Mad daguerreotypists

Daguerreotypists developed their negs inside the dark tent, holding the glass plate above a bow of mercury and a spirit lamp. As heated mercury vapor whirled around the plate, the image appeared. Denny must have done this hundreds of times, for years and years. It’s why his hands shook, and why his gums had turned blue; it explained why everyone said he was such a sweetheart. He had been, once upon a time. Then, Hannah Meadows died, gruesomely, and to memorialize her he revived a lost art, without bothering to learn about its dangers. Otherwise he’d have known that what drove 19th century hatters mad, with brain damage and psychosis, had driven daguerreotypists mad too. Denny had mercury poisoning. (234)

from Elizabeth Hand Generation Loss


When the vision came, he was in the bathtub. After a decade of using mercury vapors to cure his photographic images, Louis Daguerre’s mind had faltered—a pewter plate left too long in the sun. But during his final lucid minutes on this cold evening of 1846, he felt a strange calm. Outside, a light snow was falling and a vaporous blue dusk seemed to be rising out of the Seine. The squatters had set fire to the barrens behind the Left Bank and the air was full of smoke. Louis sat reclined in warm water perfumed with lemon skins, a tonic he believed to be good for his skin and nerves. The wind gusted under the eaves. He placed a hand against the adjacent window and from the bath, perched high in his rooftop belvedere, he felt the night pressing in against him. His head was partially submerged and he heard the metallic click of the tenant’s pipes below. It was a message; he was sure of it. The world was full of messages.

from Dominic Smith The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre

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