Page 18


Nancy McKinley photo by Julia Robb Society president \(and its only presiber 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 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 McKinleya loyal daughter of Texas who wears the state flag on her earrings and flies it on her 1976, yellow Ford Elitesays 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. Julia Robb is a freelance journalist who lives in Marshall. She can be reached at [email protected] JULY 13, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31