Today in the Library we took the opportunity to have a closer look at our phrenological death mask of John Pallet. The death mask was ‘published’ in Edinburgh around 10 months after John Pallet was hanged for murder in December 1823 in Chelmsford. It seems a curious Victorian hobby to purchase phrenological heads of hanged murderers, but there you go; they also loves séances and arsenic.
John Pallet was a bit of a rogue; a vagrant and a drunk. He was fined for 5 shillings for public drunkenness and also had his pigs confiscated by the local sheriff, James Mumford. John took the opportunity to exact revenge one evening in late 1823. Upon hearing that the Sheriff was soon to arrive on a carriage, Pallet resolved to lay in wait up a country lane, and wait for the Sheriff to make his way to his father’s house. He fashioned a weapon from a tree branch and waited. Dusk had just fallen and the short-sighted Sheriff was feeling his way slowly along the lane. John Pallet crept up behind the unfortunate Mumford and proceeded to ‘smash his skull to atoms’ as the Leicester Chronicle put it. What followed was Pallet entering a kind of fugue state where he stood frozen to the spot over the stricken Sheriff. He was soon to be discovered by a passer by and swiftly arrested. He made no attempt to hide his deed. After a trail where he initially plead ‘not-guilty’ upon being found guilty by the jury and being sentenced to hang, Pallet offered a full confession before his trip to the gallows. Like many convicted criminals who faced the ultimate justice, John Pallet was, after hanging, handed over to anatomists. It was one of them who presumably made the death mask, including his neck which still retained the depression from the rope. (Pallet didn’t die instantly from a neck break, rather the hangman pulled him down by the legs to hasten his end).