Two Heads Are Better Than One

Two Heads Are Better Than One

By Will Noel

As a child I was fascinated by a story that there were two heads of John the Baptist – one of him as a young man and one of him looking a bit older, both preserved as relics in French churches only 26 miles apart.  I couldn’t work it out.  I have not been sure for some time whether this story is a medieval fiction, or a modern one designed to tickle the brain cells of schoolboys.  But right now I am not sure that its fiction. 

Replica of Wells Volk’s plaster cast of the head of Abraham Lincoln.

There are several heads of Abraham Lincoln.  One is a plaster cast of his face made during his first presidential campaign in 1860 by Leonard Wells Volk. Apparently, the plaster dried so quickly that Lincoln had trouble getting out of it. The original is in the Smithsonian Institution, but replicas were made in plaster and bronze, one of which can be seen above. 

Replica of William Scouler's plaster cast of the head of Robert the Bruce.
Replica of William Scouler’s plaster cast of the head of Robert the Bruce.

Robert the Bruce didn’t feel a thing when William Scouler cast his head in plaster 1819.  The Bruce died in 1329 and was buried in Dunfermline Abbey.  His tomb was uncovered during reconstruction of the Abbey and his body was reinterred, but not before Scouler made a cast of it, of which there are multiple copies (see one at right), and from one of which his head has been reconstructed, as you can see courtesy of the BBC. 

Mask-making at Princeton University’s Wintersession, January 2023.

The heads of Lincoln and The Bruce, along with Napoleon, Beethoven, and many others, can now all be found in Special Collections at Princeton.  They are from the Laurence Hutton Papers (C0021). Hutton was editor of the “Literary Notes” Department at Harper’s Magazine from 1886 to 1898. In 1897, Hutton received an honorary M.A. from Princeton, and from 1901 to his death in 1904 he was a lecturer on English. He gifted his papers and his masks to PUL.  Many of these masks he picked up off the street in New York, because they had been thrown out by the spooked widow of the famous phrenologist George Combe.  

Last January, Hutton’s masks were pulled out by Emma Sarconi of Special Collections, and Ariel Ackerly, Princeton University Library’s makerspace specialist, who led a Wintersession program. Wintersession is a free, two-week conference/festival that allows Princeton University undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff to experiment and explore through unexpected, active, and intriguing non-graded learning and growth opportunities. Anyone on campus can lead a session during Wintersession and anyone on campus can sign up to participate. 

Having studied the likenesses of past luminaries in Special Collections, under the guidance of Emma and Ariel, an eager bunch of future ones helped each other make casts of their hands and faces in the Maker Space in the Lewis Library.  And so I leave you with two heads of the very game Alain St. Pierre, our distinguished Librarian for History, History of Science and African Studies. The first is head shot St Pierre as a younger man, shown on his staff profile page, and the second as he looked last January, seen on the right. It looks like he has had first-hand knowledge of the experience of Abraham Lincoln!

Editor’s note: Although the death masks will not be featured as part of the 2024 Wintersession offerings, there are several options for members of our community who want to explore Special Collections through a workshop this January: