#61 = Volume 20, Part 3 = November 1993
Arthur B. Evans
Optograms and Fiction: Photo in a Dead Man’s Eye
They looked. Murderer’s ground. It passed darkly. Shuttered, tenantless,
unweeded garden. Whole place gone to hell. Wrongfully condemned. Murder. The
murderer’s image in the eye of the murdered. They love reading about it.—James
Joyce, Ulysses (§6:205)
One of Jules Verne’s later Voyages Extraordinaires titled Les
Frères Kip (The Kip Brothers, 1902) features in its conclusion a somewhat
curious scientific concept—yet one which was quite popular during the latter
half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth: the notion
that the image of the last thing seen at the moment of death remains imprinted
upon the retina of the eye.
The fictional setting in Verne’s novel where this theory comes into play is
A certain Captain Harry Gibson of the English freighter James Cook has
been stabbed to death. On the strength of circumstantial evidence, two brothers
named Karl and Pieter Kip are promptly arrested and imprisoned for the crime.
Photos of the dead body are taken; in particular, snapshots of the victim’s
head (with eyes open). An acquaintance of the victim asks the photographer for
an enlargement of the head photo as a memento of his dead friend. The
photographer agrees and makes several copies of the portrait, giving one to the
victim’s family as well. Upon seeing the enlarged photo of his slain father,
the young Nat Gibson is seized with grief and bends over to kiss it—and
suddenly discerns two small points of light in the eyes of the photo. He
examines these with a strong magnifying glass and discovers therein the faces of
the real murderers: two villainous sailors from the James Cook whom the
police had initially suspected but against whom no hard evidence could be found.
The real culprits are now arrested and condemned; the Kip brothers are
vindicated; and the novel concludes with Justice served and the status quo
In his final chapter, Verne (always the pedagogue) explains to the reader the
"scientific" basis for this pivotal discovery:
For some time now it has been known—as a result of various interesting
ophthamological experiments done by certain ingenious scientists, authoritative
observers that they are—that the image of exterior objects imprinted upon the
retina of the eye are conserved there indefinitely. The organ of vision contains
a particular substance, retinal purple, on which is imprinted in their exact
form these images. They have even been perfectly reconstituted when the eye,
after death, is removed and soaked in an alum bath. (§16:556)
It is likely that Verne gleaned this tidbit of ocular physiology from any one
of the various newspapers, scientific journals, or encylopedias available to him in fin-de-siècle France—like the Gazette Médicale, for
example, or the L’Encyclopédie française d’ophtalmologie by
Lagrange and Valude—which offer detailed descriptions of this phenomenon (the
latter of which, in particular, bears some resemblance to Verne’s own).1
Whatever the case, the experiments leading up to this scientific discovery
were relatively well-known during Verne’s time. The following is a brief
summary of them by the noted biochemist George Wald (winner of the Nobel Prize
for Medicine in 1967) in his article called "Eye and Camera":
In 1876 Franz Boll of the University of Rome discovered in the rods of the
frog retina a brilliant red pigment. This bleached in the light and was
resynthesized in the dark, and so fulfilled the elementary requirements of a
visual pigment. He called this substance visual red; later it was renamed visual
purple or rhodopsin. This pigment marks the point of attack by light on the
rods: the absorption of light by rhodopsin initiates the train of reactions that
end in rod vision.
Boll had scarcely announced his discovery when Willy Kühne, professor of
physiology at Heidelberg, took up the study of rhodopsin, and in one
extraordinary year learned almost everything about it that was known until
recently. In his first paper on retinal chemistry Kühne said: "Bound
together with the pigment epithelium, the retina behaves not merely like a
photographic plate, but like an entire photographic workshop, in which the
workman continually renews the plate by laying on new light-sensitive material,
while simultaneously erasing the old image."
Kühne saw at once that, with this pigment which bleaches in the light, it
might be possible to take a picture with the living eye. He set about devising
methods for carrying out such a process, and succeeded after many discouraging
failures. He called the process optography and its products optograms.
One of Kühne’s early optograms was made as follows. 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. (563-64)
Franz Boll reported his findings on rhodopsin to the Berlin Academy on
November 12, 1876. Willy Kühne’s optographic experiments were presented to
the Naturhistorisch-Medizinischen of Heidelberg on January 5, 1877 and they were
later published in the 1877 and 1878 issues of the Untersuchungen aus dem
Physiologischen Institut der Universität Heidelberg. English translations
of these articles appeared in England in 1878 in Michael Foster’s On the
Photochemistry of the Retina and on Visual Purple.2 Subsequently,
Boll’s and Kühne’s discoveries were featured in a variety of newspapers and
international journals offering "current events" columns on science
like Fortnightly, Nature, Athenaeum, and the Nineteenth
Century in England, the Musée des Familles, Les Merveilles de la
Science, Année scientifique etindustrielle, and the Revue
des Deux Mondes in France, and in American periodicals like Harper’s
Weekly, Scientific American, and The Chautauquan.
Undoubtedly, the rapid technological advances made in (and the growing
popularity of) photography throughout this period also served to highlight these
discoveries and to introduce them into public awareness.3 After all,
the lesson seemed simple and very straightforward: the retina functioned like
the photographic plate of a camera, therefore the final image viewed before
death should remain fixed forever—like a photo—within the dead person’s
eyes. It also came to be believed (as a logical extension of this hypothesis)
that if death were to occur at a moment when the pupils of the eyes were hugely
dilated—e.g., because of fear, surprise, anger or some other strong emotion—the
retinal optograms of the deceased would be even clearer, more detailed, and
easier to "develop."4
Popular belief in these "facts" became so widespread during the
final decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that
some police departments began to take close-up photographs of the eyes of murder
victims in the hope of identifying their murderers. The most celebrated of such
cases involved Scotland Yard’s investigation of the infamous Jack-the-Ripper
murders in Whitehall, London in 1888. One historian, in describing these events,
In an attempt to be scientific, the police pried open Annie Chapman’s dead
eyes and photographed them, in the hope that the retinas had retained an image
of the last thing she saw. But no images were found. (Stewart-Gordon 121)
And another adds:
The comparatively new science of forensic photography was called upon, and
scene-of-crime photographs were admitted in evidence. ...
Later, the curious ritual of photographing the victim’s eyes had been
carried out. There was a theory that was to last well into the first quarter of
the twentieth century that in cases of violent death the last images were fixed
permanently to the retina of the eye. A photograph taken when the eye had been
drawn a little way out of the socket could thus, it was believed, identify the
It was nonsense, of course, but it was a superstition that reached right into
our own century... (Sharkey 83-4).
Murderers, in their turn, sometimes destroyed the eyes of their victims for
fear that their image might be recorded therein. The case involving the murder
of a certain Constable P.C. Gutteridge in England in 1927 was one of many such
instances. As described by Richard Harrison in his book Scotland Yard:
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. (§5:74).
