Lightning Daguerreotypes

Lightning Daguerreotypes An example of a lightning daguerreotype: the face in the window at the Pickens County Court House.

Lightning Daguerreotypes An example of a lightning daguerreotype: the face in the window at the Pickens County Court House.

One of the most fortean of lightning freaks is the “lighting daguerreotype,” where pictures are found impressed upon the skin by a bolt from the blue or where a face or figure is mysteriously etched upon a window pane. There are several very famous cases of this: the face of a frightened man at the Pickens County Courthouse and a lady surprised while bathing.

Let’s start with the first type of these images: the markings which appeared on the bodies of the lightning struck:


A country woman has recently arrived in Paris, from the Department of Seine-et-Marne, who should be presented to the Academy of Sciences. This woman was, a short time since, watching a cow in an open field, when a violent storm arose. She took refuge under a tree, which, at the instant, was struck by lightning; the cow was killed, and she was felled to the earth senseless,  where she was soon after found, the storm having ceased with the flash which felled her. Upon removing her clothing, the exact image of the cow killed by her side was found distinctly impressed upon her bosom. This curious phenomenon is not without precedent. Dr. Franklin mentions the case of a man who was standing in the door of a house in a thunder-storm, and who was looking at a tree directly before him, when it was struck by lightning. On the man’s breast was left a perfect daguerreotype of the tree. In 1841, a magistrate and a miller’s boy were struck by lightning near a poplar tree, in one of the provinces of France; and upon the breast of each were found spots exactly resembling the leaves of the poplar. At a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, January 25th, 1847, it was stated that a woman of Lugano, seated at a window during a storm, was suddenly shaken by some invisible power. She experienced no inconvenience from this, but afterwards discovered that a blossom, apparently torn from a tree by a lightning stroke, was completely imaged upon one of her limbs, and it remained there until her death. In September, 1825, the brigantine Il Buon-Servo, was anchored in the Armiro bay, at the entrance of the Adriatic sea, where she was struck by lightning. In obedience to a superstition, the Ionian sailors had attached a horseshoe to the mizzen-mast, as a charm against evil. When the vessel was struck, a sailor who was seated by this mast was instantly killed. There were no marks or bruises upon his person, but the horse-shoe was acutely [sic] pictured upon his back. A Spanish brigantine was once struck in the Rade de Zante. Five sailors were at the prow, three of them awake and two of them sleeping. One of the latter was killed, and upon undressing him, the figures 44, plain and well forced, were found under his left breast. His comrades declared that they were not there before his death, but their original was found in the rigging of the vessel. But the most singular facts connected with this affair are set forth in the report of the physician Dicapulo, who says: “After undressing the young sailor, we found a band of linen tied about his body, in which were gold pieces, and two parcels done up in paper. The one on the right side contained a letter from Spain, three guineas, and two half-guineas; the other, a letter, four guineas, a half-guinea, and two smaller pieces. Neither the pieces, the paper, nor the linen, presented the least appearance of fire. But upon his right shoulder were six distinct circles, which preserved the natural color, and appeared as though traced upon the black skin. These circles, which all touched at one point, were of three different sizes, and exactly corresponded with the gold pieces in the right side of his belt.” The National Era [Washington DC] 3 December 1857


Lightning Photographs a Picture on the Body of Its Victim.

Lightning played a queer prank when it killed William Campbell, of Bryn Mawr, near Yonkers, N.Y., the other night. Surrounded by his children, he was stricken down in the doorway of his home by a bolt that had uprooted a small shrub in front of him. He fell over dead on top of his ten-year-old son, who was playing by his side. The child was uninjured, but when the father’s body was examined, a perfect photograph of a branch of the shrub was found in vivid red on his breast.

It was not until the coroner, Dr. Miles, viewed the body that the photographic phenomenon was discovered. Dr. Miles noticed at once the peculiar marking. He saw an irregular thick line of red discoloration extending across the body just over the diaphragm with branches radiating from it and blurred spots on the smaller branches that immediately suggested a twig with leaves attached.

“Why, I believe this is a case of lightning photography,” remarked the doctor. Going to the spot where Mr. Campbell had stood he looked at the door. A boy who was employed about the place, divining what the doctor was searching for, approached with a piece of foliage in his hand and said: “That shrub was torn up by the lightning, and here’s a piece that was knocked off.”

The shrub indicated was about six feet high and some 16 feet from the front door. The branch the boy handed the doctor was a perfect counterpart of the one outlined on Mr. Campbell’s body. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 22 September 1896: p. 3

Today you can see hundreds of photographs of these kinds of lightning images on the skin–to the modern eye they are nothing miraculous, but they have a variety of names: keraunographic markings, Lichtenberg figures, or lightning flowers. They are supposed to be the result of capillaries ruptured by the lightning stroke.

