On this date in 1818, Andrew Jackson had two Creek leaders summarily hanged in Florida.
The Creek in the American Southeast were a longtime thorn in the side of the young United States, and Andrew Jackson personally; Old Hickory was one of the chief American commanders in the Creek War several years before, a sort of subplot of the War of 1812 with Creek throughout the Gulf Coast aligning themselves with the British against American colonists.
One source of inspiration: the mighty Tecumseh, who assembled an ambitious native Confederacy to check Europeans’ advance. Although centered in the Great Lakes area, Tecumseh’s defeated vision was very broad, and he made a diplomatic visit to the American South seeking to bring the major tribes of that region into his alliance. Some Creeks saw a lot to like about Tecumseh’s line; they would become known as Red Sticks, for they raised the symbolic “red stick of war” against the whites, and announced it by massacring the entire population (about 500 souls) of Fort Mims, in Alabama.
Further south, in Florida, the Creek prophet Josiah Francis* was likewise stirred by Tecumseh; two days after Fort Mims, he led an attack on Fort Sinquefield that saw a dozen women and children killed and scalped. General Jackson suppressed that rising, forcing upon the Creek a victor’s peace that pushed that nation off 23 million acres in an L-shaped swath comprising much of Alabama and southern Georgia.** Jackson earned his nickname “Old Hickory” in this campaign, by conquering the Creek Hickory Ground.
Josiah Francis was among the many Red Sticks who took refuge in Spanish Florida after this defeat, but they could read a map like anyone else and understood that their respite from settlers would not last long here. Francis made a fascinating sojourn to England in 1815 where he vainly sought crown recognition of the Creek as British subjects, as a deterrent against Yankee aggression. Unsuccessful in his primary objective, Red Sticks returned carrying a ceremonial commission as a brigadier general. (The British Museum still has some of his kit in its possession to this day.) He did not have long to wait before tensions between whites and Creeks ignited the First Seminole War.†
As the clinching maneuver of this conflict — an act that would ultimately force Spain to cede Florida to the United States — the future U.S. president grossly exceeded the authority granted him by Washington to up and invade the Florida Panhandle with 3,000 men. They arrived at Fort St. Mark’s on April 6, there capturing two British subjects whom Jackson designated for an illegal court martial that would eventually hang them. But even this much due process was more than Creeks could expect.
An American warship had sauntered up to St. Mark’s ahead of its conflict, disguising its purpose by flying the British Union Jack and successfully extending the bluff to a Spanish officer who rowed out to greet them. Josiah Francis and another chieftain named Homathlemico or Homollimico, lurking in the bush nearby the conquered settlement, grabbed a canoe and rowed themselves out to these fortuitous allies only to find himself instantly made a prisoner. Jackson exulted in the duplicitous capture in an April 8 note to his wife: “Capt McKeever who coperated [sic] with me, was fortunate enough to capture on board his flotilla, the noted Francis the prophet, and Homollimicko, who visited him from St marks as a British vessell [sic] the Capt having the British colours flying, they supposed him part of Woodbines Fleet from new providence coming to their aid, these were hung this morning.”
† During this war, Josiah Francis’s daughter, Milly Francis, became famous throughout the continent as the “Creek Pocahontas” — literally doing what Pocahontas had done, talking her people off executing a captured white man named Duncan McCrimmon. Francis declined McCrimmon’s grateful offer of marriage, but let it not be said that an American soldier does not know how to return a boon: it was McCrimmon who set up the pivotal events of this post by tipping General Jackson to the presence somewhere nearby of his benefactress’s father. Milly presumably witnessed her father’s execution; she wound up deported to Oklahoma like much of the region’s Native American populace.
We ask you how the Muscogee Nation came by this country? You came from the west and took the country from another people who were in possession. After living here a great many years, the people from over the big waters came in large vessels and took some of the country from you and set up their own government, and made laws, & made you obey them …
you must be sensible that it will be impossible for you to remain, for any length of time, in your present situation, as a distinct society or nation, within the limits of Georgia, or any other State. Such a community is incompatible with our system, and must yield to it. This truth is too striking and obvious not to be seen by all of you, surrounded as you are by the people of the several States. You must either cease to be a distinct community, and become, at no distant period, a part of the State within whose limits you are, or remove beyond the limits of any State …
Brothers, we now tell you, what we, in the name of your Father the President, want you to do. We want the country you now occupy. It is within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. These States insist upon having their lines cleared. The President will do this by giving you a better country, and will aid you in removing; protect you where you may go, against whites and all others, and give you a solemn guaranty in the title and occupancy of the new country which you may select … By deciding for yourselves, it may prevent others from deciding for you.
Brothers, you have been deceived. A snake has been coiled in the shade, and you are running into his mouth … drunk with the fire of the pale-face. Brothers, the hunting grounds of our fathers have been stolen by our chief and sold to the pale-face, whose gold is in his pouch. Brothers, our grounds are gone, and the plow of the pale-face will soon upturn the bones of our fathers. Brothers, are you tame? Will you submit?
Jackson himself had tangled with the Creek during his career-making appearance as America’s up-and-coming caudillo in the War of 1812: the eponymous Fort Jackson in Alabama was the base from which the Tennessee militia captain had defeated rebellious natives in the 1813-1814 Creek War and forced upon them the Treaty of Fort Jackson.* “Numberless aggressions,” read that document, “had been committed [by the Creeks] against the peace, the property, and the lives of citizens of the United States.”
