No. 448
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
November 16, 2019

The Sympsychograph.

January 8, 2013
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For Sommersett must love Essex faire wife by wich his deerest servant lost his life. losse upon losse, all things grow cleane contrary and thus our sinfull times themselves doe vary. –From a 17th century libel On this date in 1615, Anne Turner hanged at Tyburn for a shocking society murder remembered as the Overbury […]
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Executed Today - 11/15/2019

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Lizzie’s Old School Chum, Augusta Poole (Mrs. Cyrus Tripp) Shelley M. Dziedzic, October 2019 (all rights reserved) During the hot …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 10/19/2019

Renoir, "Luncheon of the Boating Party" It's time for yet another Link Dump! Everybody dance! Loie Fuller's serpentine dance. Communal coffins and burial clubs. The face of a female Viking. This week in Russian Weird looks at a Napoleon expert's gruesome Waterloo.  Not to mention the flying cat understudy. The kind of thing that happened when you got on Queen Christina's bad side.
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Strange Company - 11/15/2019
Jeff and Joe Soapy Smith buries Joe Simmons The Illustrated Police News April 9, 1892 (Click image to enlarge) oe Simmons was a tall, slender gambler known to many as “Gambler Joe” Simmons, a member of the Soap Gang who managed Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club in Denver, 1890, and Soapy's Orleans Club in Creede, 1892. According to William Devere’s poem "Two Little Busted Shoes," Simmons
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/25/2019
Scene of the Debbins murder Walter R. Debbins was shot twice in the back, in broad daylight, on Highland Street in Medford, Massachusetts, on the afternoon of Saturday, March 27, 1897. Though no one saw the murder or heard the gunshots, there was enough traffic on Highland Street that afternoon for the police to precisely pinpoint the time of the shooting to between 1:00 and 1:05. But
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Murder By Gaslight - 11/16/2019

No, not today’s MSG in the gritty West 30s. This is the second of the four versions of Madison Square Garden, the Moorish-Beaux Arts arena designed by Stanford White on 26th Street and Madison Avenue in 1890. At the time this postcard was made in roughly 1907, White’s Madison Square Garden was one of the […]
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Ephemeral New York - 11/10/2019
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Vive Le Sport! | Happy New Year!

The Sympsychograph.

Sympsychograph

In September 1906, Popular Science Monthly published this picture—a psychic photograph generated by seven men thinking about a cat. It was such an obvious hoax that the editors thought their readers would catch on right away. They didn’t.

The article by David Starr Jordan, entitled “The Sympsychograph: A Study in Impressionist Physics” documents an experiment by the Astral Camera Club of Alcalde to create a photograph using “brain emanations, or odic forces.” The club, having learned of Prof. Rontgen’s work with x-rays, was anxious to try experiments in photography without visible light. Allegedly, an Englishman named Camreon Lee had captured a photographic image of a thought by staring into the lens of a camera in total darkness and intensely thinking of a cat. When the negative was developed it showed the enlarged pupil of the eye and in it center, the faint image of a cat.

Asa Marvin, president of the Astral Camera Club devised an elaborate experiment. He created a lens with curved facets, similar to a fly’s eye. To each of the seven facets led an insulated tube containing an electric connection to transfer impulses from the brain of each observer and converge on a photographic plate.

Seven members of the club, “having the greatest animal magnetism and greatest power of mental concentration,” were chosen for the experiment. Connections were made from the eye of each observer to the corresponding parts of the lens, then in total darkness each man would think of a cat. They were not to think of any particular cat, but rather of the innate idea of a cat. The goal was to bring out the impression of ultimate feline reality. The seven ideals would be sympathetically combined and the true cat would be developed – sympsychography. The picture above was the purported result of the experiment.

The photograph was actually a composite made from several negatives of the same cat. Jordan peppered the article with scientific-sounding terminology as he explained, in detail, the methodology employed and analyses the result. But he also included several cues to inform scientific-minded readers that this is a bit of satire: the green light of their apparatus “provoked that uncanny feeling that always presages a great discovery in occult science;” the next step would be to photograph “the cat’s idea of a man;” and, of course, the experiment was performed on April 1.

But Jordan had underestimated the gullibility of his readers. He and the editors of Popular Science Monthly were amazed at the number of people who took the article seriously. Many welcomed the alleged discovery as proof of long held beliefs. One clergyman had even announced a series of six discourses on “The Lessons of the Sympsychograph.”

Jordan concluded that few people ever read a sensational story to the end and scarcely read beyond pictures and headlines. Though he vowed never again to try to be funny, he did document further proceedings of The Astral Club of Alcalde in “The Posthom Phantom: A study in the Spontaneous Activity of Shadows;” “The Teaching of Neminism,” an exposition of the thesis hihil nemini nocet, or “nothing hurts nobody;” “The Plane of Ether,” a theosophical analysis of the way to Nirvana; and “Rescue Work in History,” a contribution to the theory that time and space are relative.