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!

DISCOVER: Why were the bodies of crusaders de-fleshed in the Middle Ages?

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!

DISCOVER: An urban gang that terrorised Georgian London

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.

London hated the French long before Brexit

If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!

Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.

FIND OUT MORE: The urban gang that terrorised Georgian London

London abuse against the French long before Brexit

There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!

British and French

The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).

At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.

He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.

The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists.

If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!

Dog dung used to make books look good!

Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.

And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!

The people who collected dog dung for books

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.

That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

READ THIS STORY: The 18th century transgender diplomat who caused a scandal

Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.

So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

Getting dog dung for books was good business

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

Victorian slang for beginners!

Have you ever wanted to talk like a Victorian Londoner – not a posh one, but a street kid with plenty of 19th century attitude? Maybe a character in a Charles Dickens novel like the Artful Dodger? Here is the guide to Victorian slang!

Now let’s talk Victorian slang!

Well, I’m now going to teach you how to talk like a London urchin circa 1851. I’m using various sources but Mayhew’s London published that year is where I’ve picked up most of the terrible language that follows!

If I said you were flatch kanurd – I’d have meant you were half-drunk. I might also add that you’re kennetseeno – which means stinking, but it was a word normally applied to rotten fish. There could be a police officer passing by and I’d tell you to cool the esclop (look at the policeman).

DISCOVER MORE: Victorians and Edwardians on film

“Cool the” or “Cool ta” seems to have been a way of saying “look at that” – so if I was getting you to stare at an old woman, I’d say: “Cool ta the dillo nemo”. Or just to say “look at him” would be “cool him”.

The word for NO was “On” and the word for YES was “Say” – that’s just reversing those words. Often saying words backwards or messing with the letter order was a way of talking to avoid being understood by the police or people outside your group.

If you were warning your mates that somebody was a bad sort, you’d call them a “regular trosseno”. They might then respond that they understood you – “tumble to your barrikin”.

FIND OUT MORE: Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Victorian slang terms for money

Expressions for money were:

Flatch = halfpenny (remember, flatch kanurd is half drunk)

Yenep = Penny (messing round with letter order there)

Exis Yenep = Sixpence

Couter – Sovereign (big gold coin)

Flatch ynork = Half-Crown

Then to conclude, I might say I’m on to the deb (I’m off to bed) or I was going to do the tightner (go to dinner).

During the Victorian period, Londoners soaked up Jewish expressions from new immigrants, foreign words they came across on the docks and made up stuff. London slang is still evolving today incorporating Jamaican, Bengali and words from other languages. I was told this week by a Londoner that I was “on fleek” – turns out I’m dressed well. Good to know.

Here is a young Londoner today teaching an American girl slang!

Victorian movies from the 19th century!

The idea of Victorian movies may seem weird – people in the 19th century able to watch films – and yet it actually happened!

We’ve grown up with TV and film so the idea of living in a world were there are no recorded motion pictures would seem bizarre – even more so with our smart phones and social media.

But up until the 1880s, film had never been experienced. There had been crude motion pictures using a series of slides projected on to a screen but movies were unknown. However, once the Victorians discovered the technology – there was no going back!

The dawn of Victorian movies!

Victorian movies became a staple of popular entertainment by the turn of the 20th century.

DISCOVER: Victorian slang for beginners!

Documentary and drama in primitive form developed pretty quickly. Many of the Victorian movies were purely observational – pointing a camera at people and just marvelling in the ability to capture them moving.

Here is a heap of footage of industrial workers leaving factories and mills at the turn of the 20th century, which I find fascinating. Note the youngsters who just stare at the camera as if they’re about to experience something.

London traffic seems to have mesmerised film makers with its hustle and bustle. As a Londoner myself, the presence of so many horses and what seems to be smog (fossil fuel pollution) is really striking.

Royalty got in the act and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was the subject of a very long film circulated around the empire. Here is Victoria attending a garden party. She loved being the obvious star of Victorian movies.

Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

It’s a strange question but…was Queen Victoria a drug addict? Well, the answer is she may not  have been amused – but she might have been flying high as a kite.

