The image of a murderer captured in the victim's eye

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.
Aurora, Illinois. 16 February 1914. It was a cold, wintery night when Theresa Hollander's father discovered her broken and bloodied body
The Chirurgeon's Apprentice
College of Optometrists Wilhelm Kühne (1837-1900)
Kühne’s drawing of the optogram he saw in the eye of an executed man in 1880. The one and only case of a 'Human Optogram' is therefore that of Erhard Gustav Reif in November 1880. A murderer who had drowned his children in the Old Rhine, he was executed by guillotine in the prison yard in the small German town of Bruchsal. His left eye was extracted within ten minutes of the sentence being carried out. Reif's optogram, some 4mm in height, does not survive, merely a simple sketch drawing taken from it. Look at the reproduction of this sketch on the left taken from Kühne's Observations for Anatomy and Physiology of the Retina published in 1881. It has a superficial resemblance to a guillotine blade although the victim's eyes were bandaged seconds before the blade fell. Possibly they are the steps he had to ascend shortly beforehand.
(Kühne, 1877 (Public Domain))
Castaways on a barren island in the South Seas, Karl and Pieter Kip are rescued by the brig James Cook. After helping to quell an onboard mutiny, however, they suddenly find themselves accused and convicted of the captain's murder.
Museum of Optography

Optography and  optograms

Daily Mirror

Scientists once believed that the last images stored in a murder victim’s eyes could reveal the identity of the killer.

And it’s been reported that even bobbies investigating Jack The Ripper’s trail of destruction may have used ‘optography’ in an attempt to snare the fiend.

Snapping images of the departed’s retina, it was hoped that criminals could be captured as their victims’ bodies held the evidence to convict them.

‘Image on her retina may show girl’s slayer’

Washington Times 1914

A 20-year-old woman, Theresa Hollander, had been beaten to death and her body found in a cemetery. But the fact that her eyes were still open gave her family hope: perhaps the last thing she saw—presumably the face of her murderer—was imprinted like a the negative of a photograph on her retinas, writes Lindsey Fitzharris for The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.

Accordingly, a photograph of the woman’s retina’s 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 Times reported. The grand jury would see the image on Saturday.

By Marissa Fessenden
May 23, 2016


What is the last thing we see before death? For a long time scientists have wondered whether, since the eye was thought to be like a camera, it might be possible to capture an image of our final vision. The belief that the eye “recorded” the last image seen before death was widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and has been a frequent plot device in films and novels ever since. The process of developing the retina’s last images was called optography and the images themselves, optograms.

Christopher Schiener

The idea that last images at the time of death remain in the victim’s eyes and can actually be detected and studied was first proposed by a Jesuit friar by the name of Christopher Schiener in the 17th century, after he claimed that he had by chance seen an image imprinted upon the retina of a frog he was in the process of dissecting. He believed that this faint image was the very last thing that the frog had seen upon its death, although he had no real understanding of how such a thing could be. However, the idea was firmly planted in the public consciousness.

The Victorians

The idea that the eye  preserved the very last moment of life held a very powerful hold over the Victorian imagination. In particular it was suggested that optograms might be obtained from murder victims to help identify their assailants. This rather assumed they would have been attacked from the front at close quarters!
Although it may sound strange to us today, the idea that the eye could capture and hold an image didn’t seem so far fetched to the Victorians, especially since the advent of photography in the 1840s. They began to see that the way a camera worked was similar in many respects to the way the human eye behaved. This led to the belief that, similar to a camera, the human eye could capture and retain images just as in photography. If this was, indeed, the case, could not such images be used to solve murders and violent crimes?

Scientific experiments

In 1863 an English photographer took a photograph of the eye of an ox right after death and used a microscope to search for any evidence of images left behind on the animal’s retinas. He claimed that upon inspection he could discern the fleeting image of stones arranged in the exact same manner as the slaughterhouse road, and proclaimed that this meant that this was the last thing the ox had seen as it was slaughtered there with a blow to the head.

In 1876 the idea was further fuelled by the rather inconclusive research of physiologist Franz Christian Boll and his German counterpart Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne, who would go on to become one of the most prominent figures in the field.

People quickly latched on to the idea that optography could be used as a tool in forensic investigations. The College of Optometrists in the U.K. reports that police photographed the eye of a murdered man in April 1877, only partly aware of what optography involved.

With little or no understanding of optography it was fairly common for the police to take pictures of murder victims’ eyes, just in case images could be lifted from them.

It got to the point that murderers would occasionally 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 asked Evangelos Alexandridis at the University of Heidelberg to re-evaluate Kühne’s experiments and findings with modern scientific techniques, knowledge and equipment. Like Kühne, Alexandridis successfully produced a number of distinct high-contrast images from the eyes of rabbits, but conclusively negatively assessed the technique as a forensic tool.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Put simply it didn’t work.


Although forensic optography was quite seriously investigated there simply wasn’t enough consistent success in the procedure to make it a truly viable option, and it soon fell out of favour. However, fiction writers can’t seem to get enough of it. In Jules Verne’s 1902 novel, The Brothers Kip, the Kip brothers are falsely accused and imprisoned for the murder of a ship’s captain. When the captain’s son examines an enlarged photograph of his late father’s head, he sees in the eyes the faces of the real murderers and the brothers are freed.

In the 1972 film Horror Express, various unearthly murders committed on board a train are investigated. During the autopsies, images are found in the liquid inside the eyeball of the corpse.

In 1975 the Fourth Doctor extracts some of the ocular tissue of an alien to project not just still images, but video footage of the last moments of life of the Wirrn Queen. The Doctor likens it to an old Gypsy belief of the “eye retaining the last image after death”

In the 1994 RoboCop: The Series, the first episode “The Future of Law Enforcement” Robocop takes a blurred image from a corpse’s retina and then enhances it using a computer.


Modern times

Even today optography tickles the public imagination. Somehow, intuitively, it feels as if it ought to work. ‘Does it work?’ and ‘Is it true?’ are questions that frequently crop up on social network forums.


Does the technique of optography have any merit?

Could it possibly be useful if only the methods were further refined with modern methods and equipment? Even though the idea has mostly been forgotten, the possibility that we could look into the past through the eyes of the dead and see secrets that they took with them through their own perspective is certainly an alluring one, if not rather morbid. After all, those eyes could hold the key to crimes that have long remained cloaked in mystery, and give us new insights into unsolved cold cases. If it were truly possible and practical to do so, it could open up whole new realms of forensic investigations if, of course, the ethics and general innate revulsion towards such a process could be overcome. There has long been the expression “dead men tell no tales,” but it seems at least possible that the strange science of optography, if it were further developed, could potentially prove that wrong.     Brent Swancer 


By the way, the photograph in the case of Theresa Hollander never did reveal anything to help or hurt the suspicions that her ex-boyfriend was responsible, Fitzharris reports. He was tried twice and found not guilty.

Although society had high hopes for optography, no murders were ever solved using this strange process. It seems that optography never really stood a chance, however, because we now carry cameras at all times. Perhaps the idea of seeing someone’s last moments isn’t so foolish after all.




Daily Mirror

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

How Forensic Scientists Once Tried to “See” a Dead Person’s Last Sight by Marissa Fessenden

Last Sights of the Dead: The Weird Science of Optography by Brent Swancer

Optography and  optograms   College of Optometrists

How to develop a picture from a corpse’s eye,  by  Strangeremains
Can The Human Eye Record Our Last Moments On Earth?  By Tim Unkenholz



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