In this 1867 illustration, a crowd of scientists watch in horror as Andrew Ure makes the lifeless body of Matthew Clydesdale tremble and twitch with electricity. HOUGHTON LIBRARY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
Why scientists during the late 18th and 19th centuries conducted crude experiments with reanimating corpses.
On November 4, 1818, Scottish chemist Andrew Ure stood next to the lifeless corpse of an executed murderer, the man hanging by his neck at the gallows only minutes before. He was performing an anatomical research demonstration for a theater filled with curious students, anatomists, and doctors at the University of Glasgow. But this was no ordinary cadaver dissection. Ure held two metallic rods charged by a 270-plate voltaic battery to various nerves and watched in delight as the body convulsed, writhed, and shuddered in a grotesque dance of death.
“When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger,” Ure later described to the Glasgow Literary Society, “the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.”
Ure is one of many scientists during the late 18th and 19th centuries who conducted crude experiments with galvanism—the stimulation of muscles with pulses of electrical current. The bright sparks and loud explosions made for stunning effects that lured in both scientists and artists, with this era of reanimation serving as inspiration for Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. While most scientists were using galvanism to search for clues about life, Ure wanted to see if it could actually bring someone back from the dead.
“This was a time when people were trying to understand the origin of life, when religion was losing some of its hold,” says Juliet Burba, chief curator of the exhibit “Mary and Her Monster” at the Bakken Museum in Minnesota, which will open October 29. “There was a lot of interest in the question: What is the essence that animates life? Could it be electricity?”
In 1780, Italian anatomy professor Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make the muscles of a dead frog twitch and jerk with sparks of electricity. Others quickly began to experiment by applying electricity to other animals that quickly grew morbid. Galvani’s nephew, physicist Giovanni Aldini, obtained the body of an ox, proceeding to cut off the head and use electricity to twist its tongue. He sent such high levels of voltage through the diaphragm of the ox that it resulted in “a very strong action on the rectum, which even produced an expulsion of the feces,” Aldiniwrote.
People outside of science were also fascinated by electricity. They would attend shows where bull heads and pigs were electrified, and watch public dissections at research institutions such as the Company of Surgeons in England, which later became the Royal College of Surgeons.
When scientists tired of testing animals, they turned to corpses, particularly corpses of murderers. In 1751, England passed the Murder Act, which allowed the bodies of executed murderers to be used for experimentation. “The reasons the Murder Act came about were twofold: there weren’t enough bodies for anatomists, and it was seen as a further punishment for the murderer,” says Burba. “It was considered additional punishment to have your body dissected.”
Lying on Ure’s table was the muscular, athletic corpse of 35-year-old coal miner, Matthew Clydesdale. On August 1818, Clydesdale drunkenly murdered an 80-year-old miner with a coal pick and was sentenced to be hung at the gallows. His body remained suspended and limp for nearly an hour, while a thief who had been executed next to Clydesdale at the same time convulsed violently for several moments after death. The blood was drained from the body for half an hour before the experiments began…