QUEEN VICTORIA DRUG ADDICT: Opium

The contents of Queen Victoria’s medicine cabinet are eyebrow raising to put it mildly. There was obviously opium, sold as a painkiller. But then we also find that Victorian favourite, Laudanum. This was a tonic consisting of opium dissolved in alcohol. One swig and one was ready to perform one’s public duties!

QUEEN VICTORIA DRUG ADDICT: Cocaine

To pep herself up, Her Majesty had chewing gum infused with cocaine. She was very fond of this treat. So much so that she even shared some Charlie laced chewies with a young Winston Churchill when he came to stay at Balmoral, her Scottish estate.

Marijuana for menstrual cramps

Menstrual cramps were eased with marijuana. How very forward looking!  It would be amusing to imagine Queen Victoria approving of those American states that have recently legalised dope for medicinal purposes. And as for labour pains during her many pregnancies, Victoria reached for the chloroform, which she said was “delightful beyond measure”.

DISCOVER: Dog dung used to make books look good

There is one claim, not proven at all, that she wrote an anonymous review in a newspaper for a popular drink called Vin Mariani. This concoction was a mix of alcohol and cocaine.

So – was Queen Victoria a drug addict? Well, we have to consider that the line between legal and illegal was more blurred in the 19th century. The stigma attached to cocaine today – and the criminal penalties – was largely absent. And morphine was viewed as a beneficial sedative – though clearly not taken to excess.

What did Victorians think of Jack the Ripper?

My study is bursting with books, newspapers and manuscripts going back over three hundred years. I’m a terrible hoarder!! And I’ve got a couple of Jack the Ripper related publications from the 1880s that tell us what Victorians thought about this serial killer in their midst.

The first is a bound volume of Punch magazines from 1888. This was a satirical publication that tickled the Victorian sense of humour and pioneered the use of cartoons. The year 1888 was when Jack the Ripper began his killing spree. And Punch spared no punches when it came to this story.

Here I am reading Punch and below – let me share the cartoons and the clues they give us to what the Victorians made of this ghoulish man!

The first cartoon was entitled The Nemesis of Neglect. It’s an incredibly haunting image of a spectre rising out of the stinking gloom of the capital. It was drawn by John Tenniel – who was the first illustrator of the children’s novel Alice in Wonderland. So this was a bit of a departure from rabbits and Red Queens!

What this illustrator does is link vicious crime like that of Jack the Ripper to the appalling neglect of the London slums by the authorities. Victorians knew that the London poor were living in squalid conditions. Authors like Charles Dickens exposed the poverty repeatedly. In this cartoon, the Ripper – and other violent murderers – are described as “a phantom on the slum’s foul air”.

Other Victorians mocked the inability of the police to get to grips with Jack the Ripper and other crimes. So in the same volume of Punch magazines, we have criminals playing blind man’s buff with a blindfolded police officer.

DISCOVER: Galvanism – the Frankenstein science!

The inference being that the real life cops are incompetent buffoons operating in the dark.

Jack the Ripper

I also have a copy of The Times newspaper from that year that includes a complaining letter from a vicar. His vicarage had been burgled and he thunders that if the police hadn’t been wasting so much time on the “Whitechapel Murders” – as they were called – his property might have been better protected.

Two years before Jack the Ripper terrorised the Victorians – the author Robert Louis Stevenson published his hugely successful horror novel, the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the story, a respectable doctor is transformed into a killing monster by drinking a potion.

A theatrical version of the book was scripted and first performed in Boston – in the United States. It then crossed the Atlantic but with terrible timing, the play opened exactly at the same time that Jack the Ripper committed his first murders.

While Victorians flocked to see the play – they also professed to be horrified by the poor taste of staging it. So much so that the producer even found himself suspected of being Jack the Ripper. At which point, he closed the production down after ten weeks.

But it fixed in the minds of Victorians the notion of Jack the Ripper possibly being a society gentleman who had gone off the rails – and unable to control his basest passions was slaughtering working class women in the East End of London.

This line of thought about the true identity of Jack the Ripper touched every raw nerve of the Victorians with regards to class and sex. And it’s persisted to the present day.