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Last Impressions: 1937

Last Impressions: 1937

September 29, 1937. Washington, D.C. "Death masks displayed at identification convention. Mrs. Clark Schilder, wife of the Chief of the Division of Identification, Federal Bureau of Investigation, inspects a death mask of a trapped criminal at the annual convention of the International Association Identification which opened here today. Death masks of criminals are now being generally used by police bureaus throughout the country for identification purposes." View full size.


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Proof positive!

One should never be photographed wearing a hat.

Although it might be the very epitome of fashion, it will go out of date and people will subsequently be very amused by it.

That one would be passable, if not for the black things apparently buzzing about.


Can someone please tell me more about this picture. Thas is my dad's grandmother. I find things from time to time on my grandfather because of his job with the FBI but never expected to see this. My dad will be stunned.

[This is one of thousands of glass negatives in the Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress. Click here for more info. - Dave]

The plaster mirror

Kind of a parallel in the matching complexions -- eerie.

Physiognomic Indicators

There was a school of thought in criminology which held that there were certain facial features common to criminals. It went hand in hand with phrenology and Darwinism. Perhaps these masks were used to continue the study and prove (or disprove) the theory.

Don't think it's Washington

All the signs on the Wall read Philadelphia. I think this one is not labeled correctly or put in the wrong pile.

[This is a convention in Washington with exhibits from various cities. - Dave]

Last time ever I saw your face...

Back then it was common to take death masks of unidentified dead people, both criminals and otherwise, so that they could be identified later on. Before wonders such as the CODIS and NCIC databases and volunteer groups such as The Doe Network, it was almost impossible to match missing persons to unidentified remains, but they still tried.

Of course, they would have been more successful if police forces had accepted more missing persons reports. Back then, unless you were a prosperous white male or a dependent of one, your disappearance didn't matter.

Oh sweetie...

You have seem to have caught some flies in your mesh hat.

Not only criminals...

had death masks. Long before this occurred, death masks were made of famous political leaders, royalty, great composers, lots of people. As a very young kid, our music teacher had a death mask of Bach (or was it Beethoven) in his studio for inspiration. Also, photographing the dead was extremely common everywhere, especially in my Polish ancestors' community in Poland, who would send us copious photos of their deceased friends and relatives in their coffins. It was not all that traumatic for small children who were also taken to wakes and funerals from the time we could behave in a civilized manner. Death is very natural, nobody gets out of here alive. And no, I am not obsessed with death, I'm not a vampire and not afraid of the dark.

In search of Pinocchio

What exactly were they attempting to identify by looking at plaster casts of faces? Other than Pinocchio, I know of nobody whose truthfulness, or lack of it, could be told by studying the shape of a nose.


the death masks were used to connect deceased criminals with unsolved crimes they might have committed before their becoming deceased.

Be Still My Ghoulish Heart

Pseudo scientific nonsense but I couldn't resist using the comment title.

Could be that these were

Could be that these were small-time or unidentified criminals who were killed in the course of their crimes, and the masks were taken to show people who might have known them?

I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face...

I suppose there were a few things you could do with dead people's faces, but I can think of none. Oh wait! Paint-by-number kits. Collect the whole set, Kids!


Ah, the ol' annual Deathmask Convention. Those were the days.

Tres Creepy

Was the criminal trapped at the annual convention, as so many attendees claim to be? Wonder if any other parts were treated to plaster of Paris.


The use of a death mask for identification purposes seems a tad after the fact, doesn't it?

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