No. 461
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
February 18, 2020

The Sympsychograph.

January 8, 2013
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(Thanks to Henry-Clement Sanson for the guest post. The former executioner — the last of his illustrious dynasty comprising six generations of bourreaux — was the grandson of that dread figure of the Paris Terror, Charles Henri Sanson. Henry-Clement’s Memoirs of the Sansons: From Private Notes and Documents (1688-1847) describes some famous or infamous executions […]
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Executed Today - 2/17/2020

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"Denver's Oldest Bar" matchbook cover outside cover - A (Click image to enlarge) new addition to my collection A matchbook cover from "Denver’s Oldest Bar" is a new acquisition to my private Soapy Smith collection. Though it is a "modern" item from the 1960s-70s, it has a direct link to Soapy Smith. "Denver’s Oldest Bar" was once controlled by Soapy, under the name, "Tivoli Club,
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 2/7/2020

"Boston Globe," August 19, 1905, via Newspapers.com The true-crime writer F. Tennyson Jesse suggested that not only are some people "born murderers," others are "born murderees." It is when these two types of people happen to find each other that you get A Situation. It is an interesting theory, but one that tends to fall apart once you study murder cases. For example, it is hard to find
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Strange Company - 2/17/2020
Beginning on January 1st, W&W will begin featuring fascinating short clippings from the Fall River papers and other newspapers from …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 12/29/2019
Every day since Halloween 2007, the blog ExecutedToday.com has posted a story of an execution that took place on that date in history somewhere in the world. While this certainly says something about the human condition over time, it also says something about the determination and thoroughness of the blogger of ExecutedToday.com, who goes by the epithet Headsman. As someone who has scrambled to
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Murder By Gaslight - 2/15/2020

Wherever rich New Yorkers built their homes in the 19th century, they also built private stables for their expensive horses and carriages—with upstairs living quarters for a coachman or groom. So when Upper Fifth Avenue along Central Park became the city’s new Millionaire Mile during the Gilded Age, certain Upper East Side blocks to the […]
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Ephemeral New York - 2/17/2020
[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.