No. 440
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
September 18, 2019

The Sympsychograph.

January 8, 2013
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To whom much is given … BEIJING — A man who in 2009 killed six of his family, including his own children, was executed Friday [September 16, 2011] in Beijing. Li Lei, 31 years old, stabbed his parents, two sons, wife and sister to death on November 23, 2009, at their home in Beijing’s Daxing […]
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Executed Today - 9/16/2019

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By Jo Anne Giovino with photography and research by Barbara Morrissey and Kristin Pepe *(All rights reserved, August 2019) Although …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 7/31/2019

Nicholas Monsarrat had a long and distinguished career as an author. He is probably best remembered today for the 1951 novel, "The Cruel Sea," and 1952's "The Story of Esther Costello." When he was visiting a Quebec shooting-lodge in 1953, he was told a story which was as compelling--and far stranger--than anything in his fiction. Some time later, he wrote an account of his eerie
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Strange Company - 9/16/2019
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
Charles G. Corlis kept a bowling saloon on Broadway between Leonard and Franklin Streets in New York City. On the evening of March 20, 1843, several bowlers saw a woman wearing a veil and a straw hat, enter the saloon. They saw her leave the place with Henry Colton, owner of the Colton House hotel, a few doors away on Leonard Street. Sometime later, witnesses saw Charles Corlis talking with
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Murder By Gaslight - 9/14/2019

Just when you think you’ve seen every old-school manhole cover that still remains in New York, you discover another you’ve never noticed before—with a new name embossed on it and a different design. This lid, made by M. Dattner, is a new one for me—spotted on East 78th Street between First and Second Avenues. That’s […]
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Ephemeral New York - 9/15/2019
[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.