Frankenstein, Galvanism & the Science of Raising the Dead (Anniversary Series #7)
A nervous crowd huddles in the makeshift amphitheater of a house near London’s Newgate Prison. The hum of voices rises and falls with the excited whispers and troubled exclamations of the surgeons and attending officials who have come to witness this spectacle. The lamps flicker overhead, casting a pool of wan light onto a table in the centre of the crowd; upon it, the pale, lifeless body of a man, hanged only hours before. In life he had been a murderer; now the purple bruise of the hangman’s noose swells darkly on his cold neck. The man leading the show busies himself around the corpse with shining metal equipment. An electric battery stands nearby, and the man leans over the corpse brandishing two conducting rods. The crowd hushes. A scintillating tremor of expectation sizzles through the mass of eager bodies, perched, awaiting what new horrors might be opened up by this latest scientific breach of the natural world – this time, of the boundary between life and death. The rods connect with the cold skin, a crackling buzz sounds – the electric pulse is delivered. A moment of quiet, and suddenly the dead man’s body moves. His eyes snap open and glare, glass-like, wide with animated horror at the men whose terrified gaze stares back.
You could be forgiven for thinking this scene comes from a science fiction or horror novel, and if you’re reminded of the scene where the monster awakes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or its later film adaptations) there’s a very good reason. But this isn’t fiction. This was a real life event that occurred in London on the 18th of January, 1803, the first of several similar experiments in applying electricity to the dead bodies of criminals in the hopes of discovering the secrets of life. The corpse belonged to James Forster, convicted of murdering his wife and daughter. The man conducting the experiment was Giovanni Aldini, an Italian physicist and nephew of Luigi Galvani, whose scientific theories of electrical animation – called Galvanism – inspired the gruesome work being undertaken in that London house.
In 1887 the Newgate Calendar described the horrid details of that day:
“M. Aldini, who was the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, showed the powers of Galvanism to be far superior to those of any other stimulant. On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr. Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, being officially present during the time of the extraordinary experiments, was so alarmed, that on his going home he died that night.”
Galvanism was initially practised on animal bodies, such as frogs, pigs, and oxen, and the theatrical nature of its experiments gained such notoriety that public demonstrations became popular, and even fashionable high society hosted private demonstrations to entertain their guests. However, after Aldini’s experiments in 1803, the human body was included among the subjects of these experiments. England’s “Murder Act” of 1751 allowed for the bodies of executed murderers to be given to science. Dissection and scientific experimentation on these bodies were seen as another level of punishment for the criminal. However, despite this act, the demand for bodies in scientific, medical and other experimentation increased, and grave-robbing became a lucrative endeavour, especially as the century wore on.
These gruesome topics all find their place in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At the Villa Diodati, where Frankenstein was first conceived in a nightmare, galvanism was a prominent topic of conversation. Mary writes:
“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. […] Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
In her Preface to the novel, Mary records “The event on which this fiction is founded, has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence,” and Frankenstein’s experiments draw on the discourses of galvanism and scientific experimentation that Mary Shelley would have been familiar with.
Combining his knowledge of ancient alchemy and necromancy with his modern studies into “natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry,” Frankenstein “dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave,” “collected bones from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame,” observing the effects of death and decay in order to understand how to reverse its processes. Finally, having assembled a body from collected parts, Frankenstein’s scientific experiment is brought to a head in a scene that, though heavily draped in the ghostly atmosphere of the Gothic, recalls the real-life galvanic experiments on criminal corpses:
“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
Though electricity is not mentioned here, the word “spark” combines with Mary’s later mention of galvanism in her 1831 Introduction to inform our reading of the scene. The parallels with the real-life events of 1803 (and others in the years following), reinforce the galvanic element of Frankenstein’s science.
What do you think of the science in Frankenstein? Let me know in the comments below!