State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 69 Autumn 2002


Explaining the ‘Criminal’
Ned Kelly's Death Mask

Shortly After 10 o'clock on the morning of the 11 November 1880, Ned Kelly dropped from the scaffold at Melbourne Gaol. Within minutes the body of the notorious outlaw dangled lifeless at the end of a prison authorities’ rope. However, the agents of colonial justice had not quite finished with the infamous bushranger. After the body hung for half an hour it was dragged down, loaded into a cart and transported to the prison dead house, where the beard and hair of the corpse were shaved, and plaster applied to the still warm skin of the face and head in order to make a death mask.1 The following day a wax likeness of Ned Kelly's head was on display in Bourke Street.2
Given Ned Kelly's notoriety, his death mask no doubt aroused more than usual public curiosity. However, the taking of death masks from executed criminals was widespread in the nineteenth century, and the apparently macabre events following Kelly's death were no more than the routine procedure of prison authorities. By the mid-1850s taking casts from the heads of recently executed criminals was a well-established practice in Victoria.3 In 1855 the Argus newspaper reported that M. Pardoe had taken casts of the heads of James Condon, John Dixon and Alfred Jackson, three men recently executed for highway robbery.4 Once taken, death masks appeared in waxworks museums, in the collections of prison authorities, and as demonstration pieces for lectures on crime and criminality.
Many nineteenth-century death masks have survived and a number of Australian institutions hold significant collections. The Melbourne Gaol retains a sizeable collection of death masks of executed criminals taken by Victorian prison authorities, while the New South Wales Justice and Police Museum also has a significant collection. The State Library of Victoria has recently acquired a Ned Kelly death mask and also has another important mask in its collections — that of notorious murderer Frederick Bayley Deeming. When viewing these objects an inevitable question arises: why were death masks taken?
The answer to this question is not entirely straightforward, as nineteenth-century death masks had a number of interconnected purposes. The death mask was simultaneously an object of state power, an object of entertainment, and an object of science. Its meaning as an object of state power remains reasonably clear to us today. The taking of death masks from criminals was to provide a material demonstration of the State's victory over crime. What clearer way could there have been to demonstrate the majesty of justice than assembling a collection of transgressors’ heads?
The entranced gaze of the contemporary museum visitor confronted with a death mask also suggests that the function of these wax likenesses as objects of entertainment remains familiar to us. In the nineteenth century crime and criminals

[Front wrapper of] Phrenologist Hume Reads Characters Correctly, [Fitzroy, Vic, 1878.]

