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Last Sights of the Dead: The Weird Science of Optography

What do the dead see? What was the last image they witnessed in life before they passed from this world, those last moments they experienced amongst us? Was it the faces of loved ones surrounding them on their death bed, a horrible accident, the face of a crazed killer or the flash of a gun or knife? Was there love, fear or horror? It seems like these are things we are doomed to forever not know, the last sights of the dead to remain perpetually hidden from us, yet there is one area of study that has long sought to change that. For centuries there has been a rather bizarre field of science that seeks to glean the last images from the eyes of the deceased, to see what they saw in their last moments, which could have a profound impact on forensic evidence in seeking murderers or solving cold cases. Does it really work and what does this all entail? Read on and find out.

The idea that last images at the time of death remain in the victim’s eyes and can actually be detected and studied was first proposed by a Jesuit friar by the name of Christopher Schiener in the 17th century, after he claimed that he had by chance seen an image imprinted upon the retina of a frog he was in the process of dissecting. He surmised that this faint image was the very last thing that the frog had seen upon its death, although he had no real understanding of how such a thing could be. Thus was the idea put out into the public consciousness, but it would not be until the advent of photography that it would be seriously studied, and it remained merely a curious oddity for nearly 200 years.

When photography was invented in the 1840s, there began to form an awareness that the way a camera worked was similar in many respects to the way the human eye worked. This led to the emerging belief that, similar to a camera, the human eye could capture and retain images just as in photography, and a series of experiments sought to test this hypothesis. In 1863 an English photographer took a photograph of the eye of an ox right after death and used a microscope to search for any evidence of images left behind on the animal’s retinas. He claimed that upon inspection he could discern the fleeting image of stones arranged in the exact same manner as the slaughterhouse road, and proclaimed that this meant that this was the last thing the ox had seen as it was slaughtered there with a blow to the head.

In 1876 the idea was given more fuel with the research of physiologist Franz Christian Boll, who discovered that there was a pigment contained within the rods of the retina which bleached when exposed to light but could be restored in the dark, even after death. This pigment was referred to as “visual purple,” which is known today as rhodopsin. This finding was picked up by a German professor of physiology at the University of Heidelberg by the name of Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne, who would go on to become one of the most prominent figures in the field and who would indeed push the theory into ever greater popularity.

Kühne believed that this pigment and the photo-chemical reaction that Boll had discovered and described could be used to preserve images in the eye from the moment of death, as the images would remain etched into the pigment unless exposed to light. He claimed that if a way could be found to permanently set this final retinal image in the eye through chemical fixatives then these last images would be able to be preserved for study and analysis, much like a photographic plate. Indeed, according to Kühne the human eye was exactly like a photographic workshop, and that by using such a method he would be able to pry these last images from the eyes of the dead and develop them, just like a photograph. This idea was seen as a possible breakthrough in forensic science, and he was already formulating in his head how such images could be used to solve murders and violent crimes. He wasted no time in getting to work testing out his theories on this process, which he called “optography,” with the images being referred to as “optographs.”

In order to refine the process and figure out how to fix these vestigial retinal images, Kühne began with experimenting on animals, mostly frogs and rabbits. The methods used for gathering these images were far from sophisticated at this point in time, consisting mainly of tying the animals up and forcing them to stare at bright objects such as sunlit windows or flames, sometimes for hours on end. After this was done the animal was killed, decapitated, and its eyes quickly removed, as every second that went by with the eye deteriorating was seen as potentially ruining any remaining images that may be present. The eyes were taken to a darkroom and cut in half, after which the retinal pigment was fixed using an alum solution that was subsequently bathed in sulfuric acid to cement the images.

In 1878 some of these experiments provided some rather dramatic results. In one of Kühne’s most successful experiments, a rabbit that had been made to stare at a bright, barred window was found to have the distinct image of this window, right down to the individual panes and crossbars, etched into its retinas after death. This was seen as an exciting result and he continued his research on animals in earnest, eventually carrying out hundreds of these experiments. Although there were some promising results, such as the with several other rabbits and some clear images of burner flames retrieved from the eye of a dead frog, Kühne was nevertheless frustrated by the fact that the vast majority of the images turned out blurry, hazy, or otherwise indistinct, and that they more often than not faded and degenerated rather quickly after death. He would lament:

I am not prepared to say that eyes which have remained in the head an hour or more after decapitation will no longer give satisfactory optograms; indeed, the limit for obtaining a good image seems to be in rabbits from about sixty to ninety minutes, while the eyes of oxen seem to be useless after one hour.

Kühne’s optogram of a window taken from the eyes of a dead rabbit.

