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Looking notably robust near his 56th birthday, Abraham Lincoln sat for this portrait by an un­known photographer around February 1865. But something seemed odd: The president wore a buzz cut!

Why hack away at his famously unmanageable mane—and why soon thereafter trim his iconic beard into a goatee?

Because he was afraid. Sculptor Clark Mills, whose statue of Andrew Jackson graced Lafayette Park opposite the White House, had asked Lincoln to pose for a life mask. The invitation aroused painful memories. Five years earlier, Leonard Welles Volk had made a plaster mask in Chicago—which hardened so fast that when Lincoln tried to pull it free, he tore out some hair, unleashing involuntary tears.

Remembering that ordeal as “anything but agreeable,” Lincoln took precautionary action. As it turned out, Mills used an altogether different process, first covering the president’s head in a stocking, then removing the mask in pieces while still moist. Lincoln had cut his hair for nothing.