(In our last installment, we studied galvanism and the practice of electrocuting tiny adorable frogs. This week we’re electrocuting dead people. Enjoy!)
The date is the 18th of January, 1803. The place: the Royal College of Surgeons, London. Giovanni Aldini prepares to demonstrate a curious new science on the body of the convicted murderer George Forster.
Below follows the true account of that gruesome demonstration:
The crowd is hushed, the auditorium almost completely quiet, packed to the brim as it is with expectant scientists, physicians and other attendants. The only sounds are the clicking noises of equipment and the nervous, muted whispers of the observing audience.
In the center pit of the medical arena lies the unclothed body of a convicted murderer, George Forster, cut down from the gallows not two hours prior. His pallid, mottled skin seems to glow in the amber lamp-light. Around the surgical slab walks a doctor, well-manicured and garbed in a fine suit, making adjustments to a curious arrangement of equipment that stands close by. Wires protrude from every angle. Metal plates stacked in a cylinder of brass bars are like nothing anyone has ever seen, save viewed as illustrations on recently published, almost unbelievable medical papers.
The doctor leans over the body and casually dampens the ears with a brine solution. The machine is primed. Taking the curved metal contacts attached to the machine, he again approaches the body.
The contacts are applied to the executed man’s temples, held in place with a leather strap, and the doctor prepares to connect the two pieces of copper; a simple switch. The crowd holds their breath. Giovanni Aldini, the doctor, looks up at them, a slight smile curving his lips, enjoying the moment of palpable tension. He is, as ever, the showman.
“Signores,” he says in a rich Italian accent. “I present to you, the power of galvanism.“
The switch is closed, the circuit complete. Instantly, the man on the slab is reanimated, the face quivering dramatically, the muscles contracting and releasing, causing grimaces, twitches, expressions of surprise, sorrow and anger. There are gasps from the crowd; doctors, veterans of the medical arts, years in the presence of the living and the dead, are aghast and alarmed, shocked by the vision of horror before them. No-one has ever seen the like before.
Aldini appears unconcerned with the reactions of his audience, and releases the switch. At once, the man’s features return to the serenity of death.
The electrical contacts are now relocated, one atop the temple, one below the chin.
“My dear doctors, what we witness here is the power of animal electricity, that is, the innate energy that flows within every living thing, discovered by my late uncle, the great genius Luigi Galvani. Please, observe once again.”
The switch is again closed and the silent power re-ignites the facial features of the corpse into a flurry of alarming visages: the mouth hanging open, tongue lolling, the lips open then pursed and tight. How alive and vibrant the human face can be, we realize, and when dead, there is the contrasting utter stillness. This, however, is a parody of both life and death, of a purgatory of middle-existence, a mockery of either state.
As Aldini moves to disengage the switch, he is halted by a further unexpected spasm of his victim’s features. The eyelids appear to twitch and shiver.
Is the man alive? Has the impossible been achieved?
Another gasp from the crowd. Hands go to mouths in fright as a single eyelid flickers and then snaps open, the lifeless orb beneath twitching side to side, searching, as if seeking blame for this affront. The corpses fist clenches and releases, seeming to rail against the very injustice of a return from death to life.
Louder exclamations ensue, some of the audience stands, cries out.
“Sir! You must desist!”
“Stop this barbarism!”
Aldini opens the connection, and the body becomes still. The eye however, remains open. Aldini remedies this with a flick of his hand over the mans face. He waits for the crowd to settle.
Albeit with a firm grasp of English, the Italian speaks slowly to compensate for his thick accent, perhaps also to add further dramatic tone to his performance.
“My colleagues, I must ask for your patience, the most curious demonstration is yet to be seen. Please, signores, my friends, be seated.”
He motions to his assistant, who nervously approaches, helping the Aldini shift the body. Several doctors standing around the periphery exchange glances, unsure of what is to come, wondering whether to allow it.
If they oppose, it is a silent complaint; they remain silent. Aldini is permitted to continue.
The naked body is turned on its side. Aldini changes out the metal contacts for an iron rod, which he holds with a glove. There is again silence in the auditorium as Aldini, with the calmness of an experienced surgeon, inserts the rod into the man’s rectum, and lowers the body back down. Physicians in the crowd, learned men, shake their head. Criminal, the corpse might have been, but to heap further disgrace on any lowly human frame – it is too much.
Curiosity yet again overrules scruples however, and the crowd remains silent. The switch is closed once again.
Aldini’s ‘patient’ writhes silently on the surgical slab. The muscles of the hands and arms clench and flex, the stomach flutters and spasms. The legs move, the bare thighs frenetically slapping against the table, a grotesque dance, a ballet-rite of the power coursing through the dead man’s body. The face yet moves, seeming to scream in mute protest. The arm punches suddenly upwards into the air with a violent jab.
The crowd responds in rising gasps and muttered dismay.
“Full, muscular movement can be achieved, gentlemen, with the proper application of current.” He struggles to be heard above the rising din. “Perhaps even a recollection, a remembrance of former motor functions” The fist of the victim is pried open with difficulty, a coin is placed within. He nods to his assistant, by now white-faced and staring, almost imploring Aldini to cease. Aldini merely requests that the second voltaic stack be attached, and with this act, the most dramatic posthumous action of all: the dead man raises his fist, pulls back and pitches the coin across the pit. It pings against a metal surgical bowl and falls to the floor.
The switch is pulled, the current ceases. A doctor standing close by, faints.
Aldini stands and faces his stunned, transfixed audience, wiping his hands on a rag. “Today, Gentlemen. Today you have witnessed the power of galvanism upon the human body. I thank you for your time.”
What were the cause of the mysterious energies inflicted on George Forster, even after death? Who was Aldini, and how did he come to perform such grotesque experiments in the most prestigious surgical academies of Europe? Find out in our next installment…
(This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on March 11 2015)