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Death Masks

Death Masks - - Old Melbourne Gaol

Death Masks

These Death Masks are of prisoners who were executed in Old Melbourne Gaol. In the 1800s, the pioneers of Criminology believed that there were physical clues in the brain and skull that could help explain and aid in the understanding of criminal behavior. A death mask is an image, typically in wax or plaster cast made of a person’s face following death, often by taking a cast or impression directly from the corpse.

Proponents of phrenology used death masks and skulls to study criminal characteristics and dispositions. The brains, skulls, and death masks of hundreds of criminals were examined after death. The word Phrenology is derived from Ancient Greek words meaning “mind” and “knowledge.” Phrenology is a pseudomedicine primarily focused on the measurements of the human skull. It is now regarded as an obsolete amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy with moral philosophy. Phrenology was influential in 19th-century psychiatry and assumed that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific parts of the brain.

Today, criminology and psychiatry assess criminal behavior in terms of upbringing, social background, and the mental health of an individual, not by the physical characteristics of the head and skull.

Death Masks

  • Title:                Death Masks
  • Year:                1880s
  • Medium:         Caster Plaster
  • Dimensions:   Approx 28.0 x 22 x 19 cm
  • Museum:        Old Melbourne Gaol

Historical Figures who lost their Skulls

Several heads from dead celebrities have gone missing over the years. The motive may be an extreme version of celebrity collectibles or in the pursuit of studies in phrenology. Phrenology was the analysis of the character of the person according to the shape of their skull. Phrenology was a field which was very much in vogue in the first half of the 1800s. For whatever reason the following historical figures were discovered to have lost all or portions of their skulls:

  • Mozart (1756 – 1791), the influential Austrian composer of the classical era
  • Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), the Austrian composer of the classical period
  • Beethoven (1770[1] – 1827), the German composer and pianist
  • Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814), the French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and writer, famous for his libertine sexuality.
  • Goya (1746 – 1828), a Spanish painter and printmaker.

They all lost their heads during the height of the Phrenology period. The central phrenological notion was that by measuring the contours of the skull, one could predict personality. A German physician developed this theory in 1796, and the discipline was influential in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. Phrenology is today recognized as pseudoscience.


Criminology is the scientific study of criminal behavior, both on personal and social levels. Criminology is an interdisciplinary field in both the behavioral and social sciences.

Some of the early founders of the study of criminology, in the late 19th century, took a scientific approach, insisting on empirical evidence for studying crime. They suggested physiological traits such as the measurements of cheekbones or hairline, or a cleft palate could write down criminal tendencies. This approach, whose influence came via the theory of phrenology and by the theory of evolution, has been superseded. Criminologists have since rejected biological arguments.

Today the Criminologists’ consensus view of crime is that it is an act that violates the fundamental values and beliefs of society. Those values and beliefs are manifested as laws that society agrees upon.  There have also been moves in contemporary criminological theory to introduce the universal term “harm” into the criminological debate, as a replacement for the legal term “crime.”

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  • What generally agreed on theories or laws from today, will we find silly in one hundred years from now?


” All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”
– Sophocles


Photo Credits: 1) JOM