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Ursa Major
02-14-2000, 01:32 PM
Every now and then, this little piece of pseudoscience pops up in fiction, usually as a way to draw out a scientifically naive killer.

Was there, at one time, a belief among scientists that the last thing a person saw before dying was somehow engraved on the retina awaiting a clever coroner to recover?

SterlingNorth
02-14-2000, 01:37 PM
What? You'se tellin' me that Wild Wild West isn't scientific fact.

Wasted my eight dollars.

NickyLarson
02-14-2000, 01:39 PM
Yes, just before the turn of the last century. I think it was used in Caleb Carr's 'The Aleinist'
Its use was defeated by the application of screen savers by most murderers of the age.

NickyLarson
02-14-2000, 01:40 PM
Make that "The Alienist".

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Then we'll turn our tommy guns
on the screaming ravaged nuns
and the peoples voice will be the only sound.
-P. Sky

Northern Piper
02-14-2000, 04:35 PM
I believe that Scotland Yard tried this with one of the Jack the Ripper victims.

Don't have a cite, I'm afraid.

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and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel to toe

Arnold Winkelried
02-14-2000, 04:47 PM
Originally posted by Ursa Major:
Was there, at one time, a belief among scientists that the last thing a person saw before dying was somehow engraved on the retina awaiting a clever coroner to recover?

In short, yes. At least among some scientists. I remembered this "plot device" being used in Jules Verne's "Les frères Kip", and armed with that piece of information, I found the following web page.

Optograms and Fiction (http://jv.gilead.org.il/evans/optogram.html)

Go read the article there, it's well worth it! But in summary, Willy Kühne, from the University of Heidelberg, published experiment results in 1877 stating how he was able to see a picture of a window imprinted upon the retina of a rabbit. From there comes the idea of having an image imprinted upon the victim's eyes.

ignatiusjreilly
02-14-2000, 04:54 PM
The Alienist is a great book.

It makes for an interesting thought, but eyes don't work that way. Your eyes work by focusing light on specialized cells in the retina that convert the light into electrical signals. These signals then travel down the optic nerve to the brain.

I can't come up with an analogy right now... Perhaps the best way to think of it is that those cells (i.e. the rods and cones) don't record anything - they just react to light. The image isn't stored until it reaches the brain. Even when the person is dead, light still passes through the lens and strikes the retina, except that now the cells are now dead and they don't react to the light anymore.

Ursa Major
02-14-2000, 05:12 PM
Great link, Arnold. Thanks.

For some time now it has been known—as a result of various interesting ophthamological experiments done by certain ingenious scientists, authoritative observers that they are—that the image of exterior objects imprinted upon the retina of the eye are conserved there indefinitely. The organ of vision contains a particular substance, retinal purple, on which is imprinted in their exact form these images. They have even been perfectly reconstituted when the eye, after death, is removed and soaked in an alum bath.-Jules Verne

Can this be the genius who gave us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon? I haven't been this disillusioned since I found out Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies.

whitetho
02-14-2000, 05:18 PM
I remember reading an anecdote about a police officer who managed to convince one of his more gullible buddies that the retina story was actually true. In a murder case, they had him contact someone in the crime lab, who was in on the joke, and who promptly sent back a very large photograph of a bullet as "the last thing the victum saw".

Arnold Winkelried
02-14-2000, 06:28 PM
Yes, Ursa, that's the same Jules Verne. But I wouldn't be too harsh on the poor fellow. He was a novelist, and if he read about the possibility in a scientific journals, why would he disbelieve it? After all, as the referenced web page and jti said, the method was even used by Scotland Yard with a victim of Jack the Ripper.

TomH
02-15-2000, 05:03 AM
In The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, Philip Sugden describes newspaper reports calling for the police to have the victims’ retinas examined. Scotland Yard seems to have regarded the theory as a popular myth, even in the 1880s.

Johnny L.A.
02-15-2000, 07:28 AM
Whitetho beat me to the anecdote.

Johnny Harvard,
How's this for an analogy: A video camera works by focusing light onto special receptors that convert the light into electrical signals. These signals then travel through wires to the video tape. The chip (behind the lens) doesn't record anything; it just reacts to light.

Guy Propski
02-15-2000, 07:50 AM
I remember seeing this in the old Karloff/Lugosi film "The Invisible Ray." Lugosi took a picture of a dead man's eye and saw the image of Karloff reaching out to kill. Interestingly, the image was right side up, not upside-down as it should have been.

Cartooniverse
02-15-2000, 08:15 AM
Originally posted by johnnyharvard:
[i]I can't come up with an analogy right now.

Lemme give it a shot, I can think of two immediately. First, Abraham Zapruder's camera. Any film camera has a lens, and iris. The image is not stored on the glass, it strikes the film, and can only be viewed after developing the film. In the case of Zapruder, the film was reversal, and so there was no intermediate step involved.

