The History of the Collection

Laurence Hutton Papers (C0021, Box 12, Folder 3), Princeton University Library

Lawrence Hutton gave an account of the history of the collection multiple times throughout his life, with little details varying across each telling. The story seems to be thus: One day in the mid-eighteen-sixies while walking in downtown Manhattan, his eye caught on a “grotesquely ugly image of a bulldog done in plaster” in the window of Fowler and Wells, a leading “scientific institution” in the field of phrenology. To his great amusement, the plaster dog reminded him of his “Aunt Jane” and he went in to purchase the artifact. While paying, a “small and ragged boy” entered the shop and presented the shopkeeper with a cast of a human face asking (in Hutton’s words) “is dis wort’ anything?” Hutton jumped in, offering to pay two shillings for the bust who he recognized as Benjamin Franklin (or Oliver Cromwell, accounts vary). Another quarter convinced the boy to show Hutton where the bust came from, leading him to a garbage can filled with discarded casts. Hutton took them home, returning to the street the next day to try and learn more about the original collector. After poking around several nearby residences, a servant confirmed that the masks now in Hutton’s possession were those of his late employer, who kept them in a cabinet in his study. Upon his death, the collector’s wife insisted on discarding the “nasty, ghastly things” and so they ended up in the dustbin. Hutton’s line of inquiry with the servant ended there, but Hutton continued to investigate the collection’s origins.

After extensive research into funerary rites and casting traditions, he came across an obscure publication of essays by noted phrenologist George Combe based on the same series of death masks that Hutton had rescued from the garbage. He writes in Talks in the Library with Laurence Hutton, “the book contained all these and none others whatever!” This circumstantial evidence convinced Hutton that the masks had to have originally been collected by Combe.

Hutton continued to grow his collection from this initial twelve, donating them to Princeton University circa 1915 along with his papers, correspondence and other bits of celebrity memorabilia (see the Laurence Hutton Papers (call number C0021), Laurence Hutton Correspondence (C0080) and the Laurence Hutton Photograph Albums, 1800s (C0937)).

Despite the collection title, not all the masks in the collection were from Hutton. A handful, as noted in each entry, were added by through various other donations (Frances Cleveland, wife of US President Grover Cleveland, donated his mask for example).

Laurence Hutton Papers (C0021, Box 12, Folder 4), Princeton University Library

A Note on The Relationship between the Laurence Hutton Death Mask Collection and Phrenology

It’s hard to ignore the uncomfortable relationship between the Laurence Hutton Death Mask Collection and the philosophy of Phrenology. Looking over the object list, one may notice that there is a “plaster head exhibiting a phrenological chart” among the busts of recognizable faces. That object, however, was an addition beyond Hutton’s original donation, instead given by Mrs. W.A. Hutcheson. That doesn’t mean that the twelve original masks that inspired the collection and the subsequent accretions by Hutton are not without their own ties to this insidious pseudoscience.

First, the original twelve that inspired Hutton are believed to have come from a man who wrote extensively on the logic of Phrenology and promoted that logic worldwide (a logic that was used to justify historic and contemporary racist ideologies, actions and violences). This legacy underpins the collection but Hutton himself was importantly not neutral on these origins and in fact, reinforced them. In Plaster on the Page, Hutton’s publication on his death masks, he writes “usually the Phrenological Museums contain casts of idiots, criminals, and monstrosities, and these are seemingly gathered together to illustrate what man’s cranial structure not out to be,” (page x) seemingly prideful of the more inspirational qualities of his casts compared to those made with a similar mindset.

There is one mask in particular that makes clear that this statement was not just a comment, but a driving philosophy behind the collection. The only known Black bust is that of an unnamed mule driver who was working for architect Thomas Hastings on the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, FL (which was under construction from 1885 until 1888). Per Hutton, the driver was paid one dollar for his plaster portrait and that this bust was to “represen[] the lowest intellectual type of present-day humanity” (Talks in the Library with Laurence Hutton, page 217-218). This statement, coupled with Hutton’s very purposeful effort in acquiring this mask and the fact that this mask is the only non-celebrity cast in the bunch point very solidly toward the influence of Phrenology on this collection and Hutton himself.

The Laurence Hutton Death Mask Collection is undeniably steeped in the legacy of Phrenology and all that such a legacy means. If we value truth, it’s important to recognize this connection and hold it, even as we consider the collection through other lenses – as a remnant of one man’s interests, a practice in memory, an investigation of celebrity, an artifact of funerary history or the many other topics that this collection speaks to.