dubious benefit of being treated like one.

And next to that, to the right of Osceola, the extremely creepy death mask of a dentureless Aaron Burr, vice president with Thomas Jefferson, war hero, brilliant lawyer; killer in a duel of his arch-rival Alexander Hamilton. Burr wanted to establish his own duchy in northern Mexico, the “Burr Conspiracy,” which was funded in part by Harman Blennerhassett, an expat Irish aristocrat who lived on an island in the Ohio River now named for him. My favorite Burr quote: "In the past even I was afraid of my own greatness, therefore I could not stand in front of mirrors." (Oh, yeah, me too, only I don't like mirrors because they make me look fat.)

Poor Burr had been immobilized by a stroke for two years before this mask was made. What a life he led! And somehow it is all written on that weary face.

I peeked around a corner and saw the sculptor’s maquette for Lincoln’s head in the Lincoln Memorial. Did not have my camera. The head alone was taller than me. My jaw simply dropped. They have a little of everything at the New-York Historical Society.  A lot of everything. Just turn me loose there for a month. I could have so much fun! Oh, there’s Napoleon’s writing desk. Of course. 

I felt like a three-year-old in a candy store. But there were Audubons awaiting!


If you can believe Wikipaedia, Osceola's real head is still missing. Read about it here:

Posted by Vincent Lucas October 26, 2010 at 10:37 AM

Thanks for that macabre little bit about Osceola's purloined head, Vince--I ran into that factoid, too, and it sent me on a train of thought about how Native American remains have been traditionally treated as archaeological artifacts, as distinct from those of Caucasians, which of course needed respect and a proper burial. (I'm being heavily sarcastic here; I think it's horrible). So here's Osceola, of decidedly mixed but at least 75% Caucasian blood, and some white doctor makes a death mask and then just takes his head and keeps it in his study and then who knows what happened to it...eeesh!

I decided not to put that in the post, trying to keep my blog all shinyhappy, but the comments section is fair game.

(I should add that Osceola claimed and was presumedly assumed to be a full-blooded Muscogee).

Did you see that public-television show about Minik the Eskimo? Perry scooped him and his father and a few others up to take back to New York with him and present them to a museum, basically. They all died but Minik and their skeletons were rigged up for the museum, while a fake burial of Minik's father was performed for Minik's benefit. He found out the truth later. The story goes on.

A lot has changed in archaeology since NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was passed in 1990. Since the legislation has been passed, the human remains of approximately 32,000 individuals have been returned to their respective tribes. Nearly 670,000 funerary objects, 120,000 unassociated funerary objects, and 3,500 sacred objects have been returned to Native American tribes. Native American human remains are almost never on public display in any museum or park anymore.
But....sometimes the very liberal interpretation of this law makes it very difficult to conduct ANY archaeology on Native American sites. I have worked on an archaeological site where excavations came to a screeching halt and were never resumed because one human deciduous tooth was found.
I agree that all human remains should be treated with respect, but an over-zealous application of law also make it impossible to find out how ancient American people lived. I think that is a great loss to general human knowledge and a disservice to all people.

Posted by E. Williams October 26, 2010 at 12:07 PM

That reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon. This little Inuit, complete with parka and mukluks, is standing on a doorstep looking up at this patrician Boston Brahmin, who is wearing a tux and holding a martini glass.

The little guy says, "Hi, remember me? I'm Minik from the Arctic Circle. Remember when you stayed in my igloo and I let you sleep with my wife? You said if I was ever in Boston...."

As an anthro major, I always figured that was a tribute.

Ooh, were those in a public display area? Thanks very much for sharing that!

Well, this was certainly something totally different!... can't recall ever reading a blog post about death masks before (though I'm sure they exist). And coming from someone who's afraid of clowns (for some reason, a fascination with death masks and fear of clowns just seems incongruous; I don't know why :-)

Pretty fascinating interlude. I never thought of people having such different sized heads. It's a real treat to happen upon an exhibit or collection that you hadn't really considered before. Looking forward to Audubon report.

I love love love this series of posts! I live about an hour from Mill Grove, his house on the Schuylkill outside Philadelphia. That's where he started sticking wires into the birds he'd shot to pose them (stringing them up hadn't given him the effect he was after). They have his Passenger Pigeon study skin, which always makes me weep. The property is now an Audubon Center. It's always startling to get an email from John James Audubon.

Whoa, I agree - that Aaron Burr death mask is super-creepy! Just in time for Halloween...

I just watched a show on History Channel about death masks--I love 'em too!

It looks like Sherman had a stroke, too.Death masks must be a boon to historians in what they reveal about their subject's health.

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