The President James A. Garfield Death Mask

On display in the James A. Garfield National Historic Site visitor center is the bronze death mask and hand of President James A. Garfield. The mask weighs 7 1/2 pounds, and the hand 2 1/2 lbs.

It was common practice into the 20th century for a plaster facial impression to be made moments after the death of a famous person. Sometimes the hand was cast as well. The purpose was to capture the last image of the person to use in later portraits or statues. After President Garfield died on September 19, 1881, the family asked the famous sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to make a death mask of President Garfield. 

This death mask of Presdient Garfield was sculpted by renowned sculptor Augusts St. Gaudens after the President's death on Sept. 19, 1881.  The President's face appears gaunt; he had lost about 100 pounds between being shot on July 2 and his death.  This death mask can be viewed in the visitor center museum at James A. Garfield National Historic Site.  (Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart)

This death mask of President Garfield was made by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens after the President’s death on Sept. 19, 1881. The President’s face appears gaunt; he had lost nearly 100 pounds between being shot on July 2 and his death 80 days later. This death mask can be viewed in the visitor center museum at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart)

To create the mold, Saint-Gaudens would first have covered the deceased President’s face with lard and then painted several layers of plaster over it. When the plaster dried, the sculptor would have removed the plaster impression and taken it to his studio and used it to create a mold, which would later be used to create another mold that would be cast in bronze. The family had the last mold destroyed so that no other copies could be made.

Saint-Gaudens was an Irish-born American sculptor of the Beaux Arts period. He designed monuments to Civil War heroes such as William Tecumseh Sherman, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert Gould Shaw. He designed the $20 double eagle gold coin and the $10 Indian head gold coin.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, show here in his studio, is probably the best-known American sculptor (though he was born in Ireland).  Today, you can visit his home and studio, which are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire.  Find it online at www.nps.gov/saga.  (Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, show here in his studio, is probably the best-known American sculptor (though he was born in Ireland). Today, you can visit his home and studio, which are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. Find it online at http://www.nps.gov/saga. (Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum)

Masks have been in existence since the time of the Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun, whose solid gold burial mask is an object of extreme beauty. At the end of many remarkable lives, historic figures such as Shakespeare, Washingon, Napoleon, Newton, Beethoven, Lincoln, and Lenin were immortalized with death masks.

Since the 13th century, death masks have helped sculptors of tomb effigies, but in medieval France and England real death masks were used for the royal funeral effigies that lay in state. Only Britsh examples still exist, because those in France were destroyed during the French Revolution.

This plaster of one of Saint-Gaudens' most famous sculptures is on display at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire.  It depicts Col. Robert Gould Shaw (on horseback) leading the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black unit famously depicted in the popular film "Glory."  (Boston College)

This plaster of one of Saint-Gaudens’ most famous sculptures is on display at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire. It depicts Col. Robert Gould Shaw (on horseback) leading the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black unit famously dramatized  in the popular film “Glory.” (Boston College)

Before the widespread availability of photography, the death mask was also used as a forensic tool to aid relatives in identifying a desceased body if the loved one was a missing person who had already been buried. One such mask recorded the face of an unidentified 16 year-old woman found drowned in the Seine in Paris in the 1880s. She was considered so beautiful that reproductions of the mask became very popular. In 1960, the face of ResuciAnni, the world’s first CPR training mannequin, was modeled after this drowned young woman.

-Pat Coil, Volunteer

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6 thoughts on “The President James A. Garfield Death Mask

  1. It’s so sad to see how gaunt he had become. He wasn’t able to keep any food down and had been subject to so vast an infection that it must have been a relief at the very last to see him at peace. It is terrible that the man suffered so much at the hand of Charles Guiteau and at the hands of his physicians. I wonder what our world would have been like if he had been able to finish his mission? As it is, his death brought about much needed change in Presidential security and it brought about Civil Service reform. He was a great man.

    • Lisa: Thanks for reading the article and commenting! Garfield’s tragic death was a catalyst for civil service reform, culminating the President Arthur’s approval of the Pendleton Act in January 1883. Unfortunately, even after Garfield’s death, not much changed in the way of presidential security until after the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. Thanks again for being such a loyal reader of our blog!

  2. Thank you for your insightful article. I agree that it is indeed startling how transformed President Garfield became during his 80 day ordeal from a robust, energetic man to the gaunt, emaciated figure that the death mask so painfully reveals. I am sadly reminded once more how Garfield must have suffered not only from his wounds but from the incompetence and ignorance of the arrogant doctors who treated him.

  3. The sight of this mask saddened me, greatly. I had known that President Garfield had suffered tremendously and had lost some weight, but I had had no idea that he had lost over a pound a day, after the shooting. Thank you for this wonderful blog.

  4. Had never seen this before, very sad to see how much the President had deteriorated, he seemed to be a highly respected man who may have done great things if had been given the chance. Sadly if he had lived today the wound would have been an easily fixed one and he would have no doubt made a full recovery eventually. I can’t imagine how much he must have suffered from the wound itself plus the horrendously hot Washington summer climate, in the days before air conditioning. However tragic, something good did come out of it, because doctors finally recognized the vital importance of antiseptics and proper wound treatment.

  5. The Garfield mask is reminiscent of the 1865 Lincoln life mask. The physical deterioration of both great men is very apparent. Two wonderful lives cut short by cowardly men. Thank you for sharing this photo.

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