were subjects of considerable popular fascination, as they continue to be today. In Sydney in 1844, a cast was made of the head of John Knatchbull, a convict who bludgeoned a woman to death in a shop, and a woodcut later produced from the cast and offered for sale to the public.5 Figures of criminals were also a staple display of Melbourne's waxworks.6 Murderers were always of interest, but colonial Australians were especially obsessed with bushrangers. So much was this the case that some even sought physical parts of deceased outlaws as curios. When bushranger Johnny Gilbert's body remained at the Binalong police station for several days in 1865, numerous locks of hair were stolen from the corpse before it was interred.7 Popular legend also asserted that medical men had cut off the scrotum of Morgan the bushranger, killed by police in 1865, which was then reinvented as a tobacco pouch.8 This fascination with criminals permeated all levels of colonial society, and John Buckley Castieau, Governor of Melbourne Gaol, is said to have run a small commercial enterprise supplying death masks to acquaintances.9
While it is relatively easy for us to understand death masks as objects of state power and objects of entertainment, it takes a greater leap of imagination to comprehend their nineteenth-century relevance as objects of science. Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century death masks were taken primarily not to amuse or evince state power, but to provide objects of scientific inquiry. Death masks, once subjected to scientific scrutiny, were thought to provide a means of understanding and interpreting the character of the criminal. Nineteenth-century death masks were a material manifestation of the pervasive Victorian faith in physiognomy, the widely held belief that individual character could be read through the facial features and the forms of the head and body.10 Broader physiognomical ideas underpinned the rise of a new science in the early nineteenth century that was to have a substantial influence in Europe, America and Australia — the science of Phrenology.
Phrenology was the creation of Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). Conducting research in prisons and asylums on the ‘diseased brains’ of criminals and the insane, Gall hypothesised that the human brain contained almost 30 different
departments. In conjunction with the nervous system, these ‘faculties’ were the mainspring of all human activity. Each ‘faculty’ constituted an element that combined to make up the character of an individual, and the relative size of these ‘faculties’ dictated character. Importantly, phrenology presupposed a close enough relationship between the outer surface of the skull and the contour of the brain to enable the trained observer to recognise the relative importance of the faculties.11 Consequently, phrenology at a popular level was the art of reading character from ‘bumps’ on the head. English satirists mockingly dubbed the new science ‘bumpology'.12
In Britain, it has been argued that the rise of phrenology coincided with the aspirations of an ascendant middle-class wishing to replace the old social order of inherited wealth and status with one based upon merit. Although there has been only limited research, it would appear that the class-based appeal of phrenology in the British Isles was mirrored in colonial Australia, where phrenology enjoyed immense popularity from the 1830s. While adherents to the tenets of the science were primarily drawn from the upper working class, several significant colonial administrators of the late 1830s and early 1840s were ardent phrenologists.13 Prison reformer Alexander Maconochie, appointed Superintendent of the Norfolk Island penal settlement in 1840, was closely connected to phrenological circles in Britain, and delivered lectures on phrenology to fellow passengers on his voyage out to the colony.14 Asylum reformer Dr Francis Campell, Superintendent of Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum from 1848, was also a devout phrenologist.15
Although phrenological activity was initially concentrated in Sydney, Melbourne soon experienced the influence of craniological theories. Lectures on phrenology were delivered soon after Melbourne was established as a settlement. In 1840 the Port Phillip Herald advertised a public lecture to be given on the subject.16 The status of phrenology was also enhanced by some powerful adherents amongst Victoria's colonial elite, including Archibald Michie, who had lectured on the subject at the Sydney School of Arts before his arrival in Melbourne in 1852.17
Lectures on phrenology attracted sizeable audiences eager to hear a variety of self-appointed ‘Professors’ demonstrate the links between head shape and character. Producing the head of a notorious criminal for demonstration purposes all but guaranteed that a lecture would be standing room only. Criminals were a favourite subject for phrenologists because they provided a means of interpreting a supposed flawed character. However, it is important to note that phrenology was a reforming science. The characteristics identified by the phrenologist, were, once understood, amenable to transformation, and the criminal could be trained in the ways of righteousness.18 However, phrenologists mostly lectured on criminals whose chances of reformation had been abruptly curtailed by the scaffold.
Melbourne boasted its own experts in the field. As early as the 1850s Ellen Williams, a professional wax modeller, prepared phrenological heads for Philemon Sohier, a self-proclaimed ‘Professor of Phrenology'.19 In 1855, Sohier delivered a phrenological lecture using death masks of highway robbers James Condon, John Dixon and Alfred Jackson. Sohier's lecture was delivered to a capacity crowd at the

Unknown maker. After: Maximillian Ludwig Kreitmayer, 1831-1906, maker, death mask of Ned Kelly. Not signed, not dated. Plaster or similar compound. Height 28.5 cm; diameter 55.0 cm. Gift of the School of Historical Studies, Monash University, 2001. H2001.241, La Trobe Picture Collection.

Temperance Hall, Russell Street, and the Argus noted that full houses could be anticipated for any future lectures using the casts.20
Phrenology was given a measure of official credibility in Victoria when the Government commissioned and-published A Phrenological Report on Aborigines, prepared by Philemon Sohier as part of the proceedings of the Select Committee on Aborigines in 1858.21 Phrenology retained a strong popular appeal into the 1860s, largely as it was thought to be a science with practical application easily learnt by the dedicated layperson. It therefore retained a strong attraction for a lower middle class imbued with an ideology of self-education and self-improvement. Practitioners of phrenological science such as Dr Blair, Dr William Edward Crook and J.W. Frost continued to deliver lectures to enthusiastic audiences at Mechanics’ Institutes and Town Halls throughout the 1860s.22
Phrenological lectures combined popular science and entertainment. Phrenologists offered their audiences scientific education, while their focus on criminals simultaneously satiated a popular appetite for the grotesque and
extraordinary. Gradually, however, phrenology lost much of its scientific veneer and was increasingly absorbed into the realm of popular amusements. The scientific credibility of phrenology had been diminishing in Britain since the 1840s.23 In colonial Victoria phrenology retained serious adherents into the 1860s, but by the end of the decade enthusiasm for lectures on the subject was on the wane. By the mid-1870s advertisements for phrenology lectures in Mechanics’ Institutes disappeared from the pages of the Melbourne press, and the phrenologists moved into the arcades, setting up their stalls next to palm readers and fortune-tellers.
When Ned Kelly's death mask was taken in 1880 there was little talk of phrenology in serious scientific circles. Once debated in the finest learned journals of the Empire, phrenology was now derided as a pseudo-science — the preserve of quacks, charlatans and eccentrics. Nevertheless, phrenological ideas continued to circulate through Melbourne's colonial culture at a more popular level. Phrenologist Hume, based in the Victoria Arcade, claimed to be expert at ‘pointing out the most suitable occupations’ of his customers and informing them of ‘the natural bent of their minds'.24 A similar service was offered by ‘Phrenologist’ Professor Shepherd at the Eastern Market, who for two shillings and sixpence informed individual customers ‘what you are best adapted for’, even including a chart as part of the price of a head reading.25 An example of a phrenological chart issued by one Eastern Market phrenologist to patrons is held in the Monash University Rare Books Collection, and includes an engraving of Ned Kelly to illustrate over-developed ‘animal propensities'.26 The popularisers of the 1880s such as Shepherd and Hume provided phrenology for mass consumption. It was still vaguely self-improving, but predominantly it was amusing, intriguing and fun.
It is perhaps entirely appropriate that the cast for Ned Kelly's death mask was taken by a man who straddled the worlds of science and entertainment. Waxworks proprietor Maximillian Ludwig Kreitmayer, a skilled medical modeller who had studied anatomy in Munich and Glasgow, had gone into partnership with Melbourne's resident phrenological ‘Professor’, Philemon Sohier, in 1863. His talents were frequently called upon by the Victorian Government, who had engaged him to mount displays at Imperial Exhibitions in London and at the Paris Exhibition of 1878. His ‘Aboriginal Groups’ were also in demand for official exhibitions.27 With this established record of government contracts, Kreitmayer was given the task of taking a cast of Ned Kelly's head.
As was to be expected, the death mask of the renowned bushranger aroused great public interest. A.S. Hamilton, who described himself as a ‘Professor of Phrenology’, emerged as the expert on Kelly's cranium and its interpretation. Hamilton was a ‘travelling phrenologist’ who had delivered lectures in the Australian and New Zealand colonies since the 1860s and claimed to have been a practicing phrenologist since the 1840s.28 He was the author of a pamphlet on the subject of phrenology and had performed phrenological examinations upon prisoners awaiting execution, and made casts of their heads, in New South Wales and New Zealand before arriving in Victoria.29 Clearly sensing the considerable commercial potential of
reading Kelly's skull, Hamilton wrote to the Chief Secretary on 10 November 1880 asking permission to make a phrenological examination of Kelly before his execution, for the purpose of ‘throwing the light of science upon the character of the condemned man'. Hamilton also offered to make a cast of Kelly's head for the Government.
