Meaningful Forgeries: Some Remarks on ‘Executioner’s Masks’

Fig. 1 Samurai facial armor (sōmen), labelled “executioner’s mask,” iron, 18th–19thcentury (?), London, Science Museum Group Collection, obj. no. A129822, © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Two ‘executioner’s masks’ housed in the collection of the pharmaceutical entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853–1936) have recently been exposed as historiographical forgeries manufactured by the nineteenth-century imaginary. Previously these objects were believed to have covered the face of the executioner during capital punishment, either to disguise his identity or to protect him from the ‘evil eye’ of the dead convict. In an article for History Today, Alison Kinney argued that such notions do not match with early modern written and visual documentation but rather with Victorian ‘gothic’ sensibilities. In fact, the masks seem to have complied with a very modern penal reform agenda that removed executions from the public. Still today in the United States contemporary executioners wear ‘reinvented’ covers to avoid identification.[1]

The historical legitimacy of the ‘executioner’s mask’ is being called into question. Like other items of legal material culture, these masks, helmets, or hoods are commonly showcased in uncanonical institutions, such as crime museums, castle ‘torture chambers,’ and local folkloristic displays. In these spaces, their mise-en-scèneoften evokes ‘medieval’ horrors, sometimes with the intention of raising awareness of state violence, but rarely are they scrutinized for their formal make-up or historical background. Wellcome was particularly interested in medical objects, which he believed to key into the evolutionary progress of mankind. He may have been aware of the executioner’s proficiency as a barber and veterinary surgeon as well as a pharmacist, who produced powerful drugs from the bodily remains of his victims.[2]However, Wellcome may also have envisaged broader ethnographic issues that resonated with the ritual, shamanic, and disease masks of other cultures grouped together in a universal typology of ‘instruments.’[3]In the context of such a comparative reading, one of the two ‘forged’ masks (fig. 1) seems to have been misinterpreted. The object is composed of four riveted iron plates and embossed into a frowning physiognomy: staring eyes, puckered brows, a furrowed forehead, a gaping mouth, and a protracting beak, vaguely reminiscent of sixteenth-century German tournament helmets or the bird-like plague doctor masks. On the website of the London Science Museum the object is characterized as a “gruesome figure, […] deliberately macabre and menacing to further terrify the prisoner.”[4]As pointed out by Kinney, the mask is in fact a Japanese sōmen, a piece of full facial armor worn by the Samurai, recognizable by the two pegs underneath the chin (otayori no kugi). The face portrays the fire-breathing bird creature Karura from Hindu-Buddhist mythology. Kinney argues that this misconception results from a ‘barbaric’ refashioning of the past. To me, it seems more likely that it was suggested by common anthropological concerns believed to be at work both in Samurai culture and the early modern executioner. In the public consciousness, the Japanese military class was noted for a particularly ‘civilized’ handling of death, above all the practice of seppuku, translated at the time as “happy despatch.”[5]Such ritual suicide allowed for an honorable death that atoned for past or potential future shame. Seppuku was also administered as a form of capital punishment executed in front of an audience, not unlike the spectacle of the scaffold. The object may thus have invited comparison with European history. Its ‘apotropaic’ physiognomy, however, would have contrasted with a noble vocation of death, even more so in light of the decorative casting of fin-de-siècle Japonism. Instead, its unusual features seem to have struck a chord with premodern shaming imagery, which inspired contemporary notions of ‘ancient’ legal culture as a whole. Even so, the identification of the mask remains wrong, but it is not random.

Fig. 2 Mask, painted iron, 17th–18thcentury, London, Tower of London, obj. no. XVIII.39, © Royal Armouries.

