Photographing The Eyes

One of the more bizarre aspects of the Jack the Ripper case is the suggestion that, in the case of at least one of the victims, the police photograph the victim’s eyes of the victim in the hope that an image of the murderer may have been preserved on the retina.

Optography, or the idea that the eyes were able to record the last image that a person saw before death, was a widespread and popular “science” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, albeit it has been debunked as a forensic method.


The main proponent of Optography was German physiologist Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne (1837 – 1900).

However, W. C. Ayres, the American physician, who had been an assistant to Kühne – and who had translated his papers into English, wasn’t convinced that Optography could provide a usable image for purposes of forensics.

Indeed, in an article, published in 1881 in the New York Medical Journal, Ayres stated that, although his own experiments had resulted in the production of some optogram images, none of them had been clear enough to be of any practical use and he dismissed it in no uncertain terms, writing that it was, “utterly idle to look for the picture of a man’s face, or of the surroundings, on the retina of a person who has met with a sudden death, even in the most favorable circumstances”

A photograph of Wilhelm Kühne
Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne (1837 – 1900)


However, the police are known to have tried it in several murder cases, and, in the case of the Whitechapel murders there were press reports that the eyes of the second victim, Annie Chapman, had been photographed; and Walter Dew, one of the first officers to attend the scene of the murder of Mary Kelly, stated in his memoirs that optography had been used in the “forlorn hope” of identifying the perpetrator of the crime.

The Victorian newspapers, always on the lookout for the latest scientific breakthrough or new sensation, were as fascinated by the science as were their readers, and there are several mentions of optography from the mid-1860s onwards.

The Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, for example, on Wednesday, 30th May, 1866, republished a story about the subject, which had appeared originally in an American newspaper, albeit, the writer was somewhat sceptical:-


“Another curious story (which may be believed or not) to the permanence of impressions on the retina has just come from America.

The ‘Memphis Bulletin’ says that the body of a man was found lately at Memphis in such a condition as to leave no doubt that he had been murdered.

The police, finding no clue, decided on trying photography, and accordingly, on the day of the murder, with the aid of a microscope, images left on the retina of the eye of the dead man were transferred to paper, and curious facts developed.

A pistol, the hand, and part of the face of the man who committed the crime are perfectly delineated.”


The Dundee Evening Telegraph, on Friday, 6th January, 1882, published the following article on the subject:-

“We have all heard something of the sensational story of the likeness of the murderer photographed on the retina of his victim, and the conviction that followed the ultra-scientific proceeding by which the picture was developed and fixed.

The story has just sufficient foundation, in fact, to render it more delusive than thorough-going Munchausen falsehood.

There is a brilliant coat of the retina, having a colour due to what has been called the “visual purple,” and this pigment is to some extent visibly impressible by light.

Professor Kuhne proposed to present Helmholtz with a portrait impressed on the retina of an animal, as complimentary acknowledgment of his researches in physiological optics, and accordingly Dr Ayres, who is an expert in this specialty, placed a large negative of Helmholtz over the eye of an animal that had been dosed with atropine, a drug which dilates the pupil by paralysing the muscles that contract the iris, and kept it in a dark room for some hours.

A photograph of Hermann von Helmholtz.
Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821 – 1894) German physician and physicist


The retina, thus rendered sensitive, was exposed to the picture in full sunshine for four minutes.

A dull picture was found in the cornea, in front the eye; and when the retina was examined, the image of Helmholtz’s shirt-collar and of the end of his nose was indicated by slight bleaching of the visual purple.

As the purple during life is rapidly restored after such bleaching by light, Dr Ayres cut off the head of a rabbit, waited until all restorative power was at an end, and then repeated the experiment.

The optogram was a little better, but not a picture.

The result of a number of other experiments led Dr Ayres to conclude that no picture capable of recognition can be thus produced, and that no approach to a likeness could be traced on the retina of a person suffering sudden death, however favourable may have been the circumstances.”


Finally, The Blackburn Standard, on Saturday, 12th January, 1895, published the following article, in which it was claimed that Optography had been used in an American murder case:-

“It is an old idea that the image formed on the retina of the eye remains fixed after death, and that the time will come when a murderer will be identified by the unerring photograph fixed on the eye of his victim.

The idea, long dormant, is now being revived in America.

Two women have been murdered in Jamestown, N.Y., by an unknown assassin and a microscopic examination having been made of the eyes of the women, it is said that in one case there is a distinct picture of a man on the retina.

Unfortunately, it did not give the murderer’s face; but his form is said to be distinct, and his clothes recognizable, even to the wrinkles in his trousers.

Further details will be awaited with much interest.”