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.

One thought on “Sleuthing via Optography in 1914

  1. They really were rather bloody-minded, the Victorians, weren’t they? Photography was still relatively new a hundred years ago, and shrouded in mystery. Or perhaps it was just that death was more a part of life back then. We have done what we can to sanitize death and separate ourselves from it, to the point where many can’t stand the sight of it. My son-in-law was Mexican, and some of my anglo family were a bit shocked at the grief behaviour of his parents and relatives. Taking pictures of his body in the coffin and touching him, even embracing him…I was told in no uncertain terms that “we” do not do that. I thought that whatever helped his family and my daughter cope with the loss was all sorts of all right.

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