NMA collection record

Ned Kelly death mask, 1880


This is a plaster death mask of the head of bushranger Ned Kelly, including the neck and partial right shoulder.

Educational value

Ned Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Gaol on the morning of 11 November 1880. Immediately after his body was taken down from the gallows, his hair and beard were shaved off and a mould taken of his head by Maximilien Kreitmayer. The mask is a unique three-dimensional representation of one of Australia's better-known historical figures, created shortly after his death.

Death masks were common in Australia from the early 1800s. They were mostly of criminals, including convict absconders and bushrangers, and were used both for exhibition purposes and for phrenological analysis. The collection of 85 life and death masks displayed in JW Beattie's Port Arthur Museum included masks of executed criminals dating from 1826 to 1904. The Old Melbourne Gaol's collection of death masks numbers 36 and includes Frederick Bayley Deeming ('Jack the Ripper'), Frances Knorre ('the baby farmer') and James Williams who was hanged in 1904.

The mould of Ned Kelly's skull taken by Maximilien Kreitmayer was used to produce a desk mask that was on display in Kreitmayer's Bourke Street waxworks the day after Kelly's execution. Phrenologist AS Hamilton used the mask as source material for a detailed phrenological analysis of Kelly that was published in the (Melbourne) Herald of 18 November 1880. Hamilton had previously been declined permission to directly study Kelly's skull before he was executed. In part, he concluded '... 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'.

The 'modem' method for making a death/life mask requires the application of oil or grease to the subject's face then a coat of plaster of paris that is allowed to harden before being is removed. This creates a mould that can be used to cast the mask. Because they are created from a mould taken shortly after a person dies, death masks offer a unique view of the dead person. Formal portraits, whether painted or photographed, present a two-dimensional image, often reflecting the way a person wishes to be remembered. A death mask, however, creates a three-dimensional, warts and all, representation.

Murderer and self-confessed stock thief, Ned Kelly is arguably Australia's best-known historical character. Born at Beveridge in about December 1854, he first came to public notice when, in 1865, he saved 7-year-old Richard Shelton from drowning in Hughes Creek at Avenel. By 1866, his widowed mother moved her family to north-eastern Victoria. Ned had become the family breadwinner. He took on general bush labouring work, timber-cutting and even served a brief apprenticeship with bushranger Harry Power. Kelly's trouble with the law quickly escalated through indecent behaviour, assault and stock theft to police killer.

Three police were shot dead at Stringybark Creek in October 1878. The Victorian Government responded by outlawing Ned and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. This meant they could be shot on sight by anybody at any time. For two years the gang roamed freely through north-eastern Victoria and the Riverina, robbing the banks at Euroa and Jerilderie in December 1878 and February 1879, respectively. Finally, at Glenrowan in June 1880, they donned suits of armour to make a dramatic but doomed stand against the Victorian police. Dan Kelly, Hart and Byrne were killed and Ned Kelly taken prisoner. Tried and found guilty for the murder of Constable Lonigan at Stringybark Creek, Ned Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880.

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