It is not surprising that Hamilton's request was denied, and Hamilton himself as much as conceded that his request was unlikely to be successful, ending his correspondence with a note that he hoped the Chief Secretary would ‘make an exception in my favour under present very peculiar circumstances'.30 The ‘peculiar circumstances’ to which Hamilton referred were not only the general passions surrounding Kelly's execution. Hamilton was President of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, an organisation which had been a thorn in the side of the Government since the sentence of death was pronounced on Kelly.31 Hamilton shared his objection to capital punishment with the English phrenologists who argued that executions badly affected the minds of spectators, and that the criminal should be treated to rectify cranial abnormalities rather than dropped from the scaffold.32
While Hamilton was denied access to Kelly prior to execution, Max Brown's study, Australian Son, suggests that he was present as Kreitmayer took the cast, and even assisted by taking measurements of Kelly's head.33 Despite being denied the chance of making the cast himself, Hamilton approved of Kreitmayer's handiwork, remarking that it was a fine example of the art and ‘after very many years experience in such work, I never saw a more perfect work, especially of the face, forehead and temple'.34 Several days later Hamilton used the Kreitmayer cast as the basis for his phrenological study published in the Melbourne Herald on 18 November 1880. Apart from functioning as a vehicle for his self-promotion efforts (he suggested a phrenological examination of all prisoners held in Melbourne and Pentridge Gaols should be undertaken — by none other than himself, of course), Hamilton promised readers he would shed the light of science, ‘the custodian and revealer of truth’, upon the character of Kelly. Hamilton's study suggested Kelly had a number of dangerously overdeveloped cranial regions, including combativeness, destructiveness and love of approbation. Underdeveloped in the outlaw were the qualities of cautiousness, sublimity and conscientiousness. The conclusion of this lengthy phrenological analysis was that most of Kelly's law-breaking could be ascribed to his gargantuan self-esteem. Hamilton warned readers of the danger that heads of Kelly's shape posed to society:
… there are few heads amongst the worst that would risk so much for the love of power as is evinced in the head of Kelly from his enormous self-esteem. This self-esteem, combined with large love of approbation combined with hope, would often make him appear bright, dazzling and heroic to those who could not see through the veil which vanity threw around him.35
The Ned Kelly death mask provided a reminder of the ultimate victory of the authorities over the outlaw, and was an object of great public curiosity. However, did anyone still seriously regard the Kelly death mask as an object of scientific value? The
short answer to this question is yes. As historian Roger Cooter notes, despite losing serious scientific credibility, ‘phrenology in the second half of the century became in many ways more deeply entrenched than ever in everyday thought and expression'.36 Victoria's intellectual elite may have derided Hamilton's phrenological analysis, which essentially recited popular images of Kelly in order to warn of the dangers of elevating him to heroic status. But for many readers Hamilton's analysis, with its measurements, categories and numbers, would have retained something of the aura of scientific plausibility. Ned Kelly's head remained an object of science.
Indeed, one idea promoted by phrenology proved especially enduring and continued to influence scientific theories and popular belief into the twentieth century. This was the idea that there was a distinct ‘criminal type of head'. The scientific credibility of this concept was revived by the influential work of criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, whose study of Italian prison inmates claimed to have discovered a physically distinct caste of ‘born criminals'.37 Such ideas were also echoed in 1890 by Havelock Ellis, who cited various malformed cranial types as characteristic of the morally and physically ‘instinctive criminal'.38 The development of criminological theories based upon physical type ensured that ‘scientific’ justifications for taking death masks continued into the early twentieth century. And, as in earlier decades, the public remained endlessly fascinated by likenesses of criminals, believing their misdeeds owed something to the shape of the head.
Dean Wilson