The other type of image was a picture of the dead which appeared to be etched–usually on a window, but occasionally on a mirror or other surface. In The Face in the Window, I wrote an entire chapter about the faces which appeared in and on window glass around Ohio in the 1870s.  Very often in these “face in the window” cases someone “remembers” a lightning storm or that the face’s original often spent hours looking out of that specific window. Here is a brief catalog of some lightning daguerreotypes from around the country.

“Very often the natural elements, the weather, for instance, is responsible for many so-called “psychic phenomena.” A striking example of this occurred some years ago in Georgia. A young negress had been brutally murdered. Her body, prepared for burial, was laid out in the middle of the floor. A storm was brewing; thunder roared and suddenly a great bolt of lightning flashed through the room. It was over in a second, of course, but when the great blue flash had passed, the features of the negress, just as she laid in her coffin, were precipitated upon the window pane. Hereward Carrington, quoted in Montgomery [AL] Advertiser 10 December 1922: p. 2

This mirror was sold and was exhibited in carnival side-shows and other venues for several years.


A mirror in which is reflected the body of a woman caused by a flash of lightning, according to its owners, will be exhibited at the Pemberton Furniture Company Wednesday and Thursday.

The “mysterious mirror” is owned by J.G. Kerby of Fort Worth, who has purchase it from T.R. Garrett of Marshall. Garrett obtained the mirror from a Marshall negro who called him to his home to replace it with another.

The negro declared his wife died and while she was laid out near the mirror, a flash of lightning flooded the room. When the negro looked up he saw the image of his wife in the mirror. Garrett took the mirror and several months later he, too, saw the negro woman in it and the phenomenon is still in evidence, according to Kerby and Garrett. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 27 March 1921: p. 10

The “Widow Jorgensen” case referenced in the next story, occurred in San Francisco. The lady’s husband’s face suddenly appeared after his death on the upstairs window-glass, attracting large crowds.  The running lady photographed by lightning in Ohio is quite unusual: the images are usually of the dead.

There have been other phenomena in the United States similar to the case of the face at Widow Jorgensen’s, which are well authenticated cases of electrical photography. Several years ago a case of this kind occurred at Toledo, Ohio. A lady had been stopping at a hotel overlooking Maumee Bay, an arm of Lake Erie. Two weeks after her departure, people who lived nearly opposite came over and asked after the health of the lady, with whom they were acquainted, remarking that she sat at the window all day. The hotel folks said there must be a mistake; the lady in question had been gone some two weeks. “Oh, no,” said the neighbors, “we can see her from the street at all times during the day.” Investigation showed that the woman’s face and shoulders were photographed (life size) on the window, and that the picture could only be seen from the outside. The lady had sat at the window during a heavy thunderstorm a few days prior to her departure; the neighbors remembered that the picture was first observed after the thunderstorm, yet so distinct were its principal features that they imagined it the woman herself. [This initial sighting triggered dozens of other visions of faces in windows in the northern Ohio area and beyond.]…

Another instance of electrical photography, and we have done. At Zanesville (Ohio), during a thunderstorm, and when the rain was pouring down in  perfect torrents, a lady might have been seen scudding along one of the prominent streets, with her skirts gathered up to protect them from the spattering mud. During a flash of lightning, a full length photograph of the lady, in a running position, was taken on one of the windows of a third-story building opposite.

These are remarkable cases, and of course will be disbelieved by many, yet are of interest to the community, and have claims upon the people who are living on a ghost diet just at present. During the late storm in this city we had some thunder and lightning, which may account for the face (the ghostly one) at widow Jorgensen’s window, if the theory based upon peculiarities in the make of the glass is not sufficient. San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 12 December 1871: p. 3


We learn that within the last two weeks a singular discovery has been made at the house of Jesse Garth, for many years deceased. It is said that a distinct and accurate likeness of Mrs. Garth, who has been dead for twenty years, can be seen on a pane of glass in the upper sash of one of the windows presenting very much the appearance of a photograph negative. The discovery is said to have been made by a woman who was washing clothes in the yard, who imagined someone was watching her through the window, and went inside to see who it was. We gather these facts from Dr. Charles Brown, who has himself seen the singular picture. Brown remembers that about twenty years ago, Mr. Garth told him that his wife, while standing at that window, was stunned by a sudden flash of lightning, and the Doctor’s theory is that the outline of her features were photographed on the window pane at that time. The youngest daughter of Mr. Garth, and others who were well acquainted with Mrs. Garth, have seen the picture and pronounce it a striking likeness. It is said to be more distinct about 9 o’clock in the morning and 3 in the evening than at any other time of the day. Char. Chronicle. Alexandria [VA] Gazette 9 November 1875: p. 2

A Photographic Ghost

[Boston Journal]

