Laurence Hutton was the dramatic critic for the New York Evening Mail from 1872 to 1874 and literary editor of Harper’s Magazine from 1886 to 1898. In 1897, he received the degree of A.M. from Princeton and presented the University with “a collection of over sixty death masks of distinguished men.”
“Mr. Hutton has been at infinite pains to make this collection as complete as possible,” reported The New York Times, “It represents the researches [sic] and untiring labor of over thirty years.” Hutton traveled around the world to collect these plaster casts, looking in obscure curiosity shops and major museums, where many curators granted Hutton permission to have copies made from their masks.
A complete set of digital images of these masks can be found at:
The collection began almost by accident while shopping in New York City. Hutton was interrupted by a ragged boy trying to sell a cast of a human face, unquestionably that of Benjamin Franklin. He purchased it for two shillings and offered another quarter if the boy showed him where he found it. In a couple of ash-barrels on Second Street were dozens of casts of Washington, Sheridan, Cromwell, and many others, which Hutton carted home.
Some years later, Hutton read an illustrated volume of lectures by the well-known phrenologist George Combe and was surprised to see reproductions of many of these same masks. Combe had come to the United States in 1838-39 and Hutton concluded that his collection had either been left behind or given to someone and then, years later, was discarded on the Lower East Side.
Hutton went to great lengths to gather historical documentation on his masks and wrote about the collection in articles, lectures, and a book entitled Portraits in Plaster.
In his Talks in a Library he confirmed that, “with the exception of the cast of Shakespeare, the only cast in the collection which is not from nature is that of Elizabeth of England; and these two are preserved only because they are both supposed and believed to have been based upon masks from death.”
When Hutton died of pneumonia in 1904, his obituary in The New York Times, remarked once again on his death mask collection but did not mention whether provisions had been made to take a death mask of Hutton himself.
For a bibliography on Hutton and his collection, continue below.