It’s not too often that a typical convicted murderer becomes a source for not just law, but also literature and science. George Foster (sometimes spelled George Forster despite few, if any, contemporaneous spellings as such) managed just that on this date in 1803, and his legacy lives on to this day.
Foster’s case was, in the annals of capital punishment, unremarkable.
He was accused in the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal, one of the many canals being improved at the time to connect various parts of England by water. Foster was found guilty based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang at Newgate Prison on 18 Jan 1803.
Shortly after 8 a.m., Foster was executed; minutes later, he was a science experiment.
Professor Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of biological electricity guru Luigi Galvani, and he wanted to electrify a body. Galvani had shown that frog legs responded to electricity, twitching when current was passed through the muscle, and he was in academic competition with his associate and sometime dissident Alessandro Volta over why this occurred. Galvani claimed that an electrical fluid flowed through the corpse, activating the muscles; Volta said that the cells passed electrical signals between one another. It was this latter assertion that led to the development of Volt’s first battery, a voltaic pile.* Aldini was convinced that his uncle was right about electrical fluid, but he was keen on Volta’s ideas for creating portable electricity.
His stated reason for delving into what was known as galvanic reanimation was to aid the recently drowned, who, he said, might be resuscitated. Galvani leaned on some earlier experience with beheaded victims in Bologna, as well as animal experiments, to convince British government agents of the viability of the plan. As one witness to those events stated:
A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature. In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to apply it at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.
Which is not to say it was really difficult to get permission.
Aldini’s experiments were a very public roadshow demonstration of Galvani’s ideas. London’s Royal College of Surgeons was, at that time, fascinated with the boundaries of life and death, and Aldini was more than happy to offer his services. As well, the 1751 (or 1752) Murder Act would not allow hanged criminals to be buried, and their corpses were often used for scientific discovery. Foster’s body, which had hung for an hour in slightly sub-zero temperatures, was the first complete corpse Aldini acted upon, but he wasn’t the first to get a chance.**
The Newgate Calendar summarizes the events:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was 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, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.
An illustration of Aldini’s experiments with executed corpses. His notes of George Foster record that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.” (cited in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters)
Aldini’s act was yet another public showcase of strange new technologies, this time sparking the imaginations of the Brits. Within a generation, Scottish experimenters were performing similar feats, and the College of Surgeons had, after further attempts similar to Aldini’s, revived the heart of another convicted murderer, John Bellingham. It was the first recorded heart shock revival in modern medical history.† (Even today’s scientists turn to electricity to instantiate life’s precursors in trying to solve the riddle of abiogenesis.)
But even more than that was the effect these results had on popular culture, where Mary Shelley, well aware of Aldini’s work (as well as that of Erasmus Darwin, a proponent of evolution well before the concept of “natural selection” was framed by his more famous grandson), used the idea of reanimation — such as was attempted on her husband’s first wife after she drowned — to inspire her signature characters, Victor Frankenstein and his “monster.”
As a cultural icon, Frankenstein did exceedingly well. Considered a true Gothic novel, the story was remade for stage as early as 1887, turned into a variety of films which were subsequently parodied (c.f. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Treehouse of Horror II”, The Re-Animator, etc.), retold on radio, brought up in song, and re-written in novels.
Galvanization was never mentioned directly in that book, but the studies at the College of Surgeons were clearly an inspiration. And galvanization transcended that book, striking a chord in the public imagination. It continued to pop up in publication for decades after the Aldini/Foster event, for instance in the 1836 illustration “A Galvanized Corpse”, in which the editor of the Washington Globe, Francis Preston Blair, is shown being “galvanized” by two demons, who represent the interests of Andrew Jackson.
* The Voltaic pile was originally used to disprove Galvani’s fluids theory. However, the two were largely non-adversarial, so Volta actively advanced Galvani’s name through the word “galvanism” and, by the time of Foster’s death, “galvanize.” The term “galvanized” metal refers to a conductive element coated with something non-conductive and dates from the late 1830s. Volta, of course, is the recognizable source of the the electrical potential unit of the “Volt.”
** Indeed, the College of Surgeons was receiving all hanging victims from London since 1752, and most were put through rigorous postmortems. Such scientific experimentation is also often blamed for the revival of Patrick Redmond in 1767, who received a windpipe incision following his hanging in Cork, Ireland; Redmond, however, was documented as hanging for just nine minutes, only slightly longer than the average person takes to die if deprived of oxygen.
† Those interested in the history of cardiology in general should take a look at Louis J. Acierno’s The History of Cardiology; those interested in the use of human remains in medical science should seek out Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories by Helen MacDonald.