Spooky plaster masks of hanged Victorian criminals are found in a hospital basement

Executed criminals immortalised in ghostly Victorian death masks that were discovered after being hidden in a hospital basement for 120 years can finally be identified.  

The plaster masks were made from the heads of the convicted criminals after they were put to death at Worcester Prison, and some still include the outlines of rope marks left by the hangman’s noose. They are the only images that remain of these men, who as ordinary people were too poor to have their own portraits and lived before widespread photography.

The objects are believed to have been used by Victorian medics studying phrenology – a pseudo-science involving the measurement of bumps in people’s skulls to judge human traits. They were also studied by physiognomists, who practiced another controversial theory that claimed to link character to facial features. 

These death masks, from Worcester Royal Hospital, were made from the heads of the convicted criminals after they were put to death, and some still include the outlines of rope marks left by the hangman's noose (see right). They are the only images that remain of these men, who were ordinary people so too poor to have their own portraits and lived before widespread photography. The criminal immortalised here is Michael Toll, who was executed in 1830 for the murder of Ann Cook, (left, including marks left by phrenologists

These death masks, from Worcester Royal Hospital, were made from the heads of the convicted criminals after they were put to death, and some still include the outlines of rope marks left by the hangman's noose (see right). They are the only images that remain of these men, who were ordinary people so too poor to have their own portraits and lived before widespread photography. The criminal immortalised here is Michael Toll, who was executed in 1830 for the murder of Ann Cook, (left, including marks left by phrenologists

Robert Lilly was found guilty on 1834 of murdering John Wales by stabbing him in a pub in Bromsgrove

Robert Lilly was found guilty on 1834 of murdering John Wales by stabbing him in a pub in Bromsgrove

These plaster death masks, from Worcester Royal Hospital, were made from the heads of the convicted criminals after they were put to death, and some still include the outlines of rope marks left by the hangman’s noose (see right). They are the only images that remain of these men, who were ordinary people so too poor to have their own portraits and lived before widespread photography. The criminals immortalised here are Michael Toll, who was executed in 1830 for the murder of Ann Cook, (left, including marks left by phrenologists) and Robert Lilly (right). Mr Lilly was found guilty on 1834 of murdering John Wales by stabbing him in a pub in Bromsgrove

Agricultural labourer Thomas Wyre, from the village of Ditton Priors in south Shropshire, married 22-year-old Harriet Bytheway in 1883. Five years later, she left him, leaving their four-year-old son, James. In an act of callous revenge, he dumped the child in an abandoned well, where his body was found three months later

Agricultural labourer Thomas Wyre, from the village of Ditton Priors in south Shropshire, married 22-year-old Harriet Bytheway in 1883. Five years later, she left him, leaving their four-year-old son, James. In an act of callous revenge, he dumped the child in an abandoned well, where his body was found three months later

Robert Pulley was convicted of the murder of 15-year-old Mary Ann Straight on December 5, 1946. The 49-year-old labourer at first claimed to be insane, but found guilty by a jury. He was hanged on the roof of Worcester County Jail on March 26, 1848

Robert Pulley was convicted of the murder of 15-year-old Mary Ann Straight on December 5, 1946. The 49-year-old labourer at first claimed to be insane, but found guilty by a jury. He was hanged on the roof of Worcester County Jail on March 26, 1848

Agricultural labourer Thomas Wyre, (left) from the village of Ditton Priors in south Shropshire, married 22-year-old Harriet Bytheway in 1883. Five years later, she left him, leaving their four-year-old son, James. In an act of callous revenge, he dumped the child in an abandoned well, where his body was found three months later. Robert Pulley (right) was convicted of the murder of 15-year-old Mary Ann Straight on December 5, 1946. The 49-year-old labourer at first claimed to be insane, but found guilty by a jury. He was hanged on the roof of Worcester County Jail on March 26, 1848

Phrenology: Disproved pseudo-science adopted by the Nazis to justify their racial theories 

Phrenology, meaning ‘mind’ and ‘knowledge’ in Greek, was a pseudo-science that involved measuring the bumps on skulls to determine human traits. 