And in Brussels, in 1955, a court condemned to death two men who murdered the
wife of one so that the other’s daughter could then marry him. The remaining
wife, a conspirator in the crime, was given three years in prison because she
had "sewn the head-cape which was to prevent the victim from seeing her
assassin and conserving his image on the retina of her eyes..." (Bornecque
Finally, it would seem that this belief—at least in some sectors of the
population—continues to persist even today. Witness, for example, the
following article appearing in the August 1992 Reader’s Digest about
the Russian mafia in New York City:
Police often found themselves powerless to intervene. Few refugee-immigrants
dared to report crimes, much less identify those responsible. Reprisals, even
against family members, could be brutal. In one instance, the wife of a man who
had crossed rival gangsters was stabbed to death. Then, in keeping with an
ancient Russian custom, the killer gouged out her eyes in the belief that his
image would be recorded in them. (Adams 34-5)
Or consider the February 22, 1993 television broadcast of the NBC Today
show, where an American author is being interviewed about his newly-published
book on a notorious Russian serial killer:
BRYANT GUMBEL, co-host: When the Soviet Union fell, one of the most
frightening stories to emerge was that of Andrei Chikatilo, the most savage
serial killer in history. In all, Chikatilo murdered, mutilated, and
cannibalized more than 50 women and children in a dozen years in and around the
town of Rostov. Issa Kostoev, a special investigator, spent five years stalking
Chikatilo, finally helping to bring him into custody in November of 1990 and
gaining a full and gruesome confession nine days later when Chikatilo admitted
to at least 52 murders—there were probably more. The murders, the manhunt, and
confession are all detailed in Hunting the Devil by Richard Lourie....
RICHARD LOURIE: He would gouge out the eyes of his victims. He hated eyes and
genitals. That was part of his mania. And then there’s a Russian superstition
that the last thing that the victim sees, which is the image of the murderer, is
imprinted on the eyes of the dying victim.5
Accordingly, in the light of such news items, it seems no exaggeration to
assert that this particular belief has, for well over a century, continued to
remain deeply rooted in the popular imagination.
Jules Verne was neither the first or last writer to use (or misuse) this
piece of "scientific" data in his fiction. But he was one of the first6
to incorporate it realistically—that is to say, without unduly spiritualizing
it with metaphysics, twisting it to serve an ideological message, or
extrapolating it into futuristic high-tech brain-scans.
The first literary work, to my knowledge, to use optograms was by the décadent
French author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam in his short story "Claire
Lenoir" (first published in 1867, later expanded into his 1887 novel called
Tribulat Bonhomet)—a narrative described by Huysmans as having been
"obviously derived from the tales of Edgar Poe."7 With a
satiric intent, Villiers portrays a self-assured positivist doctor called
Tribulat Bonhomet who sets out to visit an old friend named Césaire Lenoir and
his wife Claire near Saint-Malo. En route, he befriends a young English naval lieutenant
named Henry Clifton who has recently had a brief affair with a married woman
whose description seems strangely similar to that of Claire Lenoir. Dr Bonhomet
and Henry Clifton part company; the former to spend a few weeks visiting the
Lenoirs, while the latter ships out to the South Seas to cure himself of his
ill-fated love. Bonhomet arrives in Saint-Malo, pauses to rest in a local café,
and discovers a strange article in a newspaper which someone has left behind:
I took up a newspaper that lay on the table—a local paper, dirty, torn,
dated I know not how long ago....
As I turned over the pages I saw a short article, inserted between a case of
intrusion on the part of the Clergy and some recent recipe, which ran:
"L’Académie des Sciences de Paris has stated the authenticity of
certain surprising facts. It can be asserted that the animals destined to our
nourishment—such as sheep, lambs, horses and cats, conserve in their eyes,
after the butcher’s death stroke, the impression of the objects they have seen
before they die. It is a photograph of pavements, stalls, gutters, of vague
figures, among which one almost always distinguishes that of the man who has
slaughtered them; this endures until their decomposition. As one sees, our
ignorance in this matter ought to be lessened by so curious a discovery."
Later that day, settled in at the Lenoir residence, Bonhomet and his hosts
have lengthy philosophical discussions about life, death, reality, afterlife,
and thr nature of the soul. Césaire Lenoir suddenly falls ill. Just before his
death, he somehow learns of his wife’s infidelity, and he swears vengeance on
his rival in the hereafter. One year later, Bonhomet and the widow Claire Lenoir
meet. She is now on her deathbed, driven there by guilt and by persistent
nightmares about her deceased husband who is standing in an exotic land, dressed
as a bloodthirsty savage, and awaiting the arrival of his fated victim. Bonhomet
is shocked: a few days earlier, he had received word that Henry Clifton had been
brutally murdered, beheaded in Polynesia by a particularly ferocious member of a
tribe of cannibals! The widow Lenoir then expires. Noticing a blurry image
remaining in her eyes, Bonhomet examines them with the aid of his ophthalmoscope
and discovers therein a horrific sight:
In examining the eyes of the dead woman, I saw, distinctly, at first detach
itself, as a frame, the stripe of violet paper that encircled the top of the
wall. And, in this frame, reverberated in this fashion, I perceived a picture
which no language, dead or alive...could, under the sun and under the moon,
express in its unimaginable horror. ...
I saw the skies, the far-off floods, a great rock, the night and the stars!
And upright, on the rock, larger in height than the living, a man, like one of
the natives of the Dangerous Sea, stood. Was he a man, this ghost? He lifted
with one hand, towards the abyss, a bloody head, with dripping hair. With such a
howl as I have never heard, but the horror of which I divined in the ignivomous
distention of the hugely opened mouth, he seemed to devote himself to the
destructiveness of shadow and space. In his other hand that hung, he held a
stone cutlass, disgusting and red. Around him, the horizon seemed to me endless—the
solitude for ever accursed! And, under the expression of a supernatural fury, under the spasm of vengeance, of solemn wrath and of
hate, I recognized instantly on the face of the Ottysor-Vampire, his inexpressible
resemblance to Césaire Lenoir before his death and, in the severed head,
the features, frightfully obscured, of the young man I had known, Sir Henry
Clifton, the lost lieutenant!
Stumbling, arms extended, shivering like a child, I recoiled.
My reason fled from me: hideous, confused conjectures maddened and stupefied
me. I was no more than a living chaos of anguish, a human rag, a brain as
withered as chalk, pulverized under the immense menace! And Science, the old
queen-sovereign with clear eyes, with perhaps too disinterested a logic, with
her infamous embrace, sneered in my ear that she was not, she also, more than a
lure of the Unknown that spies on us and waits for us—inexorable, implacable!
