7 Famous Death Masks That Had Lives of Their Own

Plaster casts of dead people's faces were popular for centuries as a means of preserving a beloved or revered individual's features for posterity, before putrefaction rendered them unrecognizable. Some masks went on to have rich lives of their own, either widely reproduced and sold, used to make realistic (and surrealist) posthumous portraits, employed in scientific research, or even transformed into life-saving devices.

1. KING HENRY IV OF FRANCE, DIED 1610

Most death masks are cast as soon as possible, before decay distorts features and makes applying plaster a slippery proposition. Henry IV, on the other hand, had been dead for nearly 200 years when his mask was made.

It was July of 1793 when the National Convention, in anticipation of the first anniversary of the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of the first French Republic, decreed that all the royal tombs be destroyed. The Basilica of Saint-Denis was the prime target; the church was known as the royal necropolis because almost every king of France from Clovis I (465-511) to Louis XV had either been buried there or had his remains reinterred there.

When the tombs were opened, the most ancient remains were ash and bone fragments. Most of the Bourbons, except for the most recent, were putrefied and emitted noxious vapors, a condition that the Revolutionaries saw as the bodily manifestation of the corruption and sin of the Ancien Régime. The body of Henry IV, the first Bourbon king of France, on the other hand, was exceptionally well-preserved. Unlike his successors, he had been embalmed "in the style of the Italians" (i.e. with minimal cutting and no removal of the brain) by his personal physician Pierre Pigray. His head was intact, his features pristine down to the eyelashes, his beard and mustache still soft.

To record this remarkable survival, on October 12, 1793, a plaster cast was made of Henry IV's face. His body was propped up in the choir for people to marvel at for a week, and then it was dismembered, tossed in a mass grave with all the other kings and queens of France, covered with quicklime, and buried until the restored Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII had the paucity of remains exhumed from the trench and reburied in Saint-Denis in 1817.

Henry's miraculous head, though, may have survived. In 2010 a mummified head from a private collection, long reputed to be that of Henry IV, was found to match his features. That was later contested when his y-DNA did not match that of living Bourbon descendants. However, this could also be explained by secret illegitimacy in the Bourbon line over the past 400 years. The death mask may prove pivotal in resolving the controversy: If the head maps to the mask, it will be solid evidence that the head of one of France's greatest kings survived the lime pit.

2. OLIVER CROMWELL, DIED 1658

When Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, died on September 3, 1658, the trappings of monarchy that he had rejected in life were showered upon him in death. He was given nothing short of a royal funeral, and Thomas Simon, medalist and chief engraver of the Tower Mint, was engaged to take his likeness. Simon used the mold to make a lifelike wax replica of the Lord Protector's face to top a wooden effigy. The effigy was dressed in velvet, gold, and ermine, accessorized with the royal regalia—crown, orb, and scepter—and lain in state in the public hall of Somerset House for two months. At the end of November, he was buried with full honors in Westminster Abbey.

Six plaster casts were made from Thomas Simon's original wax death mask, and copies continued to be made for centuries. Most of the later ones were "Photoshopped" the old-fashioned way: Cromwell's lumps and bumps were minimized or disappeared. That's not something Cromwell would have appreciated. According to a third-hand story relayed in Horace Walpole's 1764 Anecdotes of Painting in England, Cromwell's unflinching self-appraisal was the inspiration for the idiom "warts and all," derived from a conversation he had with artist Peter Lely when sitting for a portrait.

"Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me. Otherwise, I never will pay a farthing for it."

Today the presence of Cromwell's prominent bumps under his bottom lip and over his right eye are evidence for the age of one of his death masks. The more warts, the earlier the copy. (Cromwell's head, meanwhile, had a whole other strange journey.)

3. PETER THE GREAT, DIED 1725

After Peter the Great of Russia died on February 8, 1725, his wife and successor Empress Catherine I ordered court sculptor Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli to make a death mask and molds of his hands and feet. Rastrelli carefully measured the late emperor's body so that he could create a wood and wax effigy that would be accurate in every detail. The effigy was dressed in Peter's own clothes, picked out and placed on the figure by Catherine and her ladies.

