The Death Mask – a gruesome artefact

After William Palmer was publicly executed at Stafford on June 14th 1856 a ‘death mask’ was made.

The above likeness has been digitally enhanced to provide a lifelike image of William Palmer based upon his death mask.

At the time of his hanging it was the custom to make a death mask after someone had been executed.

Palmer’s death mask can still be viewed today. It is now on show at Shugborough in the County Museum by kind permission of the Trustees of the William Salt Library.

Notice that he had had his head shaved prior to his execution. It is said that he did this because the prison authorities had taken his comb and brush off him. This would be as a precaution to stop him attempting to use them to commit suicide. He gave his hair to his relatives as a remembrance of him.

The mask was made by Mr. Bridges a phrenologist from Liverpool. A phrenologist is one who studies external bumps of the skull as an indication of supposed various intellectual and emotional faculties. He decided that the skull was, “a decidedly criminal one”.

Mystery: What happened to the full cast?

Picture kindly sent to us by Ross Turle Curatorial Assistant Winchester Museums Services in May 2002.
Picture kindly sent to us by Ross Turle Curatorial Assistant Winchester Museums Services in May 2002.

The first cast of William Palmer taken by William Bally Phrenologist of Manchester the 14th June 1856 StaffordIn George Fletcher’s book The Life & Career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley published in 1925, there appears a photograph of a full cast taken after W. M. Palmer’s execution. Efforts to find the whereabouts of the full cast rather than the half head, initially proved unsuccessful.

In May 2002 Christopher Copp, Museum Officer at Shugborough Museum received an e-mail from Ross Turle, Curatorial Assistant at Winchester Museums Service. With the e-mail was a picture of a death mask.

Ross informed us that this death mask is believed to have been in their collection since the late nineteenth century when it was given to them by Winchester Prison, along with 28 other masks. Inscribed on the plinth is the following:

“The first cast of William Palmer taken by William Bally, Phrenologist of Manchester, the 14th June 1856 Stafford”.

Unfortunately Winchester’s collection of masks is not currently on display to the public and it is not known how or why the mask arrived in Winchester Prison.