Collection Highlights: The Bond Death Masks

On February 4, 1921, Solon Bailey penned a letter in confirmation of the recent acquisition of two curious objects into the Harvard College Observatory collections. “My dear Mr. Bond,” he wrote, “the plaster casts of Professor William C. Bond and his father, William Bond, are received. The Observatory will care for these casts or dispose of them, as you requested in your letter.”[1] The recipient of the letter and the original donor, identified in the header as a third “William C. Bond” was likely the grandson of Professor Bond through his youngest son, Richard Fifield Bond, and the great-grandson of the elder namesake. The objects in question, coined “plaster casts” in Bailey’s letter, would’ve been more colloquially described as “death masks” or perhaps “life masks,” depending of course on the condition of the subject when they were made.

Life Mask of William Cranch Bond, c. 1859

The fashioning of death masks in funerary practice and public ceremony dates back to antiquity, though common usage began to shift in the Middle Ages as sculptors and painters adopted the same techniques to better enable posthumous portraiture. The practice flourished under the Victorians, moving beyond artistic methodology. Higher mortality rates across all age demographics afforded death unique cultural visibility throughout the nineteenth century. The contemporaneous Evangelical revival and the mid-century rise of Spiritualism, which introduced seances, table-rapping, and other postmortem methods of ghostly communication into the wider cultural lexicon, all contributed to the Romantic ideal of the “beautiful death.” Mourning jewelry made with human hair and after-death portraiture (later photography) witnessed a similar rise in popularity throughout the period. The moment of death mattered.[2] “What you are when you die,” as it was described, “the same you reappear in the great day of eternity. The features of character with which you leave the world will be seen in you when you rise from the dead.”[3] The hours leading up to death, a person’s final words and their parting expressions, were often subject to both private and public scrutiny.

Aside from the widespread popularity of the death mask as a memento mori, cranial castings were uniquely valued among scientists. Nineteenth-century adherents to phrenology commissioned and collected the plaster masks to promote their pseudoscientific methodologies. Phrenologists believed the shape of the skull was indicative of mental capabilities and character traits. The practice is now considered thoroughly debunked. It is less likely that either of the two Bond masks was phrenologically motivated, as neither casting includes a full bust or the obverse of the skull.

“William Cranch Bond (1789-1859)” by Cephas Giovanni Thompson, c. 1849. Harvard University Portrait Collection.

The Victorian “invention” of the life mask, meaning the casting of a living subject as opposed to the deceased, began as scientific practice relative to phrenological inquiry, but popular practice expanded its use beyond the confines of academia. It is often difficult to determine the status of the subject from the plaster mask, though the evidence of a nasal opening in the younger Bond’s casting suggests he may have been alive for the making of the mask. If so, the dating of the artifact could be earlier than the current attribution. In 1849, itinerant painter Cephas Thompson completed a portrait of William Cranch Bond, which is one possible impetus for the creation of a “life mask,” assuming then that Professor Bond was too busy to sit for long periods of time. There is not, however, any known documentation to support this theory. For comparison, the unknown maker inscribed the death date of the elder Bond at the base of the first mask before the plaster set, meaning it was almost certainly completed posthumously.

Once made, the death masks frequently changed hands as a macabre collectors’ market developed for the postmortem relics. There are five known originals of Isaac Newton’s death mask produced by a Flemish artist upon his death on March 31, 1727. French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac acquired one, which he used to make the famous statue of Newton installed in the Trinity College Chapel at the University of Cambridge. As it was later described, the piece is “the finest work of art in the College, as well as the most moving and significant. The lips parted and the eyes turned up in thought give life to marble.”[4] Thomas Jefferson acquired a second edition of the Newton mask, which his granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge donated to the Boston Athenaeum in 1837. Originals were rare and highly valuable, but secondary copies of Newton’s death mask were generally more accessible and frequently cited as an appropriate gift for those with serious scientific inclinations.[5] The grim keepsakes afforded the ephemerality of death, valued in parting words and final expressions, a kind of enduring celebrity. Contemporary museum collections include the death masks of notable figures ranging from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ludvig van Beethoven. Both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee were subject to the process, as was the poet John Keats, Lakota leader Sitting Bull, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Death Mask of William Bond, c. 1844

Today, the relative ubiquity of the practice is not readily evident. Aside from the more noteworthy subjects, museum accessioned masks are most frequently housed off-display in back storerooms, inconspicuously preserved as odd remnants of an earlier era.[6] The history of the two Bond masks after their arrival at the Harvard College Observatory is not well-documented. The passivity of Solon Bailey’s 1921 agreement to “care for these casts or dispose of them” suggests the two masks entered HCO’s collections with little fanfare and were perhaps promptly overlooked if not outright forgotten. It was a period of transition in the history of the observatory. Bailey was acting Director, after the recent death of Edward Pickering, and Harlow Shapley begin his tenure soon thereafter. The Bond masks resurfaced more than seventy years later in 1993 when they were discovered by happenstance in a nearby storage shed during a routine cleaning. The artifacts then moved to the HCO Business Office where they were kept in a closet for safekeeping. Soon thereafter, in the interest of housing the plaster casts in acclimatized storage, the Wolbach Library formally accessioned the two death masks into its noncirculating collections.


[1] William Bond & Son records and Bond family papers, 1724-1931 (inclusive), 1769-1923 (bulk). Harvard College Observatory records. Correspondence and printed documents, 1921. hsi00001 Box 5, folder 2, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.

[2] Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead still Among us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture 39, no. 1 (2011): 127–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41307854.

[3] Quoted in: Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).

[4] “Statues in the Ante-Chapel.” Trinity College Chapel – Statues. http://trinitycollegechapel.com/about/memorials/statues/.

[5] Cohen, I. Bernard. Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995).

[6] Pointon, Marcia. “Casts, Imprints, and the Deathliness of Things: Artifacts at the Edge.” The Art Bulletin 96, no. 2 (2014): 170–95. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43188871.