No. 483
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
August 10, 2020

The Sympsychograph.

January 8, 2013
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Sir Edward Dering, by William Dobson This week, we look at a love story. Albeit, a love story that reads more like one of Shakespeare’s more robust comedies. Edward Dering (1598-1644) was a distinguished figure. He had the distinction of being born in the Tower of London, as his father was then deputy-lieutenant of the site. After he graduated from Cambridge, Dering devoted himself to
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Strange Company - 8/10/2020

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There are so many questions and things to ponder when considering the Borden case in its entirety, but let’s just …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 8/8/2020

As a social realist painter, William Glackens often depicted scenes of day-to-day life he witnessed in city parks, particularly Washington Square Park. (Makes sense; he lived on Washington Square South in the early 1900s.) This time, he took his inspiration from Central Park. “The Drive, Central Park” was completed in 1905 and likely shows the […]
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Ephemeral New York - 8/10/2020
The Web of Arachne by Fernand Le Quesne (1856 - 1932) Colorized by Curtis Byrne (Click image to enlarge) HE WEB OF ARACHNE COLORIZED. It's great to see what this painting may have originally looked like.      As I recently hung my framed print of The Web of Arachne, by Fernand Le Quesne (1856 - 1932), in my new place, I wondered why the artist didn't colorize it? Then I
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 8/4/2020
John Dilleber was a wealthy 28-year-old wholesale liquor dealer who lived and worked in New York City. In June 1975, he divorced his wife, left his home, and took up residence at the Westminster Hotel on 16th Street.  It was Dilleber’s habit, after dinner, to wander the halls of the hotel while smoking a cigar. Romaine Dillon, another of the Westminster Hotel’s outcast residents, was much
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Murder By Gaslight - 8/8/2020

On this date in 1956, three Greek Cypriot nationalists were hanged by the British Andreas Zakos, Charilaos Michael and Iakovos Patatsos were all members of the EOKA guerrilla movement, which fought the British for independence during the late 1950s. Nine of their ranks overall were executed in 1956-1957, including the three on August 9, 1956 […]
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Executed Today - 8/9/2020
[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.