The first reference to optograms quoted here (read in a newspaper by Bonhomet)
is anecdotal and authoritatively scientific. It foreshadows and sets the stage
for the second (witnessed by Bonhomet) which is spiritualistic and heavy with
metaphysical implications. And, considered together, the author’s narrative
strategy becomes very apparent. Villiers, an avowed anti-science idealist and
firm believer in the supernatural, has prepared and sprung a trap on his pompous
anti-hero Bonhomet. This deathbed hallucination imprinted in Claire Lenoir’s
eyes—this "photo" of her vision—is well beyond the power of
Science to explain. Yet it exists. Faced with this reality, Doctor Bonhomet’s
entire value system is abruptly shaken to its roots, reducing him to "a
living chaos of anguish." And it is important to note that the story
concludes at this point—Bonhomet is purposefully left hanging in existential
crisis. His plight thus represents a dramatic consummation of his creator’s
satiric purpose, a kind of literary vengeance by Villiers on the hated
philosophy of Positivism. It is obvious that Villiers’ use of retinal images
in "Claire Lenoir," brimming with irony and mysticism, stands in
marked contrast to Verne’s later more conservative portrayal. Villiers’
approach, polemical rather than expository, is tailored to send a strong
ideological message: that Science is wholly incapable of understanding the
higher planes of human consciousness and the true nature of the universe.9
Another such "metaphysical" portrayal of optographic images occurs
in Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 short story titled "At the End of the
Passage" (included in his collection Life’s Handicap). The
fictional setting is India during the 1880s. In the searing summer heat of India’s
provinces, three British civil servants get together every Sunday to play whist
at the home of one of their countryman, a certain Doctor Spurstow. One of them,
Hummil, complains of sleepless nights and bad dreams. The following week, he is
found dead in his bed with a look of horror frozen upon his face. Doctor
Spurstow examines the dead man and, noticing gray blurs in the pupils of his
eyes, decides to photograph them for later study. Although the cause of his
death remains uncertain, Hummil is buried. After the burial, his friends
continue to wonder about how he died:
After breakfast, they smoked a pipe in silence to the memory of the dead.
Then Spurstow said absently—
"Tisn’t in medical science."
"Things in a dead man’s eye."
"For goodness’ sake leave that horror alone!" said Lowndes.
"I’ve seen a native die of pure fright when a tiger chivied him. I know
what killed Hummil."
"The deuce you do! I’m going to try to see." And the doctor
retreated into the bath-room with a Kodak camera. After a few minutes there was
the sound of something being hammered to pieces, and he emerged, very white
"Have you got a picture?" said Mottram. "What does the thing
"It was impossible, of course. You needn’t look, Mottram. I’ve torn
up the films. There was nothing there. It was impossible."
"That," said Lowndes very distinctly, watching the shaking hand
striving to relight the pipe, "is a damned lie."
Mottram laughed uneasily. "Spurstow’s right," he said. "We’re
all in such a state now that we’d believe anything. For pity’s sake let’s
try to be rational."
There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without,
and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished
steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare. "We’d
better go on that," said Spurstow. "Go back to work. I’ve written my
certificate. We can’t do any more good here, and work’ll keep our wits
together. Come on."
No one moved. It is not pleasant to face railway journeys at mid-day in June.
Sprustow gathered up his hat and whip, and, turning in the doorway, said—
"There may be Heaven; there must be Hell.
Meantime, there is our life here. We-ell?"
Neither Mottram nor Lowndes had any answer to the question. (265-69)
Kipling’s narrative suddenly ends at this point. The "things" in
the dead man’s eyes are never explained nor even described in detail. The
reader is told only of the Doctor’s horror when viewing the developed
photographs and his immediate destruction of them. But, once again, the
metaphysical implications of these photographic images—as astounding as they
are understated in this story—cannot be denied: just as in Villiers’
"Claire Lenoir" (which may well have served as Kipling’s
intertextual model), Hummil witnessed an "impossible" vision which
terrified him and caused his death. And this nightmarish hallucination left its
physical imprint upon the retinas of his dead eyes—either from within or, even
more inexplicably, from without (having somehow become corporeal and
exteriorized). Doctor Spurstow’s initial reactions—similar to Doctor
Bonhomet’s—are disbelief, shock, and fear. But, unlike the fate of Villiers’
protagonist, Kipling’s character is allowed to overcome his crisis. Adopting a
kind of Voltairian "cultivate one’s garden" attitude, Spurstow
suggests that they all simply "Go back to work" because "work’ll
keep our wits together." And it is now the reader who is left hanging—and
wondering . . . .
Yet another unrealistic use of this scientific concept—this time twisting
it to serve the needs of racist propaganda—occurs in Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s The
Clansman, a novel published in 1905, which later served as the basis for D.W.
Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation. The narrative is set in the
Carolinas during the post-Civil War period of 1865-70 and, at one point,
concerns the double suicide of a white mother (named, very suggestively, Mrs. Lenoir)
and her daughter after they have been raped by a rampaging band of black men. The coroner’s jury reports that they were killed by
accidentally falling over a steep cliff known as Lovers’ Leap, but Doctor
Cameron—a friend of the family—suspects foul play. In a chapter entitled
"The Hunt for the Animal," he decides to conduct an experiment:
When the bodies reached the home, Doctor Cameron placed Mrs. Cameron and
Margaret outside to receive visitors and prevent any one from disturbing him. He
took Ben into the room and locked the doors.
"My boy, I wish you to witness an experiment." He drew from its
case a powerful microscope of French make.
"What on earth are you going to do, sir?"
The doctor’s brilliant eyes flashed with a mystic light as he replied:
"Find the fiend who did this crime—and then we will hang him on a gallows
so high that all men from the rivers to the ends of the earth shall see and feel
and know the might of an unconquerable race of men."
"But there’s no trace of him here."
"We shall see," said the doctor, adjusting his instrument. "I
believe that a microscope of sufficient power will reveal on the retina of these
dead eyes the image of this devil as if etched there by fire. The experiment has
been made successfully in France. ... "
Ben watch him with breathless interest.
He first examined Marion’s eyes. But in the cold azure blue of their pure
depths he could find nothing. "It’s as I feared with the child," he
said. "I can see nothing. It is on the mother I rely. In the splendour of
life, at thirty-seven she was the full-blown perfection of womanhood with every
vital force at its highest tension..."
He looked long and patiently into the dead mother’s eye, rose and wiped the
perspiration from his face.
"What is it, sir?" asked Ben.
Without reply, as if in a trance, he returned to the microscope and again
rose with the little quick nervous cough he gave only in the greatest
excitement, and whispered: "Look now and tell me what you see."
Ben looked and said: "I can see nothing."
"Your powers of vision are not trained as mine," replied the
doctor, resuming his place at the instrument.
"What do you see?" asked the younger man, bending nervously.
"The bestial figure of a negro—his huge black hand plainly defined—the
upper part of his face is dim, as if obscured by a gray mist of dawn—but the
massive jaws and lips are clear—merciful God!—it’s Gus!"
Subsequently, the black man named Gus is located. He is bound and gagged,
beaten, and dragged to a cave in the mountains by the white-cloaked members of
the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (of whom Dr. Cameron is the secret leader).
That night he is judged before a flaming cross, confesses his crimes, and is
summarily executed by this "Order of the Invisible Empire" —who,
incidentally, describe themselves as "an institution of Chivalry, Humanity,
Mercy, and Patriotism: embodying in its genius and principles all that is
chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood, and patriotic in
While the blatant racism which oozes from the pages of this novel is very
unsettling, the use of Science toward this end is perhaps even more disturbing.
