CP Article

Jefferson Davis -- Death Mask Cover

John L. Kimbrough MD

In 1946, a collector sent August Dietz Sr a photograph of a cover that so intrigued Gen Dietz that he included the cover in the 1959 edition of his Confederate States Catalog and Handbook as “A Pronounced Freak.” The same listing was also carried over to the 1986 New Dietz Edition.

The listing with a somewhat poor photocopy of the stamp in question is found on Page 143 of the 1986 New Dietz Catalog and reads as follows --

“A printing freak for which no certain explanation can be given is illustrated above. The oddity is reminiscent of the Serbian ‘death mask’ stamp of 1904 and the propaganda forgery of the Hitler stamp during World War II. This unique item is the left stamp of a pair on cover postmarked Columbia SC and shows a gruesome spectral distortion of the facial portion of the portrait. The stamp to the right is a normal example of the poorly printed Richmond stamps. The only suggested explanation is that during removal of the freshly printed sheet from the press, this area was smeared by the careless touch of thumb or finger to the affected area.”

This is the official catalog listing of an unique cover which has since come to be known as the “Death Mask” cover because of the very skeletal appearance of the Davis portrait of the left stamp of a pair of the 5c Blue Richmond Print. The cover itself has now surfaced from long years of residing in a private collection. The spectral appearance of the stamp is certainly very striking when seen directly. Figure 1 below shows the full cover with the pair of stamps tied to the cover by the blue Columbia SC postmark dated 14 JAN (1863). The cover is actually a folded letter written on blue lined notebook paper, but the letter is not complete. The contents of the letter deal with the purchase of cotton bales and dates the postal use to 1863. The adressee, Col Wm S. Alston at the Shelton PO in South Carolina, was not a CSA army officer but was instead a prominent plantation owner in South Carolina with the title “Col” being most likely honorary and not military. An enlarged close up of the stamp with its unique properties can be seen in Figure 2.

Figure 1 --The Jefferson Davis "Death Mask" cover with the 5c Blue Richmond Print stamps used from Columbia SC and dated 14 JAN (1863).

Figure 2 -- The spectral qualities of the "Death Mask" stamp on the left can be clearly seen.

August Dietz Sr was so intrigued by this stamp and cover that he wrote a lengthy letter about the cover to the collector who had sent the photograph. The letter is published here in its entirety as part of the history of the cover.

May twentieth, 1946

Dear Mr. -------

Thanks for your letter of the fifteenth instant and the enclosed photograph of this most remarkable freak among Confederates.

I have tried to trace, in india ink, every line and dot, as well as I could see them under a strong glass and will try to get an etching from this tracing. However, I am afraid the photograph was too faint to enable me to make the job of it I would like to do. Evidently your photographer did not “grasp” the fact that what is wanted is a photograph of contrasting black on white -- so that the entire picture can be clearly seen. He would have had better success in using a color filter in the exposure.

This thing is so unusual -- so unique -- that it must be shown to collectors of Confederates. In the write-up I plan to give it, I shall say that it surpasses the famous “Death Mask” stamp of Serbia in its grusome distorted features of the Davis head -- that it is not an “ink spot” -- and that, until further study, I cannot say that it is a case of a damaged plate, we should be able to find other examples of it, and I shall urge a careful search by our collectors to that end.

I’ll admit that it has me puzzled for the time -- and I do want to investigate and examine that freak further, and to that end I hope that the plate will turn out sucessfully from my tracing, although I fear it will not be clear enough for collectors’ study, even when twice the size of the real stamp. Well, we’ll see how it “comes out” in the plate.

It’s a real find, and one of the most interesting and intriguing things I’ve yet come across.

Enough for tonight. Overcrowded with work at the plant, I have been forced to attend to my personal correspondence at home at night. Kindest Regards:


August Dietz

One can see from the Dietz letter the great difficulties that he encountered in accurately reproducing philatelic material for publication and study more than six decades ago. The advent of the computer and the scanner have certainly simplified things since then. Since Gen Dietz wrote this letter in 1946, no other similar examples have ever been found thus strengthening the argument that this is indeed a one time only freak of handling and is now a well established unique item of Confederate postal history.

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