No. 543
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
October 18, 2021

The Sympsychograph.

January 8, 2013
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The "Memoirs" of Sir John Reresby (1634-1689) contain a reference to a minor witch trial which somehow morphed into one of the oddest "ghost" sightings on record: Leaving the public affairs for a while, at this untoward pass, I would venture to take notice of a private occurrence which made some noise at York. The assizes being there held on the 7th of March, 1686-7, an old woman was
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Strange Company - 10/18/2021
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Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
Sometimes a painting has so much rich detail, it just knocks you out. That was my reaction to this magnificent scene of the Third Avenue Railroad Depot between 65th and 66th Streets, painted two years after the depot opened in 1857. Amazingly, the painter of this “precise representation” of the depot, William H. Schenck, was […]
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Ephemeral New York - 10/18/2021
[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
A very anxious and excited man arrived at the jail in Ann Arbor, Michigan, around midnight, October 22, 1871. He told the jailer he was unwell and wanted to sleep in the jail that night. The jailor decided it was in everyone’s best interest to give him what he wanted. As he locked the cell door, the man burst out crying but would not say why. The following morning the jailor released him. The man
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Murder By Gaslight - 10/16/2021
First response from the Sourdough Associationto Jefferson R. Smith from Clara JohnsonJeff Smith collection(Click image to enlarge)     lease try to attend and thus forward the spirit of the Sourdough." Soapy Smith's son contacts the Sourdough Reunion, 1951      Seventy years ago, at some date previous to February 15, 1951, Soapy Smith's son, sixty-five year old Jefferson Randolph Smith III
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 9/17/2021
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.