This particular episode illustrates how the popularization of certain scientific theories might be exploited to serve the needs of
extremist propaganda. Doctor Cameron supposedly saw an image of the villainous
Gus in Mrs. Lenoir’s dead eyes—despite the fact that, scientifically, this
image could not possibly have existed there. The reason is obvious: Gus’s face
was not the final thing Mrs Lenoir saw before dying! Consider the
chronology of the event: immediately after the crime, "the mother cleaned
and swept the room, piled the torn clothes and cord in the fireplace and burned
them, dressed herself as for a walk, softly closed the doors, and hurried with
her daughter along the old pathway through the moonlit woods" to the cliff
(§3.12:305); and, there, the two victims exchanged last words of love and
Christian faith before plunging to their deaths. Was the author of this novel
unaware of his error? Or, in a more sinister twist, did he fully understand the
science of optograms but chose instead to purposefully gloss over such annoying
details—counting on the fact that the public’s belief in the possibility
of such retinal images would guarantee his Doctor’s credibility? In either
case, the reference to optograms in this text performs an invaluable function:
to provide a believable "scientific" justification for hunting down
and executing the black "devil" who was identified thereby.
As mentioned earlier, by the 1920s, the public’s unquestioning belief in
optograms began to wane—perhaps in part because of their continuously
unrealistic portrayal in literature but, more importantly, because of their
total lack of success in police murder investigations where they had been
repeatedly searched for and never found. The very idea of post-mortal retinal
images found itself demoted to the status of a mere "superstition" or
a "legend." Witness, in this regard, the treatment given to it by the
French author Maurice Renard in his very popular novel Les Mains d’Orlac
(The Hands of Orlac) published in 1921.10 After the mysterious
murders in Paris of two noted spiritualists, the French police question the
coroner who had performed the autopsies:
Doctor Frouardet had performed the autopsies on both cadavers.
"No," he was saying, "there was not the slightest indication,
external or internal...."
"And did you discover anything in the eyes?" asked M.
"No, I found nothing in the eyes—although I did look—oh, I’m not
hiding it—I did look. You know ... my many observations have led me to believe
that a person who is killed does not retain, photographed on his retina, the
picture of his last vision, which might furnish the means of discovering the
murderer. In my opinion this is a legend." (§25:318-19)
But also during the 1920s, a relatively new literary genre was beginning to
take root in the United States—offering futuristic stories which depicted not
only "hard" science but also fictionalized science. And it was
through this new genre called science fiction that a modernized variant of the
(now discredited) optogram eventually emerged: the necroscopic brain-scan. In
this updated version, the location of the post-mortal images is now the brain
itself instead of the eyes; a complex electronic instrument replaces the
old-fashioned box camera as the device for extracting them; and (in some narratives) the reconstituted "last vision" no longer takes the
form of a simple photograph, but is rather a motion picture or a hologram which
can played back like a video by the scientists.
An early precursor to this more extrapolative, science-fictional rendering of
optograms can be found in an 1899 novel called Dr. Berkeley’s Discovery
by Richard Slee and Cornelia Pratt. The story goes like this:
An American physiologist named Dr. Berkeley makes a truly amazing discovery:
by removing a piece of human brain from a recently-deceased person, dipping it
in a fixative solution to prevent deterioration, briefly implanting it in an
animal brain to reactivate it, and then examining it on a slide under a very
powerful microscope, he succeeds in "developing" as photographs the
visual images that the brain received just before death. He calls their source
"memory cells."11 About this time, a brutal crime occurs in
New York: a young woman is found stabbed to death, and the alleged murderer is
put on trial. The court has asked Dr. Berkeley to use his new procedure on the
dead woman’s brain and to offer testimony in the case:
Being requested to describe the nature of his evidence, he rehearsed briefly
but with absolute lucidity his theory of the memory cells, and the progress of
his work, to prove that theory. ...
When Berkeley had concluded the account of his experiments, he stated that he
had brought with him a number of sections from the brain of Mme. Massoneau,
feeling that his evidence would best be presented to the court in the same form
in which it had come to him. ...
He stated that, as the memory cells were visible only with the aid of a
microscope of the highest power, which required an expert to manipulate it, he
had photographed some of the brain sections, and would attach the resulting
slides to a stereopticon. If the Court would order the room darkened, he would
throw the pictures that the slides held upon the white wall, where they could be
seen by all. ...
It flashed upon the wall, and the crowd saw against the background of a
commonplace room, identical in all points with the photograph of that hotel
parlour where the murder had taken place, the prisoner’s figure.
As it wavered to its place on the screen, it seemed by some odd illusion to
be moving down toward them from the wall. The face was distorted with a blind,
unreasoning fury, and in one hand was the daggar, raised to strike. ...
The tumult grew uncontrollable. Such scenes had never been known in that
grave room before. Only the quickness of the sheriff and his deputies prevented
the crowd from falling upon the senseless man, and tearing him to pieces. The
case of the State vs. Massoneau was over, and the verdict rendered by popular
The idea that a person’s memory is carried in the brain as photographs
within "memory cells" may seem somewhat quaint to those of us living
in the late twentieth century. But it is instructive to note that, even today,
modern science still has no clear understanding of how human memory works.
Despite decades of major technological advances like the development of EEGs
(electroencephalograms), CAT scans (computerized axial tomography), MRI scans
(magnetic resonance imaging), and PETT scans (positron emission transaxial
tomography), brain scientists are still far from agreeing as to exactly how this organ processes, stores, and retrieves
memories. Laboratory experiments from the 1950s seem to have shown that memory
cannot be localized in any specific part of the brain. But, beyond this, the
biological mystery of how memory operates in the human brain continues to be
largely unresolved. Witness, for example, what a few scientific experts have
recently said on this topic:
The mechanism of memory remains far from clear. (Hart 153)
We are just beginning to gain some understanding of the brain systems that
code and store these various aspects of memory. (Thompson 303)
At present the world of brain science is in the middle of...a revolution.
Scientists now regard the brain as a hormonally driven gland, not an
electrically driven computer. ... As gravity is the great unknown in physics,
memory is the great enigma of brain science. (Bergland 93, 120)
...a mass of conflicting evidence in a bitterly contested field. (Rose 200)
Most modern hypotheses for how the brain creates memory can be divided into
two basic groups: electricity-based theories (modifiable synapses, hologramic
distribution, network redundancies, etc.) and molecular-hormonal theories
(proteins, peptides, RNA, etc.). To adequately outline these various hypotheses
would require much more time and space than can be afforded here. But it is
important to simply point out that human memory is not yet fully
understood, and that it will undoubtedly someday prove to be a complex
combination of both neurological and molecular-hormonal functions working
together within the brain.
In SF, one of the earliest 20th-century portrayals of a high-tech memory
scanner seems especially interesting in this regard—all the more so since it
occurs in a trilogy of novels published during the heyday of radio and (perhaps
not coincidentally) around the time of the development of the EEG in 1929-34.
This curious piece of technology, called a "mechanical educator,"
appears (repeatedly) in Edward E. Smith’s famous Skylark series of
1928-1935. It is not only capable of reading the accumulated memories of both
the living and the recently dead but also of transferring those memories directly
into the brain of the examiner or onto an external "record" for later
play-back. This device was first developed by a certain Dunark, the Kofedix or
Crown Prince of the nation of Kondal, on the green planet called Osnome
thousands of light-years from Earth. The novels’ hero Dick Seaton, after
traveling there with his companions in his spheroid spaceship
"Skylark," borrows this technology and improves upon it. He explains
how this extraordinary machine works:
"This is an improved model—it has quite a few gadgets of my own in it.
Now, Mart, as to how it works—it isn’t so funny after you understand it—it’s
a lot like a radio in that respect. It operates on a band of frequencies lying
between the longest light and heat waves and the shortest radio waves. This
thing here is the generator of those waves and a very heavy power amplifier. The
headsets are stereoscopic transmitters, taking or receiving a three-dimensional
view. Nearly all matter is transparent to those waves; for instance bones, hair,
and so on. However, cerebin, a cerebroside peculiar to the thinking structure of
the brain, is opaque to them. Dunark, not knowing chemistry, didn’t know why the
educator worked or what it worked on—he found out by experiment that it did
work; just as we found out about electricity. This three-dimensional model, or
view, or whatever you want to call it, is converted into electricity in the
headsets, and the resulting modulated wave goes back to the educator. There it
is heterodyned with another wave—this second frequency was found after
thousands of trials and is, I believe, the exact frequency existing in the optic
nerves themselves—and sent to the receiving headset. Modulated as it is, and
producing a three-dimensional picture, after rectification in the receiver, it
reproduces exactly what has been ‘viewed,’ if due allowance has been made
for the size and the configuration of the different brains involved in the
I had a big advantage in knowing that cerebrin was the substance involved,
and with that knowledge I could carry matters considerably farther than Dunark
could in his original model. I can transfer the thoughts of somebody else to a
third party or to a record. Dunark’s machine couldn’t work against
resistance—if the subject wasn’t willing to give up his thoughts he couldn’t
get them. This one can take them away by force. In fact, by increasing the plate
and grid voltages in the amplifier, I can pretty nearly burn out a man’s
brain. Yesterday, I was playing with it, transferring a section of my own brain
to a magnetized tape—for a permanent record, you know—and found out that
above certain rather low voltages it becomes a form of torture that would make
the best efforts of the old Inquisition seem like a petting party." (Smith,
Skylark Three, §4:33-35)
As the interplanetary plot unfolds, the narratological importance of the
"mechanical educator" in these novels becomes instantly apparent. With
its use Seaton succeeds in transferring to his own mind—and to the ship’s
permanent "record"—a wealth of knowledge from highly advanced alien
civilizations, gleaned directly from the brains of their most enlightened
scientists and rulers. And he is later able to discover secret invasion plans
from both the living and newly-dead brains of a viciously bellicose race called
the Fenachrone who are seeking to conquer the galaxy, but whom Seaton and his
allies manage to defeat in the end.
Another much less "space-opera" variant of such brain-reading
devices occurs in Stanislaw Lem’s 1967 SF novel The Invincible. The
crew of the spaceship Invincible has landed on the desert planet Regis
III in a far sector of the galaxy. They have come to investigate the sudden
disappearance of their sister ship Condor. After an extensive search of
the planet, they finally locate the remains of the Condor: the ship is
intact, but its interior has been ransacked, its bulkheads strangely
pock-marked, and its entire crew killed. One crewmember’s body, however, is
found to be perfectly preserved; he had apparently stumbled into the ship’s
hibernator during the crisis and had frozen to death. The Invincible’s
physician Dr. Nygren, assisted by the neuro-physiologist Sax, examines the victim’s
body along with the ship’s navigator Rohan. They attempt to "read"
the dead crewmember’s brain:
Nygren...picked up a small black satchel off the floor, opened it and pulled
out that apparatus about which Rohan had heard so much but which he had never
seen until now. With slow, almost pedantic movements, Sax began to untangle the
cords whose ends had flat electrodes attached to them. He placed six electrodes
against the dead man’s skull and fastened them with an elastic band. Then he
crouched down and pulled three pairs of headphones out of the satchel.
He put on one of these and kept testing the buttons of the machine inside a
plastic case. His eyes were closed, his face bore an expression of deepest
This apparatus was referred to by the space crews as the
"corpse-spy." With it one could "auscultate the brain" of
recently deceased persons, or those dead in whom decay had not yet set in, or a
body like this one that had been preserved by very low temperatures. Long after
death had occurred one could ascertain what the last conscious thoughts and
emotions had been.
The apparatus sent electrical impulses into the brain; there they followed
the path of least resistance, moving along those nerve tendrils that had formed
one functional entity during the preagonal phase. The results were never too
reliable, but it was said to have obtained extraordinarily significant data on
many occasions. In cases like the present one, use of the "corpse-spy"
was clearly indicated. (§3:52-3)
The "corpse-spy" does its job, and the final scenes viewed by the
dead crewmember are retrieved and observed. But (in typical Lemian fashion) the
results are far from definitive:
At first he heard nothing but the humming of the current...he tightly
squeezed his eyelids together.
Suddenly he could perceive clearly...It looked like one of the corridors
inside the Condor; there were pipes running along the ceiling. The
passage was totally blocked by human bodies that seemed to move. But it was only
the image that was waving to and fro. The people were half-naked; shreds of
clothing barely covered them. Their skin was unnaturally white and was sprinkled
with dark spots like some kind of a rash. Perhaps these spots were not on the
skin but were a peculiar visual phenomenon, for they were scattered everywhere:
tiny black dots on the floor and the walls. The entire image seemed to fluctuate
like a blurred photograph taken through a deep layer of flowing water. The
picture seemed to stretch, then contracted again, billowing and swaying. ...
[Rohan] stammered: "But what did that mean?"
Sax unzipped his protective suit. ..."I don’t know any more than you
do," he answered. "Maybe even less." (§3:54-5)
It is important to note that, in Lem’s portrayal of the necroscopic
brain-scan, the reconstituted images are perceived within the brains of
the examiners themselves (rather than, for example, on an external viewing
screen). As such, they are prone to subjective interference—a kind of
automatic "uncertainty principle" ignored by most earlier SF works. In
fact, unlike all the previous narratives we have examined, here the victim’s
final vision proves useless: it solves no mystery, incriminates no one, and
provides no immediate answer to the riddle facing the protagonists. Of course,
this episode occurs near the beginning of the novel, and it would be
narratologically self-defeating to do otherwise. But, Lem seems also to be
offering in this passage an ironic commentary on the value of technology as it
relates to human comprehension: "The results were never too
reliable..." "I don’t any more than you do...Maybe even less."
That is to say, it is still the human brain which is ultimately responsible
for the "meaning" of the images procured. It is only when the brain
interprets the visual images captured (by the machine, as by the eye) that real perception
occurs. And it is at this crucial juncture—the point of interface between the objective and the subjective—that all
"scientific" explanations for phenomena observed in the
"real" world take place: in the human brain. Thus, what Lem appears to
be underscoring in this episode (as elsewhere in his oeuvre) recalls a similar
epistemological question once raised by Flaubert in his highly satirical Bouvard
et Pécuchet. After receiving a lengthy lesson in astronomy from his
science-enthralled friend Pécuchet, the naÔve Bouvard suggests quite simply:
"Science is constructed according to data furnished by only one corner of
space. Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with the remainder that we are unaware of and
cannot discover" (779).
