The Death Mask

Many in town knew her to be clairvoyant.

I didn’t believe it until now as I look down at the face that I pull from the plaster. I wonder now what we can sense and if I will recognize the moments before my own death.

I would suppose an explanation is warranted.

I arrived at the White House and was invited in by one of the servants. The Mrs. was out. The president had reluctantly accepted her proposal to have a mask made, and he sat still on the stool while I began draping the fabric around his broad shoulders, past his long legs, and onto the floor. He said nothing while I applied the oil to his face, and while the wet plaster set, he sat almost resigned to a moment of deathly peace; the plaster became a mask to keep out the horrors of this war. I couldn’t help but look at his hands; his hands were thin, gauntly appendages of a man who once wielded an ax on the frontier. I stared for fifteen long minutes while the president said nothing. I asked him to twitch, first his nose, then scrunch up his nose to his eyes, and finally slowly work his jaw. The mold fell off his face in six large pieces and were caught in the cloth. After it was all done, he looked at me and thanked me for the moments of rest and peace he had. I asked if he was well.

He replied: “I am very unwell.”

He rose, picked up his glasses, hat, and walking cane, and left the room.

That moment was two months ago. Now, the city is draped in black and the funeral train will depart for Chicago tomorrow. I hold what is now the last image of the president’s face and wonder if he knew as well.

————–

Trifecta Writing Prompt: Mask 3rd definition : a protective covering for the face: gas mask; : a device covering the mouth and nose to facilitate inhalation: a comparable device to prevent exhalation of infective material: a cosmetic preparation for the skin of the face that produces a tightening effect as it dries

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Death Masks of American Presidents

A common myth is that Abraham Lincoln’s “death” mask was made post-assassination, but it was created by Clark Mills in February 1865 two months before his assassination. It was the second of two masks created of the president–the first was done in 1861. Lincoln reluctantly had the second mask done, and it has always fascinated me that he would sit for it two months before his death… premonition or not?

Image

A sculpture mold of the Clark Mills life mask of Abraham Lincoln.

Other U.S. Presidents also had death/life masks made of them… here are a few others.

George Washington

President Washington's mask was also created prior to his death. Created by Jean-Antione Houdon 1785

President Washington’s mask was also created prior to his death. Created by Jean-Antione Houdon 1785

James Garfield

President Garfield was the 2nd president to be assassinated. He lingered on for 80 days after being shot which can be seen in his death mask–he had lost over 100 pounds between being shot and dying. (On a fun trivia aside, Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, chose his .44 British Bulldog because he thought it would look good in a museum).

garfielddeathmask

Woodrow Wilson

Wilson’s face and hand were cast by Dr. Vladimir Fortunato, a sculptor affiliated with Johns Hopkins Hospital, in 1924

woodrowwilsondeathmask

Zachary Taylor

questionmark

After Zachary Taylor’s sudden death in 1850, his wife ordered that his body not be embalmed nor would a death mask be made. This does little to put to rest the many conspiracy theories surrounding Taylor’s death, including those that argue he was assassinated.

William McKinley

Speaking of assassinations, here’s the third president to be assassinated.  McKinley’s mask was created by Edward Pausch of Hartford, Conn.

McKinley's Death Mask is unusual because it is of the entire head, not just the facial features

McKinley’s Death Mask is unusual because it is of the entire head, not just the facial features

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8 thoughts on “The Death Mask

  1. Lucky me as one of your readers — a history lesson (well appreciated) and a wonderfully done story. The details you included in described the mask-making process was great. Not only did describe the actual placing of the drapes, oil and the waiting, you also described the emotion of Lincoln and the mask-maker. In your fiction words, you eloquently captured a precious moment in history and made me feel as if I was there. Excellent:~)

    • Thank you so very much for your kind words! There are times that you don’t realize the power of words you say for the people that hear them. As a teacher, I love to tell stories in my classroom; stories like the ones about Lincoln’s life/”death” masks and using them to show the stresses of the Civil War on the president (compare the one made in 1861 to the Mills mask of 1865). I hope you enjoy my way of telling history! Bryan

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