The Death Masks of Great Authors: Dante, Goethe, Tolstoy, Joyce & More

joyce death mask

Charles Gui­teau, the man who assas­si­nat­ed James Garfield, tried to argue in court that he just shot the pres­i­dent — the doc­tors actu­al­ly killed him. Though Gui­teau was ulti­mate­ly hanged for his crime in 1882, he did have a point. Garfield’s doc­tor, William Bliss, jammed his unster­il­ized fin­gers in the pres­i­den­tial wound in an attempt to pull out the bul­let. So did a host of oth­er spe­cial­ists. Pres­i­dent Garfield died 80 days lat­er of, among oth­er things, sep­sis. It was lat­er con­clud­ed that the pres­i­dent would have like­ly sur­vived if the doc­tors had kept their hands to them­selves.

goethe deathmask

Garfield’s death was one of the cat­a­lysts that helped pop­u­lar­ize Joseph Lister’s ideas about bac­te­ria, a con­cept that vast­ly improved the qual­i­ty of med­ical care. A hun­dred years lat­er, for exam­ple, Ronald Rea­gan suf­fered from almost an iden­ti­cal bul­let wound and was back to work with­in weeks.

tolstoy death mask

In the 19th cen­tu­ry and cen­turies before, dis­eases weren’t well under­stood and death was mys­te­ri­ous and divine. In the evan­gel­i­cal revivals of the mid-19th cen­tu­ry, the end of life was seen as some­thing to embrace. After all, God was call­ing his believ­ers back home. Then with a grow­ing under­stand­ing of germs, that sense of won­der with our mor­tal­i­ty changed. “God hadn’t called the indi­vid­ual to him,” writes Deb­o­rah Lutz, schol­ar of Vic­to­ri­an cul­ture, in The New York Times this week. “Rather, a mal­a­dy had over­tak­en the body. Rather than dying at home, the sick were cart­ed off to hos­pi­tals.” Death, in oth­er words, became divorced from every­day life.

coleridge death mask

So from our 21st cen­tu­ry view­point, the Vic­to­ri­ans’ (and their pre­de­ces­sors’) ten­den­cy to col­lect memen­tos of the dead, like death masks, might seem grue­some. But from their point of view, our pan­icked denial of death would prob­a­bly seem fool­ish and per­verse. Mor­tal­i­ty, after all, is a fact of life.

dante death mask

Prince­ton University’s Lau­rence Hut­ton Col­lec­tion has dozens of death masks of famous politi­cians, philoso­phers and authors. Peo­ple like Isaac New­ton, Abra­ham Lin­coln and Leo Tol­stoy. There’s some­thing hum­bling about see­ing these titans of West­ern cul­ture cap­tured at such an inti­mate moment. Stripped of all the mark­ers of class and rank, they look like peo­ple you might see on the street.

wordsworth death mask

Aside from a rather uncon­vinc­ing effi­gy of Queen Eliz­a­beth, the col­lec­tion fea­tures few masks of great women. No Jane Austens or Emi­ly Dick­in­sons here. The col­lec­tion also, sad­ly, lacks a mask of James Garfield.

Above you can find death masks of lit­er­ary fig­ures from the 14th to ear­ly 20th cen­turies. From top to bot­tom, you will see James Joyce, Goethe, Leo Tol­stoy, Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, Dante and William Wordsworth.

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  

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