That wax and wood effigy complete with original clothing somehow survived the Bolshevik Revolution and is still at the Hermitage Museum today, the crazy wide-open eyes warning all that Waxen Peter, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts, is here for your soul. A far less unsettling bronze death mask cast from Rastrelli's original shortly after Peter's death is also at the Hermitage.

4. JEAN-PAUL MARAT, DIED 1793

Jean-Paul Marat, doctor, journalist, and radical firebrand of the French Revolution, was plagued with a chronic skin disease so severe that by the end of his life he spent most of his time in a bath, warm towels draped over his painful scabs and lesions. That's where he was when Charlotte Corday gained entry on the pretext of having information about Jacobin enemies. On July 13, 1793, Corday stabbed Marat in the chest, killing him almost instantly.

As the authorities were well-versed in violent death at this point, they called on Marie Tussaud, formerly an artist specializing in wax portraits of the aristocratic and famous, to cast a mask of Marat's face. Marie described the event in her memoirs:

"[T]wo gens d'armes came for me to go to the house of Marat, just after he had been killed by Charlotte Corday, for the purpose of taking a cast of his face. He was still warm, and his bleeding body and the cadaverous aspect of his almost diabolical features presented a picture replete with horror, and I performed my task under the most painful sensations."

She would take the wax figure made from the cast with her to London in 1802, where it was exhibited in her traveling shows along with other stars of the French Revolution whose death masks she had cast, including King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre. When she created a permanent museum in London in 1835, Marat's figure went on display in the famed Chamber of Horrors, while the heads of other despised revolutionaries whose death masks she claimed to have cast (Robespierre, Hébert, Fouquier-Tinville) were in a room with the heads of her beloved Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. According to Marie, Marat's ugly mug was special because, as she said in her memoirs, he was "the most ferocious monster that the revolution produced."

5. NAPOLEON BONAPARTE, DIED 1821

The circumstances behind the casting of Napoleon Bonaparte's death mask are murky, to put it mildly. The former emperor died on the remote island of St. Helena on May 5, 1821, with French and English doctors attending him. At first the making of a death mask seemed an impossible task—plaster was hard to come by on St. Helena—but on May 7 a mold was cast by English surgeon Francis Burton and/or Napoleon's Corsican doctor Francesco Antommarchi. It did not go smoothly. The mold was taken in at least two sections: the face, and the back of the head, ears, and pate.

Napoleon's attendant Madame Bertrand made off with the face cast, leaving Burton with the back mold, which was less than useful without a face to go with it. He sued her to no avail. She returned to France and started making copies, one of which she gave to Antommarchi. Then he started making copies, and he traveled a lot, so pretty soon there were copies of Napoleon's earless face from New Orleans to London. They sold like hotcakes.

By the 20th century, the image of Napoleon's placid face had become iconic, so much so that surrealist René Magritte painted it sky-blue with fluffy cumulus clouds to symbolize The Future of Statues. Meanwhile, nobody really knows which casts are the closest to the original. Museums are lousy with Napoleon face masks, each claiming to be the earliest. A privately-owned one came up at auction three years ago and sold for $240,000, despite a somewhat dubious backstory.

6. AARON BURR, DIED 1836

Brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler and Orson Squire Fowler were phrenologists, founders of the American Phrenological Journal, and largely responsible for popularizing phrenology in mid-19th century America. In 1836, when they were just starting out, Lorenzo opened offices in New York, where he performed readings on clients, trained students, and wrote extensively on how people's head measurements and bumps reflected their characters.

Lorenzo Fowler had a particular interest in collecting phrenological busts, which captured in plaster the entire heads of their subjects, and it seems he wasn't entirely scrupulous in how he went about securing casts—Aaron Burr's being a case in point. On September 15, 1836, the day after Aaron Burr died, an associate of Lorenzo Fowler's cast Burr's death mask. He did it phrenology style: covering the whole head and neck in plaster for optimal bump analysis. According to an 1895 article in the New York Times, Fowler had his man stake Burr out in the days before his death:

A mysterious stranger haunted the house for many days and nights before the death of Burr. He never was admitted to the recluse, but always made interested inquiries concerning his health, and he was supposed to be either a relative or an interested friend of the statesman, although he was neither. The man was faithful to the determination, and almost immediately after Aaron Burr's death put in an appearance and, without saying, "By your leave," opened his satchel and proceeded, as if he had a right to do so, to take a plaster cast of the dead man.

