To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s influential novel, we take a look at the real-life scientists who tried to make the story a reality.
In 1818, Mary Shelley changed the landscape of horror and science fiction forever with her influential novel, “Frankenstein.” The story, which tells the tale of a scientist who creates a grotesque creature from dead body parts, has been retold more times than we’ll ever know throughout the years. In fact, it’s arguably the most recycled myth in all of scary and fantastical fiction. And like all good myths, the concept has some basis in reality.
Shelley’s “Frankenstein” lore was inspired by a myriad of things. For instance, the name “Frankenstein” was the taken from the castle where Johann Conrad Dippel was born — a controversial alchemist and theologian who served as the ideal prototype for the mad scientist archetype the novel gave birth to. He was also an alleged grave robber who believed that corpse parts were the key to immortality. He’s dead now.
Dippel’s experiments may not have granted him immortality, but the work of 18th and 19th scientists fascinated with restoring life to dead things did produce enough evidence to instill the notion that the ideas in Shelley’s novel perhaps weren’t so far-fetched after all.
In 1751, England passed the Murder Act, which allowed the bodies of executed killers to be used for scientific tests. It was only a matter of time before scientists (even though they weren’t called “scientists” at the time) tried to play God. This all started in 1780 when Italian professor Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make the muscles of a dead frog twitch by jolting the poor thing with electricity. After years of performing similar experiments on animals, scientists turned their attention to humans.
On January 1st, 1803, the accused killer George Forster was executed for the murder of his wife and daughter. Immediately after the execution, his corpse was taken to a nearby house and experimented on by the Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini. That’s when things started to get interesting.
The experiments carried out by Aldini were to determine whether the galvanization process — or the contraction of a muscle stimulated with an electric current — could be used as an auxiliary for medical purposes. It was never his intention to raise the dead and turn the zombified corpse of a possible murderer on the loose to do his evil bidding. To accomplish this, Aldini induced convulsions in the body’s cadaver by attaching electrodes which were powerful enough to cause movements which made the corpse appear to come to life. For example, the facial convulsions were so powerful that it caused one of the corpse’s eyes to open, while rectum experiments caused it to sit up.
While Aldini’s experiment didn’t bring the dead back to life, it did capture the public’s imagination and helped inspire the creation of Shelley’s novel 15 years later. However, it wasn’t the last time similar practices were performed on the dead bodies of murderers by any means.
Eight months after “Frankenstein” was published, professors Andrew Ure and James Jeffray from Glasgow, Scotland conducted a series of experiments on Matthew Clydesdale, who was hanged for the murder of an 80-year-old man. Unlike Aldini, though, Ure and Jeffray were keen to find out whether the dead could be brought back to life. So, using a galvanic battery, they applied some voltage to the dead body and horror unfolded.
City local Peter Mackenzie claimed to have been present that day, and according to a report published in his 1865 book “Reminiscences of Glasgow and the West of Scotland”, things turned eventful and rather violent.
”A light air tube, connected with the galvanic battery, was placed in one of his nostrils . . . His chest immediately heaved! – he drew breath . . . his eyes opened widely – apparently in astonishment; he did positively rise . . . and stood upright . . . his neck had not been dislocated on the gibbet, and he had now actually come to life again through the extraordinary operation of that galvanic battery! . . . some students screamed out . . . a few fainted on the spot; others clapped their hands! The professor . . . pulled our his unerring lancet and plunged it into the jugular vein of the culprit, who instantly fell . . . like a slaughtered ox on the blow of the butcher!”
Ure’s own recollection, meanwhile, was far less dramatic and probably more accurate. Writing about the events afterward, he recalled how the corpse performed “the movements of breathing by stimulating the phrenic nerve and the diaphragm.” Additionally, when the body’s supraorbital nerve was excited, it caused the killer’s face to display a range of emotions such as “rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles.” Not once did he claim that he resurrected the body, which makes his tale far less exciting than Mackenzie’s, but you can see why it caused attendees to overreact.
Experiments of this ilk died down after this due to the public’s perception of them being evil, but the idea of resurrection through such methods was implanted in the social imagination and forever embraced by pop culture.
Perhaps the timing of the release of Shelley’s novel and Ure and Jeffray’s experiments were coincidental. The idea of bringing the dead things back to life had been planted in the minds of scientists before this after all. All I know is that one day science will advance to the point where the dead will be resuscitated permanently. (The wheels are in motion as we speak). When that day comes and our flesh is consumed by re-animated corpses, may God save our souls.