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Dead Men’s Eyes: A History of Optography « The Chirurgeon's Apprentice

Aurora, Illinois. 16 February 1914. It was a cold, wintery night when Theresa Hollanders father discovered her broken and bloodied body near a shed in St. Nicholass Cemetery. The 20-year-old (pictured below) had been brutally beaten to death with a wooden club, which had been discarded along with the girls corpse amongst the tombstones. Much to her fathers horror, Theresas eyes were wide open, her hands clutched in frozen agony.

Suspicion fell immediately onto the girls former boyfriend, Anthony Petras, who vehemently denied being involved in Theresas murder. A little over a week later, newspapers around the country began reporting that the corpses eyeball had been removed and photographed in the hopes that the image of her slayer could be retrieved from her retina. According to The Washington Times (25 February 1914):

The picture was taken at the suggestion of a local oculist, who told police that the retina would show the last object within her vision before she became unconscious. The photograph is held by the accusers of Anthony Petras. It will be shown to the grand jury which meets Saturday.

For hundreds of years, people had wondered whether it might be possible to capture an image of our last vision at the point of death. The idea was first put forward in the 17th century by a Jesuit friar named Christopher Schiener, who claimed to observe a faint image on the retina of a frog he had been dissecting. [1] It wasnt until the invention of photography in the 1840s, however, that optography emerged as a scientific pursuit. It reached the height of popularity in the last decades of the 19th century after the German physiologist, Wilhelm Kuhne, devised a process in 1878 which he believed helped to preserve details from the retina of the eye.

Kuhne believed that the primary process behind vision was chemical, and that the retina worked like a photographic plate from which crucial information could be retrieved after death. His optograms exploited the retinal substance, rhodopsin, which bleaches when exposed to light through a crystalline lens. He demonstrated his process by reproducing what appeared to be the pattern of crossbars over a window (below) on the retina of a dead rabbit.

An albino rabbit, after being kept 15 min. in the dark, was decapitated; one eye was removed from the head under sodium light…and fastened onto the edge of a cork by means of needles…[The eye was placed in a] dark chamber with the cornea pressing softly against the diaphragm. The image was visible on the sclerotic, on one side of the optic nerve…that I was sure that it fell on the more deeply coloured division of the retina and could readily mark its place in the appropriate quadrant. Thereupon the yellow curtain was removed from the pane and the eye after five minutes’ exposure was taken away, divided along the equator and examined in feeble gaslight….I brought the preparation out into darkened daylight and shewed it to several witnesses. There was evident on the retina a most distinct brighter diffused spot, the small dimension of which corresponded to those of the image previously seen by me, and the position of which made me already sure that it was the optogram. [2]

Kuhne was satisfied with the results, but wanted to try his experiment on a human subject next. His opportunity arose in 1880, when a man named Erhard Gustav Reif was sentenced to death by guillotine after drowning his two young sons in the river. The eager scientist immediately retrieved the murderers decapitated head, removed the eyeballs, and reported seeing violent and disturbing movements on the dead mans retina. The ambiguity of these images was attributed to the fact that the prisoner was wearing a blindfold at the moment of his death. Kuhnes sketch of what he saw still survives. [3]

Other similar experiments were carried out in the 1880s and 1890s.It was even suggested that an optogram should be produced from the eye of Mary Jane Kelly, one of Jack the Rippers victims, though its unclear whether the procedure was actually carried out. The idea that optography might have forensic potential was later popularized by the science fiction writer, Jules Verne, in Les Frres Kip (1902). Indeed, so widespread was the idea, that some murderers even went to great lengths to destroy their victims’ eyeballs, as in the case of Constable P.C. Gutteridge in 1927:

In the early hours of September 27, 1927, occurred a crime that shocked England with its brutality…In the very act of doing his duty Constable P.C. Gutteridge of the Essex constabulary was shot down. He was found by the roadside with four bullet wounds in his head, each fired from a distance of about ten inches. A shot had been fired through each eye, and it was believed by some at the time that the murderer had done this out of superstition. There is an old belief that a picture of the murderer is imprinted in the victims eyes. [4]

Ultimately, optography fell from fashion due, in part, to the impracticalities of processing retinal images. The last serious scientific attempt at retrieving images from retinas took place in 1975 when police in Heidelberg, Germany, invited the physiologist, Evangelos Alexandridis, to repeat Kuhnes experiments in order to determine whether or not optograms could be used in forensic investigations. The scientist placed anesthetized rabbits in front of panels bearing high-contrast patterns or images (one of which was a portrait of Salvador Dali) before being killed. [5] The retinal images were then photographed, some of which can be seen below from the Museum of Optography.

But what of Illinois murder victim Theresa Hollander? Unsurprisingly, the removal of her eyeball and the subsequent photograph revealed nothing that would help the case against her ex-boyfriend. Petras was tried not once, but twice, and found not guilty on both occasions. He maintainted his innocence till his death.

The exact circumstances of Theresas murder remain a mystery to this day.

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1. Derek Ogbourne, “Optography and Optograms.” Available online. I am hugely indebted to Ogbourne’s work for this article. 2.Khne, W, 1878, On the Photochemistry of the Retina and on Visual Purple, (trans. by Michael Foster). 3. Michael J. Aminoff and Robert B. Daroff, Encyclopedia of the Neurological Sciences, p. 813. 4. Richard Harrison, Scotland Yard (1948), p. 74. 5. Ogbourne, “Optography.”

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