Burr's questionably acquired skull cast was soon installed in the Phrenological Cabinet, a museum and publishing house in New York colloquially nicknamed "Golgotha," which over the years grew into an enormous collection of casts made from the skulls of notorious murderers and other assorted cautionary tales, as well as famous celebrities with ideal skull topography. By the early 1850s, it was advertised as "containing busts and casts from the heads of the most distinguished men that ever lived," Aaron Burr among them.

7. WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN, DIED 1891

William Tecumseh Sherman, General of the Army, scourge of Georgia and the Carolinas, whose scorched earth campaign through the Deep South crippled the Confederacy's war-making ability, died in New York City on Valentine's Day, 1891. Two days later, famed Beaux Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens arrived at Sherman's home to oversee the casting of the death mask. Saint-Gaudens knew Sherman's features well, having modeled a bust of the general in 1888 that took 18 sittings to complete. He brought with him sculptor Daniel Chester French, who three decades later would design the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, and it was French who made Sherman's actual death mask from the plaster cast.

A year after Sherman's death, Augustus Saint-Gaudens began work on the Sherman Monument, a gilded bronze equestrian statue group of the general being led by Victory, which still stands in Manhattan's Grand Army Plaza. He used the hard-won 1888 bust as a reference.

BONUS: L'INCONNUE DE LA SEINE, LATE 19TH CENTURY

Every other death mask in this list was cast from a famous person whose name and face have gone down in history. But L'Inconnue de la Seine (the Unknown of the Seine) doesn't even have a name. It's her face alone that has gone down in history. The story goes that an unknown young woman, purportedly a suicide by drowning, was fished out of the Seine in the late 19th century. Her body was laid out in the viewing room of the Paris Morgue in the hopes she might be identified. (Visiting the morgue to gawk at dead people had been a popular pastime for Parisians since the morgue opened in 1804.)

A pathologist at the morgue was reportedly so taken with her placid beauty and Mona Lisa-like smile that he made a cast of her face, and soon copies of the cast were being sold in stores and gracing the living rooms of bohemians and bourgeois alike. She has inspired writers from Camus to Nabokov, often seen as an ideal beauty, a muse.

The only problem is there's a good chance the story of L'Inconnue is apocryphal. Her smile requires the kind of muscular control seen in life masks, not in death masks, and the features of drowning victims are usually bloated and distorted. The placid visage of a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia is a fantasy. The reality of drowned bodies sitting in a morgue for three days is very different.

Yet, dead or alive, tragic drowned girl or really excellent model, her mask had the most profound impact of them all. L'Inconnue's popularity inspired Norwegian toy manufacturer Asmund Laerdal to use her face as the model for Resusci Anne, the CPR training manikin that hundreds of millions of people have kissed to learn how to save lives.

15 Totally Tubular '80s Slang Terms

luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus
luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The '80s were a time when everything was bigger and brighter: Hair was high; fashion was loud; even the slang was outrageous … or should we say, bodacious? Here are a few ‘80s slang terms—which were popular in the era, even if they weren’t created during the decade—that you should start working back into conversations. Throw on some leg warmers, grab your favorite scrunchie, and let’s motor!

1. Bodacious

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this word—a blend of bold and audacious meaning “excellent, wonderful, very enjoyable”—was coined in the 19th century but found new life in the 1970s thanks to CB radio, where it was used to reference a strong incoming signal. In 1989, it was featured heavily in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; you can see a short clip of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter discussing the word here.

2. Hella

According to Green’s, this adverb can mean either “a lot of” or “very, extremely, really,” and it’s an abbreviation of helluva, as in, “he had one helluva headache.”

