Dead Eyes Open

“One of Jules Verne’s later Voyages Extraordinaires titled Les Freres Kip (The Kip Brothers, 1902) features in its conclusion a somewhat curious scientific concept-yet one which was quite popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth: the notion that the image of the last thing seen at the moment of death remains imprinted upon the retina of the eye.

“The fictional setting in Verne’s novel where this theory comes into play is as follows:

“A certain Captain Harry Gibson of the English freighter James Cook has been stabbed to death. On the strength of circumstantial evidence, two brothers named Karl and Pieter Kip are promptly arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Photos of the dead body are taken; in particular, snapshots of the victim’s head (with eyes open). An acquaintance of the victim asks the photographer for an enlargement of the head photo as a memento of his dead friend. The photographer agrees and makes several copies of the portrait, giving one to the victim’s family as well. Upon seeing the enlarged photo of his slain father, the young Nat Gibson is seized with grief and bends over to kiss it-and suddenly discerns two small points of light in the eyes of the photo. He examines these with a strong magnifyingglass and discovers therein the faces of the real murderers:two villainous sailors from the James Cook whom the police had initially suspected but against whom no hard evidence could be found. The real culprits are now arrested and condemned; the Kip brothers are vindicated; and the novel concludes with Justice served and the status quo happily reestablished.

“In his final chapter, Verne (always the pedagogue) explains to the reader the “scientific”basis for this pivotal discovery:

“For some time now it has been known-as a result of various interesting ophthalmologic 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 substancer, 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.”

“It is likely that Verne gleaned this tidbit of ocular physiology from any one of the various newspapers, scientific journals, or encylopedias available to him in fin-de-siecle France-like the Gazette Medicale, for example, or the L’Encyclopedie franchise d’ophtalmologie by Lagrange and Valude-which offer detailed descriptions of this phenomenon (the latter of which, in particular,bears some resemblance to Verne’s own)…

“Undoubtedly, the rapidtechnological advancesmade in (and the growing popularity of) photography throughout this period also served to highlight these discoveries and to introduce them into public awareness. After all, the lesson seemed simple and very straight forward: the retina functioned like the photographic plate of a camera, therefore the final image viewed before death should remain fixed forever-like a photo-within the dead person’s eyes. It also came to be believed (as a logical extension of this hypothesis) that if death were to occur at a moment when the pupils of the eyes were hugely dilated-e.g., because of fear, surprise, anger or some other strong emotion-the retinal optograms of the deceased would be even clearer,more detailed, and easier to “develop.”

“Popular belief in these “facts” became so widespread during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that some police departmentsbegan to take close-up photographsof the eyes of murder victims in the hope of identifying their murderers. The most cel- ebrated of such cases involvedScotland Yard’sinvestigationof 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 shesaw.But no images were found. (Stewart-Gordon121).

Text: Arthur B. Evans, “Optograms and Fiction: Photo in a Dead Man’s Eye, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Nov., 1993), pp. 341-361.

Image: New York City crime scene, 1914-1918, New York City Municipal Archive.

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