Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

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 encountered 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.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

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!

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.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani (pictured below) 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.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

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

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).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.

A horrific day trip to Georgian London!

Imagine you have decided to take a day trip to London two hundred years ago. What do do? Well, let me be your guide as we take a horrific day trip to Georgian London!

If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo –¬†you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time. Could it really have been so bleak and awful. Well, in large part it certainly was.

That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.

These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.

YOUR DAY TRIP TO GEORGIAN LONDON STARTS HERE!

Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!

Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”

You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.

Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.

Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria  – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.

Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.

Observe the diseases killing Londoners:  In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.

Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.

A woman who made a living stealing clothes from children

Mall Floyd was a wicked woman who developed an unpleasant line in criminal activity. She would steal or kidnap children, take them somewhere far from their parents or guardians and then relieve them of their clothes and valuables. They’d then be left to fend for themselves as best they could.

In 1674, Mall Floyd found a girl of about eight years of age in Shoe Street. I may be wrong but I think Shoe Street now corresponds to what’s called Shoe Lane in Farringdon. In the seventeenth century, that thoroughfare would have been just outside the ancient city walls.

The road ran parallel to the Fleet River, which is now hidden away in a sewer. It was there then that Mall Floyd chanced upon this refined girl who looked very finely dressed. Our thief figured the girl’s clothes would make a pretty penny or two.

Approaching the eight year old, she claimed to be from her mother and then carried off the child as far as St Giles.  That was a pretty run down village where Centre Point stands, at the top of Tottenham Court Road. The parish church of St Giles is still there behind Centre Point. St Giles was a notorious slum that contributed a great number of villains to the hanging tree at nearby Tyburn.

So, Mall Floyd took the child to an ale house and seeing that it was about to rain, suggested that the girl should remove her expensive laces and linens as they would be spoilt. Now with her hands on the goodies, Mall Floyd took the girl to the churchyard of St Giles. Luckily for our villain, there was a burial going on with a big crowd. Without a second thought, Mall Floyd simply dumped the girl in the crowd and melted away.

Tyburn gallows

Mall Floyd was lucky not to end up here

The distressed kid burst into tears and a charitable individual took pity and very gallantly escorted her back to the house of her parents.

The girl recounted everything that had happened – the women claiming to be a friend of her mothers, taking her to a pub, removing her pricey garments and then disappearing. The family were furious but what could they do? Then a remarkable thing happened.

The child’s mother was walking through Holborn when she saw her daughter’s lost clothes hanging up for sale in a shop window. She raised hell with the shopkeeper and after some investigating – there were no police in those days remember – the family found the culprit. Mall Floyd was dragged before the courts.

Incredibly, she confessed everything and was sent to Newgate prison. When she returned for sentencing, Mall Floyd might have expected to dangle from a rope for the amusement of the crowd at Tyburn. Instead, she was “transported to some of the plantations beyond the seas”. Most likely the Americas where Mall Floyd, if she survived the journey, undoubtedly breathed her last.

Crimes committed by very drunk people

Being half Irish, I’ve had a couple of drinks in my time. And I thought I’d look at crimes committed over the centuries in London by people who were very, very drunk. And what happened to them!

DRUNK CRIMES: Insulting the king

On the 23 August 1676, a Scottish sailor was found guilty at the Old Bailey of uttering “wicked and detestable words” about King Charles II. He also said he hoped Britain would be damned and destroyed. Unfortunately, his ravings were heard by what the court described as a “Gentleman of Quality” and therefore he was put on trial.

This was a time when insulting the monarch could have very serious consequences. The man had just heard that the king’s barge had sailed past on the river Thames and this triggered a flow of expletives. And it was noted that he was extraordinarily drunk.

However, by the time he was in court, he was sobbing, claiming he had nothing against the king and pleading for Christian mercy. Luckily the judge just fined him.

DRUNK CRIMES: Shoplifting

In the same year, 1676, there’s an account of “two legerdemain ladies of profound experience in the mysteries of shoplifting”. What a great way of describing a couple of thieves! One of them had already been whipped “at the cart” in public but that didn’t stop them stealing some expensive callicoe.

Once caught, their excuse to avoid another whipping was that they had been absolutely drunk on brandy and no idea what they were doing. Regrettably for them, the judge decided that was no grounds for avoiding a guilty sentence.

DRUNK CRIMES: Slagging off the Protestant religion

In 1678, Matthew Momford committed the terrible crime of getting drunk and slagging off the Protestant religion. In strongly anti-Catholic England, this was a very grave offence. At this time, Jesuit and Catholic priests were still being hanged, drawn and quartered in London as agents of the Pope and traitors.

