Those Ghostly Faces in the Windows: How Were They Made?


I’ve been working on collecting all the examples of “lightning daguerreotypes,” “window-pane ghosts,” and “faces in the window” that I can find. Very few of the articles venture to suggest a physical mechanism, usually vaguely citing a “flash of lightning” or “the sun.” Precisely how natural light, coupled with common window-glass, was supposed to generate images that could not be washed off and, in fact, grew more vivid when scrubbed, is never explained. At the end of this post, I offer a prize, if you can explain/create a face in the window image.

There was a phantom face-flap in San Francisco in 1871, beginning with a face printed on the window of the Widow Jorgenson. It caused a sensation and when a local museum operator bought the glass pane for $250, at least four other faces appeared in neighboring windows.  The reporter writing about these wonders for the San Francisco Chronicle made an attempt to sort out a solution to the mystery.


As already stated, iridescent formations—the combined result of dust and moisture—on window panes are frequently observed. This leads at once to the true solution of the mystery. In our opinion it is simply an ordinary iridescent spot or collection of spots, resembling in the eye of fancy a human face; but we do not deny that it may be actually a sort of photograph of a real image. It may be this, and


For instance, if a man, heated and perspiring, were to approach his face near a cold glass, the moisture arising from the fleshy parts would condense on its surface in tolerably accurate relative position, and, with any dust on the glass, form a deposit, which would leave an iridescent stain. The hair, beard, eyebrows, etc., not exuding any moisture, would not form such a deposit on the glass, and consequently would be represented by absence of iridescent matter. Now this is actually the case with the picture in question. The cheeks, throat, forehead, nose, etc., are, on close examination, seen to be iridescent spots, while the beard, eyebrows, hair, etc., are plainly the ordinary surface of the glass. Now, as to the forming of such an image in the way we describe, our readers can convince themselves of its truth by trying an experiment themselves. When the hand, for instance, is warm and moist, hold it near the surface of a looking-glass, without actual contact. A well-defined


Fingers, etc. will be formed in condensed vapor on the cold surface of the mirror. Allow this to dry and then breathe on the mirror gently, and while the moisture is disappearing, if the mirror be held in a nearly horizontal position with the eye, so as to catch the reflected light from the outer surface of the glass, a well-defined image of the hand will be plainly visible. This can be repeated again and again. The same thing will be seen by placing a coin or any flat object on a mirror; and breathing, cover the glass all around the object with condensed vapor. When this has evaporated, remove the coin. Breathing again on the glass, the

OUTLINE OF THE COIN Will become visible. To enter into the scientific explanation of this phenomenon would be uninteresting to the general reader. Now, in either of these cases there has not been any solid matter deposited on the glass and the


But if, in the first experiment, the glass be slightly coated with dust, the image will be permanent, notwithstanding all manner of scrubbing and rubbing. Or if anything be


With soapstone (talc) and breathed on, it will form an image, which will appear with great distinctness whenever moisture is deposited on the glass, and this even after the lapse of years, though all traces of the soapstone be removed by washing.

No rubbing or washing will efface such an image; it will only render it more lasting. The only way is to let the glass become dusty again and form a new image over the old one. And Mr. Woodard will find this out, to his disgust, if he does not keep his glass pretty clean. The forming of such images is not confined to glass alone. Any polished surface can produce the same. These images can be formed in a real photographic manner. When a glass becomes very dusty, and is kept unclean for, say two weeks, it becomes covered with numerous microscopical plants, which spring up over all its surface. As light is indispensable to the vitality of plants, it is plain that if a shadow be cast for a reasonable length of time on the glass, the plants in such shadow will be comparatively undeveloped or even entirely wanting—thus producing a different coating on the glass from that without the shadow. Such a difference of surface will invariably produce an image. We saw


Of this not long ago. An ivy vine, creeping over a window, cast its shadow over the glass in such a way that, after the vine was cut down, it was found to be photographed in an exquisite manner on the window, notwithstanding the efforts of the servants to remove it. Such is our explanation of this


San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 10 December 1871: p. 1

The Chronicle published more on “electric photography” later in December, and references a probably apocryphal image in Zanesville. Nevertheless, an attempt is made to understand the potential process.


Another instance of electric photography, and we have done. At Zanesville (Ohio), during a thunder-storm, and when the rain was pouring down in perfect torrent, a lady might have been seen scudding along one of the prominent streets, with her skirts gathered up to protect them from the splattering mud. During a flash of lightning, a full length photograph of the lady, in a running position, was taken on one of the window 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 windows, if the theory based upon the peculiarities in the make of the glass is not sufficient.

Now the worthy scientist who wrote the above has make a lamentable mistake in his conclusions. For the taking of a photograph


First—A highly sensitive chemical plate, which will be changed in color by the action of light. Second—A fixing solution, which will prevent any further change in the sensitive plate after an image is received. Third—a light that will contain a sufficient number of actinic or chemical rays (the violet rays of the spectrum contain the maximum) to produce such a change. Fourth—That the sensitive plate be exposed only to the direct rays of the image to be produced. Now, it is clear that in the above cases, three of the requisite conditions are wanting. That the lightning flash will produce an impression


There is not a shadow of doubt; but how could it produce an image of a lady on the street (even supposing that the window pane was sensitive), when there was an equal quantity of light reflected upon the glass from all objects around? Not even on the most delicately sensitive plate known to science would an image be produced under those circumstances. And if one flash of lightning produced that image, why could not the subsequent flashes produce others and obliterate the first? And what substance so highly sensitive to light, as to take an instantaneous image by a lightning flash, could get on a window pane? If there be such a substance, what fixed the image and rendered further actinic change impossible?

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 22 December 1871: p. 3

I know little about historic photographic technology. What do you think? Are the suggestions about condensation even remotely plausible?  Many descriptions of these images mention how they look like glass distortions or dirt when seen close-up, but resolve into clear pictures when seen from further away. That does not sound to me like a heated face pressed against the glass (which would create distortions not found in the records or illustrations of the images.) A few of the images are profile views, which would require contortions to create if mashing flesh to glass was the solution.

I invite you to experiment and see if you can produce a face on glass that will not wash off, but grows clearer when cleaned. I’ll give a copy (or PDF to readers outside the US) of The Ghost Wore Black or The Face in the Window for the best example(s). Please show your work in a series of photos, although I am as a child in the hands of photo-shop. I’d really rather see something done with condensation or lightning. Contest closes midnight US EST 31 March 2015

I look forward to seeing what, if anything, appears in my in-box. Chriswoodyard8 AT

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