3. Gnarly

It’s probably not a surprise that gnarly comes from gnarled. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated in the 1970s as a surfing term meaning “dangerous, challenging,” perhaps in reference to rough seas. Green’s notes that gnarly can be a term of disapproval, meaning “bizarre, frightening, amazing,” or, conversely, it can be used to describe something that is “wonderful, first-rate.” It was popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

4. Duh

This word, also frequently used in the phrase “no duh,” is, according to Green’s, a “grunt of incomprehension ... often used as a rejoinder, implying that the first speaker is stupid.” The OED’s first citation is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon: “Duh ... Well, he can't outsmart me, 'cause I'm a moron.” In 1964, The New York Times Magazine noted that the word “is the standard retort used when someone makes a conversational contribution bordering on the banal. For example, the first child says, ‘The Russians were first in space.’ Unimpressed, the second child replies (or rather grunts), ‘Duh.'"

5. Tubular

Tubular, from the Latin tubulus and the French tubulair, began its life in the 1680s as a word meaning “having the form of a tube or pipe; constituting or consisting of a tube; cylindrical, hollow, and open at one or both ends; tube-shaped.” But in the '80s, it took on a new meaning entirely—this one related to waves. According to the OED, surfers in the U.S. used it to refer to “a cresting wave: hollow and curved, so that it is well-formed for riding on,” and soon, it came to mean “the ultimate in perfection,” according to Green’s. The word (as well as many others on this list) was featured in Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl”: “It’s so AWESOME / It’s like TUBULAR, y’know.”

6. Eat My Shorts

That’s shorts as in underwear. This phrase dates back to the early 1970s (Green’s cites a 1975 issue of the Harvard Crimson: “They chant cheers as [...] unrefined as ‘A quart is two pints, a gallon is four quarts; Harvard men will eat Yale’s shorts’”) but you might remember it from John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Later, it would be used liberally by Bart on The Simpsons.

7. Gag Me With A Spoon

This expression of disgust, dating back to 1982, apparently had other forms as well: Gag me with a blowdryer, a snow shovel, a phone book (remember those?!).

8. Radical

This adjective, meaning “extreme; outrageous; good,” originated in the late 1960s. Radical is another term borrowed from surfer slang, according to the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, after which it “migrated into the argot of the San Fernando Valley”—a.k.a. Valley Girls—“and then into mainstream U.S. youth slang.” In 1988, it even appeared in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Green’s pinpoints the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze” of the 1990s for bringing radical to the masses. Rad, a shortened version of the word, was also a popular way to describe something you really loved (as well as the title of a 1986 BMX movie starring Lori Loughlin and Talia Shire).

9. Take a Chill Pill

When you tell someone to take a chill pill, you’re telling them to relax. According to Green’s, the phrase originated on college campuses in the early '80s.

10. Wastoid

According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, someone who is a wastoid is “a worthless, dim-witted person; a person whose drug and alcohol abuse is ruining their life.” The term was coined by John Hughes, who used it in The Breakfast Club: Listen for when Andrew tells Bender, “Yo wastoid, you’re not going to blaze up in here.”

11. Ralph

Apparently, in the ‘80s, instead of just ralphing—i.e., vomiting, because supposedly that’s what the act of retching sounds like—college kids would call for Ralph, according to Green’s. The verb ralph dates back to the 1960s, and you can once again find it in The Breakfast Club: “Your middle name is Ralph, as in puke.”

12. Bod

Bod dates all the way back to the ‘80s—the 1780s, according to the OED. A clipped form of body, it also refers more generally to a person, and may be a shortened form of bodach, a Scottish word for a specter. On college campuses in the 1960s, it came to mean “a physically attractive person of the opposite sex.” And when a girl asks Ferris “How’s your bod?” in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, what she’s actually asking is: How are you feeling?

13. Grody

Initially written in the mid-1960s as “groaty,” this term basically describes something that is slovenly, dirty, or super gross. If something is truly terrible, you might describe it as grody to the max. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1982, “Grody is used to describe a disgusting object. Moon Zappa calls her toenails ‘Grody to the max,' which means disgusting beyond belief.”

14. Motor

A verb meaning “to move quickly, to leave.” Curious about how to use it in a sentence? Look no further than this quote from the 1988 movie Heathers: “Great paté, but I gotta motor if I want to be ready for that party tonight.”

