About Fred’s Head

Fred K Deeming

Frederick Bailey Deeming was bad in so many ways. A swindler and bigamist, he graduated to murderer when his first wife and their four children became inconvenient. He buried them under the kitchen floor of a cottage in Rainhill, England, and cemented them over. A few months later he killed another wife in Melbourne, Australia, on Christmas Eve. He buried her under the hearthstone of a bedroom fireplace but botched the job and the remains were discovered. The police followed his trail to the Western Australia gold fields. On his way, he had proposed marriage to two more women – one accepted and agreed to join him; she was on her way west when she received a telegram from her sister, “FOR GODS SAKE GO NO FURTHER.” Deeming was apprehended, brought to Melbourne and, after a swift trial, executed on May 23, 1892.

But what of Fred’s head?

Creating death masks was a common practice in Australia in the nineteenth century. The masks were made mostly of executed men and were used for public display of justice being done and for phrenological analysis to see if a cranial aberration had caused criminal behavior. The Old Melbourne Gaol, the site of Deeming’s execution and now a National Trust of Australia museum, has a collection of 36 death masks, including Deeming’s.

Deeming Death Mask at Gaol

There was also a secondary market. Madame Sohier’s Waxwork Exhibition on Melbourne’s Bourke Street thrived on wax likenesses of murderers. Philemon Sohier, a phrenologist, and his wife Ellen, an artist and model maker, were the principals. When a convict was executed, Philemon would go to the jail, shave the corpse’s head and face, cover the head with oil and apply plaster to make a mold. Back at the museum, Ellen would pour plaster or wax into the hardened plaster cast to create a mask. A simple death mask would go back to the prison, and another would be made more lifelike for the museum. In just two days, the visage of the executed killer would be on display in Madame Sohier’s “Chamber of Horrors,” a darkened room atop a flight of stone steps, requiring another admission fee and a strong heart.

The Melbourne Punch observed, “The waxworks is a colonial industry; the more murderers, the more it thrives.”

In 1869, Ludwig Maximilian “Max” Kreitmayer, a Bavarian whose specialty was anatomical wax sculptures, took over the museum and renamed it Kreitmayer’s Waxworks. He shared the Sohiers’ enthusiasm for late night runs to the jail to keep the Chamber of Horrors fresh.

One of Kreitmayer’s biggest draws was a tableau of the infamous Kelly Gang. Kreitmayer had rushed to the small town of Benalla in June of 1880, after a gun battle, to cast the corpse of gang member Joe Byrne, and returned with casts of Byrne’s head, hands and feet, and his boots still crusty with mud and blood. In November, Kreitmayer cast gang leader Ned Kelly hours after his execution in Melbourne. (In an odd turn of events, members of the Kelly family visited the tableau to pay their respects.)

But back to Fred Deeming, executed in May of 1892 at Melbourne Gaol. After Deeming’s body was taken down from the gallows, Kreitmayer shaved off Fred’s hair and then created a death mask for the jail’s collection. However, for the head in the Chamber of Horrors, another head was cast and Deeming’s own hair was reapplied for an added touch of verisimilitude.

And this was done not once, but twice. Because Deeming was a murderer of note in England as well as Australia, a second head was made for Madame Tussaud’s waxworks in London and mailed to England, arriving on August 22, 1892.

Deeming Head

Photo by Edwin Josiah Poyser, who bought the waxworks from the Tussaud family in 1889.

In 1925, Deeming’s head was almost lost to a fire at Madame Tussaud’s in London. One news account noted, “Ten thousand onlookers watched the progress of the fire, and when they heard the wax models sizzling shouted to the firemen, ‘How’s Deeming?’”

* * *

Selected Sources

Melbourne Punch, June 6, 1867

“Thrills and Chills in the Waxworks,” Argus Week-end Magazine, June 10, 1939

“The Marvellous and Macabre Waxworks,” State Library of Victoria

Frederick Deeming on Wikipedia

“Facing Death at the Old Melbourne Gaol” by Trevor Poultney


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