In a similar vein, some ‘executioner’s masks’ are speculated to have been reworked from ‘masks of shame,’ such as the infamous sneering headman in the Tower of London (fig. 2), which was supposedly staged as a morbid tourist attraction.[6]The same has been claimed for a hooded mask with distorted facial features in the collection of the Kriminalmuseum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Two embossed half masks with staring eyes and arching eyebrows in the Museo della Tortura in San Gimignano strongly resemble masks worn by the Harlequin in the Commedia dell Arte, both a fool and devilish trickster. The fully enclosing helmets with beak-like muzzles in the Kriminalmuseum in Scharnstein, the ‘dungeon’ of the Saxon Jagdschloss Augustusburg, the Museo della Tortura in Montepulciano, and again in Rothenburg are identified by Kenney as bascinets, while yet another object in San Gimignano appears to be a medieval heaume with a pointy nose awkwardly attached to the visor. Taken together, these ‘fakes’ seem to convey nothing but crude historical exoticism. However, seen from a different perspective, they do share a common sense of defamation invested in the office of the executioner. Unlike argued by Kinney, these objects did not so much distort the historical past but updated collective memory. Rather than camouflaging the executioner, they characterize him, using the same derisive vocabulary sanctioned by early modern legal culture. Foolish, distorted, and animal physiognomies featured prominently in ‘masks of shame,’ which in turn resonated with ‘grotesque’ helmet designs of the time.[7]The ‘executioner’s mask’ thus inverts the rationale of defamatory practices, which used to stigmatize perpetrators and expose them to public humiliation, but now denounce the agent of law instead. In fact, such infamy was inherent to the profession. Just like ‘masks of shame’ displaced the delinquent from the community, the executioner was dishonorable by law, shunned by his neighbors, and in some cases required to wear recognizable outfits, though no face covers are mentioned.[8]He was considered taboo, his touch infectious. In the arts, his appearance was brutalized, both physiognomically and morally.[9]The ‘gothic’ masking of the executioner therefore does not so much indicate ‘repression,’ as Kinney contends, but reenacts a social stereotyping deeply ingrained in cultural memory. Now banned from sight, the ‘invisible’ executioner is resurrected as a phantasmagorical scapegoat that manifests the shame of legal killing and continues to haunt the public conscience.

The ‘executioner’s mask’ grapples with the ambiguities of legal violence. Even though forging documentary truth, these objects nevertheless share in a common cultural labor that resurfaces through history and tacitly steers artistic production, very much in the sense of Wellcome’s medical anthropology or Warburg’s “after-life” (Nachleben). The ‘fake’ masks provide the law with a public face, where such has been denied by newly ‘rational’ authority.[10]

[1]Kinney, Alison: “Off with His Hood”, in: History Today, 66, 6 (2016), pp. 28–35. For the covering of the executioner, id.: Hood. London: Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 7–16.

[2]Wilbertz, Gisela: “Scharfrichter, Medizin und Strafvollzug in der Frühen Neuzeit”, in: Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung, 26 (1999), pp. 515–555.

[3]Lawrence, Ghislaine: “Wellcome‘s Museum for the Science of History”, in: Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome, edited by Ken Arnold / Danielle Olsen, London: The British Museum Press, 2003, pp. 51–71, here: pp. 56–59.

[4]“Executioner’s Mask, Europe, 1501–1700,” obj. no. A129822, Science Museum Group Collection Online,, accessed January 12, 2019.

[5]Mitford, Bertram: “The Execution of Hara-Kiri”, in: The Cornhill Magazine, 20 (1869), pp. 549–554 = Tales of Old Japan, London: Macmillan, 1883, pp. 355–363. For this, Yokoyama, Toshio: Japan in the Victorian Mind: A Study of Stereotyped Images of a Nation, London: Macmillan, 1987, pp. 88–95.

[6]“Iron Mask, 1600–1799,” obj. no. XVIII.39, Tower of London, The Board of Trustees of the Armouries, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.

[7]Jäger, Felix: “Sovereign Infamy: Grotesque Helmets, Masks of Shame and the Prehistory of Caricature”, in: Images of Shame: Infamy, Defamation and the Ethics of ‘oeconomia’, edited by Carolin Behrmann. Berlin / Boston: De Gruyter, 2015, pp. 169–192.

[8]Scheffknecht, Wolfgang: “Ausgrenzung und Gesuchte Nähe: Bemerkungen zur Grenze zwischen der ‘ehrlichen’ und der ‘unehrlichen’ Gesellschaft am Beispiel der Frühneuzeitlichen Scharfrichter im Heiligen Römischen Reich”, in: Grenzen und Entgrenzungen: Historische und Kulturwissenschaftliche Überlegungen am Beispiel des Mittelmeerraums, edited by Beate Burtscher-Bechter et al. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann,2006, pp. 257–284.

[9]Klemettilä, Hannele: Epitomes of Evil: Representation of Executioners in Northern France and the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages, Turnhout: Brepols, 2006, pp. 165–214.

[10]For nineteenth-century legal ‘iconophobia,’ Steinhauer, Fabian: “Who’s Afraid of Black, Red and Gold? Zur Geburt der Ikonophobie aus dem Geist des Kriegsrechts”, in: Aufspaltung und Zerstörung durch Disziplinäre Wissenschaften, edited by Werner W. Ernst, Innsbruck et al.: StudienVerlag, 2003, pp. 79–109.

Cite this blog post
Felix Jäger (2019, April 1). Meaningful Forgeries: Some Remarks on ‘Executioner’s Masks’. BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from

You may also like...

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search