And speaking of faces at the pane, there is one curious way by which houses have been made “haunted” as much as houses were ever the residences of spirits. In a New York town some summers ago a woman saw in passing the house of her birth what she was convinced was the spirit face of her dead mother, killed by lightning a month before. Of course this house became “haunted” in the minds of the superstitious—it had the unenviable reputation for many months. But a year afterward a more than unusually brave citizen saw the face at the window as he was passing. It did not change as he approached. And the result of his investigation showed that the lightning flash which killed poor Mrs. Rodman had photographically drawn her likens on a pane of glass—a very faint impression, true, only noticeable when the sun was in a certain position, but then wonderfully bright, probably the best human photograph ever taken. The phonograph may be used to bequeath the eloquence of modern orators to a future generation, but the lightning flash, in producing the perfect likeness of Mrs. Rodman, can probably never be improved upon. The Record-Union [Sacramento, CA] 9 November 1892: p. 2


Family Believes It Was Photographed There By Lightning; Policeman has Another Theory

Reading, May 11. A phenomenon which has been attracting the attention of hundreds of people during the past several days in the northeastern section of the city is the supposed figure of a man who died last October on a window pane at his residence. Yesterday the police were called upon to check the curious ones who, in their ardour to see the alleged apparition, have pulled down fences of yards.

Oliver D. Angstadt, a tailor, of 528 North Tenth street, died last October of typhoid fever. To-day a week ago, it is said, his only daughter, Stella, aged twenty-three years, saw the face of her father at a rear second story window. It is said to have appeared several times later.

Finally the story became noised around and the curious began to gather in an alley in the rear of the home and in the back yards of neighbors, in the hop of seeing the face of the dead man. When the crush became too great the police were appealed to and Sergeant Cressman and three officers were detailed to keep back the crowds.

Residents declare that they saw Mr. Angstadt’s picture on the window pane very plainly and his widow admitted that members of the family saw it. It is said that Mr. Angstadt was fond of watching storms and especially liked to see lightning. It was not unusual for him to raise the blind so that he could watch vivid flashes in the heavens. The belief is that by a strange freak of nature his features were photographed on the window pane and the sun has developed the picture.

Many persons went to the house today and stared up at the window in the hope of seeing the picture, but the expected view has now been shut off by a screen, whose darkening effect may also result in obliterating the picture permanently Police Sergeant Cressman, an efficient officer, but devoid of imagination, apparently, declares there is nothing in the affair. It is his opinion that flaws in the glass have created lights which have worked on the overwrought nerves of the dead man’s daughter. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 12 May 1909: p. 7

The Lightning as a Photographer

Dr. I.N. Brown, of Laural, Ohio, claims that the distinct likeness of a little girl’s face has been photographed by lightning upon a window pane in that town, and that the picture has been recognized by a score of persons as the six-year old daughter of Thomas Rogers, who occupied the house in which the window is, a year and a half ago. There are, he says, three other pictures on the same pane, but no one has yet recognized them; and there are pictures on three other panes in the same window. Washing and rubbing the glass does not remove the pictures. Marion [OH] Daily Star May 26, 1880: p. 1

More Portraits Upon Window Panes

From the Charlottesville (Va.) Chronicle, March 26

We have heretofore published an account of a portrait supposed to have been photographed by lightning on a pane of glass in a window of an old farmhouse in this county. Another instance of the same phenomenon has been found in the window of the Mansion House on the Mount Eagle Farm, more generally known as the Gentry place. The portraits of four persons are plainly discernible—two men, a woman, and a child. The faces are not all on one pane, that of one of the men and woman being on adjoining glasses, the face of the other man on another, and that of the child on one of the lower panes, and that the party were all looking through the window during a thunder-storm, when a sudden flash of lightning, by some mysterious process, instantaneously fixed their features on the glass. The existence of the portraitures is of comparatively recent discovery and has attracted many visitors. Decatur [IL] Daily Republican April 13, 1880: p. 2

Do these plate-glass portraits still appear today? I’m not talking about simulacrum like that famous image of the Virgin Mary on the Seminole Finance Company building in Clearwater, Florida. Such things are always with us. I suppose it could be argued that the some of the images reported in the past shared the somewhat amorphous nature of the Clearwater apparition and many seemed subject to individual interpretation. Yet there were cases where total strangers saw the identical, recognizable image. Note the phrases above: “plainly discernible,” “distinct likeness,” “saw very plainly,” “perfect likeness,” “striking likeness.”  Mere journalistic hyperbole? Possibly. The image at the head of this post looks less like a frightened prisoner and more like that Ecce Homo painting restoration gone wrong.

Why is it that lightning no longer etches images on windows?  Is it the composition of modern  glass? Air pollution? A dearth of the elderly and invalid to sit at windows?  Or has this fortean phenomenon, like the daguerreotype, simply gone out of fashion?

Develop your theories and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT

The Face in the Window is available online in trade paperback and Kindle editions.

For more strange ghostly, historical, and Fortean tales, please see my Ghosts of the Past series here or at Amazon. The two most recent titles are The Ghost Wore Black and  The Victorian Book of the Dead. Other titles, which focus on Ohio forteana and ghosts are The Face in the Window and The Headless Horror, both of which are available on Amazon and other online retailers. Five of the Haunted Ohio series and all four of the Ghosts of the Past series are also available in Kindle editions.

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 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.

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes