Tomorrow is the birthday of Charles Fort, the founder of our Fortean feast. My favorite subject from Wild Talents is the mysterious images—crosses and death’s heads—that appeared on (or perhaps in) window glass in the Grand Duchy of Baden c. 1872. They have been found wherever sheet-glass is available, often represent recognized human faces, and are called by such names as spook/spirit photos, lightning daguerreotypes, or windowpane ghosts. Most of them have common characteristics such as only being visible from outside or refusing to be scrubbed away and growing clearer when washed. I’ve collected a variety of accounts of this classic Fortean phenomenon, including images on gourds, windows, linens, and in mirrors. In honor of Fort’s natal holiday, let us get out the bucket of soapy water and squeegee and watch the damned images grow ever clearer.
Strange Phenomenon on a Doctor’s Office Glass.
The Perfect Profile of a Man.
Comes on the Surface, Beginning with a Cloudy Appearance Without Form
Whence Came the Face?
Bourbon, Ind., Dec. 17 There is a peculiar phenomenon that is puzzling everybody who sees it in the office of Dr. Machette, [perhaps Alexander Matchett] of this place. It is the face of a man, a little larger than life-size, that within the past two months has gradually appeared in the mirror, showing now very distinctly the chin, with a well-trimmed imperial or goatee; the mouth with a heavy mustache; a Grecian nose; a low forehead, with a lock of hair overhanging it; and, all in all, a well-defined portrait, that every one seeing the glass discovers in an instant in unmistakable outlines, of a dark, cloudy or smoky appearance and which grows plainer and deeper week by week. Two or three months ago the mirror was to all appearances perfect and without a cloud; but gradually an ill-defined blur was noticeable that was without form, but after a time assumed the outlines of a human face, as it is seen today.
Idea of Cheat or Fraud Scouted.
Some claim that it is a “spirit portrait,” “ghost picture,” “goblin shade,” or a “spook likeness,” while others of the thousand who have looked at it say there is some trick, cheat, fraud or deception practiced to produce the “shade;” but all who have known Dr. Matchette here for the past thirty years scout the idea that he would stoop to a low trick of any character to deceive his neighbors in this manner. The mirror was purchased from Morrison, Plummer & Co., of Chicago, and this company and the manufacturer are at a loss to account for the phenomenon. Affidavits from thousands can be had of the correctness of all the above. Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 17 December 1896: p. 1
Such images, which we might dismiss as pareidolia, gave fuel to the idea that the image was some sort of photograph “developed” over time on the glass.
This particular story, from Australia, is unique in its depiction of a mob of rampaging children determined to “lay” the ghost. Usually we find this sort of hysteria in connection with the Spring-heeled Jack class of ghost-impersonator, rather than an inanimate object.
THE FACE AT THE WINDOW.
The school children in the Burwood district have recently been stirred by the discovery of a “ghost,” says the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Unlike most ghostly apparitions the Burwood “spook” appears in the daytime, and he is always in the same position—at one of the upstairs windows of a large house in the residential portion of the suburb. Only his face can be seen, and the features are those of a fine-looking old man. A few days ago, as if by design, over 200 children gathered outside the fence of the “haunted” house. The building stands in large grounds, and is some distance from the fence. All along the footway the children grouped themselves, some clambering on to the fence and gates. As usual, the face was on view, and the children were held spellbound with awe and excitement. At length a few of the more adventurous souls determined to enter the grounds and “lay the ghost.” The little party tore across the grounds, over garden beds, and across the lawn. When within throwing distance they grabbed any choice plant, stocks, pansies, freesias, and any other material calculated to make things unpleasant for the mysterious, and at the same time not smash the window, and let fly. Reinforcements arrived, and notwithstanding that some of the attacking party soon tired, the bombardment was continued for a couple of hours. By the end of that time the ammunition meant for the ghost had made a big pile, in the room behind, for the window was partly open. Soon some police officers arrived. Their sympathies were all with the “ghost,” for they turned upon the attackers and put them to flight. The children beat a tired and somewhat undignified retreat. But after all the battle was an unequal one, because there was no old man at the window. For exactly thirty years, since the house was built, and the window was placed in position, the plate-glass has had a flaw in it. The effect of this flaw has been to convey to people looking from below the idea that a man’s face was at the window. Why it should have taken thirty years for this optical illusion to have deceived the children the occupants of the house cannot explain. However, the “ghost” has become famous now; so much so that the police have to keep an eye open for any signs of a second bombardment. Wanganui Chronicle, 7 October 1910: p. 3
Ohio reported a large number of face-in-the-window cases in the early 1870s. One sensation was written up in the Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light in 1874 by Hudson Tuttle, who took a distinctly Spiritualistic view of the faces: that they were the faces of the dead.
