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Optography – Vision After Death

Updated on November 6, 2017
Peter Geekie profile image

A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.

Image of a barred window from the first experimental rabbit experiment
Image of a barred window from the first experimental rabbit experiment
Cross section of the eye-ball showing position of pupil and optic nerve
Cross section of the eye-ball showing position of pupil and optic nerve
Later image from a rabbits eye
Later image from a rabbits eye
Crude conditions under which experiment work was carried out
Crude conditions under which experiment work was carried out
Further image gained from vision of a barred window.
Further image gained from vision of a barred window.
Three different visions
Three different visions

Christopher Schiener, a Jesuit friar, in the 17th Century, claimed that he had, by chance, seen a fading image imprinted upon the retina of a frog that he had dissected. The concept of photography was not yet known in the 17th Century and the image was just noted and temporarily consigned to history.’

Later, the concept of images in the eyes of the dead became the premise of ghostly Victorian crime novels where the final image that the victim saw was imprinted by their eyes onto their retina, thus the murderer or the surroundings were visually captured.

Having decided that such a process was theoretically possible it caught the imagination of the Victorian scientists who were not easily swayed and were prepared to spend a lot of time and money on research.

Much of the original scientific work on optography was performed by the German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne. He was inspired by Franz Christian Boll's discovery of rhodopsin ("visual purple") which was a photosensitive pigment naturally present in the rods of the retina—Kühne discovered that, under certain ideal circumstances, the rhodopsin pigment could be "chemically fixed" like a photographic negative process.

Kühne experimented on numerous unfortunate animals to refine the process and determine which were the chemicals most suitable to fix the image on the retina. His most successful optogram was obtained from an albino rabbit, with its head fastened in a framework looking without movement at a barred window. The rabbit's head and eyes were covered for several minutes to allow rhodopsin to coat the retina. It was then uncovered for three minutes to expose it to the light, from the window. The poor animal was then euthanized, decapitated and its eyeball sliced from top to bottom. The rear half of the eye was placed in a (mordant) alum solution to enable fixation of the bleached rhodopsin, which resulted in a distinct image of the barred windows.

There was a difficult issue that Kühne immediately encountered when attempting to produce an image from a human eye and that was the size of the fovea centralis, the actual focal point of the image on the retina. This is very small (about 1.5 millimetres). Kühne had considerably more success producing optograms from animals such as rabbits and frogs and later the Reif image ended up being the only known "human optogram". The original image from Reif's eye no longer exists, apart from a simple line drawing of the apparent shape in Kühne's 1881 paper "Observations for Anatomy and Physiology of the Retina".

Forensic optography

Excitement swept the crime-fighting field, the opportunity to solve previously high profile murders was irresistible and old records were taken out and dusted off.

With the theory that the eye can retain an image at the moment of death, rampant in the Victorian imagination, police investigators in the late 19thC began considering optography as an investigative technique in murder cases. One of the earliest known attempts at forensic optography occurred in 1877, when the Berlin police photographed the eyes of murder victim Frau von Sabatzky, on the slim chance that the image revealed would assist in solving the crime. However, the experiment was unsuccessful and yielded nothing of any value.

In 1888, Detective Chief Inspector Walter Dew, who was later known for catching the multi-murderer Dr Crippen, recalled optography being examined on Mary Jane Kelly in what he called a "forlorn hope" of catching her suspected killer, Jack the Ripper.

Ripperologist James Stewart-Gordon believed the technique was also attempted on Annie Chapman as well, in a further unsuccessful attempt to reveal the mysterious murderer.

W.C. Ayres, an American physician who assisted Kühne and translated his papers into English, dismissed the theory that optography on a human eye could yield a usable image for forensic purposes. In an 1881 article in the New York Medical Journal, Ayres stated that his own repeated experiments in the field had produced some optogram images, but they were not distinct enough to be useful, and he declared it "utterly idle to look for the picture of a man's face, or of the surroundings, on the retina of a person who has met with a sudden death, even in the most favourable circumstances".

