Optography: Preserving a Dead Person’s Last Sight

Sep 15, 2023 0 comments

In 1924, Germany was rocked by a sensational case of multiple homicide. Fritz Heinrich Angerstein, a resident of Limberg, Germany, had brutally killed his family including the household staff in a murder-suicide attempt gone terribly wrong. Angerstein's horrifying spree began with the murder of his wife, followed by a botched suicide attempt on his part. He then turned his violence towards his mother-in-law, justifying his actions by citing her mistreatment of his ailing wife as the cause of his anger.

Angerstein did not stop there; he also took the life of his maidservant, which he later stated was due to her culinary mishaps and general disapproval of her behavior. By the time the carnage came to an end, Angerstein had claimed the lives of eight individuals, which included his sister-in-law, the bookkeeper, the clerk, the gardener, and his assistant.

Angerstein initially claimed that he had been attacked by bandits, who had killed everyone in the house and left him for dead. However, as the investigation unfolded, doubts began to emerge regarding Angerstein's account. Angerstein was not able to explain why the murder weapon carried his fingerprints, or why there was no signs of a robbery having taken place. There were also many contradictions in his statements.

Angerstein was arrested and charged with murder which he denied. Then one of the police officers came in with a compelling evidence: a professor at the University of Cologne had managed to photograph the retinas of two of the victims, which revealed images of Angerstein with his arms raised gripping a hatchet. When Angerstein heard about the incriminating photographs, he threw in the towel and confessed to the crime. Angerstein’s case is the only example, and a dubious one at best, of a conviction attained by an optogram—an image on the retina of the eye.

The “Science” of Optography

For a long time scientists had wondered whether it was possible for the eye 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 have observed a faint image on the retina of a frog he had been dissecting. It wasn’t until the invention of photography in the 1840s, however, that optography emerged as a scientific pursuit.

Scientists reasoned that for the retina to behave like a camera’s plate, it had to contain some light-sensitive chemicals, analogous to the silver nitrate film covering glass slides on which the earliest photographs, daguerreotypes, were captured. In 1876, a German physiologist named Franz Christian Boll discovered rhodopsin —a photosensitive protein in the rod cells of the retina, that behaves exactly like the nitrate on a camera’s plate: it bleaches when exposed to light.

German physiologist and histologist Franz Christian Boll

Boll's life was cut short at the age of thirty, a victim of tuberculosis, preventing him from delving deeper into his research. Nonetheless, his contributions were enough to convince the scientific community that the changes in rhodopsin played an indisputable role in the process of vision.

After Boll’s death, one of his admirers, German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne took up Boll’s discoveries with a ‘fiery zeal’. Kühne began experimenting on numerous animals, extracting the eye of the animals very quickly after death and subjecting them to various chemicals in order to fix the image on the retina. Kühne found that alum worked best.

Wilhelm Kühne

The following account by biochemist George Wald—a Nobel Prize winner for his studies of visual pigments—describes one of Kühne’s most successful experiments with an albino rabbit:

An albino rabbit was fastened with its head facing a barred window. From this position the rabbit could see only a gray and clouded sky. The animal's head was covered for several minutes with a cloth to adapt its eyes to the dark, that is to let rhodopsin accumulate in its rods. Then the animal was exposed for three minutes to the light. It was immediately decapitated, the eye removed and cut open along the equator, and the rear half of the eyeball containing the retina laid in a solution of alum for fixation. The next day Kühne saw, printed upon the retina in bleached and unaltered rhodopsin, a picture of the window with the clear pattern of its bars.

Kühne’s rabbit optograms. The leftmost image is a rabbit retina without an optogram: the light disc and horizontal stripe across the top third of the retinal image are normal anatomical features of the retina. The center image is the optogram obtained after exposing the rabbit to light. The window the rabbit was facing appears to be discernible in the image. The rightmost image is another optogram where 3 large side-by-side windows is shown.

Kühne was eager to demonstrate the technique in a human subject, and in 1880, an opportunity presented itself. On 16 November, Erhard Gustav Reif was executed by guillotine for the murder of his children in the nearby town of Bruchsal. Reif's eyes were extracted within ten minutes of the sentence being carried out and delivered to Kühne's laboratory at the University of Heidelberg. The optograms Kühne produced out of Reif’s eyes did not survive, but a sketch made of the same appears in Kühne's Observations for Anatomy and Physiology of the Retina published in 1881. It does not resemble anything that the victim could have seen at the time of his death. However, it has been suggested that the sketch bears a superficial resemblance to a guillotine blade, although the victim could not have possibly seen it since he was blindfolded. Others suggest they could be the steps to the gallows.

Kühne’s drawing of an optogram obtained from an executed criminal in 1880.

Although Kühne failed to obtain a proper optogram from a human eye, the idea of preserving a deceased person's last visuals continued to exert a powerful grip on the Victorian imagination. When it was suggested that optograms might be obtained from murder victims to help identify their assailant, the French Society of Forensics became concerned and asked Dr. Maxime Vernois to conduct a study to examine the feasibility of admitting optographs as evidence in murder trials. Vernois killed no less than seventeen animals and dissected their eyes, but in vain. He later noted:

It is impossible to find upon the retina of a victim the portrait of its murderer or the representation of whatever object or physical trait that presented itself to its eyes at the time of death.

Despite Vernois’s verdict and Kühne’s failed experiments, hopeful investigators persisted in their quest to capture photographs of the eyes of murder victims, holding onto the hope that such images might aid in resolving criminal cases. In 1877, when an elderly woman named Frau von Sabatzky was murdered in Berlin, the police photographed her eyes soon after she was found, but the images provided no clues whatsoever. Eyeball photography was taken very seriously in the United States as well, as in the double murder of Laura Shearman and Cynthia Davis, the Villisca axe murders of 1912, and the murder of Tracy Hollander in 1914. Detectives investigating the Jack the Ripper murders in Britain in 1888 also proposed trying out the technique on the Ripper’s victims.

The popular science fiction writer Jules Verne also perpetuated the idea that the science of optography might have forensic potential in his 1902 novel Les Frères Kip. Over the next hundred years the idea would recur frequently in literature and media. The 1936 film The Invisible Ray features a scene in which Dr. Felix Benet, played by Bela Lugosi, uses an ultra-violet camera to photograph the dead eyes of a victim. Optography was also used as a plot point in the 1971 Italian film Four Flies on Grey Velvet and in an 1975 episode of Doctor Who.

So widespread was the idea, that some murderers even went to great lengths to destroy their victims’ eyeballs, as in 1927 murder of policeman George Gutteridge an unarmed policeman who was cruelly shot in both eyes. In another case, in 1990, a woman in Alsace murdered her mother-in-law and then gouged out her eyes in an attempt to destroy evidence.

By the early 20th century, investigators had abandoned hope that optography could be developed into a useful forensic technique. Despite this, in 1975, the Heidelberg police sought the expertise of Evangelos Alexandridis from the University of Heidelberg to re-examine Kühne's experiments and findings, leveraging modern scientific techniques, updated knowledge, and advanced equipment. In a manner reminiscent of Kühne, Alexandridis managed to generate several distinct high-contrast images from the eyes of rabbits. Nevertheless, he definitively concluded that optography held no potential as a forensic tool. This marked the final instance of serious scientific research into optography.

# Simon Ings, The eye : a natural history
# Optography and Optograms, The College of Optometrists
# Jan Bondeson, The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities
# Douglas J. Lanska, Optograms and Criminology: Science, News Reporting, and Fanciful Novels, Science Direct


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