Much less postmodern in tone (although still able to generate a certain
"sense of wonder") are the necroscopic brain-scans portrayed in much
SF cinema and television of the latter 20th century. For example, Roy Ward Baker’s
1968 British film Five Million Years to Earth features an
"unconscious vision machine" which successfully reads the
multimillion-year old racial memories of a locust-like alien found in a
spacecraft beneath the city of London. Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 film Brainstorm
depicts a team of scientists who develop an electronic mechanism that (ŗ la E.E.
Smith) records directly from the brain and stores on magnetic tape the totality
of an individual’s sensorial perceptions—which can then be transferred to
another who experiences them as if they were his/her own. The British SF
television series Doctor Who aired a segment in 1975 titled "The Ark
in Space" wherein a scientist removes a portion of the brain from a dead
insect-like alien called a Wirran and stimulates it to recapture memories of the
creature’s last thoughts. And, as recently as this past year, during the CBS
television broadcast premiere of Space Rangers on January 6, 1993, the
hero Captain Boon and Fort Hope’s science officer Mimmer recreate a 3-D
hologram of the final moments of a murdered man by "reading" the dead
man’s cerebral cortex with a high-tech scanner that is sensitive to certain
residual radioactive elements in the brain.
There are doubtlessly many other films and TV serials containing this
particular topos, but one which I find exemplary is William Castle’s Project
X, a grade-B SF film from 1968 based on Leslie P. Davies’ two novels The
Artificial Man (1965) and Psychogeist (1967). The year is 2118. The
world’s geopolitical future is precariously balanced between the Western
powers and Sino-Asia, both of whom, wishing to avoid thermonuclear war, have
agreed to an uneasy truce but continue to search for other weapons to destroy
their rivals and expand their empires. A certain Doctor Crowther, who had
earlier developed a serum to erase a soldier’s memory in the event of his
capture, is now asked by the Western government to reverse this process and
recover the lost memories of one of their top spies, Hagan Arnold, who was
captured by the Sino-Asians but then managed to escape. Arnold’s final message
to the West at the moment of his capture was: "The West will be destroyed
in fourteen days...repeat...fourteen days..." Dr. Crowther assembles a team
of scientists, and they construct a "laser pictograph" to reconstitute
Arnold’s lost memories. The procedure is explained as follows:
Dr. Tarbin: These holograms are images or pictures to be transmitted by laser
beam instead of short wave or microwave. We can send any image or we can record
any image. These images appear to the eye to be in solid form, although they are
Dr. Crowther: Before he left on his Sino-Asian mission, Arnold took a crash
course in the Oriental language. For several months, he was shown symbols as a
method of instruction. This instruction has conditioned his mind to receive
holograms. So we are going to transmit the facts we have in the hope that, when
we get to the episode we don’t know about, our action will reactivate his
memory. The laser pictograph, as Dr. Tarbin has indicated, will be our means of
input and it will also show us exactly what is going on in Hagan Arnold’s
Electrodes are attached to Arnold’s head and the memory-stimulation
procedure begins. Several "lost" memories of Arnold’s activies in
Sino-Asia are recovered—including his rescue of another Western agent named
Gregory Gallea (who had been presumed dead) and their subsequent escape from
their captors. But at this point in the memory play-back, Arnold’s brain
suddently resists—projecting into the laboratory a huge ectoplasmic apparition
of his face, hovering above them and screaming. Unable to continue the
experiment, Dr. Crowther searches for a rational explanation for this unexpected
apparition, saying to his superiors:
Dr. Crowther: The lines on these EEGs are impulses, aren’t they? Impulses
which we measure electrically—in other words, energy.
Col. Collins: All right.
Dr. Crowther: Then you do admit that the brain is capable of producing a form
Col. Collins: Yes, I understand all that but . . .
Dr. Crowther: Ah, then why cannot this energy, under certain circumstances,
become so strong that it develops its own motive power?
Col Collins: To move at its own will?
Dr. Crowther: Yes, why not? There is still one third of the brain that is an
absolute mystery to us, Colonel. I submit to you that the phenomenon that we saw
in that room was really a form of energy created by Arnold’s brain.
Col. Collins: Next you’ll be talking about the Id and the Superego.
Dr. Crowther: Call it anything you like. I believe that our holograms released
an energy, and that now that energy stands between us and the truth. We have
During this time Gregory Gallea joins the group and accuses Dr. Crowther of
treason and complicity with the Sino-Asians in having purposefully sabotaged the
experiment. In response, Colonel Collins demands that the laser pictograph’s
prodding of Arnold’s memory continue, regardless of his subconscious
resistance (and that of his exteriorized psychic projection) to their efforts.
Dr. Crowther protests strenuously, but is forced to comply. Predictably, the
ghostly apparition appears again and prevents any further brain-scan but, this
time, it kills Gregory Gallea. The experiment now seems to have failed utterly.
One of the West’s top espionnage agents is dead, the other has incurable
amnesia, and an attack by the Sino-Asians’ secret weapon is imminent. But Dr. Crowther suddenly has an inspiration:
Col. Cowen: All right, Dr. Tarbin, cremate the body.
Dr. Crowther: No, don’t! Don’t destroy that body! This may be our chance!
Col. Cowen: Chance? For what?
Dr. Crowther: Gallea and Arnold were together. They shared the secret.
Col. Cowen: Doctor, this man is dead—he’s stone dead!
Dr. Crowther: Wait! The body is clinically dead—that’s correct, Colonel.
But the brain cells are still alive!
Dr. Tarbin: If we operate quickly, there’s a chance, Colonel. A slim chance!
Dr. Crowther: Look at it this way, Colonel. You have nothing to lose. If
necrosis hasn’t set in, if the skull fracture hasn’t destroyed too much
tissue, we may succeed.
Col. Cowen: In getting a dead man’s brain to reveal information?
Dr. Crowther: Yes, by the same use of holograms.
Gallea’s brain is extracted, set into a spheroid-shaped nutrient bath,
hooked up to the laser pictograph’s electrodes, and his memories are perused.