So small wonder that as President, Old Hickory — for whom Indian Removal was a signature policy — had no time for Creek appeals to Washington to uphold their treaty rights in Alabama and Georgia. Their defeat in 1814 had left the Creek polity a powerless dependency, whose rights and even survival extended precisely so far as the American government wished. With the shrunken remnant** of their ancestral lands increasingly sought by white settlers, all the pressure within Anglo America ran towards the ethnic cleansing option.
“Voluntary” emigration under steady white pressure gnawed away at Creek numbers in the Southeast for a decade or more preceding the events of this post, but there was always going to be a militant slice of the population for whom no inducement short of violence would suffice. In 1836, land incursions finally triggered a Creek revolt, and became the Second Creek War — Jackson’s justification at last for completing the long-sought elimination of the Creek in the East.†
“The Creek Indians, below the Federal Road, are all in arms and killing every white person they have fallen in with,” ran the May 12, 1836 Macon Messenger. Everything was in “confusion and disarray” — the fleeting advantage of initiative while Anglos mustered an overwhelming response.
Attacks on stagecoaches this same month “created a greater sensation throughout the country than any previous act of Indian hostility,” per this public domain history of Columbus, Ga. (The town abuts the Alabama border.)
Two stages carrying the United States mail, going from Columbus to Tuskegee, Ala., were attacked about eighteen miles from Columbus. The Indians killed Mr. Green, one of the drivers, and two horses, and robbed the mail. The next day a party of fifteen men started to come through to Columbus with two stages. Some of these men were passengers and others volunteers who accompanied the stages to assist in their protection.
It was for this raid that claimed Green’s life that Tuscoona Fixico and four others — never named in any source I have been able to find — were condemned to hang on Nov. 25, alongside a man named Chilancha for the unrelated killing of a man named Fannin during the uprising.
The Second Creek War went much the same way as the first, and proved those American diplomats prescient as to the inevitability of the conquered peoples’ fate. Today, the Poarch Creek — numbering barely 2,000 — are the only remaining band of Muscogee Creek in Alabama.
** In one vain bid to stanch the loss of Creek territory, the tribe — incensed by the Treaty of Indian Springs — had in 1821 enacted capital punishment for anyone who sold land to whites. It was on the strength of this statute that Creek assassins murdered/executed the collaborationist chief William McIntosh in 1825.
On this date in 1834, the Cherokee James Graves was hanged in Spring Place, Georgia, for murder. He’s the only person ever executed in Georgia’s Murray County.
But he was also a sad waymarker on the way to a much larger tragedy.
It happened that in 1834 the state of Georgia’s long-simmering conflict with the indigenous Cherokee nation was coming to a nasty head. In the infancy of the American Republic, it had made a pact placing the Cherokee under the protection of the United States.
By the 1820s, however, Cherokee land had been nibbled away and the white citizens of Georgia started clamoring for a proper ethnic cleansing: forcibly expelling the Cherokee to the western frontier.
The immediate territorial conflict became joined to a conflict over federal jurisdiction, because the Cherokee had their treaty with the United States (not with Georgia) and its terms were supposed to be guaranteed by Washington (not Milledgeville). As the Georgia legislature enacted laws stripping the Cherokee of land and self-rule, the Cherokee appealed in federal courts.
The Cherokee notched a major win in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Indian affairs were the domain of the federal government and individual states had nothing to say in the matter.
But to give a sense of where the wind was blowing, this is the very decision about which U.S. President (and notorious Indian-killer) Andrew Jackson is supposed to have remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” The quote itself is probably apocryphal but the atmosphere of lawless confrontation was very real indeed.
James Graves was convicted by a Georgia jury in September 1834 of murdering a white man several years prior on Indian land … or rather, on what Georgia said was now no longer Indian land.
The Supreme Court directed Georgia to stay the hanging and appear at a January 1835 hearing.
Governor William Lumpkin* would have none of it. Grandstanding in a communique to an all but universally supportive legislature, he vowed to ignore the court’s order.
Any attempt to infringe the evident rights of the State, to govern its entire population, of whatever complexion, and punish all offences committed against its laws within those limits … I consider a direct usurpation of power. … Such attempts demand the determined resistance of the States … I shall wholly disregard all such unconstitutional requisitions, of whatever character or origin, and, to the utmost of my power, protect and defend the rights of the State, and use the means afforded me to maintain the laws and Constitution of the same. (Nov. 7, 1834)
Two weeks later, Georgia hung James Graves, stay or no stay. There would be no hearing in Washington that January.
“What is to be done with Georgia?” lamented the Nantucket Inquirer (Dec. 13, 1834). “Will another presidential proclamation, full of big words and bombastic threats, be issued against her, for having nullified the U.S. claim of sovereignty over the Indians, and for having hanged the copper-skinned citizen Graves, in defiance of the interdict of one of Gen. Jackson’s judges?”
* Lumpkin County, Georgia is named for him. That’s not too shabby, but he almost hit big-time when the city of Terminus proposed to rename itself Lumpkin. Lumpkin declined and the city is today known as Atlanta.
** Georgia conducted another execution, that of George Tassels, under similarly contested circumstances a few years before Graves.
If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.
This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.
One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.
Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*
At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.
Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.
Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.
After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.
These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.
On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.
After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.
As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)
So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.
But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.
Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.
Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.
Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)
Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.
Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**
I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …
The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.
Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.
The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.
it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.
Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.
Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.
* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.
** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.
The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.
We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.
Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.
General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.
On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.
Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*
Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.
After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.
The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.
One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.
A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.
The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.
The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.
As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 12, 1835.
The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.
De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.
* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.
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.
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.