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Lawrence Clement and the Ferguson Room

Lawrence Clement and the Ferguson Room

Estimated reading time — 8 minutes

The following has been pieced together from primary and secondary sources found across Los Angeles County and elsewhere in California:

Lawrence Clement (1870 – 1913) was a second-generation immigrant of France to the United States, and the subject of a rather interesting tale about photography. He was the quintessential underappreciated artist, a man whom other artists would salute today as a credit to the creed specifically because he never produced a work that garnered mainstream notoriety during his lifetime. Adding a touch of the bittersweet to his legacy, his photographs, and later his films, ended up being forerunners of certain experimental pieces that became comparatively famous in the 1960s and ‘70s – creations by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, and Ernie Gehr. The conventions of the fledgling medium of photography having hardly been defined in the 1880s when he first picked up his camera, Clement was free to be quite expressionistic. His photos endeavored to evoke deep, unconscious thought and emotion by avoiding discernable images – they featured very soft focus, macro scales, and sometimes paint applied directly to the prints.

Most said Clement was just a comically inept photographer. Such responses posed quite the problem, as his profits were meager and he outright refused to work a “thoughtless job.” He also had a wife, Isabella, and a daughter, Marcie, who relied on his provisions. He turned to portrait photography to feed his family, but the inartistic work failed to feed his soul.

The dawn of cinema proved portentous. The addition of the temporal dimension to photography promised to push many boundaries and Clement redoubled his efforts to engage an audience in unprecedented ways. Filmmaking became his focus around 1900, only five years into the lifespan of the medium, and due to both the early date and the near-uniform disregard of his work, virtually no remnants of his oeuvre exist today – save for one.

Clement and his family lived just barely outside of squalor by 1910. Their situation was observably unsustainable to those who knew them, and it seemed the desperate filmmaker would have to find a new career imminently. As it happened, he never did sink to that unendurable low. In 1913, Clement died, and the limited information about him that remains around California likely does so only because of the strange circumstances surrounding his death.

Isabella Clement reported to police that she had been walking with her husband on the bank of the Los Angeles River when Clement had tumbled in and sunk below the surface. Authorities searched along the entire riverbank for him, but found nobody, and determined that the river had carried Clement out to the Pacific ocean, where his body was unrecoverable.

It seemed there was no more to discover about the tragedy, but a week later, Isabella submitted a film reel to the police. She had taken it from inside Clement’s camera. It was a short reel, comprising just 1,853 frames, shot at six frames per second (such a low framerate would be considered unwatchable today but was not uncommon at the time), and running about five minutes in length. On the film was a single, static shot of the corner of 3rd and Hill, outside a commerce hub called the Ferguson Building. Isabella knew that Clement had been shooting around Los Angeles for an abstract film and suspected that this reel was a component of the unfinished project. She had volunteered it, however, because of a single frame about halfway into the runtime; for that instant, a flash of white is visible through the second window down on the left side of the image. This window corresponded with a floor of the Ferguson Building that rented out furnished rooms.

Police believed this white stroke was most likely one of two things: a happenstance imperfection of Clement’s film stock, or a flash bulb from another camera that had taken a photo in the Ferguson room. However, they could not rule out a remote third possibility that it was a muzzle flash from a gunshot, and so they demanded to investigate the Ferguson room. What they found therein only muddled their theories. The furniture in the room had been overturned, albeit delicately; a candle, now burnt through its wax, had been placed in the middle of the floor; a Bible lay open on the side of the toppled night table.

That particular room had last been occupied on the day the camera had captured the white flash. A Mr. Edward Thornton had vacated that afternoon, but it was unverifiable whether he had done so before or after Clement’s recording. Authorities felt confident that Thornton had put the room in such a state, but after questioning him at his home in eastern California, they deemed his ignorance of any oddities occurring in the Ferguson room legitimate. Thornton expressed indignation at being questioned over such an innocuous situation. As it happened, another guest of the Ferguson building named William Olsen had gone missing shortly after the supposed flash had been recorded, and police were open to the possibility that both events were related.

Yet no further deductions or evidence came of this mystery. The only result was the sudden, relative success of a Clement photograph. The picture circulated the Los Angeles area, and alongside rumors of odd occult activity in the Ferguson Room, it became quite the local legend, at least for a few years. Expectedly, it did not take long for some to see the flash in the Ferguson Room as an apparition, an angel come for some divine purpose. Others believed it to be a more treacherous specter – a demon, or perhaps a poltergeist, owing to the mischievously disturbed furniture.

For many in 1913, this was the first photo of a “ghost” they had ever seen, and it fascinated them. Thrill-seekers began to visit the Ferguson Room like it was some attraction, but no other strange phenomena were ever alleged to occur there. Meanwhile, Isabella Clement took full advantage of her husband’s posthumous success and sold the apparition photo to multiple newspapers and magazines. She used money from the sales to move away from Los Angeles and the shadow of her husband’s death; there are no substantial accounts of her life from that point onward, but it is documented that she and her daughter Marcie lived in Bishop, California thereafter.

