Joseph and Hyrum Death Masks

10 November 2022

Museum Treasures

June 27, 1844, was a dark day in Nauvoo, Illinois, as Church members received word that their beloved prophet, Joseph Smith, and his brother Hyrum had been killed at Carthage Jail. Friends guarded their bodies in Carthage until the next day, when they were brought home to Nauvoo.

The Dibble death masks of Joseph (L) and Hyrum (R) Smith on display at the Church History Museum.

Their mother, Lucy Mack Smith, described her experience first seeing them:

“After the corpses were washed and dressed in their burial clothes we were allowed to see them. I had for a long time braced every nerve, roused every energy of my soul, and called upon God to strengthen me; but when I entered the room, and saw my murdered sons, extended both at once before my eyes; and heard the sobs and groans of my family—the cries of ‘Father! Husband! Brothers!’ from the lips of their wives, children, brothers and sisters, it was too much—I sunk back crying to the Lord in the agony of my soul, My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken this family? A voice replied, I have taken them to myself that they might have rest. ...

“As I looked upon their peaceful, smiling countenances, I seemed to almost hear them say: mother, weep not for us; we have overcome the world by love; we carried to them the gospel, that their souls might be saved—they slew us for our testimony, and thus placed us beyond their power—their ascendancy is for a moment—ours is an eternal triumph.”1

Despite the violence of their deaths, their faces, preserved forever in plaster, appear calm and serene.

Modern-day copies of the Joseph and Hyrum Smith death masks.

The tradition of making death masks dates back to ancient Egypt, when the masks were served as aids to portrait sculptors.2 By the Middle Ages, death masks were created both as a memento of the person and as a model from which sculptures and paintings of the person could be made.3 Although the tradition of making death masks is not well known today, it remained popular through the 19th century and into the 20th. Some famous people, including Abraham Lincoln, also sat for life masks, or casts of their faces made while they were still living.4

The Church History Department has several copies of Joseph and Hyrum’s death masks, but there are two sets of masks that are frequently displayed by the museum and referenced by historians. The first set, often referred to as the Dibble masks, is the set that has been on display in the Church History Museum for many years; it is pictured at the top of this page. These masks were created from the original mold of Joseph and Hyrum’s faces made by George Cannon, an early Saint and friend of the Smiths. A local Nauvoo plasterer named Ariah Brower may have also assisted in the molds’ creation.5 Cannon made the molds on June 29, 1844, after Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies were returned to Nauvoo. It is unknown when the masks themselves were made from the molds, which are presumed to have been destroyed during the masks’ creation.

Cannon died later that year. After his death, a Latter-day Saint named William Rowley obtained the masks, and he, in turn, sold them to Philo Dibble—another early Saint who had been close to the Smiths—in 1849.6 Dibble owned the masks for decades and exhibited them around the Utah Territory, hence the masks’ association with his name. He eventually sold the masks, which passed through various hands until being purchased by Wilford C. Wood, who displayed them in his Bountiful, Utah, museum.7 The Wood family donated the masks to the Church in 1990.

The other set of death masks are the “Pedestal” masks, so called because the mask rests atop a large lump of plaster that acts as a display stand (in other words, a pedestal).

The Pedestal death mask of Joseph Smith.

These masks’ history is less clear than that of the Dibble masks. We believe that they were cast using molds created from the Dibble masks. They have been in the collection since President Joseph F. Smith, and they may be the copies commissioned by John Taylor to be used by an artist in England to make busts of Joseph and Hyrum based on them, but we don’t know much else.8 Their depiction of Joseph and Hyrum’s features is more complete than the Dibble masks—for example, the cleft in Hyrum’s chin is visible only on the Pedestal masks due to repairs made to the Dibble masks sometime after they were used to make the Pedestal masks.

The other masks in our holdings are copies of copies. As far as we can now ascertain, the Dibble masks were the earliest masks made.

Recently, Church History Department experts undertook a project to create three-dimensional scans of the death masks. (The Church History Library has published an article on its blog with additional information about the digitization project.) We are pleased to offer these 3D models as free downloads, allowing you to examine the death masks in detail on your own device. They are available in three file formats: a .zip file, which contains .obj, .mtl, and jpg files that can be used with most 3D image viewers; .glb, compatible with Microsoft/Android devices; and .usdz, for Apple/iOS. To download a file, click on its link below:

Dibble mask - Joseph Smith ( .glb .usdz)

Dibble mask - -Hyrum Smith ( .glb .usdz)

Pedestal mask - Joseph Smith ( .glb .usdz)

Pedestal mask - Hyrum Smith ( .glb .usdz)