1818: Matthew Clydesdale, galvanic subject

On this date in 1818, murderer Matthew Clydesdale was publicly hanged at Glasgow’s High Court building, along with a habitual burglar named Simon Ross.*

This was the city’s first hanging in a decade and accordingly drew a throng of gawkers.

But they weren’t there only to mete out justice to the killer of elderly Alexander Love: there as another attraction, too. Ross, the small-timer, was done for after his hanging and buried away unceremoniously.

But Clydesdale’s body “was put into a coffin, and was forthwith conveyed, for the purpose of dissection, to the Professor of Anatomy. The cart was followed by a large portion of the crowd.” (London Times, Nov. 11, 1818)

Before a mob of rubbernecking — sometimes fainting — onlookers, the flesh that had lately belonged to Matthew Clydesdale was subjected to the fashionable and creepy science of galvanism.

Andrew Ure and James Jeffray hooked up a galvanic battery and for an hour excited the corpse with various electrically-charged proddings. Ure, at least, dreamt of the hypothesis that the right jolt to the right spot might in principle achieve a Frankenstein-like reanimation.

We are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first … life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science.

I mean, you’d have to think it would at least be good enough for tenure.

Regrettably failing in this honourable endeavor, the gentlemen of science did make such grisly sport with their subject as to strike awe and terror into the astonished crowd.

every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements … the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension …

Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage, horror, despair, anguish,and ghastly smiles united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face …

When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger, the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.

* Two others condemned for the same date’s harvest of souls — James Boyd (housebreaking) and Margaret Kennedy (passing forged notes) — were reprieved.