It was widely practiced in the Victorian period, when experts believed they could link a person’s anatomy with their likelihood of committing a crime. 

Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was widely practiced in the early 1800s. 

Later, the Nazis used phrenology as part of their bid to prove the ‘superiority’ of Aryans was based on their supposedly unique biology. 

Phrenology has been abandoned as a specialism in modern medicine after its claims were wholly discredited by scientific research.  

The masks were discovered in the basement of the infirmary of Worcester Royal Hospital 20 years ago – but they remained anonymous until a historian was able to identify them. 

In Victorian times, an underground tunnel connected the hospital to the prison – and bodies were moved between the two.

Bob Blandord, 72, is an expert on the history of Worcester, and believes he has linked the masks to known criminals based on when they were executed. 

He said: ‘I have been trying to identify the men who we know were anatomised and based on the ages and dates that they died.

‘I have profiles of the men I think they were, but it’s not concrete. I have collected eight different IDs that fit the time frame of these executions, but the ninth head is still unidentified.

‘The heads have marks around their neck so it’s very likely they were executed criminals, so it became quite easy to attach names to them.’

The crimes the men were responsible for range from arson to rape and murder. 

One particularly sad case was that of Thomas Slaughter, who was just 17 when he was put to death for accidental arson after setting fire to a hay rug. This was despite him being mentally ill, as suggested by his unusual appearance

One particularly sad case was that of Thomas Slaughter, who was just 17 when he was put to death for accidental arson after setting fire to a hay rug. This was despite him being mentally ill, as suggested by his unusual appearance

Joseph Meadows was executed in 1855 for murdering Mary Ann Mason in Dudley

Joseph Meadows was executed in 1855 for murdering Mary Ann Mason in Dudley

One particularly sad case was that of Thomas Slaughter, (left) who was just 17 when he was put to death for accidental arson after setting fire to a hay rug. This was despite him being mentally ill, as suggested by his unusual appearance. Joseph Meadows (right) was executed in 1855 for murdering Mary Ann Mason in Dudley. The objects are believed to have been used by Victorian medics studying Phrenology – a pseudo-science involving the measurement of bumps in people’s skulls to judge human traits, which is why some of them are marked with numbers and medical terms 

Louise Price, Curator at the George Marshall Medical Museum at Worcestershire Royal Hospital, with some of the death masks. They were discovered in the basement of the infirmary of Worcester Royal Hospital 20 years ago - but they remained anonymous until a historian was able to identify them. In Victorian times, an underground tunnel connected the hospital to the prison - and bodies were moved between the two

Louise Price, Curator at the George Marshall Medical Museum at Worcestershire Royal Hospital, with some of the death masks. They were discovered in the basement of the infirmary of Worcester Royal Hospital 20 years ago - but they remained anonymous until a historian was able to identify them. In Victorian times, an underground tunnel connected the hospital to the prison - and bodies were moved between the two

Louise Price, Curator at the George Marshall Medical Museum at Worcestershire Royal Hospital, with some of the death masks. They were discovered in the basement of the infirmary of Worcester Royal Hospital 20 years ago – but they remained anonymous until a historian was able to identify them. In Victorian times, an underground tunnel connected the hospital to the prison – and bodies were moved between the two

Mr Blandord said: ‘One of them was a 17-year old lad who accidentally set fire to a hay wreck, another raped a child in Kidderminster, and a third killed his girlfriend.

Physiognomy: Controversial theory linking facial features to character

Physiognomy involves linking the appearance of someone’s face to their character, and began to be studied in the ancient and medieval periods. 

Most of its claims have been disproved, so its practice remains controversial, but because of scientifically-proved links between facial features and certain mental conditions it has not been entirely discredited. 

