The art of retinal imaging, AKA optography, was a form of early forensic science used in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After photography was invented, the practice of optography stemmed from the idea that eyes could capture images just like a camera did. If someone died, could the last image that person's brain had seen before death be somehow preserved somewhere in the eyes? Early scientists thought so and conducted experiments to prove as much, which often to led to some pretty horrible medical procedures.
In the quest for proving optography as a valid forensic science, dissecting animal and human eyes became common practice. Chemicals and dye were often used in an attempt to extract images from the retinas. By developing retinal images, scientists hoped to preserve last images seen before death. Although the research never backed the theories, the pseudoscientific practice became common and was even used in criminal trials. Eventually, people realized the eyes do not, in fact, function like cameras. Optography fell out of popularity, much like another turn-of-the-century fad involving cameras: Victorian death photography. However, the history of optography remains a fascinating time capsule.
An Image Taken From An Executed Man's Eyes Appeared To Show A Guillotine Blade
When Erhard Reif was executed for drowning his own two children in 1880, German scientist Wilhelm Kühne obtained Reif's head and extracted retinal images within ten minutes of Reif's death. The results allegedly appeared to show the rough shape of a guillotine blade, lending some credence to the theory that a new technique called "optography" might be able to preserve the last images a person (or animal) saw before death.
However, this experiment has some holes in it. Reif was blindfolded while he was led to the guillotine, so he likely did not see the blade before death. The image itself is also very ambiguous in appearance, and Kühne himself never claimed he'd been successful in documenting the killer's optograph.
When Theresa Hollander Died With Her Eyes Opened, Her Family Hoped Retinal Imaging Could Help Find The Killer
One of the more famous incidents involving optography was the trial for the murder of Theresa Hollander in 1914. She had been beaten to death and her body dumped in a cemetery. Her eyes were left opened in death, giving her family hope her killer could be identified via retinal images. Her ex-boyfriend was the prime suspect and the images extracted from Hollander’s eyes were presented in his trial.
Unfortunately, the images provided no concrete insight one way or another and Hollander's murder was never solved. The images were inconclusive. While her ex was tried twice for the crime, he was found not guilty both times.
Animal Testing Was Used, With Limited Success, To Prove The Theory
German scientist Wilhelm Kühne began extracting retinal images from animals to see if eyes could capture images. Kühne primarily worked with frogs and decapitated rabbits. He would force animals to stare at bright objects for prolonged periods before decapitating them and removing their eyes. He would then take the eyes to the darkroom, cut them in half, and use a solution to prevent the pigment in the retina from moving. Images were then bathed in sulfuric acid, which would cement any images and make them easily visible.
But Kühne stressed the importance of doing this immediately after the creature's death, because the images wouldn't be preserved too long after the animal had died. According to Kühne's writings at the time:
"I am not prepared to say that eyes which have remained in the head an hour or more after decapitation will no longer give satisfactory optograms..."
Kühne did see some success with his experiments. One rabbit was made to stare at a brightly illuminated, barred window before being killed. An image from the rabbit’s eye seemed to show the shape of the window and the pattern of the bars. While some retinal images yielded similar results, Kühne was frustrated with the lack of consistency in his findings.
Retinal Images Were Once Used To Convict A Murderer
Retinal images were occasionally used as forensic evidence in 20th century trials. In 1924, a German mass murderer named Fritz Angerstein was executed after being convicted for killing his wife and seven other people. The coroner had the eyes of the victims photographed and claimed the image of a man wielding a hatchet could be seen. This remains one of the only known instances in which optography was used to prove or convict a murder, however, doubts were widely cast on the claims, though. By this time, optography as forensic science was wishful thinking, as it had been fairly widely debunked as pseudoscience.