It is discovered, to everyone’s astonishment, that Gallea himself was the real
traitor—during their arranged "escape," he had injected Arnold with
the Sino-Asians’ secret weapon: "a bacterial culture combining all the
plague diseases of the Middle Ages" designed to decimate the West’s
population who, for decades, have had no knowledge of sickness. Worse, they had
all been exposed to this lethal bug during the experiment itself! As panic
grows, Dr. Crowther quarantines the area. Then he realizes that, since the dying
Hagan Arnold had been cryonically frozen for a week immediately after his return
to the West and had been revived only when his injuries were no longer
life-threatening, they had seven days left before the virus would activate—time
enough to develop an effective antidote! The antidote is quickly created and
distributed, Hagan Arnold is "programmed" for a new life, Dr. Crowther
is vindicated, the West is saved, and (in a final irony) Gregory Gallea’s
brain is preserved in the hope of revealing other bio-military secrets of
Obviously, this particular SF tale combines a number of primary and secondary
characteristics which have become common in this sort of fiction since the
nineteenth century: the mysterious presence of metaphysical, exteriorized
psychic projections (Villiers, Kipling), the politico-legalistic motivations for
attempting such memory retrieval in the first place (Verne, Slee), the
xenophobia (Dixon), and the use of high-tech brain-scanners to record such
latent memories (Smith, Lem), among others. In this regard, Project X
stands as a kind of one-stop-shopping warehouse of topoi associated with this
theme. But it might also be seen as representing something more: mingling
together elements of SF, fantasy, the supernatural, horror, spy fiction, and
detective fiction, it exemplifies a hybridized breed of narrative that, in many
ways, seems quite symptomatic of the growing heterogeneity of these
literary/cinematic genres during the past few decades of the late twentieth
From laboratory to legend to literature and cinema, optograms and their
variants have, for almost one hundred and fifty years, continued to fascinate
scientists, storytellers, and the public at large. From a photo in a dead man’s
eye to futuristic necroscopic brain-scans, the possibility of "reading the
dead" with the aid of Science, albeit still unrealized, remains a
surprisingly persistent notion—one which might even be called a deep-rooted obsession,
given its enduring cognitive and affective appeal. But, for those interested in
the history of SF and other forms of scientific narrative, it also provides a
unique opportunity to witness how science can sometimes evolve into
pseudo-science, become firmly anchored in popular belief, and then develop into
a recurring touchstone for the fictional imagination.
1. See Drougard, pp. 78-81. All translations are by me unless otherwise
indicated. Many thanks to my coeditors of SFS, our editorial consultants, and
all my "virtual" friends on the Humanist e-mail network for their
advice and suggestions during my preparation of this article—in particular,
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Vivian Sobchack, Abbie Angharad Hughes, and Stan
2. See Shipley and Crescitelli, pp. 1252-1323.
3. In this regard, note the mini-portrait "carte-de-visite" craze
of the 1850s, the wide popularity of "stereographs" throughout the
1860s and 1870s, and especially George Eastman’s development of the first
do-it-yourself "Kodak" camera in 1888 which brought inexpensive
amateur photography (and a familiarity with photographic principles) to millions
world-wide. See Lemagny and Rouillé, pp. 38-41, 80.
4. In reality, these popular assumptions go well beyond the facts. The retina
does not act like a permanent photographic plate (as common belief would
have it) but rather, in the words of Kühne, as an "entire photographic
workshop, in which the workman continually renews the plate by laying on new
light-sensitive material, while simultaneously erasing the old." Therein
lies the crux of the problem. As further explained by one expert in the field:
It is a very romantic idea but, for a start, under normal daylight conditions
there is very little rhodopsin in the retina; it is only used for dawn, dusk,
and night vision. It would be pointless to try to recover an image unless it had
been formed under conditions of low illuminations, rod vision not cone vision,
and there would have to have been no been no illumination of the eye from the
moment the image was seen to the time of fixation on the retina. Even the best
images that we can see by nocturnal vision actually depend on quite small local
differences in the concentration of rhodospin which would be enormously
difficult to measure without using the sensitive neural apparatus of the dead
eye to detect it (don’t even think it—the retinal nerve cells die within
minutes of the cessation of blood flow). Further, our eyes are in continual
motion, and the pigment is locally bleached and restored as we look from one
place to another. The only image on the retina at death is the last one seen.
Normally functioning eyes need an exposure time, as it were, of some ten
milliseconds or so to see a new "picture," but experiments in the last
century required several minutes to get a very crude image of a window on the
completely stationary retina of a rabbit. Before that, the rabbit had been kept
in the dark for a long time to maximize the amount of rhodospin. Only if a
person has stared fixedly at a bright object for several minutes before death,
or less hopefully a dark one on a light background, having previously been in
the dark, would even crude imagery be available for development. If their eyes
had shut at death, the amount of light coming through the lids would still be
enough to bleach the image if the retina were not removed and fixed immediately.
The fictional accounts are all fantasy. —Abbie Angharad Hughes, Institute of
Advanced Studies, Canberra, e-mail message to me on July 3, 1993.
Of course, it is still theoretically possible—if all the proper
conditions are met: e.g., if the individuals stared for a few minutes at a
brightly lit object before dying, if they closed their eyes immediately upon death and remained in a darkened room, if
their eyes were rapidly excised and the retinal tissue removed and bathed in an
alum solution, etc.—i.e., if Kühne’s experiments were systematically
duplicated with a human eye. In fact, Kühne himself once attempted this. As
explained by George Wald:
In the nearby town of Bruchsal on November 16, 1880, a young man was beheaded
by guillotine. Kühne had made arrangements to receive the corpse. He had
prepared a dimly lighted room screened with red and yellow glass to keep any
rhodopsin left in the eyes from bleaching further. Ten minutes after the knife
had fallen he obtained the whole retina from the left eye, and had the
satisfaction of seeing and showing to several colleagues a sharply demarcated
optogram printed upon its surface. To my knowledge it is the only human optogram
on record. Kühne went to great pains to determine what this optogram
represented. He says: "A search for the object which served as source for
this optogram remained fruitless, in spite of a thorough inventory of all the
surroundings and reports from many witnesses." (564)
5. I have asked a number of Russian and Slavic language professors about this
supposedly "old Russian superstition," and none have ever heard of it.
My guess, barring proof to the contrary, is that this belief did not originate
in Russia and, in fact, did not predate the nineteenth century.
6. Another, also a murder mystery, is Cleveland Moffett’s "On the Turn
of a Coin" published in April 1900 in The Black Cat. And Moffett’s
tale is even more scientifically correct than Verne’s in that the victim
"closed her eyes with fright at the very moment when she saw the murderer,
and never opened them since" (27) thereby, ostensibly, preserving the final
image on her retinas for later inspection.
7. J.-K. Huysmans. A Rebours (Paris: UGE, 1975), p. 297. This
controversial novel was originally published in 1884.
8. These two translations are from Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Claire
Lenoir (trans. Arthur Symons), NY: Albert & Charles Boni, 1925.
9. It is also interesting to note that Villiers’ short story "Claire
Lenoir" was originally written in 1867, or nine years before Boll’s
and Kühne’s much-acclaimed discoveries. So what were his sources? The Académie
des Sciences de Paris report on retinal images quoted by Villiers is pure
fiction and never occurred. So how did Villiers come up with this idea almost a
decade before it was to become common knowledge? The answer to this riddle might
well be a French newspaper report published on September 26, 1863 in the Publicateur
des Côtes-du-Nord, as cited in J. Bollery, La Bretagne de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam
(Saint-Brieuc: Presses bretonnes, 1961), and translated as follows:
An English photographer, Mr. Warner, has had the idea of reproducing on
collodion the eye of a steer a few hours after its death. Examining this under
the microscope, he perceived quite distinctly on the retina the lines of the
cobblestone floor of the slaughterhouse, the last object viewed by the animal as
its head was lowered to receive its deathblow. This experiment is even more
successful, according to its author, if it is done at a moment closer to actual
death. Therefore, if one reproduced by photography the eyes of a murdered
person, and if one operated within 24 hours of the death, one could discern on
the retinas with the aid of a microscope the last thing that was present before
the eyes of the victim. (110)
Whether or not this particular newspaper report was the true source of
Villiers’ use of retinal images in "Claire Lenoir" is of less
importance that the realization that experiments on this phenomenon were, in
fact, being undertaken (by photographers, among others) apparently long
before the "official" scientific explanations offered by Boll and
Kühne in the late 1870s.
