Sleuthing via Optography in 1914

Published in The Washington Times (and nationwide, by wire) on 2/25/1914
Published in The Washington Times (and nationwide, by wire) on 2/25/1914

It’s often surprising how similar the world of 1914 was to our world today. Then there’s a short article like this, reporting something crazy. In case you didn’t read the story in the screengrab: in mid-February, 1914, Tracy Hollander of Aurora, Illinois met a gothic fate. She was found beaten to death with a “grave stake” at St. Nicholas Cemetery. Police suspected Anthony Petras committed the crime. So, on the advice of a local “oculist,” authorities photographed the dead girl’s retina. They thought that might reveal “the last object within her vision before she became unconscious.”

The photo might have been a tactic meant to make Petras confess. It is also possible investigators made an honest stab at solving the crime with the crazy practice of optography.

Optography was just what the article described: making a photo of the deceased’s retina in hopes of capturing the last thing they saw on earth. It was an exquisitely Victorian idea, of a piece with post-mortem photography, where families sat for formal photos with carefully posed, recently deceased loved ones.

From the website for the College of Optometrists in London, UK:

The idea that one’s eye preserves the very last moment of life held a very powerful hold on the Victorian imagination. In particular it was suggested that optograms might be obtained from murder victims to help identify their assailant. This rather assumed they would have been attacked from the front at close quarters! From newspaper reports we know that in April 1877, only partly aware of what optography involved, police in Berlin photographed the eye of the murdered Frau von Sabatzky in case it could be of use. We know that news of the German experiments even reached London and that detectives investigating the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888 were presented with a proposal to try the technique. We do not know that this ever happened. Whether or not it was even attempted is highly questionable. Of course it would only have been effective if a victim were to be discovered and operated upon within moments of the killing.

It’s easy to understand the allure of the idea if you think about it for a moment, and it’s been revisited since the early 1900s. As the same College of Optometrists article goes on to say, as late as 1975 “police in Heidelberg, Germany, invited the physiologist Evangelos Alexandridis at the university’s Department of Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology to re-evaluate” the concept of optography with “a view to learning whether they might have a useful role in forensic investigations.” Alexandridis even appeared to produce some interesting results. They just weren’t interesting enough for experiments with the practice to continue.

Given how sophisticated cameras are today, it’s surprising someone hasn’t given optography at least one more try. Then again, there really isn’t a good Instagram filter for dead peoples’ eyeballs.

Sudden Arctic temperature drop summons devils from Lake Michigan

Extremely cold weather phenomenon can be quite creepy, and here’s some proof. In a post on Google+, KC Wildmoon explains: “When the dry Arctic air moves over the warmer water, the air humidifies, causing the visible steam. The warmer air rises, drawing the steam, and because a vortex is involved, it can swirl, although quite slowly and often barely visibly. They are not related to waterspouts or tornadoes. The phenomena were first studied on Lake Michigan in the 1970s, when researchers dubbed them ‘steam devils’.” There may be wrath in the wind, chaos and destruction, but there are cold ghosts and turning devils in the ice and snow.

[kc wildmoon]