WINDOW PANE SPECTERS
The Face of a Pioneer Appears on Mr. Laughlin’s Window—It Appears According to the Promise Made Previous to Death.
Tuttle begins by musing on the theories to account for the faces: that there is some chemical change in the glass, that an iridescent surface creates images “as clouds sometimes take the form of animals.” He rejects the notion that they are human hoaxes “as the structure of the glass itself is changed, and there is nothing on its surface that can be rubbed or washed off.”
He goes on to investigate a picture in his home town of Berlin Heights:
Recently I heard that one of these pictures had appeared on the window in the residence of Mr. Milton Laughlin, of Berlin [Heights, OH], and it was represented as being so vivid and unmistakable that my curiosity was aroused… So dim, shadowy, and uncertain were the best of the Milan pictures that it seemed that if the ghostly dead had broken the quietude of their slumbers…to paint each other’s portraits, they too, had better been asleep. A cloudy pane in which one person saw a “perfect” likeness of a prominent man, another thought a remarkable picture of a dog, and the writer failed to detect more than a cloudiness, which imagination could torture into no form, terrestrial nor celestial.
I expected to find nothing more in the window of Mr. Laughlin, and confess to being greatly surprised when the reality was better than reported. We were received by Mr. L. in a cordial manner and found several others present, examining the picture, among whom was Mr. H. Hoak, the well- known agriculturalist, enthusiastic as usual, and unabashed by ghostly paintings or ghosts themselves. There it was, on the lower right hand corner pane of the lower window! Mr. Laughlin adjusted the lamp and when we gained the right angle all exclaimed, it is Mr. Tucker! There were the exceedingly characteristic features, the sharp nose, the small and contracted mouth, the thick white beard, the short and snowy hair. Not on the glass as a picture, but as an intangible shadow behind the glass, looking in upon us!
That glass in the day time is the clearest in the window, for it is washed and scrubbed and rinsed to wash away, if possible, the picture. But when night throws a black back-ground against it, the light shines on the before-invisible face. It is not drawn with sharp lines and light and shade well defined…It resembles a dim daguerreotype…only in one position can the picture be seen….
On repairing to the sitting room, Mrs. Laughlin narrated the circumstances connected with the appearance… Mr. Hardin A. Tucker was well and favorably known in this vicinity as one of the pioneer inhabitants, and an upright, honest, intelligent man. He accepted the doctrines of Spiritualism, and was as usual with him, when he had come to a conclusion, fixed and unswerving in his belief. Shortly previous to his death, in conversation with Mrs. L., who is opposed to what she honestly considers a delusion into which many good people are misled, he said that it was useless for them to argue longer, but as he should soon discover the truthfulness of his belief, and if he found it possible he would return and compel her to believe.
Said Mrs. Laughlin, “As I was sitting in the kitchen one evening, in last April, alone, a sudden impulse made me look up at the window. There I saw the face of Mr. Tucker, looking in at me. I was terribly frightened, and yet I continued to look. I should think I steadily looked at him for half an hour. When I moved it grew indistinct, and I gained courage to take the lamp and leave the room….”
In the great hereafter do the pledges and obligations made in this life press on the soul until redeemed! Are we to believe that the spirit of Mr. H. could not depart from this weary earth in peace until he had fulfilled his promise, and finding no other method…fastened his shadowy features on the window glass? If so, then the souls of the dead are good chemists, and possess some subtle photographic knowledge unknown to us…. Sandusky [OH] Daily Register, 24 December 1873
Not all images on glass held a benign Spiritualist message of survival. Some were interpreted as a warning, as in this much later (1888) story from Eaton, Ohio.
ON A WINDOW:
STRANGE FACES SEEN AT OLD MAN CHRISTMAN’S HOME, RECALLING THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF HIS HORRIBLE MURDER TWO YEARS AGO, AND THE LYNCHING OF WILLIAM MUSSEL.