Of course the real goal was to test this process on a human being, and rather macabrely Kühne would get his chance on November 16, 1880. On this morning he found himself at the execution of a Erhard Gustav Reif, who was being put to death by guillotine for drowning his youngest children. As soon as the blade fell Kühne was allowed to go and retrieve the eyes of the corpse for his experiment. Working quickly, as time had been established to be of the essence, he had cut out the left eye of the condemned man within minutes and whisked it away to be processed. Amazingly, Kühne would claim that the experiment had been a success and that he had managed to glean a clear image from the eye, as well as observe what he cryptically called “violent and disturbing movements” on the retina. Although the actual photographic optogram no longer exists, there was an illustration of it published in Kühne’s Observations for Anatomy and Physiology of the Retina (1881) that is rather ambiguous but shows what appears to be possibly the blade of the guillotine, but which has been disputed due to the fact that Reif was blindfolded at the time of death. Some have suggested that rather than the blade, this could have been an image of the steps leading up to the platform where he would be executed. It is all rather inconclusive.

Even though these results left much to be desired, the experiments nevertheless proved to be very popular and optography was pursued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It was often dramatically reported in the media that amazing images had been taken from the eyes of the dead that had been instrumental in solving crimes, and there are rumors persisting to this day that it was possibly carried out by authorities investigating the Jack the Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly in 1888. Fiction further propelled the idea and promise of optography, with various stories and books featuring it, such as Jules Verne’s 1902 novel Les Frères Kip (The Brothers Kip), wherein two brothers wrongly accused of murder are set free after images on the victim’s eyes show different killers. Indeed optography has regularly appeared in fiction and TV shows all the way up to the present day, such as in an episode of Doctor Who and the show Fringe.

The use of optography got to the point that it was fairly common for police to take pictures of murder victims’ eyes, just in case images could be lifted from them. There was even a well-known case in which optograms were admitted as evidence in the murder trial of a Fritz Heinrich Angerstein in 1924. Angerstein had been accused of killing 8 people, including his own wife, and the coroner in the case claimed that he had found in the retinas of two of the victims the images of the killer holding a hatchet or axe. Angerstein would later be convicted and executed for the crime, partly due to this optographic evidence, which gave it renewed credibility in forensic investigations. It got to the point that murderers would occasionally destroy their victims’ eyes out of fear that these optograms could be used against them. One such case was the murder of a Constable P.C. Gutteridge in 1927, of which it was written:

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 victim’s eyes.

A major murder case in which optography was pursued was the death of 20-year-old Theresa Hollander in February, 1914. The victim’s father had found her battered and bloodied body sprawled amongst some tombstones near a shed at St. Nicholas’s Cemetery, in Aurora, Illinois, in the United States. The young woman had apparently been brutally bludgeoned to death with a wooden club, which was found lying bloodied on the ground nearby, and the victim’s eyes were found to be wide open in an expression of utter horror. It was these blank, wide-open eyes that invited the use of optography in an attempt to find the killer, or at least try and prove that she had been murdered by the chief suspect, former boyfriend Anthony Petras, who strongly denied having anything to do with it. Police went ahead with the grim work of removing the dead woman’s eyes and taking pictures of her retinas, and the newspaper The Washington Times at the time wrote of this:

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.

Sadly, despite the hopes that this strange technique could crack the case the results proved to be rather inconclusive. Petras would be tried twice for the crime, adamantly denying his involvement the entire time, and would inevitably be found not guilty. The murder of Theresa Hollander remains a mystery to this day.

Eventually, the popularity of optography as a potential forensic tool faded. This was mostly due to the logistics involved with getting quality, admissible images from the retinas of the dead. The eyes had to be removed soon after death and put through a very stringent, controlled process to have any chance of capturing anything worthwhile, and even then it seemed to be an inexact science to say the least. It was just all so impractical, and even under ideal conditions the images often were too faded or hazy to be of any use, if they even showed up at all. Although the procedure had some potential merit, there just wasn’t enough consistent success in the procedure to make it a truly viable option, and it soon fell out of favor.

There was a renewed attempt to study the phenomenon in 1975, when the physiologist Evangelos Alexandridis reevaluated some of Kühne’s original experiments at the behest of police in Heidelberg, Germany to test their veracity and usefulness. During this study, Alexandridis was able to create some optograms from rabbits that had been anesthetized, secured, and made to stare at bright panels and images with bold patterns on them, including a Salvador Dali painting, before being killed and their eyes removed. Some of the subjects did provide images that were promising, but the study was not successful enough to make optography seem like a worthwhile or practical forensic technique. This is apparently one of the last times that a serious scientific study of optography was pursued, and the practice has faded into a rather obscure historical oddity in the world of science.

Does the technique of optography have any merit? Could it possibly be useful if only the methods were further refined with modern methods and equipment? Even though the idea has mostly been forgotten, the possibility that we could look into the past through the eyes of the dead and see secrets that they took with them through their own perspective is certainly an alluring one, if not rather morbid. After all those eyes could hold the key to crimes that have long remained cloaked in mystery, and give us new insights into unsolved cold cases. If it were truly possible and practical to do so it could open up whole new realms of forensic investigations, if of course the ethics and general innate revulsion towards such an process could be overcome. There has long been the expression “dead men tell no tales,” but it seems at least possible that the strange science of optography, if it were further developed, could potentially prove that wrong.