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.

LGBT men hanged in London – in 1743

Attitudes towards LGBT people have changed over the centuries. Sometimes there have been periods of relative tolerance followed by extreme cruelty. The eighteenth century was incredibly camp when it came to fashion and manners but you could be hanged by the neck for being an active homosexual.

I know because two LGBT men were hanged for the crime of sodomy near where I live in the year 1743. They had basically cruised each other in central London and then been caught in the act.

LGBT men hanged for their sexuality

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people recorded in Iran in recent years.

But this was London – and barely 250 years ago. The scene of the execution was near Kennington Park pictured below in the mid-winter.

Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place

LGBT men hanged in public

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June that year.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay.

Who wouldn’t?

Men hanged for being LGBT in public

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter. As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him.

Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court.

Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now. A sad story of two gay men hanged for the crime of love.