Originally published April 2011.
In 1818 in the anatomy room of the University of Scotland was host to and audience about to watch an extraordinary experiment. The body of the freshly executed “murderer himself was then lifted and placed in a sitting posture in an easy chair directly looking in front of the audience“
When the electric charge was applied “His chest immediately heaved! he drew breath!? a few other operations went swiftly on, which we really cannot very well describe; but at last the tongue of the murderer moved out to his lips; his eyes also opened widely – he stared, apparently in astonishment, around him; while his head, arms and legs? actually moved; and we declare he made a feeble attempt to rise from it in a moment or two afterwards, and stood upright? At this sudden, startling and most unexpected sight, some of the students screamed out with horror, not a few of them fainted on the spot; others of a sterner class clapped their hands as if in exultation at the triumph of the galvanic battery!”
-Or so the lurid tale was told by a journalist of the time. Rumors circulated around Glasgow that the corpse had walked and talked, accused the re-animators in a hollow voice of doing the devil’s work, and finally had to be beheaded with a specially blessed sword that was kept on hand -just in case.
Although obviously exaggerated, the actual events still could have been something written by Shelley or Lovecraft. Andrew Ure was a Scottish “polymath”, or Renaissance man. His primary expertise was as a doctor and chemist, but he gave popular public lectures to the intelligentsia of Glasgow on subjects such as astronomy, hydrodynamics, hydrostatics, acoustics, pneumatics, musical sounds and electricity. He believed science and “philosophy stripped of its forbidding airs, of its cumbrous and fantastic trappings should be rendered accessible to either sex and to every rank in society“
This almost makes him sound like a 19th century Carl Sagan making science accessible to the public, but “every rank in society” probably did not include the true working class. He was a extremely conservative Presbyterian. He firmly believed in creation by the divine, approved of child labor, a strict free market economy, and opposed trade unions. Even Karl Marx described Andrew Ure as “an enemy of society” for his defense of the brutal factory system against “increasing attacks of the progressive humanitarian conscience.”
Of course, this was a time in Scotland when the only legal access to corpses for medical dissection was the bodies of executed criminals. (Just ten years later Scotland would see the arrest of Burke and Hare who murdered 17 people to supply the needs of students from Edinburgh Medical College) When Matthew Clydesdale, a miner was convicted of murder Andrew Ure petitioned to use his cadaver for a serious of electrical experiments using a large galvanic battery made of 270 pairs of zinc and copper discs 4 inches in diameter.
The experiments consisted of making incisions in various locations on the corpse and then applying wires from the battery to exposed nerves. It was when they applied one wire above an eyebrow, and the other to the foot that the muscles of the face were contorted in to a range of ghastly expressions. This caused several spectators to leave the room in horror or sickness and caused one man to faint. But scholars now and then agree the most interesting effect was when they applied one wire to a nerve in the left shoulder and the second under the seventh rib.
“-Full, nay laborious breathing instantly commenced. The chest heaved and fell; the belly was protruded and again collapsed, with the relaxing and retiring of the diaphragm. This process was continued as long as I continued the electric charges.“
Perhaps pre-imagining something like the modern cardiac defibrillator used to restart the hearts of emergency patients, Andrew Ure speculated that “by electrifying the phrenic nerve? there is a possibility that life might have been restored” if the other incisions had not damaged the corpse’s spine and drained a considerable amount of blood.
As for any actual connection to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shelley actually started writing her story in 1816, and it was first published the same year as Ure’s experiment, so they seem to be inspired independently of each other due to the growing interest in electricity or “galvanism.”