In the recently-released film, The Limehouse Golem, one of the flashback scenes depicts a murder victim with her eyes removed (nice, I know). This rather gruesome crime is linked to the Victorian fascination with ‘optography’ – the imprinting of the final image seen before death on a person’s retina. If the individual had been murdered, then photographing their eyes might capture the image of their killer.
Optography first appeared in the 17th century. A Jesuit monk was dissecting a frog and claimed that he could see a faint image on the frog’s retina. In the 19th century, after the invention of photography, the practice of photographing murder victims’ eyes began to develop, with one of the earliest attempts taking place in Berlin in 1877. A year later, Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne, professor of physiology at Heidelberg University, invented a process by which such an image could be preserved. Professor Kühne used a rabbit to demonstrate this, asserting that the retina functioned like a photographic plate. He took an ‘optogram’ of the dead rabbit’s eyes and reproduced a shadowy image (pictured below), which looked like the bars of a window (or of the rabbit’s cage perhaps?).
Kühne’s first experiment on a human subject took place in 1880. After Erhard Gustav Reif was executed by guillotine for killing his sons by drowning, his eyes were removed immediately and analysed by the professor. This time, the images were very unclear and when a drawing was published, some speculated that the shape represented the guillotine’s blade, as the last thing seen by the condemned man. However, this is unlikely, as he was blindfolded. Despite the rather tenuous nature of this practice, it was informally adopted by detectives in Britain, and sometimes used in crime investigation.
In the same year as Professor Kühne’s experiment on the guillotined murderer, Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, attempted to identify a killer using this method. At 9 pm on 7 January 1880, news arrived at Old Trafford police station of ‘a dreadful murder’, which had taken place in Harpurhey, an industrial suburb in north-east Manchester. Superintendent Bent went straight to the house, where he found 19-year-old maid Sarah Jane Roberts lying dead in a pool of blood, with several ‘fearful’ wounds to the head. There were no signs of a struggle but her right forearm bore a mark, presumably from being raised in self-defence. The householder had been absent from the house when the crime was committed, but his bed-ridden wife had been upstairs. She had heard a knock at the door, followed soon afterwards by a terrible scream.
Originally from Oswestry, Sarah Jane Roberts had been working for the Greenwoods for about a year. There was no obvious motive for her brutal murder. Pressure mounted to find her killer and Superintendent Bent resorted to having the victim’s eyes photographed, in case the attacker’s face was imprinted on them. The day before Sarah Jane’s funeral the police lifted the coffin lid and took images of the corpse, in the hope that the figure of the murderer would appear under the examination of a powerful microscope. Despite the image being magnified to the size of half a sheet of ordinary notepaper: ‘there was nothing visible which would furnish the slightest evidence as to the features of the murderer’ (Manchester Courier, 16 January 1880). In his defence, Superintendent Bent claimed that he had only undertaken the practice ‘to satisfy those who proposed it…but it was of no avail.’ Sarah Jane’s killer was never caught.
Towards the end of the decade, another victim’s eyes were photographed in one of the most famous criminal investigations of all time. Mary Jane Kelly’s mutilated body was found in her room in Whitechapel on 9 November, 1888, making her the fifth official victim attributed to the murderer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’. In his memoirs, H Division Police Constable Walter Dew revealed that Mary Jane’s eyes had been photographed. According to him, several photographs were taken ‘with the latest type cameras…but the result was negative’. Despite the failure, he concluded:
But the very fact that this forlorn hope was tried shows that the police, in their eagerness to catch the murderer, were ready to follow any clue and to adopt any suggestion, even at the risk of being made to look absurd.
Almost a century later, in 1975, the controversial method of optography was reassessed, once again at the university of Heidelberg, and was dismissed conclusively.
Who Killed Constable Cock? Angela Buckley (2017)
Dead Men’s Eyes: A History of Optography, Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsay Fitzharris (2015)
I Caught Crippen, Walter Dew (1938)
Criminal Life, James Bent (1891)