By way of corroboration, an even earlier indication comes from R.W. Hackwood
(cited in Alexander Kelly’s Jack the Ripper, 26) who, in an issue of Notes
and Queries published on October 3, 1857, registers his surprise and
scepticism about a then-recent article in the New York Observer. Hackwood
quotes the article at length, saying:
The astonishing and intensely interesting fact was recently announced in the
English papers of a discovery, that the last image formed on the retina of the
eye of a dying person remains impressed upon it as on a daguerrean plate. Thus
it was alleged that if the last object seen by a murdered person was his
murderer, the portrait drawn upon the eye would remain a fearful witness in
death to detect the guilty, and lead to his conviction. A series of experiments
have recently been made (Aug. 1857) by Dr. Pollock of Chicago, as we learn from
the Democratic Press, to test the correctness of this statement. In each
experiment that Dr. Pollock has made he has found that an examination of the
retina of the eye with a microscope reveals a wonderful as well as beautiful
sight, and that in almost every instance there was a clear, distinct, and marked
impression. We put these facts upon record in the hope of wakening an interest
in the subject, that others may be induced to enter upon these interesting
experiments, and the cause of science be advanced. The recent examination of the
eye of J.H. Beardsley, who was murdered in Auburn, conducted by Dr. Sandford,
corresponds with those made elsewhere. The following is the published account of
the examination: "At first we suggested the saturation of the eye in a weak
solution of atrophine, which evidently produced an enlarged state of the pupil.
On observing this we touched the end of the optic nerve with the extract, when
the eye instantly became protuberant. We now applied a powerful lens, and
discovered in the pupil the rude worn-away figure of a man with a light coat,
beside whom was a round stone standing or suspended in the air, with a small
handle stuck as it were in the earth. The remainder was debris, evidently lost
from the destruction of the optic, and its separation from the mother brain. Had
we performed this operation when the eye was entire in the socket, with all its
powerful connection with the brain, there is not the least doubt that we should
have detected the last idea and impression made on the mind and eye of the
unfortunate man. The thing would evidently be entire, and perhaps we should have
had the contour, or better still, the exact figure of the murderer."
I have been unable to pursue these references any farther back than 1857. But
it seems more than mere coincidence that many (if not all) of the earliest
experiments on this phenomenon appear to have occurred during the years
immediately following Hemholtz’s invention of the ophtalmoloscope in
10. The quotation from this novel is taken from its English translation, The
Hands of Orlac, trans. Florence Crewe-Jones (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1929), pp.
318-19. Another, somewhat later, reference of this sort occurs in Graham Greene’s
1940 novel The Power and the Glory: "The priest sat hopelessly at
the man’s side: nothing now would shift that violent brain towards peace...
There was a legend believed by many criminals that dead eyes held the picture of
what they had last seen—a Christian could believe that the soul did the
11. The inspiration for Dr. Berkeley’s fictional "discovery" may
well have been more than just a simple extrapolation of retinal optograms into
brain "memory cells." An anonymous letter to the editor published on
January 15, 1888 in the New-York Daily Tribune with the headline
"Brain Pictures—A Photo-Physiological Discovery" discusses in detail
the experiences of a doctor who claims to have found "curious markings
which...did not belong to the ordinary structure" in the brain cells of a
recently-deceased linguist who was "distinguished for his linguistic
attainments." The markings were subsequently identified as "characters in the Ethiopic,
ancient Seriac and Phoenician languages." The doctor’s letter concludes:
If anything practical shall result from this discovery, if for instance,
future literary executors shall be able to extract from the distinguished dead
posthumous poems, suppressed opinions, the contents of "burned
letters," family secrets or the mysteries of life that are buried, it will
be a truly remarkable achievement of science; but whole lives of patient
experiment and profound study must be expended upon a perplexing field of
investigation before such a marvellous result can be attained. My own business
claims too much of my time to permit me to give the mysterious subject that
attention it requires, but now that I have suggested its possibilities, there
are without doubt others who will eagerly explore this hitherto unknown realm.
New-York, Dec. 28, 1887. (6)
Perhaps not surprisingly, I have been unable to locate a record of any
follow-up medical experiments to indicate that, in fact, "others" did
"eagerly explore this hitherto unknown realm" after the publication of
Adams, Nathan M. "Menace of the Russian Mafia," The Reader’s
Digest (Aug. 1992), pp. 34-35.
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visionnaire. Paris: Nizet, 1974.
"Brain Pictures." New-York Daily Tribune, Jan. 15, 1888: 6.
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—————. Psychogeist. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
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critique) tome II. Paris: Ed. Belles Lettres, 1931.
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& Co., 1931. 244-69.
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published in Polish as Niezwyezony (Cracow: Wydawnietwo, 1967).
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Trans. Janet Lloyd, NY: Cambridge UP, 1987.
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#55:22-28, April 1900.
NBC’s Today television broadcast (transcript), Feb. 22, 1993,
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1970. Originally published (in feuilleton format) in the daily newspaper L’Intransigeant,
May 15 to July 12, 1920. Originally published (in volume): Paris: Nilson, 1921.
Published in English as The Hands of Orlac, trans. Florence Crewe-Jones,
NY: E.P. Dutton, 1929.
Rose, Steven. The Conscious Brain. NY: Knopf, 1975.
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Dorset Press, 1987.
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Smith, Edward E. The Skylark of Space. NY: Pyramid, 1970. Originally
published in Amazing Stories (Aug.-Oct. 1928).
—————. Skylark Three. NY: Pyramid, 1973. Originally
published in Amazing Stories (Aug.-Sept. 1930).
—————. Skylark of Valeron. NY: Pyramid, 1973. Originally
published in Astounding Stories (Aug.-Feb. 1934-35).
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"Claire Lenoir" Revue des Lettres et des Arts, Oct. 13-Dec. 1,
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et Stock, 1887). English translation: Claire Lenoir, trans. Arthur Symons
(NY: Albert & Chas. Boni, 1925).
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Abstract.—A popular belief during the late 19th and early 20th
century held that the image of the last thing seen at the moment of death
remained imprinted forever upon the retina of the eye. It was called an "optogram."
This belief developed concurrently with rapid advances made in photography
during this historical period, and was seemingly validated by certain scientific
experiments in ocular physiology done in the 1870s. Looking for the "photo
in a dead person’s eye" soon became an accepted police investigative
procedure and an established touchstone of much turn-of-the-century SF and
detective fiction. In later 20th century literature and film, a modern variant
of the optogrammic photo emerged: the dead brain itself was now "read"
using high-tech scanners to record the deceased’s final vision (or thoughts)
before death occurred. The goal of this article is to examine this
pseudoscientific literary motif, its origins and evolution, and to show how
science fact can sometimes become science fiction and take on a life of its own
in the popular imagination. (ABE)
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