#ThrowbackThursday: John Bigelow’s death mask

Courtesy of Andrew Cassarino

Caesar, Shakespeare, Lincoln and many more greats from history have all been immortalized postmortem. Their faces were casted and molded into death masks.

Common from the early days of Egypt and well into the 20th century, death masks served for sculptures, paintings, remembrance and forensics.

In Special Collections, Union houses one of their very own death masks. The cast will forever hold the last expression of John Bigelow.

Bigelow is a common name on this campus. Members of the Union community could win the John Bigelow Prize or any student could venture to Special Collections and see his letters and personnel library. Bigelow will not soon be forgotten by Union or the nation.

Born in Malden, NY in 1817, Bigelow showed early signs of intelligence. At the young age of 13, Bigelow attended Washington College.

Washington College proved to be lackluster and fairly easy for the young scholar, who soon began to lose interest. Bigelow’s brother, David, was studying at Union. He wrote often to John, encouraging him to transfer there with him, and since John constantly worried about his younger brother, he did.

In 1834, John transferred to Union. As a member of the college community, Bigelow was voted into Sigma Phi and was a member of the Philomathean Society.

Bigelow left Union upon graduation in 1835 with bitter feelings towards the college. While taking extra time off, Bigelow missed the honors commencement, and since a requirement of the distinction was to be present at the ceremony, he was not allowed to graduate with honors.

Following his admittance to the bar in 1838, Bigelow joined the staff of the New York Evening Post. There he worked with the famous William Cullen Bryant.

Bigelow wrote political essays and poems and soon found himself aligned with the Democratic Party.

Tensions within the party had been growing since 1776, and were reaching a peak on the issue of slavery.

Bigelow, staunchly anti-slavery, could no longer support his party and joined the newly formed Republican Party, under the guidance of Bradford Wood (class of 1824), in 1856.

With Lincoln’s election in 1860 and the outbreak of war in 1861, Bigelow was caught in the tricky world of politics. William H. Seward (class of 1820), thought highly of Bigelow’s talents and recommended Bigelow as consul-general to France.

Bigelow gladly accepted the position and played an extremely important role in the war. Teamed with the ambassador to England, Charles Francis Adams, Bigelow kept the French out of the Civil War.

Working with diplomats from France, Bigelow convinced France to stay out of the fight and to refuse recognition of the Confederate States of America as an independent country. He also held the Confederacy at bay when it built ships in the harbors of France. After the war, Bigelow joined forces with Samuel Tilden to fight the political machine of New York, headed by William Marcy Tweed.

Following Tilden’s death in 1886, Bigelow turned his estate into the first major public library in New York City. Bigelow’s love for books also inspired him to return the manuscript of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which he had found in France, to the United States and publish his own edited version in 1868.

Bigelow lived to the old age of 94. His life was filled with distinctions and accomplishments and his face will forever be enshrined by his death mask, truly a one of a kind.

Or so it was; Bigelow’s death mask was enshrined using 3D printing.

The members of Union’s Collaborative Design Studio teamed up with Paul Tompkins, the supervisor of the Engineering Machine Lab, and Julie Lohnes, curator of the Art Curation and Exhibition of Union. This project was no small feat. According to Paul Tompkins, the mask had to be scanned with a 3D laser.

The machine used was a Faro Company product, whose CEO and President, Jay Freeland, holds a bachelor degree from Union.

After scanning the mask for an hour, a wire frame image is created on the computer. Several changes are made to this basic model and after about two hours of working with the image, a water tight mesh mask is made.

Tompkins, whose services and team helps much of the campus community, enjoyed the project and created a fairly exact 3D image of the mask.

With a digital image of the mask rendered, the design studio began the printing process, which took several hours.

One of the replica masks, in a blue color, was given to President Stephen Ainlay and now resides in the President’s home.

This project has been a good example of what Union strives to do.

The blending of disciplines resulted in a project both rewarding and significant to the advancement of science and the preservation of history.



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