Academic journal article Folklore

The Tell-Tale Eye

Academic journal article Folklore

The Tell-Tale Eye

Article excerpt


The purpose of this paper is the study and analysis of a fairly widespread false idea. I mean to take seriously one of these shreds of lore that are by and large known to everyone, and try to understand the traits that make it seductive and convincing. It seems to me that the main problem set by false ideas is that they are rooted in the collective consciousness.

The false idea chosen as an example asserts that the image of the murderer is retained on a victim's retina after death and can be retrieved through photography. In tribute to Edgar Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, I have chosen to designate this assertion as "The Tell-Tale Eye." Our journey through this false idea will lead us towards a legend built around a technical process, that of photography, but also towards the seductiveness of a magical thought, in which it is the victim's own body that accuses the murderer.


"The Tell-Tale Eye" is generally presented today as a highly hypothetical, if not downright false, idea; nevertheless, it is often alluded to. It is not a scientific hypothesis; rather, it is an alluring supposition which was presented in the guise of science during the nineteenth century: though it was soon rejected by science itself, it inspired popular fiction. It still survives today in popular crime writing and folk belief. In this paper I try to elucidate the appearance of this idea and to understand how it has survived despite being generally referred to only to be dismissed.

First I will outline what I have discovered about the history of "The Tell-Tale Eye," then discuss its status today. To conclude, I will examine neighbouring associations and beliefs concerning the eye and the punishment of murder, which I believe help to account for the seductiveness and persistence of the idea.


From my researches to date, it appears that "The Tell-Tale Eye" is of fairly recent origin and comes from the media. However, I have only partly succeeded in documenting its origin: so far, I have limited myself to correspondence in that precious resource of the folklorist, Notes and Queries, and have not yet found the original English and American press cuttings from the mid-1850s and mid-1860s, where the idea was launched. In the mid-nineteenth century scientists used it as the basis of experiments and the media presented it as a new forensic device for the detection of crime. These sources were later reinforced by fiction and ironic treatments of the theme.

The Scientific Experiments

As far as I can tell, the first mention of "The Tell-Tale Eye" in the French press comes in 1863 and concerns photographic experiments supposedly conducted in England upon animals in slaughterhouses:

   An English photographer, M. Warner, has had the idea to reproduce by
   collodion the eye of a bullock a few hours after its death. Examining this
   proof through a microscope he distinctly saw on the retina the lines of the
   slaughterhouse's pavement, the last object having affected the animal's
   vision as it was bowing its head to receive the fatal blow ("Ce qu'il y a
   dans les yeux d'un mort").(1)

In the next decade, doctors and physiologists asserted the permanence of retinal images and their observations were relayed by encyclopaedias, both general and specialised. Thus Larousse's First Supplement (1885-90) to the Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIX[degrees] siecle, under the heading "Optogram," reprinted the surprising revelations of Dr Paolo Gorini, first published in 1876 in the Gazette Medicale:

   In 1872, during a December night, the doctor who was reading in his bed
   suddenly fell asleep; he woke up about an hour later and then saw, on the
   scantily lit wall of the bedroom, the enlarged image of a book page in
   which he recognised the very page upon which his eyes had stopped when he
   had fallen asleep. … 
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