This includes people with Down’s Syndrome, who often have up-slanted eyes and broad, flat face, and hydrocephalus – or water on the brain – which can result in a larger than usual head. 

By the 18th and 19th centuries, physiognomy was considered a means of detecting criminal tendencies, including by scientists at Worcester Royal Hospital. 

These included a large rounded chin or puffy, sunken eyes indicating someone was deceitful, according to a treatise published in 1902. 

Each of the alleged links between particular facial features has been discredited, although some modern studies continue to uphold them. 

‘The first I managed to identify was a William Lightband, who was executed for murder on March 23, 1837.

‘The next was a 50-year-old murderer named Robert Lilley and a third, 17-year-old Thomas Slaughter, was put to death for accidental arson.

‘The other five, Joseph Meadows, 23, Robert Pulley, Michael Toll, Enoch Whiston and Thomas Wyre, 30, were all executed for murder.’ 

The display has been curated by Louise Price, 35, who says the masks are rare visual records of people from the 1800s who could not afford to have their portraits painted.

She said: ‘Originally they were found in the basement of Worcester royal infirmary by someone at the hospital who handed them to George Marshall, who was a surgeon in Worcester hospital.

‘The basement of the hospital held the post-mortem department and it’s believed there was a tunnel from the basement to the prisons, and hanged prisoners were moved through the tunnel for anatomy research.

‘They have been on displays since 2001, everyone that visits loves seeing them because they’re so gory but also so interesting.

‘Surgeons at the time used them for two types of research, phrenology, which looking at bumps in the head to decide the character of a person, and Physiognomy, which basically shows the persons facial features.

‘I think the heads are incredible, they show us what people looked like who didn’t have the money to have themselves painted.’ 

William Lightband was convicted of murder and hanged in Worcester on March 23, 1837. The criminals' faces were identified by Bob Blandord, 72, an expert on the history of Worcester. He said: 'I have been trying to identify the men who we know were anatomised and based on the ages and dates that they died. I have profiles of the men I think they were, but it's not concrete. I have collected eight different IDs that fit the time frame of these executions, but the ninth head is still unidentified.' This one has not been identified

William Lightband was convicted of murder and hanged in Worcester on March 23, 1837. The criminals' faces were identified by Bob Blandord, 72, an expert on the history of Worcester. He said: 'I have been trying to identify the men who we know were anatomised and based on the ages and dates that they died. I have profiles of the men I think they were, but it's not concrete. I have collected eight different IDs that fit the time frame of these executions, but the ninth head is still unidentified.' This one has not been identified

An unidentified death mask

An unidentified death mask

Bob Blandord, 72, is an expert on the history of Worcester, and believes he has linked the masks to known criminals based on when they were executed. He said: ‘I have been trying to identify the men who we know were anatomised and based on the ages and dates that they died. I have profiles of the men I think they were, but it’s not concrete. I have collected eight different IDs that fit the time frame of these executions, but the ninth head is still unidentified.’ The ones pictured have not been identified 

Phrenology, meaning 'mind' and 'knowledge' in Greek, was a pseudo-science that involved measuring the bumps on skulls to determine human traits. It was widely practiced in the Victorian period, when experts believed they could link a person's anatomy with their likelihood of committing a crime. Pictured is curator Louise Price with some of the masks

Phrenology, meaning 'mind' and 'knowledge' in Greek, was a pseudo-science that involved measuring the bumps on skulls to determine human traits. It was widely practiced in the Victorian period, when experts believed they could link a person's anatomy with their likelihood of committing a crime. Pictured is curator Louise Price with some of the masks

Another unidentified mask

Another unidentified mask

Phrenology, meaning ‘mind’ and ‘knowledge’ in Greek, was a pseudo-science that involved measuring the bumps on skulls to determine human traits. It was widely practiced in the Victorian period, when experts believed they could link a person’s anatomy with their likelihood of committing a crime. Pictured is curator Louise Price with some of the masks, (left) and another unidentified one (right)

 

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