15. Veg

To veg or veg out, according to the OED, is to “To disengage mentally; to do nothing as a way of relaxing, to pass the time in (mindless) inactivity, esp. by watching television.” The OED dates the term, an abbreviation of the word vegetate, to a Toronto Globe and Mail article from 1979 that declared, “There's not the same flavor there used to be to traveling ... People just go to veg out, not to find out.” The past tense of the word can be found in The Totally True Diaries of an Eighties Roller Queen, which featured real diary entries from between 1983 and 1988: “Today I went to Tracey’s to pick up my guitar and stuff [...] I then went home and vegged out.”

15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0
Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

In 1665, about a quarter of all Londoners died of the Great Plague—but bubonic plague was not the only deadly disease circulating in the city. A published register, called London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality, recorded the causes of death and the number of victims in London between December 20, 1664 and December 19, 1665. The systematic, parish-by-parish tally reveals the rapid spread of plague throughout the capital: a total of one victim, recorded in the first week, increased to 7165 during the week of September 12-19, 1665.

But quite a few Londoners met their fates in other ways. Here’s a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill those that Yersinia pestis couldn’t catch.

1. Winde

Winde is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, winde referred to paroxysms of severe gastrointestinal pain, which could have been symptoms of numerous diseases.

2. Purples

Purples described purple blotches on the skin caused by broken blood vessels, indicative of an underlying illness, such as scurvy or a circulation disorder. It could also mean the most severe stage of smallpox.

3. Livergrown

People who died of livergrown suffered from an enlarged (or failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms, like jaundice and abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by a number of disorders.

4. Chrisomes

Infant mortality was extremely high before the advent of modern medicine. The Bills distinguished abortive (miscarried), stillborn, infant, and chrisom deaths—the latter term specified infants who died within the first month of life, around the time they were baptized with special white cloths (which were called chrisomes).

5. Rising of the Lights

18th century illustration of lungs and heart
Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, The Lungs and the Heart (1754), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

Physicians and scholars have debated the origin of the term rising of the lights. According to the OED, the condition indicated any kind of illness characterized by a hoarse cough, difficulty breathing, or a choking sensation. Croup, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema were all culprits.

6. Timpany

The condition of having serious swelling or bloating in the digestive tract, which produces a hollow sound when tapped, is still called tympany today. The sort that would have proven fatal to humans could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or cancerous tumors.

7. Tissick

The term tissick, a corruption of phthisis, originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years, only to end up an obsolete word referring to a “wasting disease of the lungs,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the 17th century, that could indicate the wheezing and coughing associated with asthma, bronchitis, or possibly tuberculosis.

8. Meagrome or Megrim

We recognize this obscurely spelled ailment as migraine. During the years of the Great Plague, any internal head trauma, from an aneurysm to a brain tumor, would be filed under megrim.

9. Imposthume

Imposthume was a swelling, cyst, or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. At the same time that it was being recorded as a cause of death, imposthume took on a metaphorical meaning and referred to an egotistical or corrupt person “swollen” with pride.

10. Head Mould Shot

In newborns, the bony plates of the skull are not fused together, which makes it easier to fit through the birth canal. Head mould shot described a condition where the cranial bones were so compressed by delivery that they overlapped (or overshot) each other and caused fatal pressure on the brain. Today, the condition, now known as craniosynostosis, is treatable with surgery.

11. Quinsie

18th century illustration of a woman getting her throat examined in a pharmacy

Quinsie, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still occasionally used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis in which an abscess grows between the tonsil and the throat. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient could suffocate from the blockage.

12. Surfeit

A surfeit means an excess of something. In the Bills of Mortality, it’s hard to identify the substance in question. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities.

13. French Pox

When people across Europe came down with syphilis beginning in the 1490s, they blamed the French. (Perhaps they should have blamed Christopher Columbus and the Spanish, whom historians believe brought the bacterial infection back from the New World.) Rightly or wrongly, French pox is what the Bills of Mortality lists for deaths by advanced syphilis, whose symptoms included rash, blindness, organ failure, and tissue necrosis.

14. Bloody Flux

Dysentery, a.k.a. bloody flux, was common among densely crowded Londoners without clean drinking water. People contracted dysentery from food or water contaminated with one of several pathogens, and its main symptom was bloody diarrhea (the aforementioned flux) and severe dehydration.

15. Plannet

Plannet is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity. A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurysms, strokes, and heart attacks.

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