Thomas Rogan’s death mask and other missing objects

Could this unassuming photograph of three plaster casts be the vital clue to a long-standing case of mistaken identity?
These death masks were photographed in 1975 in the police academy in Redfern. The one on the far right is Andrew George Scott (Captain Moonlite), while the one on the far left is the casting that has been attributed to his accomplice Thomas Rogan.

However, not only does the face on the attributed cast not resemble Rogan at all, the middle, unnamed, casting matches the mugshot taken of Rogan after his capture at McGlede’s farm quite closely. Furthermore, the middle death mask matches a description of Rogan’s death mask from a newspaper article published in 1913.

They have even secured plaster casts of the heads of that notorious couple Scott, alias Moonlight and Rogan, which were taken after their execution in Darlinghurst for the murder of Constable Bowen, at Wantabadgery. That of Rogan possesses all the characteristics of the criminal. The lips which are extraordinarily thick, are open, showing a set of vicious-looking teeth.

The Chamber of Horrors, Bathurst Times (NSW : 1909 – 1925), Monday 28 July 1913, page 4

The article quoted here is a write-up on what was then called the Sydney Police Museum. Within the article it describes, and even includes some photographs of items in the collection including Ben Hall’s Tranter, a book of poetry belonging to Frank Johns (another of Moonlite’s accomplices), and part of a pistol taken from the ruins of the Glenrowan Inn.
The collection in the museum in 1913 was taken from the 1910 New South Wales police museum, which served to educate police officers on the history of law enforcement. That same collection forms the basis of the current iteration, now called the Justice and Police Museum, housed in the former Water Police building in Sydney.

A detail from Rogan’s prison record.

It is also worth noting that the middle cast in the photograph matches the style of Moonlite’s more closely, only extending as far as the neck, while the third mask includes part of the collarbone and shoulders, which would indicate a different manufacturer had accomplished it. But if it’s not Thomas Rogan on the end there, who is it?

“Some of the artefacts, Including death masks of Captain Moonlite and Thomas Rogan, Ned Kelly’s 44 Webley Scott revolver, Captain Moonlite’s 38 Pin Fire, and the noose used on many early bush rangers. Death masks, truncheons, court records and knuckle dusters.” [Source]

It may seem like trying to correctly label the plaster cast of an executed bushranger is far from a pressing matter, but it is a symptom of the bigger problem with lost and incorrectly labelled items in archives.

It wouldn’t be the first time an object in a collection was mislabelled. In fact, it is not uncommon for items to sometimes go completely missing, as was the case with a collection of death masks from the early 19th century. Among the masks were casts of Jack Donohoe, murderer John Knatchbull and other minor bushrangers. All that remains of the collection is a single photograph taken in the 1860s. It seems unlikely that such a huge collection could simply be misplaced, but apparently that is precisely what happened as it appears to have vanished without a trace after being given to the Museum of Anatomy at Sydney University in 1897.

A detail of the 1860s photograph, showing Donohoe’s death mask (top, centre) among scores of others, some of which are duplicates. [Source]

Alas, similar stories are all too common. Many items related to the Kelly Gang, for instance, have disappeared over time, either through theft, misplacement or plain neglect. A prime example is the modified carbine that Ned was believed to have used to kill Constable Lonigan. Photographs exist of it from when it was displayed with his armour at the Royal Exhibition building, but supposedly it was consumed in the fire that destroyed the aquarium housed there.

Even Ned Kelly’s boot, which is on display in the State Library of Victoria, was missing for decades following it being misplaced in a storeroom, which was the same fate as what has been identified as one of his armoured shoulder plates. The plate was in the possession of the organisation that is now known Museums Victoria, and was hung from the bottom of what was then thought of as the backplate (since identified as Steve Hart’s breastplate). When the armour was given to the State Library, the shoulder plate was not included as it had been lost in storage. It wasn’t until many years later that it was relocated, but it still remains in the collection of Museums Victoria, which has caused issues recently. The contract between the SLV and Museums Victoria that allowed the plate to be displayed with the rest of the intact armour expired during the 2020 lockdowns. This meant that legally the SLV could not display it until a new agreement was made, forcing the library to display the incomplete suit in the new dedicated gallery space. It was only after the agitation by Ned Kelly die-hards who wrote to politicians that the negotiations were settled and the plate once again restored.

Ned Kelly’s armour, missing a shoulder plate, on display in Melbourne.

There are also written accounts testifying to the existence of other death masks that have seemingly vanished, including casts of Ogden and Sutherland, Robert Burke and Johnny Gilbert. The fact that these items were often described but have never been photographed or identified in any collections has occasionally put doubt in their existence.

Even more macabre souvenirs that are known to have existed have gone absent, such as Dan Morgan’s flayed beard, which was to have been pegged out like a possum skin to dry, ostensibly to make it into a pouch. It was also rumoured that Morgan’s scrotum had been made into a tobacco pouch, which cannot be verified as no such object has ever been recorded.

Michael Howe’s journal of dreams, bound in kangaroo skin and rumoured to have been written in blood, was in private hands following its seizure after Big McGill and Musquito ambushed Howe, but it too has seemingly vanished. Howe’s earlier journal – a gardening book he had stolen, bound in kangaroo skin and annotated by the outlaw – was also in a private collection, where it was viewed by James Erskine Calder who wrote of Howe in the 1870s after in-depth research, wherein he consulted contemporary records and interviewed people linked to the story. This earlier relic has also long gone.

Researchers and historians often tear their hair out when going through archival material only to find what they were looking for has been misplaced, damaged, or stolen. In fact, where the Kelly story is concerned, documents, or parts thereof, purloined from archives is a big problem, and a major contributor to dead ends in research, allowing myths and falsehoods to occasionally run rampant.

Add onto this the sheer number of firearms, clothing items, letters, photographs, and so on, that have either gone missing, remain in private collections or have simply had their identity lost to the sands of time, and you have a lot of potential to find very important items in all sorts of places.

If indeed the newly identified death mask is Rogan, it begs the questions of where this mask is, why it was so easily mislabelled without correction, and who the death mask claimed to be Rogan is actually of? It seems possible that with a bit more probing and detective work we could see one of the few artefacts of the Moonlite saga brought back to light; and if we can do that for Thomas Rogan, the possibilities for other historical items seems endless.


One thought on “Thomas Rogan’s death mask and other missing objects

  1. Fascinating…id love to work in this field…pity its capital city based. I went to the museum in sydney before recent covid lockdowns back in march or april…at night. I was absolutely mesmerized with how much artefacts were still in existence…i might look into short term volunteering aft uni.

    Liked by 1 person

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