All television cameras. A few years ago, they used high quality tubes, now they use CCD chips. Same idea, though. The image passes through the lens, through the iris, and strikes the taking surface. Either the tubes, or CCD chips interpret that info, and pass it along the cables to the control room, which reconverts that information into red/green/blue images, that are laced together to make a color image. The lens, iris, AND taking elements do not retain anything.
And yeah, before I get slammed on this one, almost all tube video cameras did indeed take "Burns" to them. The older ones were terrible. If one shot a sharp bright light, or the sun, or the halation off of a car windshield, you could get a burn in the tube. With time, it would usually fade. Sometimes, if the burn exposure was more than a few seconds, you would have to replace the tube. Still, I had never heard about any real DETAIL being readable off of those burns, they were always a hit of light.

Cartooniverse




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If you want to kiss the sky, you'd better learn how to kneel.

Arnold Winkelried
02-15-2000, 10:34 AM
Originally posted by TomH:
In The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, Philip Sugden describes newspaper reports calling for the police to have the victims’ retinas examined. Scotland Yard seems to have regarded the theory as a popular myth, even in the 1880s.

TomH, there is a link mentioned above, referring to an aritcle by one Arthur B. Evans.
Optograms and Fiction: Photo in a Dead Man's Eye
The article saysPopular belief in these "facts" became so widespread during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that some police departments began to take close-up photographs of the eyes of murder victims in the hope of identifying their murderers. The most celebrated of such cases involved Scotland Yard's investigation of the infamous Jack-the-Ripper murders in Whitehall, London in 1888. One historian, in describing these events, notes:

In an attempt to be scientific, the police pried open Annie Chapman's dead eyes and photographed them, in the hope that the retinas had retained an image of the last thing she saw. But no images were found. (Stewart-Gordon 121)
...
Stewart-Gordon, James. “The Enduring Mystery of Jack the Ripper,” The Reader's Digest, June 1973: 119-23.

Of course, the author Arthur B. Evans bases his statement on an article from “Reader’s Digest” (?!?), but still, the statement is that the police did try this method. Since Reader's Digest prints condensations of articles from another source, maybe this James Stewart-Gordon knows what he's talking about.

Eve
02-15-2000, 10:51 AM
I always wondered why the police assumed that the last thing you'd actually see would BE your killer's face. What if you were sapped from behind? Or had a pillow over your face? Or turned to the wall whilst you were being stabbed or shot?

Jeez—just think if you glanced at an innocent bystander while Col. Mustard was wacking you with the candlestick!

Arnold Winkelried
02-15-2000, 10:56 AM
Eve, even scarier, what if you saw God? Then the police would arrest the Great Architect and throw him in the slammer? It does not bear thinking of.

Eve
02-15-2000, 11:13 AM
WARNING—Obscure pop-culture reference coming!

" . . . the police would arrest the Great Architect and throw him in the slammer?"

—Too late; Harry K. Thaw got him first.

Hometownboy
02-15-2000, 06:54 PM
The concept was used as a plot device by SF writer Randall Garrett in a science fantasy story "The Eyes Have It" in his 1979 collection, "Murder and Magic."

If you're not familiar with his work, Garrett produced a series of short stories and one novel ("Too Many Magicians") featuring a Sherlock Holmes-like character, Lord D'Arcy and his tubby sorcerer sidekick Master Sean O'Lochlann. The series is set in an alternate universe where magic works, operating on principles such as the Law of Contagian and the Law of Similarity. The history also postulates a stable French-English empire resulting from Richard Lionheart recovering from his crossbow wound at the seige of Chaluz, returning to England and spawning a stable Plantagenet empire.

(Sorry to be so long-winded, but it's a fascinating series.)

In the story above, a O'Lachlann does indeed manage to get an image from the dead victim's eyes, but it doesn't identify the actual killer because the image recorded is distorted by projection of the victim's perceptions of the killer.

Well worth looking up, IMHO.

Hometownboy

**************
Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.--P.J. O'Rourke

UppityWoman
02-15-2000, 07:23 PM
Originally posted by johnnyharvard:
The Alienist is a great book.

It makes for an interesting thought, but eyes don't work that way. Your eyes work by focusing light on specialized cells in the retina that convert the light into electrical signals. These signals then travel down the optic nerve to the brain.

I can't come up with an analogy right now... Perhaps the best way to think of it is that those cells (i.e. the rods and cones) don't record anything - they just react to light. The image isn't stored until it reaches the brain. Even when the person is dead, light still passes through the lens and strikes the retina, except that now the cells are now dead and they don't react to the light anymore.

Like a mirror, then? The image actually has to be in front of the mirror for the image to be reflected.

Mirrors don't have brains to store images in, so this analogy does fail in that respect.

I wonder if scientists could figure a way to get images out of the brain someday? That would only work in solving murders if the victim saw his killer, though.

TomH
02-16-2000, 05:09 AM
Arnold,

I failed to mention that I was referring to your link in my earlier post.

The Sugden book, last updated in 1995, was an attempt to debunk some of the myths generated by the Jack the Ripper industry, especially by the flood of “centennial” publications in 1988. He argues that, while the suggestion that the police used this technique has been touted around by “ripperologists” (I hate that word) since the 1960s, there is no evidence to support it—no surviving photos, no formal police records of the technique being applied, nor even any reliable, contemporaneous newspaper reports.

Arnold Winkelried
02-17-2000, 12:04 AM
Thank you for the update, TomH. I guess I should look for Sugden's book for the Straight Dope.

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