Max Kreitmayer and the missing Joe Byrne death mask

One of the most famous relics of the heyday of bushranging is the death mask of Ned Kelly made by Max Kreitmayer just after the execution of the Victorian outlaw. It is a sombre reminder of a young life snuffed out prematurely, but also of the trail of chaos and destruction he left in his wake. What many don’t know is that Kreitmayer also had a death mask of another member of the Kelly Gang: 23 year old Joe Byrne.

A rare image of Joe Byrne strung up on the door of a lock-up cell in Benalla.

For decades the Bourke Street Waxworks was one of the most significant locations in Melbourne. Not only was it a waxworks museum, it was often used to host dances, live music and lectures among other events. Established in 1853 by the Sohiers, it was a sister location to the famous Sohiers waxworks in Sydney. However in 1871 the rights to the museum were bought by Maximilian Ludwig Kreitmayer, a Hungarian anatomist who specialised in wax models for medical students; specifically models of organs afflicted with venereal diseases. His enormous collection of wax reproductive organs exhibiting everything from warts to syphilis was initially added to the Sohier collection but public backlash against the “pornographic” display saw it replaced with something far more exciting.

Madame Tussaud’s wax museum was world class. It featured life-like statues of some of the most renowned people in history. Kings, Queens, poets and painters – the collection spanned a huge denomination of people throughout history. However the most popular part of the museum was a special room which you could enter for an additional fee called The Chamber of Horrors. Within was a pantheon of criminals, despots and monsters along with an assortment of torture methods on display with wax statues demonstrating the operation of the stomach-churning activities. There was also a collection of severed heads on pikes that were cast from molds Marie Tussaud herself had made of aristocrats beheaded in the French revolution including the likes of Marie Antoinette. The enterprising Sohier museum had emulated this and Kreitmayer followed suit. The most infamous crimes and criminals were replicated in wax for people to see for an additional fee on top of their general admission. Chief among the exhibits of criminals in the chamber were the bushrangers. So renowned was Sohier’s waxwork of Morgan, for example, that Dan Morgan himself bragged about sneaking into town to see himself immortalised in wax (though the situation is very unlikely). Duplicates were made for Kreitmayer’s branch in Melbourne but gradually Kreitmayer added his own statues to The Chamber of Horrors. At the turn of the century the Melbourne waxworks had statues of Gardiner, Morgan, Robert Burke, Jimmy Governor, Paddy Kenniff and the Kelly Gang on display.

In June 1880 the colony of Victoria was suddenly abuzz with the unfolding news of the infamous Kelly Gang battling police in a tiny railway town called Glenrowan. At the conclusion of the siege, gang leader Ned Kelly was captured alive but his companions Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart all perished. A fire destroyed the bodies of Dan and Steve but Joe was retrieved with minor scorching to extremities. He had been killed by a bullet to the groin causing him to bleed to death that morning. Not one to miss an opportunity, Kreitmayer sought permission from the Chief Commissioner of police to get special access to the body. Access was granted and only two days after the siege, molds were being made of Byrne’s head, hands and feet. Kreitmayer even managed to snag Byrne’s boots, still crusty with mud and blood.

Within weeks the molds had been used to generate a statue that was exhibited in The Chamber of Horrors. Advertisements boasted of a full body cast of Byrne the bushranger and contemporary accounts described the scene in detail.

In the 1890s the prison ship Success was purchased by a private owner to be converted into a floating museum. A set of waxworks figures were sold to the floating museum by Kreitmayer including a set of the popular Kelly Gang display figures. The five statues (the gang plus Kate Kelly) were displayed behind bars with a backdrop made to resemble the Australian bush. Only one photograph is known to exist of this set of statues and the most curious is that of Byrne. Seated next to the statue of Ned Kelly, it has a far more life-like face and hands compared to the majority of the set. The hands are oddly splayed against the thighs and seemingly disconnected at the elbow. It’s easy to imagine this splayed-finger look being the result of finding an effective way to mold a dead man’s hands.

When compared to a photograph of Byrne’s corpse taken on an almost identical angle the truth becomes apparent. This is the wax statue made from Kreitmayer’s molds of the corpse.

If this is a duplicate, which is undoubtedly the case as Kreitmayer kept his Kelly Gang display intact and it remained thus until the museum was converted into a cinema in 1910, then naturally other versions exist or existed. A mysterious image taken around the same time shows a disembodied wax head with the handwritten label “Ned Kelly”. The first thing one noticed is that it doesn’t resemble Ned Kelly at all despite the long hair and beard. The next thing that’s noticeable is how realistic this head looks.

If this is, as it seems to be, made from a cast of a real face, but it isn’t Ned Kelly’s face, could it be from a different member of the Kelly Gang? A comparison between this face and two known photos of Joe, one as a 21 year old and the other post mortem, may show if this is so.

The dimensions match overall but notably there’s a tremendous resemblance in the eyebrows, nose, cheeks and lips that seems far more than a mere coincidence. Such a strong resemblance would normally be fairly conclusive, but unfortunately without knowing the providence of the image it is impossible to prove conclusively that this is Joe or that it is a Kreitmayer waxwork. It seems unlikely that the museum would have been in operation for half a century, during which time we went from photography being limited to rare tintypes to having motion pictures, and the collection to have not been photographed in part or entirely. At the least one might expect photos to be taken for insurance purposes if not for posterity or promotion. If this head is part of a defunct collection from 1910 then surely other photos exist in that collection too. For now we can merely speculate on this image.

Postscript: The image of the disembodied wax head is one I have been examining ever since I came across it on Pinterest in December 2018, while doing research for my novel, ‘Glenrowan’. I still do not know the provenance of it and due to the way Pinterest is designed I cannot contact the person who originally posted it to enquire as to where it came from. If you are that person, or know who they are please contact me at australianbushranging@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s