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Re-animating a Murderer: The Corpse Experiment that Inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Cartoon of a galvanized corpse from the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.  Image credit: Wikipedia.

Cartoon of a galvanized corpse from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Image credit: Wikipedia.

George Forster was hanged at Newgate Prison on January 18, 1803 for murdering his wife and daughter.  After the execution, Forster’s (also spelled Foster in The Newgate Calendar) body was carried to a nearby house so that Giovanni Aldini (April 10, 1762 – January 17, 1834), an Italian physicist and professor at the University of Bologna, could conduct a gruesome experiment that many believe inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“Galvanic” electrodes applied to a frog’s legs. From The science of common things: a familiar explanation of the first principles of physical science. For schools, families, and young students. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Aldini’s work was greatly inspired by his uncle Luigi Galvani (September 9, 1737 – December 4, 1798).  Galvani’s experiments on the nerves and legs of frogs helped him to establish a link between electricity and muscle movement.  He used the term ‘animal electricity‘ to describe the electrical force that originated in the brain and flowed through the nerves to set muscles of his specimens in motion. Because of Galvani’s pioneering work, the study of the effects of electricity on organisms became known as galvanism. Doctors would go on to treat various medical ailments, like epilepsy and paralysis, with electricity. Today, the study of electricity produced by the body is known as electricophysiology.

From what I can tell, Galvani only tested his hypotheses on animals and never got the opportunity to experiment with a human corpse.  But his nephew, Giovanni Aldini, was able to demonstrate the effects of electricity on the human body during a particularly macabre experiment on George Forster’s corpse.

Forster was indicted for the murder of his wife and daughter on January 14, 1803.  Forster’s wife and daughter were last seen alive with him at the Mitre Tavern in London near the Paddington Canal a few weeks previous on December 5th.  The bodies of his wife and daughter were pulled from the canal a few days later.  A jury eventually found Forster guilty of the crime and sentenced him to death.

On January 18, 1803 Forster was hanged and his corpse was brought to a nearby house where Aldini performed a galvanic demonstration in front of an audience made up of surgeons

Aldini built a device for his experiments that consisted of conducting rods and a battery.  He applied the conducting rods to different parts of the body from head to tail.   The experiment was described in an 1887 issue of The Newgate Calendar, a monthly publication that contained descriptions of executions at Newgate Prison.

“M. Aldini, who was the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, showed the powers of Galvanism to be far superior to those of any other stimulant.  On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye actually opened.  In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr. Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, being officially present during the time of the extraordinary experiments, was so alarmed, that on his going home he died that night.”

The work of Galvani and Aldini contributed to the understanding of the relationship between physiology and electrical currents.  Many researchers agree that by the time novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote the famous gothic novel Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus in 1816, she would have heard about Aldini’s infamous corpse experiment and used it as inspiration for the method that Frankenstein used to animate his monster.


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