Monday, August 31, 2015

Death Mask of Charles Duncan McIver

Death mask of Charles Duncan McIver
On the morning of September 17, 1906, Charles Duncan McIver passed away from apoplexy at the age of 45, leaving behind a lasting legacy as the founder and first president of the State Normal and Industrial School (now UNCG). Immediately following his death, Wells L. Brewer, a prominent Greensboro architect, designer, and sculptor, was commissioned to create a death mask of McIver. Arriving at the undertakers with his tools in hand, Brewer worked diligently for several hours taking detailed measurements of McIver’s features and sculpting the mask. Unlike typical death masks, which only take impressions of the face, a cast of McIver’s entire head was done in order for busts of him to be created at a later time.

The casting of a death mask was not an uncommon practice in the 18th and 19th century. Since the time of ancient Egypt, they have been used by portrait sculptors to create life-like replicas of an individuals. They were often valued as mementos of the dead. Several famous death masks include that of President Abraham Lincoln, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, scientist Sir Isaac Newton, and even movie director Alfred Hitchcock.

After McIver’s death, a committee was formed with the purpose of ensuring that his love and service to the school and education in the state of North Carolina was preserved in the form of a memorial statue. In 1909, Brewer sent the death mask to Frederick Wellington Ruckstuhl who had been commissioned to create the sculpture. Following the completion and dedication of the statue, Ruckstuhl maintained possession of the death mask until 1915, when he returned it to Edward K. Graham, President of the University at Chapel Hill. It was placed on display in the Peabody Educational Building for several years.

In March 1962, Dr. James W. Patron, Head of the Southern Historical Room in the University Library at Chapel Hill, wrote to Woman’s College (WC) Chancellor Otis Singletary, inquiring if he might be interested in obtaining McIver’s death mask. Following up on the query, WC Librarian Charles M. Adams happily accepted the offer and on May 22, 1962, he drove to Chapel Hill with Lula Martin McIver, the daughter of Dr. McIver, to retrieve the mask. Today, the death mask resides in the Special Collections and University Archives at UNCG where it has become a unique and popular oddity.

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