Ian Jones, Ned Kelly: A Short Life, Port Melbourne, Lothian Books, 1995, p. 324.


Ibid. The fact was reported in the Herald, 12 November 1880, p. 2.


This mirrored similar developments in England. See V.A.C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 255.


Argus, 30 November 1855, p. 5.


Jan Kociumbas, Oxford History of Australia Vol. 2: Possessions 1770-1860, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 276.


Mimi Colligan, ‘Canvas and Wax: Images of information in Australian panoramas and waxworks with particular reference to Melbourne 1849-1920’, PhD thesis, Monash University, 1987, p. 162.


Edgar F. Penzig, A Real Flash Cove: The Story of the Bushranger John Gilbert, Kenthurst, Kangaroo Press, 1983, p. 114.


Margaret Carnegie, ‘The Death of Morgan the Bushranger’, Victorian Historical Magazine, no. 2, issue 188, May 1977, p. 71.


Interview with Diane Gardiner, Curator, Old Melbourne Gaol, 12 December 2000.


Generally see Mary Cowling, The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989, chap. 1.


For historical studies of phrenology see Roger Cooter, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984; John P. Davies, Phrenology, Fad or Science: A Nineteenth Century American Crusade, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1955; David de Giustino, Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought, London, Croom Helm, 1975; Angus McLaren, ‘Phrenology: Medium and message’, Journal of Modern History, 46, 1974, pp. 86-97.


For the philosophical implications of phrenology see Angus McLaren, ‘A Prehistory of the Social Sciences: Phrenology in France’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 23, 1981, pp. 3-22.


Kociumbas, Possessions, p. 276; for brief history of phrenology in colonial Australia see Michael Roe, The Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1965, pp. 161-64; George Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture: Ideas, Men and Institutions in Mid-Nineteenth Century Eastern Australia, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1957, pp. 139-42.


David de Giustino, ‘Reforming the Commonwealth of Thieves: British phrenologists and Australia’, Victorian Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, June 1972, pp.?


Michael Roe, The Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1965, p. 162.


Port Phillip Herald, 1 September 1840, p. 3.


Nadel, p. 140.


David de Guistino, Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought, London, Croom Helm, 1975, p. 146.


Colligan, pp. 161-62.


Argus, 3 December 1855, p. 5.


‘A Phrenological Report on Aborigines for the Victorian Parliament, 1858’ in Report of the Select Committee on Aborigines, 1858, Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council, session 1858-59.


For examples of lectures see Age, 14 May 1860, p. 5; 3 September 1860, p. 5; 30 May 1861, p. 5; 26 September 1861, p. 5.


On the decline of phrenology in Britain see de Guistino, Conquest of Mind, pp. 91-101.


Phrenologist Hume, 15 Victoria Arcade Melbourne, pamphlet, La Trobe Rare Book Collection. *LT 824 V66 vol. 119.


Age, 13 November 1880, p. 8.


Rev. Ralph Brown, A Delineation of the Character, Talents, Physiological Developments and Natural Adaptations of Mr.—–, Melbourne, Mason, Firth & McCutcheon, 1883.


Colligan, pp. 261-62, 288.


Herald, 18 November 1880, p. 2.


For Hamilton's pamphlet see A.S. Hamilton, Practical Phrenology: A Lecture on the Heads, Casts of the Heads, and Characters of the Maungatapu Murderers, Levy, Sullivan, and Burgess, Nelson, ‘Examiner’ Office, 1866.


PROV, Series 6888, Part V. Kelly Historical Collection, A.S. Hamilton, 21 Collins Street East to Chief Secretary, 10 November 1880.


Max Brown, Australian Son: The Story of Ned Kelly, Melbourne, Georgian House, 1948, p. 262.


De Giustino, Conquest of Mind, pp. 146-47.


Brown, p. 262.


For Kreitmayer taking the cast see Herald, 12 November 1880, p. 3; for Hamilton's comments see Herald, 18 November 1880, p. 2.


Herald, 18 November 1880, p. 2.


Cooter, p. 258.


David Garland, ‘Of Crime and Criminals: The development of British criminology’ in Mike Maguire, Rod Morgan & Robert Reiner (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 30-31.


Cowling, p. 294.