Criminal brought back to life by Galvanic methods

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life in an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – using Galvanism!

Bringing the dead back to life

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have seen Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall. This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access. It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

The Surgeon’s Hall in the Old Bailey – closed in 1809

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death. The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London
Luigi Galvani – and some frogs’ legs!

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

The mysterious Mummy in the City of London

Mummy St James's
No longer on display – the Mummy of St James’s on Garlick Hill

The church of St James’s on Garlick Hill in the City of London has a little secret that’s not put on display anymore. It’s a mummified body that used to be a key attraction.

In a 1937 guide to London, there’s a photo of what’s claimed to be a medieval body. It was discovered in 1839 when the vaults were finally being closed up. The dead man was in almost perfect preservation but had lost all of his hair. A choir boy in the 1880s claimed that the other boys would take it for a run round the church before putting it back in its case!

More recent research suggests that the body was not medieval but dated from between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century. The church website doesn’t mention the mummy and it’s no longer put on view. However, it’s still there – somewhere. So if you’re ¬†passing by this church – you might want to pop in and ask if you can see Mummy!

Aristocratic thugs disrupt the funeral of the poet Dryden

John Dryden was one of England’s greatest poets and he lived at 43 Gerrard Street, in the west of London, with his beloved wife Lady Elizabeth Howard. In the year 1700, he passed away.

Something of a relief to him as he had such appalling gout that he was in constant pain and his servants had to carry him round everywhere. Dryden was determined not to have his leg cut off – death would be preferable he said. When a black spot was found on the offending leg, he announced that “mortification had commenced”.

John Dryden
Dryden – with both legs attached but about to have a really bad funeral

On the 1st May, with both legs still attached, Dryden passed away. Eighteen mourning coaches were assembled to take the great man’s carcass to Westminster Abbey.

But as his tearful widow came down with the coffin, she was confronted by a gang of very drunk, aristocratic young men.

They were led by the son of the notorious seventeenth century hanger and flogger – Judge Jeffreys. “The Hanging Judge” had presided over the so-called Bloody Assizes and seemed to take a great deal of pleasure consigning those before his courts to the hangman’s rope. His son seemed to have inherited Dad’s volatile and vicious traits – as poor Lady Howard was about to find out.

Jeffreys junior was leading a gang of what were referred to in the eighteenth century as “mohocks”. These were wild youths with few morals who delighted in sadistic attacks on innocent folk. The very drunk Jeffreys loomed over Lady Elizabeth in her bedroom, where he and his mates had now rushed in, and told the terrified woman that her late husband deserved a better funeral, which he would personally arrange. In fact, he would spend ¬£1,000 (a vast sum) erecting a monument in Westminster Abbey. Despite her protests, Jeffreys rushed into the street and said she’d agreed. He then whisked Dryden’s body off to an undertaker in Cheapside.

Meanwhile in Westminster Abbey, the bishop and others were waiting to perform the poet’s funeral service. They would be waiting for a long time. Because as Jeffreys sobered up, he lost interest in this project and the body was left lying around for about three weeks. When asked what to do with Dryden’s decaying corpse, Jeffreys just denied having anything to do with it.

Eventually, it was popped into the ground. So furious was Dryden’s son Charles that he repeatedly tried to challenge Jeffreys to a duel but the king of the mohocks studiously avoided him for the next three years – until Charles obligingly drowned in the river Thames.

Gerrard Street is now at the centre of London’s Chinatown. But use your eyes – those buildings with neon Chinese restaurant signs are often Georgian. Some of them still have inscriptions giving the date of their construction in the eighteenth century. You have to imagine Lisle Street, Rupert Street and Gerrard Street as well-to-do residential quarters. And see if you can picture in your mind the strange scene that unfolded there in 1700.