The Optography is the process of recovery of the last image registered by the eye before death. The technique gained a lot of attention in the literature environment but it was completely useless in terms of scientific investigations in cases of homicide.

The Forensic Optography was the discipline applied to the resolution of criminological investigations, developed at the end of the 1800 thanks to the German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne. The man based his research on the discovery of the rhodopsin, occurred with Franz Christian Boll in 1876.

Below: German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne

Kühne discovered that, in ideal circumstances, the rhodopsin would record the last picture seen by the eye and that would resemble, in broad terms, a photographic negative.

The experiment of Kühne which made him popular amongst the scientific community was the one carried out on an albino rabbit. He kept the face of the animal covered by a bed sheet for a few minutes in order to bind the rhodopsin properly; he then proceeded to let the rabbit stare the bars of a window for 3 minutes and at last he rapidly beheaded the creature. Its eyeball was extracted and cut off in two parts from the top down, binding the rhodopsin with an alum-based solution. The picture that the professor obtained was surprisingly accurate, showing the window with the bars that the rabbit stared at.

Kühne, impatient to demonstrate his discovery on a human being, had the opportunity to do so on the 16th of November 1880 when Erhard Gustav Reif was sentenced to death to guillotine for having killed his own son in the nearby city of Bruchsal. The eye of the condemned man was sent to the University of Heidelberg, school where Kühne was based.

The researcher produced a picture in approximately 10 minutes; this one was blurred and confused even though it seemed to suggest the contours of the guillotine that had killed the man. The circumstance was odd anyway, as the man had been beheaded while blindfolded.

Below: (printed) notes of Kühne where it’s visible the sketch of the picture by the researcher

Kühne produced throughout the years numerous optograms from animals which were studied in ideal conditions as well as the first albino rabbit; he never managed to reproduce any other picture from humans though.

Optography for criminological investigations

Although the many attempts of Kühne, extracting a pic from the eye of a death man was an extremely complex procedure, impossible for the technology of the time: the millimetric dimension of the Fovea, the core point of the eye where there is the maximum level of visibility. The literature affected the public opinion though, so several police officers tried to make use of the technique in order to solve murder cases. One of these was Walter Dew, that later on accused the famous killer Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, tried to use the optography on Mary Jane Kelly, one of Jack the Ripper’s victims and maybe used on another victim, Annie Chapman.

Below: Walter Dew at the time of the investigations


A rare case of forensic optography was admitted in Germany in 1924, when the German merchant Fritz Angerstein was accused to have killed 8 members of his family as well as his domestic staff. Doehne, professor at the University of Cologne, photographed the retina of two of the victims trying to get some pictures where the face of Angerstein would have showed up. The professor affirmed that from the pictures it was possible to see Fritz killing the victims with a gardener’s axe. When the man heard about the smoking gun, he admitted his involvement and so he was sentenced to death. The American newspaper “Mercury” appointed the case as “tangible proof of the forensic optography”  but the German Court, in 2011 judged the proof as absurd.

Below: Angerstein and the house where he committed his crimes

Modern optography

The most recent research involving this old discipline dates back to 1975, when the professor Evangelos Alexandridis from Heidelberg University produced some new distinguishable optograms , starting like his predecessor Kühne with rabbits. What the professor admitted though was the impossibility to produce optograms useful for legal investigations, and for this reason the method was filed forever.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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