Death Masks of the Famous and Infamous

Death masks are plastic or wax casts that are molded from someone’s face after they have just died. While they are designed to be mementos of the dead, now, death masks give us incredible insight into the past and the ability to see what some of history’s most famous figures actually looked like.

There have been death masks made of many different individuals, some whom history has labeled as heroes and others who have been considered evil. From Ludwig Van Beethoven to Heinrich Himmler of the Nazi Party, here’s a list of some of the most famous death masks, and the stories behind them.

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)


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Robert E. Lee was commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Lee was in command from 1862 until his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. He was the son of the Revolutionary War Officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III and was a top graduate of the United States Military Academy who was known to be an exceptional officer and military engineer for over 32 years. He died in 1870 at the age of 73 are catching pneumonia following a stroke. Even more than 150 years after his death, he is still romanticized as a leader of the white supremacy movement in the South.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)


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Marin Luther was a German professor of Theology, composer, priest, and a monk. However, he is most well-known for the role he played as the starter of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, he wrote his Ninety-five Thesis which he nailed to the door of a church. His thesis discussed his many issues with the Catholic Church such as the practice of indulgences where people could buy their way into heaven with actual money. Those who followed his teachings came to be known as Lutherans, and many of the beliefs and structures that Luther taught and established are still evident today. He died in 1546 at the age of 62 due to a stroke after years of ill-health.

Erwin Rommel (1891-1944)


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Erwin Rommel was a German general and military theorist that served as a field marshal in the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany during World War II. In World War I, he was a decorated officer and published a book called Infantry Tactics. His leadership of the German and Italian forces in the North African campaign established him as one of the greatest tank commanders of the war, and earned him the nickname “The Desert Fox.” In 1944, Rommel was discovered to be implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Because he was a national hero, Hitler gave him the chance to avoid humiliation and allowed him to commit suicide with a cyanide pill. Rommel obliged and died at the age of 52.

Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)


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Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. He was well-known for his leadership skills, understanding, mastery of strategy, and unconventional tactics which helped him to win a series of naval victories during the Napoleonic Wars.Throughout his military career, he was wounded several times in battle and even went blind in one of his eyes and lost almost an entire arm attempting to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife. In 1805, at the age of 47, he was shot and killed during his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar which established him as one of Britains greatest war heroes.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)


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Benjamin Franklin was one of the original Founding Fathers of the United States, as well as a polymath, writer, printer, political theorist, politician, Freemason, inventor, humanist, scientist, and the list goes on and on. He was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and earned the title of “The First American” for his campaigning for colonial unity as an author and spokesperson in London for several colonies. In addition, he was the first United States Ambassador to France, so he was the embodiment of American ideals. Throughout his life, Franklin suffered from obesity in which he developed gout which worsened with age. In 1790, at the age of 84, he died from a pleuritic attack and had over 200,000 people at his funeral.

James Dean (1931-1955)


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James Dean was an American actor and teenage heartthrob. He is most remembered as a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and rebellion, as featured in his most well-known film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Unfortunately, Dean died prematurely in a car crash in 1955 at the age of 24. After his death, he became the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and still remains as the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations. In 1999, the America Film Institute ranked him 18th best male movie star on Golden Age Hollywood in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)


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Napoleon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader that rose to power during the French Revolution and led many successful campaigns during the French Revolution battles. Napoleon was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1814 and again in 1815. He is referred to as one of the greatest commanders of all time, yet he is now seen as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history. In 1821 he died from what was believed to be gastric cancer at the age of 51. However, there are four Napoleon death masks in circulation leaving the authenticity of each one into question after the original was stolen by a woman named Madame Bertrand shortly after his death.

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)


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Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. He was a member of the democratic party, served as the President of Princeton University and was also elected as the Governor of New Jersey. He was the President during World War I and was a major leader in the Paris Peace Conference where he proposed the idea for the League of Nations. In his later years, Wilson still made public appearances and focused on his writing up until his death in 1924 when he died for a stroke and other heart-related problems at the age of 67.

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885)


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Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the United States Army during the American Civil War and was the Commanding General by the end of it. As Commanding General, he worked closely with Abraham Lincoln and lead the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy. He was also elected the 18th President of the United States in 1868 and served two terms from 1860 to 1877. His presidency has been criticized for its scandals and for his failure to help make things right regarding the economic depression following the Panic of 1873. However, today, he is regarded as a good president who had an incredibly hard job to do following the Civil War. He died in 1885 at the age of 63 due to throat cancer.

John Dillinger (1903-1934)


John Dillinger was an American gangster in the Great Depression-era United States. He was accused of robbing 24 banks and four police stations, among other activities, and escaped from jail twice. In 1934, he was shot and killed by Federal agents outside of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago and his killing was ruled by justifiable homicide. However, there is some controversy concerning his death mask. Although it seems clear that the mask is his, there are conspiracies that the man identified as Dillinger was really him because he may have had plastic surgeries in order to not be recognized by the police.

Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945)


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Heinrich Himmler was a leading member of the Nazi Party during World War II. He was one of the most powerful men in Germany and was directly responsible for the Holocaust. In May 1945 Himmler committed suicide by ingesting a cyanide tablet in order to avoid a war crime conviction. Originally, there were two death masks made of him. One showed a contorted face and the other one was relaxed. The twisted mask eventually disappeared and the second is in the Imperial War Museum in London. His body was also buried in an unmarked grave, so people have questions as to what happened to the first mask even though the current one on display is believed to be real.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786)


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Frederick the Great was the King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, the longest reign of any Hohenzollern king. Among numerous military victories, he is known for his reorganization on the Prussian armies, his patronage for the arts and the Enlightenment in Prussia, and his success in the Seven Years War. He became known as Frederick the Great after declaring himself King of Prussia and greatly expanding Prussia’s territories as well as helping it become a leading military power in Europe. He was also nicknamed “Old Fritz” as a term of endearment by the Prussian and German people who adored him. He died in 1786 at the age of 74 due to unspecified reasons.

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)


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Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. He was a key musician to help in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art and music. Today, he is still considered to be one of the most famous and influential composers of all time. Throughout his career, his hearing began to deteriorate starting in his late 20s. By the last decade of his life, he was almost completely deaf. However, many of his most recognized works are said to come from the last 15 years of his life. In 1872, Beethoven died after being bedridden for months. An autopsy revealed significant liver damage possibly due to heavy alcohol consumption although there are other theories surrounding his death.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)


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Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. Aside from just his presidency, he was also a statesman, author, explorer, soldier, and naturalist. He became a major player in the Progressive Era during the early 20th Century. He was the person behind the Square Deal which was responsible for promising the average citizen fairness, breaking of trusts, regulations of railroads, clean food, and drugs as well as a great emphasis on conservation in which he established many new national parks. In 1919 Roosevelt suffered from breathing problems and died in his sleep after a blood clot had detached from his vein and traveled into his lung.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)


Dante Alighieri was a well-known Italian poet during the Middle Ages. Known as “the Father of the Italian Language,” his most recognized work is the Divine Comedy which is considered to be the best work of the Middle Ages as well as the greatest literary work of the Italian language. His work helped to inspire much of Western art, especially in regards to depictions of heaven and hell. However, after his death in 1321, for centuries, it was assumed that Dante’s face mask was real until it was discovered that the mask was made 162 years after Dante had died. So, although it isn’t the real face of Dante, it is a close depiction of his likeness.

Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794)


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Maximilien Robespierre was a French lawyer and politician, as well as one of the best-known and most influential people associated with the French revolution and more specifically the Reign of Terror. He was an advocate for the poor and for democratic institutions and campaigned for universal male suffrage, the abolishment of slavery, price controls and more. He was against the death penalty but helped in the execution of King Louis XVI. During the Reign of Terror, in 1794 he was executed by the guillotine and a mask was made of his face. However, Robespierre’s jaw was shattered the day before his execution in a possible suicide attempt which isn’t entirely visible in the mask leaving its authenticity up for debate.

Friederich Nietzche (1844-1900)


Friedrich Nietzche was a German philosopher, cultural critic, poet, scholar, philologist and more. His life and his work had a great impact on Western philosophy and modern intellectual history. He was the youngest ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel at the age of 24. He resigned in 1879 due to health complications that he would suffer from for most of his life. Then, in 1889, at the age of 44, he suffered a mental breakdown and a complete loss of his mental faculties. He was cared for by his mother up until her death in 1897, and then by his sister Elizabeth until he died in 1900.

James Joyce (1882-1941)


James Joyce was an Irish novelist, short-story writer, and a poet. He is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th Century and is best-known for his novel Ulysses. His other his well-known works include Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake. Aside from his novels, he also wrote books of poetry, a play, and also did some journalism. In January 1941, Joyce underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer and fell into a coma the following day. He died the day after before his wife and son could make it in order to see him still alive.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)


Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer that has gone on to be acclaimed as one of the best writers of all time. Although he wrote numerous books, his best-known works are the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina which are described as being realist fiction. He first received recognition as a writer in his twenties with a semi-fictional trilogy about his experiences in the Crimean War. He also has many short stories as well as novellas that he is known for. Tolstoy’s work impacted figures in the 20th Century such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Bevel. In 1910, at the age of 82, Leo Tolstoy died from pneumonia at Astapovo train station.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)


Issac Newton was an English mathematician, astronomer, theologian, and physicist. He is known as one of the most influential scientists of all time and was a major academic during the scientific revolution. His book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy helped to lay the groundwork for classical mechanics and he is credited with helping to develop calculus. He is also known for his study of the law of motion, universal gravitation, and a sophisticated theory of color.He was knighted in 1705 by Queen Anne and spent the last three decades of his life in London as the President of the Royal Society. He passed away in March 1727 at the age of 85.