Robert Ellsworth, owner of “Pancho Villa’s Death Mask,” commissioned Shidoni Foundry to produce a limited edition of 100 bronzes from a plaster cast. Collectors with a taste for history with a touch of the macabre can see the bronze on display at Shidoni’s Bronze Gallery.
Pancho Villa has been just as controversial in death as he was in life. A general in the Mexican Revolution, throughout his life he was reviled as a murderer and ultimately revered as a revolutionary and a hero who crusaded for the ideals of civil liberties, education and equality. In spite of his reputation as a brave and charismatic leader, he had made many enemies as well. He was gunned down while driving near his ranch in Parral, Mexico on July 20, 1923.
Villa was shot thirteen times in the torso, and once in the head. Upon his death, the undertakers embalmed his body and made a death mask of his face using 20 pounds of plaster to create the vivid artifact, complete with bullet wound.
The mask was given to Otto Norwald a German resident of Chihuahua and one of Villa’s supporters, who had it for a number of years before donating it to The Radford School in El Paso, TX. The headmistress at the time, Lucinda Templin, was a rather eccentric figure and had a large collection of military artifacts. For many years, she kept the death mask hidden in her lingerie drawer.
Eventually the mask ended up in storage at the school, where it was discovered in 1937 by Gutzon Borglum, the lead sculptor of Mount Rushmore and Robert Ellsworth's grandfather. Borglum was lecturing at The Radford School when he came across Villa’s death mask and was given permission to make a copy of it. Later in 1978, one of the art teachers at Radford, Steve Beck, rediscovered the mask, and was also given permission to make several wax and plaster copies of it as well.
By that time, Pancho Villa had been enshrined as a national hero, and the state of Chihuahua was clamoring for the return of the death mask to Mexico. The school refused, and it was only through the intervention of Otto Norwald’s daughter, a former student at Radford, that the mask was eventually returned to the governor of the state of Chihuahua in a ceremony which designated it as a national treasure.