The story surrounding this man, his wife, and his photo ended there, and word of it was passed around for a few more years before it became irrelevant in the minds of the Los Angeles citizenry and was eventually forgotten altogether. Things stood still for a hundred years, and would have continued to, had I not discovered a crucial, enlightening detail.

Clement was dead, as were his wife and daughter, but according to town records, he still had one living granddaughter in northern California. Emilia, as it turned out, had never met her grandfather, but she had fortuitously inherited a few of his keepsakes – cameras and lights, as well as a stack of papers that had seemingly remained untouched since Clement died. The papers contained plenty of mundanities whose exact significance was impossible to place, but a few sheets looked suspiciously like notes for projects. Posing as a stalwart fan of her obscure filmmaker grandfather, I easily convinced a giddy Emilia to let me take these scrawls.

They were, in fact, brainstorming notes for potential film projects, all of which were interested in pushing the very limits of the medium in some way or another. The following is an abridged list of the ideas Clement had, editorialized somewhat for clarification:

1) A film that displays two separate, simultaneous images to a viewer – one to each of his eyes through isolated tubes or chambers. Meant for brainwashing, Clockwork Orange-style, but for the supposedly benevolent purpose of creating helpful associations between unlike experiences. Whether the practice was for enhancing brain power, overcoming fears and other mental barriers, or something else, Clement wished to experiment with it and sell it to people as a form of hypno-therapy.


2) A film interested in total mimesis, or the provocation of immediate action in viewers. Something more complex and involved than the alleged screams and running away prompted by “Arrival of a Train at the Station” in viewers unfamiliar with the unreality of cinema. Clement apparently had no specific ideas of what images would lead to such a response, but wanted to see if he could make an audience go and do something, uniformly, immediately after seeing a film.

3) A film that depicts a ghost, spirit, alien, or other unidentifiable figure. Would evoke interest mainly because the figure would be difficult to discern in the photo, blurred and distant. At the time of writing, Clement seemed mostly interested in the buzz such an image would generate.

4) A film that depicts a person’s death, in the interest of capturing his soul on the film. This sounds absurd, but the medium had been around for no more than 17 or 18 years when Clement had the idea. Conceptions of death were less clinical than they are now, and based on his writing, Clement may have heard some early whispers of Russian/Soviet philosophy about the film camera being a “more perfect human eye,” capable of seeing things that humans cannot. He seemed to believe that if the moment of death was recorded, especially if the death was instant, there might be an impression of the soul on the film stock for that infinitesimal space between life and death.

What do we notice about these ideas? A few things stand out. Obviously enough, the penultimate concept on the list uncannily reflects the actual outcome of Clement’s famous still image, right down to the local excitement it produced. However, the final concept might align with the contents of the image too. I would also draw attention to the underlying focus on popularity and money. It appears to me that, at the time he composed this list, Clement wished to both satisfy his experimental urges and take care of his financial problems. Finally, the way I see it, all of these concepts are vapid at best and psychotic at worst.

With them in mind, we do not have to look very far to draw conclusions about the truth of Clement’s life and his death. It is immensely strange to begin with that the circumstances of his death were only ever provided by Isabella and that there was no body to be discovered. Isabella was also the one to give the reel that included the famous photo to the police, and she is the one who most benefited from the photo’s circulation. It is not particularly far-fetched to say that Isabella lied about Clement’s death.

For a long while, I wondered, even feared, that Clement had actually shot himself in the Ferguson Room. As a means of conducting his greatest experiment to capture the image of a fleeting soul on film, while also arranging the room just so and filming from a safe distance – laying the foundation of the story that would provide for his family – he had sacrificed his life in a final flourish. But somehow I knew Clement could not be so noble. I would confirm what I knew deep down to be the truth.


On February 8th, 1954, in Bishop, California, according to the well-kept files of a certain funeral home, a Fredrick Kilman was laid to rest. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the funeral service itself, but even after a search of town records that I feel sure was exhaustive, I could discover no information about the deceased from before 1914. I even searched neighboring towns for something, but there is no indication that the dead man had existed until 1914. Strange, but likely unrelated – until one looks at the preserved funeral guestbook.

Among the signatures are “We will meet again, my love – Isabella” and “Love you forever – Marcie”

And with that, I conclude. The psychopath Lawrence Clement orchestrated a plot to not only test one of his insane filmic hypotheses, but also cobble together the funds necessary to provide for his complicit family. All it took was sacrificing his former life – a small price to pay, seeing as it was so pitiful. He disappeared, his wife and daughter followed him shortly after with money in tow, and Clement simply had to lie low for the rest of his life. He probably quietly continued his experiments until his actual death.

But another man sacrificed his life for the scheme too, for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was my great-great grandfather, William Olsen, who was evidently staying in a room nearby the Ferguson Room, and was unwittingly seized by Clement and shot dead so that Clement and his wife could live comfortable lives into their 80s. Somehow, he did it without anyone catching him. That is what I believe.

This injustice occurred more than a hundred years ago, and nobody knows it. I certainly doubt the granddaughter, Emilia, is aware of what happened. If William Olsen’s soul was truly imprinted on the film that captured his death, then I will at the very least let this rudimentary, digital recreation serve as a memorial to him, for all of you. There is nothing more I can do, save hope God has been good to him.

Credit: C Parker


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