Today’s featured facial hair is especially appropriate for the approaching Halloween weekend. It’s the plaster cast of a beard, taken of the deceased Walter Q. Gresham, who was Secretary of State at the time of his death in May of 1895.
This death mask—complete with a few beard hairs stuck in it—may seem like an oddity now, but at the time it was a mark of reverence for a beloved official. The cast was made so that sculptors could later create a permanent likeness of the deceased.
And Walter Q. Gresham seemed a likely candidate for a commemorative statue. He was enormously popular.
Gresham held several important positions, serving as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, U.S. Postmaster General, a Federal appellate court judge, Secretary of the Treasury, and finally, President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of State in 1893.
An article in the May 29, 1895, edition of the Washington Post covered the events in detail. Gresham was the first member of the Cabinet to have a funeral in the East Room of the White House and the second man to have the troops ordered out for his funeral. The Government Printing Office was ordered closed as a mark of respect. Flags across the city—including foreign embassies and consulates—were lowered to half mast for 10 days.
After the funeral service at the White House, the coffin was taken to the B&O railroad depot by a military escort and then placed in the private car of the vice president of the railroad company. The President and his Cabinet accompanied Gresham’s body to Chicago for the burial. The Post reported that “Owing to the departure of the President and Cabinet, none of these officials will be able to take part in the Memorial Day services at Arlington to-morrow.”
According to the Post, a plaster death mask of Gresham’s face was made by a sculptor called Dunbar, who delivered it to the Department of State. The Post noted that getting permission to obtain death masks of officials immediately after their passing had been difficult to do, but that times were changing: “Now, however, it is customary to take steps at once for the preservation of the likeness of an official for whom there will certainly be a demand for a monument in bronze or marble.”
And yet how many people today would recognize the name Walter Q. Gresham?
The mask was never used to create a statue. Eventually, it came into the holdings of the National Archives, but without any accompanying paperwork on its creation. Recently, an intern found some newspaper articles that provided information about the funeral and the mask, but the true “record” of Gresham remains his death mask.
But forgotten or not, he remains a piece of American history, kept safe inside the vaults at the National Archives.