Special Dispatch to The Enquirer.
Eaton, Ohio December 13. The murder of Daniel Christman, an old and wealthy farmer, two miles west of here, two years ago the 7th of this month and the lynching of William Mussel for the commission of the crime, a full account of which appeared in The Enquirer at the time, has been recalled to the minds of this community during the past two days by the mysterious and significant appearance of
A FACE UPON A WINDOW-GLASS
In the house in which Christman resided at the time of the murder, and which is occupied by his widow and daughter. The affair has assumed a very sensational shape and hundreds of people are visiting the house and looking at the picture. The most sceptical see something that resembles the features of a man: the majority can see a very strong resemblance to Christman and some recognize it immediately as the countenance of old man Christman.
Old Mrs. Christman and her daughter say that they have seen it since last March, and it has filed them with such pleasure that they have avoided making it known to the public, from the fact that they did not want to be bothered with the people coming to see it.
Can only be seen from the outside of the house. Upon examination of the glass it is found to be perfectly clear, and in looking out through the glass nothing is seen. The glass has been in the window for nine years. There has been considerable lawing going on over the affairs of the estate, and as the Christman women lean strongly to the Spiritual belief, they take the singular appearance as a warning to their persecutors to desist. They do not seem the least disturbed about the matter and look upon it as a manifestation of disapproval by the old man over the way the business is being conducted. The affair is
A FEAST FOR CRANKS.
And it is liable to unhinge a few of them. It is surprising to hear the way people who have heretofore been looked upon as rational people talk about it and hear them express their views. The people seem as hungry to hear and talk about it as they were to hear about the murder and lynching. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 14 December 1888: p. 5
By way of background, William Mussel had worked for Christman, but had moved to Indiana. When he returned to Ohio after leaving his wife, the Christmans took him in. He repaid them by killing Daniel Christman Dec. 7, 1886 with several blows from an axe. When Mrs. Christman didn’t give him enough money, he cut her down with the axe and set the house on fire to cover his crime. Mrs. Christman recovered consciousness, smothered the fire on her bed, made her dying husband comfortable, and then walked a quarter mile to a neighbor’s house for help. Christman died that night. After two weeks, Mussel was found in Indiana and brought back to face trial. A committee of some of Eaton’s most prominent citizens decided Mussel should die and a mob stormed the jail. Mussel was taken from his cell and strung up from the electric light tower on 22 December 1886.
Our final, and much earlier example comes from the 17th century and bears an astonishing resemblance to the case of the Faces of Belmez.
The phenomena of these mysterious crosses, &c., [at Baden] probably belongs to the same class of emblematic spirit-photography of which manifestations were given in the 17th century to Dr. Pordage and the Philadelphian Brethren,, and also in the year 1830, in Sunderland. In Howitt’s History of the Supernatural, Vol. II., page 246, we find as follows:—
But what was most remarkable, the spirits painted on the glass of the windows and on the tiles of the house all kinds of extraordinary figures of men and animals, which appeared continually to move as if alive. On the tiles of the fireplace they had drawn the two hemispheres of the earth, full of men and beasts which also appeared to move. When the visitation was over, they attempted to wash these out, but they found them indelible, and could only get rid of them by breaking them up with a hammer. The matter had made a great public sensation, and numbers of people, magistrates and others, made a particular examination of the circumstances, and proved the truth of them. These events,” continues our author, “extraordinary as they are, have been in many particulars corroborated by events of to-day. In the case of Mary Jobson,of Sunderland, published by Dr. Reid Clanny, physician to the Duke of Sussex, the sun, moon and other things, were painted on the ceiling in colours, which her father had whitewashed over once or twice, but they still came through, and were seen by hundreds of people—several medical men amongst them, and could only be destroyed at last by destroying the plaster. The wonderful powers of representation and presentation in varied forms, is one of the most remarkable and best attested facts of Modern Spiritualism.” A. M. H. W. The Spiritual Magazine August 1872 pp. 360-66
I’ve got a pretty extensive collection of reports of damned images, both in windows and on other surfaces. See if you’ve got one I don’t have. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com Bonus points if you can tell me how it was done.
Happy Birthday, Charles Fort!
Several of these stories are found in The Face in the Window. There are also two examples in The Headless Horror. See below for links.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.