Of course, the only real test is using a human being and rather macabrely Kühne was given the chance on 16th November 1880. On the morning of this day, he attended the execution of Erhard Gustav Reif, who was being put to death by guillotine for the murder, by drowning, of his youngest children. As soon as the blade fell Kühne was allowed to go and retrieve the eyes from the corpse for his experiment. Working very quickly, he cut out the left eye within minutes and whisked it away to be tested.

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). The picture is rather ambiguous possibly showing what appears to be the blade of the guillotine, but which has been disputed due primarily 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.

A further major murder case in the USA where optography was tested 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 gravestones near a shed at St. Nicholas’s Cemetery, in Aurora, Illinois. The young woman had apparently been brutally bludgeoned to death with a grave marker stake, which was found lying bloodied on the ground nearby, and the victim’s eyes remained wide open in an expression of utter horror. It was these lifeless, wide-open eyes that invited the use of optography in an attempt to find the killer. If nothing else it could 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 resolve the case the results proved to be inconclusive. Petras was eventually tried twice for the crime, adamantly denying his involvement and finally being acquitted. The true murderer of Theresa Hollander remains a mystery to this day.

A rare case of forensic optography being allowed as evidence occurred in late 1924 after German merchant Fritz Angerstein had been charged with killing eight members of his family and household staff. Doehne, a professor at the University of Cologne photographed the retinas of two of the victims, yielding what he claimed were conclusive images of Angerstein's face and an axe used to kill the gardener. Angerstein was tried, convicted and executed, with Doehne's optographic images included amongst other evidence in the case. According to the Sunday Express newspaper, when told of the "incriminating" optograms, Angerstein confessed to the murders, but it may have been the case that he or his lawyer were ignorant of the restrictions in the scientific process used. The American Mercury magazine called Doehne's testimony "scientific confirmation" of the theory of optography, although considerably later in 2011, the German Legal Tribune Online called the use of optographic evidence in the Angerstein case "absurde Kriminalistik" ("absurd forensics").

Although the optographic evidence was very suspect the murderers, of the day, would occasionally pause to 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”.

The most recent serious research into the use of optography in criminology occurred in 1975, when police in Heidelberg, Germany, asked Evangelos Alexandridis at the University of Heidelberg to re-evaluate Kühne's experiments and findings using modern scientific techniques, knowledge and equipment. Like Kühne, Alexandridis did successfully produced a number of distinct high-contrast images from the eyes of rabbits but did not agree that the results were sufficiently accurate or relevant to use the technique as a forensic tool, to use in a court of law.

Perhaps in the future, the concept of optography will become sufficiently refined to reveal, not only high quality still pictures but perhaps even the final few minutes or seconds of a murder victim’s life or death.

Do you believe that Optography can ever yield usable results ?

See results

© 2017 Peter Geekie

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    • Peter Geekie profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Geekie 

      9 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Mary,

      Yes, you are quite right, the results are not good enough for a court of law. Mind you, if you were caught with a smoking gun and the whole scene in glorious technicolour, the chances are the lawyers would get you off.

      Having said that to capture the last vision of a dead person is quite fantastic even though the results are not sufficiently clear just yet.

      kind regards Peter

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      9 months ago from Brazil

      I've never heard of this before so found this interesting. I think this is called grasping at straws. Even if it was possible, and I don't believe it is, I can't ever see this being a part of building a conclusive case against someone. A good defense lawyer would have this evidence quashed with a resounding laugh around the courtroom.

      It is an interesting look back at criminal history though.

    • Peter Geekie profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Geekie 

      9 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Louise,

      It seems to be fact that an image can be obtained from the eye of a dead creature or person, but the image is crude and without definition. Perhaps in years to come such an image may be refined and could be used for forensic purposes.

      Thanks for your interest

      Kind regards Peter

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      9 months ago from Norfolk, England

      Well, it's questionable as to whether the eye will ever be able to show you the last moments of someone's life, but it would be good if it could.

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