So Matthew was very unwise to get half cut on booze and loudly declare he was a “Papist” (Catholic) and that all Protestants should be burned. Once arrested and sober, Matthew declared that he was a good Protestant again and that his words had just been drunk rubbish.

The judge said he felt Matthew had no religion and only a hefty fine of one hundred pounds – a huge sum at that time – would bring him back to God. And until he could pay the fine, he’d be imprisoned. Plus he would have to show good behaviour for ten years.

Teenagers hanged in London – our brutal past!

It’s appalling yet sadly true that in the past, teenagers and even children were hanged at the gallows for crimes like theft and arson. Murder didn’t have to be involved. There was a wide variety of crimes you could be judicially put to death for. And many teenagers were hanged as a consequence.

We don’t know the youngest person to be executed in Britain. And we probably never will as records could be patchy or lost. And names of very young criminals might not have been recorded. However, a certain John Dean was hanged in 1629 for an arson attack on two houses in Windsor. He was either eight or nine years old.

HANGED TEENAGERS – Martha Pillah

Martha Pillah – which might be a misspelling or cockney pronouncing of “Pillow” – was hanged at Tyburn aged 18 in the year 1717. According to the records of the Old Bailey (the London Central Criminal Court), she took six Guineas and 15 shillings from a woman called Elizabeth White. That would have been quite a sum in those days.

Martha was born in Brewers Yard in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster. That’s quite near the Houses of Parliament and full of shops and office blocks today. But up until the mid-19th century, the area was a massive slum lapping on to the steps of parliament. So not the greatest place to grow up.

Still, Martha had got herself apprenticed to a tailor and then left his service to make a living mending men’s clothes. But clearly that didn’t pay enough or she just wanted more money – faster. In the Old Bailey record, she is described as “lewd and lascivious” and ignorant of moral goodness.

That said, it’s also stated that she cried to God for mercy as she was put on the cart from Newgate prison and taken off to Tyburn to entertain the crowd at the end of a rope. This was the grim procession that ordinary Londoners had to make to their execution. First, leaving Newgate prison and then trundling down High Holborn and what is now Oxford Street to be executed at Tyburn – roughly where Marble Arch now stands.

HANGED TEENAGERS: John Lemon and Christopher Ward

Some other teenagers joined her on the same day – 20 May 1717. John Lemon aged 18 and Christopher Ward aged 17. They were both Eastenders from Whitechapel. Their crime was burglary. It’s a familiar commentary in these records that the court notes they knew nothing or little of “religion” or “Christianity”. The assumption being that if they did – they’d have led good lives.

Thomas Price, aged 17, was yet another teenager on the same day – in the same cart from Newgate – off to be hanged. Despite his youth, he’d already served four years at sea. Maybe not so surprising given he’d grown up on the Isle of Wight. But having been discharged from naval service, he went up to London to make his fortune.

Unfortunately what he actually ended up doing was stealing a load of silverware from a certain Dr Guy Mesmin. He tried to deny his involvement in the robbery but eventually caved in and confessed. Furthermore, to the delight of the court, he admitted his wickedness and prayed for divine forgiveness. He was told this would improve his chances of not going to hell – but he was still hanged.

And what a terrible day for teenagers was the 20 May 1717!

HANGED TEENAGERS: Josiah Cony

Because also in the cart with Thomas, Christopher, John and Martha was 18 year-old Josiah Cony. He had broken into the house of William Roy and stolen three “flaxen” sheets and some other goods. Josiah didn’t seem to have any trade. When asked how he made a living, Josiah said part of his time was spent “drawing drink at an Alehouse” and then helping his mother carry “greens” and flowers around the streets.

Well, his poor mother would have to do without his assistance in future. Josiah and the others were just a handful of the thousands of teenagers who undoubtedly swung at Tyburn over the centuries. Life was shorter. More brutal. And teenagers were held to be accountable for their crimes.

Sadly, so were children.

In the year that my house was built – 1829 – a 12-year-old was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. He had been accused of theft and murder. As was quite common in those days, an advertisement was produced giving all the gory details. Plus a helpful illustration.

In case you’re wondering – surely there would have been some sympathy for a 12 year-old by the year 1829 – think again. Here’s a quote from the advertisement:

With horror we attempt to relate the progress of evil, generally prevailing among children, through the corrupt example of wicked parents: though we are constrained to confess that many a child through bad company, wickedly follow the dictates of their own will, and often bring the hoary heads of honest parents with sorrow to the grave. 

The Dreadful Life and Confession of a Boy aged 12 years

Thanks to the British Library for this dreadful gem!