This article was originally published in The Texas Observer magazine
Here’s my most vivid memory from Midland: I am a teenager, my nose pressed flat to the glass to better see a display case at the Midland County Historical Museum. The case and the museum are in the county library’s dark basement. Yet the object of my fascination, six plaster of Paris death masks, glow enticingly with an aura of violence and decay.
Even then, as an Old West enthusiast, I know all about the desperados whose features supposedly formed the masks: Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Dalton, Butch Cassidy, Clay Allison and Bob Ford-“the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse [James] in his grave.”
Those masks have haunted my dreams since the mid-60s, so much so that I recently returned to stare at them again. The masks, I discovered, are exactly the same, and yet everything is different.
Jesse’s face is serene, as if he’s sleeping. The most infamous outlaw in American history looks more at rest than he probably ever looked in life. He began riding with Bloody Bill Anderson’s Confederate guerillas when he was 16, robbing banks and trains almost as soon as Lee surrendered at Appomattox. He didn’t stop until Ford murdered him in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1882.
I see Jesse’s assassin, Bob Ford. His face appears appropriately anguished-his broad lips pulled back in a grimace. Ford was killed almost the same way he murdered Jesse, by a man who didn’t give him a chance, instead catching him by surprise and filling him with lead from a double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun.
Wild Bill’s features are also serene. He never knew what hit him. The auburn-haired ex-lawman, former Union Army scout, Indian fighter and showman, was shot in the back of the head, in 1876, while playing poker in a Deadwood, S.D., saloon. Hickok, only 39, never knew Jack McCall was creeping up behind him. “Take that,” McCall said, according to a Deadwood newspaper, and fired. McCall later said he was avenging a brother that Hickok killed while he was marshal in Abilene, Kansas.
Hickok’s brains may have splattered on that card table, but his memory lived on. His 1865 shootout with David Tutt in Springfield, Mo., was reportedly the first recorded example of a classic Western gunfight: two men walking toward each other in the middle of a street, blasting away. They were about 50 feet apart when both fired. Tutt missed. Hickok drilled Tutt through the heart.
The mask of Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy) is grotesque. If this really is Parker, he was no Paul Newman. The mask’s nose is extremely broad and uneven, the lips unnaturally wide. The area under the right eye is seemingly filled with scar tissue or swelling. Cassidy and sidekick Harry Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid) achieved fame as leaders of the “Hole-In-The-Wall” gang, named after their Wyoming hideout, and more fame later in the movie that bore their names.
Most experts believe Cassidy and the kid were killed in San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1908, after they held up a mule train carrying the Aramayo Mine payroll. But as with much of Western lore, where fact became myth almost immediately, there is a sliver of doubt. In the 1970s, Cassidy’s sister claimed he came home and lived in the Northwest until his (natural) death. His mask depicts a middle-aged man so ugly, it’s hard to believe the law never caught him.
Clay Allison’s mask is also inexplicably serene. He died in Pecos County, Texas, in 1887, falling off a hay wagon, the wheels of which ran over his neck. Allison-who called himself “a shootist”-is the only one among the six masks who could be considered a Texan. He was born in Tennessee in 1840, fought with Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, then ranched in Texas and New Mexico when he wasn’t killing folks. At one point, Allison bragged he had never killed a man who “didn’t need killing.” A yellowed piece of paper pasted to the mask describes Allison as a bad man “but not a murderer.”
Bank robber Bill Dalton’s tongue protrudes from his lips in his mask. In better days, Dalton belonged to the Dalton-Younger gang, filled with his brothers and cousins. In 1894, he organized another gang (his brothers had been killed or sent to prison), and it robbed the First National Bank in Longview, Texas. The gang promised to “take East Texas by storm.” Instead, lawmen killed one of the gang outside the bank and later found Dalton when he spent some of his ill-gotten gains. They gunned him down as he tried to escape. Not the brightest outlaw, Dalton sent a note to Longview bank officials warning them the bank would be robbed, and helpfully provided dates.
Today the once-dark museum is in a bright library annex. A few phone calls and an Internet search quickly raise questions about the authenticity of the masks. The museum’s 94-year-old curator, Nancy McKinley, is convinced they are genuine despite lack of solid proof of their origins. Miss McKinley, who has been Midland County’s Historical Society president (and its only president) for 50 years, says a society member bought the masks about 1960, or 1961, from a Chicago antiques dealer. “It sure does look like them. When you put them against their pictures, you can see the resemblance,” she says.
Well … not so much. It’s easy to see that Wild Bill could not really have been the (helpless) model for his supposed death mask. Hickok had an oval chin, a long, oval face, a hooked nose, and wide, flaring nostrils. The mask has a square chin and differently shaped nose and nostrils. While Jesse James’ mask might compare with his photo, his killer Bill Ford’s visage looks nothing like the death grimace at the museum. So it goes through the lot.
Six Wild West experts say they doubt the masks are genuine, or that they could not possibly be genuine. Tom Goodrich, author of 10 nonfiction books, five about the American West, says he has extensively researched Old West characters, but has never read that plaster of Paris was used on the dead faces of Hickok, James, Ford, Allison, Dalton, or Cassidy. “That doesn’t mean there weren’t such masks, simply that it is not well known,” he says.
Also, since nobody knows when, how or where Cassidy died, “doesn’t that cast suspicion on all the other purported masks?” Goodrich asks.
Liz Murphy, historic interpreter for the Jesse James Farm and Museum, in Kearney, Mo., says she believes James experts would know if a James death mask had been made, or “even if a prominent fake existed … just the mention of Jesse’s name will bring in dollars.”
Miss McKinley-a loyal daughter of Texas who wears the state flag on her earrings and flies it on her 1976, yellow Ford Elite-says the masks have never fascinated her, though many museum visitors have been caught in their grip.
“They just want to know if the masks are real, and we say that’s what we were told,” she says, adding that children are particularly able to relate. “They know about Jesse James getting shot in the back, and they say, ‘Oh, poor guy.’ They’ve never seen a death mask, they tell me.”
Most people are equally fascinated by the museum’s shrunken head, Miss McKinley says, and the collection of items a local butcher found through the years in chicken gizzards; nails, screws, marbles, bullets, nails, bottle caps, and needles, among others. The gizzard trash is her personal favorite.
The masks are now in storage to make way for a World War II exhibit. But they can be taken out for visitors when the museum is open, three days a week, from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., when Miss McKinley is able to work.
I’m considerably older than a teenager today, and even without the knowledge that they are probably fake, the masks have lost their luster. When I was 16, a bad man’s fame and deadliness seemed glamorous. I stared for hours at a time at the masks, drawn to the bad ones, the men who had been wanted, had shot it out with the law, been chased, and, for a time, escaped. They were daring. Now I know there is more value in creation than destruction. A life filled with goodness holds more romance for me.
When I saw the masks in June, I was able to touch Bill Dalton’s tongue and Jesse’s eyes. I didn’t feel a thing.