Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

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Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

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A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London
Luigi Galvani – and some frogs’ legs!

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.

Homosexuality and the abuse of psychology

Homosexuality throughout history has been a matter of concealment, adapting or risking an open expression of your sexuality. In the last hundred years, it’s clashed head on with the relatively new science of psychology.

My parents both worked in psychiatric care in the 1960s and I recall a particular book they had about gay men called – The Homosexual Outlook. It was a classic work of post-war psychology that would be laughed at now – by most people.

That psychology tome on homosexuality had an unintentionally hilarious chapter titled On the gayest street in town and it detailed, as if describing the mating rituals of an animal species, how gay men hook up.

Two strangers approach each other gingerly and then one chap might say – ‘say fellow, have you got the time?’ Apparently, they would then analyse how the other person was holding their cigarette and on the basis of that decide whether to take things further!

Ironically, this 1953 psychology study was actually a defence of homosexuality – but you’d struggle to think so today. This was a time when American gay men were still firmly in the closet with a few heroic exceptions. And the world of psychiatry still treated same sex relationships as a disorder.

Early psychology and homosexuality

Go back another 50 years and you have the best selling work on psychiatry – Degeneration – by Max Nordau. He thought that human beings were gradually degenerating as a result of urbanisation.

Writing in the 1890s when Europe was enjoying a cultural and artistic boom, all Nordau could see was decadence and the destruction of human minds. And he saw the open display of homosexuality as a big part of the problem.

He had several targets and one of them was – Oscar Wilde. Nordau was particularly offended that Wilde had “walked down Pall Mall (an upmarket street in London) in the afternoon dressed in doublet and breeches with a picturesque biretta on his head and a sunflower in his hand”.

Nordau – speaking for many conservative chaps in the world of psychology – angrily dismissed this very visible expression of homosexuality as “anti-social ego mania”.

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Dressing up for the sake of it is mental illness!

In a rather curious abuse of psychology, Nordau attempts to argue that human dress is primarily about exciting the opposite sex in order to encourage procreation.

Because Wilde is dressing just to annoy people, he “evinces a perversion of the instinct of vanity”. Say that phrase with a Germanic accent and you capture the flavour of Nordau!

Psychology versus the homosexuality of Oscar Wilde

And he goes on: “Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime”. Nordau was particularly shocked that when Wilde was asked about the real-life murder of a woman called Helen Abercrombie, he blithely remarked: “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do – but she had very thick ankles”.

He puts this all down to Wilde’s uncontrolled ego and – in a more sinister observation – says that Wilde “is a pathological aberration of a racial instinct”.

Oscar Wilde – flamboyant or mentally ill?

In truth, Nordau wasn’t a great psychiatrist. In fact, he was a conservative snob and bigot who cloaked his prejudices in the upcoming science of psychology.

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But, incredibly, up until the 1960s, homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder with some linking it to narcissism and a dysfunctional ego. The American Psychiatric Association only voted in 1973 to de-classify same sex relationships as a mental illness.

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And incredibly, the World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from its ICD classification in 1992. ICD stands for “ego-dystonic sexual orientation”.

Nordau would have approved of that classification! But thankfully the world of psychology has mended its bridges these days with the reality of homosexuality.