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).

Judges killed by prisoners – while sentencing them to death!

You couldn’t make it up. The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners they were fully anticipating to sentence to death. Capital punishment applied to a whole range of crimes at this time – not just murder but also theft and violent attack.

Unfortunately for the judges, they were seated right in front of the dock – so that they could get a good look at the prisoners. What they didn’t realise was that within Newgate prison, there had been an outbreak of jail fever.

That’s basically typhus. Also called hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It’s caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.

Newgate prison – centre of a typhus outbreak

The agent of transmission is the humble louse, which gets infected by a sick person and then shares the disease with anybody nearby. So, the judges were infected because of their proximity to the accused. And it’s not a disease that spares the rich and privileged.

For example, one of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant – who was the Lord Mayor of London. The other two judges were Sir Thomas Abney and Baron Clarke. And they all died – infected by the very prisoners they had been sentencing to hang.

Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door. Prisoners were brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey.

Therefore, if typhus was raging through Newgate, it was brought direct into the courtroom. Not that anybody fully understood the risk. And certainly not the esteemed judges who were carried off to meet their maker.

The Black Boy Alley gang – their horrific deeds!

Let me take you back to the early 18th century and the wickedness of a group of criminals known as the Black Boy Alley gang. They operated very near to what is now Holborn Circus – or “midtown” as estate agents like to call it. I worked around this part of London as a journalist for many years and it’s a kind of intermediate zone between the City of London in the east and the bustling shops of the West End.

The story of this gang turned up in a book published in 1817 from my large collection of old London related volumes going back three hundred years. The book is called A History and Description of LondonĀ and was probably written around ten years before by David Hughson – whose real name was Edward Pugh.

It consists of a series of walks through the city that includes some really nasty areas. Hughson seemed determined to expose his readers to the sleazier side of London life! The streets he mentions once led off what is now Holborn Circus roundabout towards the meat market at Smithfield. Saffron Hill is still there but Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley have gone – and maybe not surprisingly!

Black Boy Alley
Black Boy Alley – now wiped off the map

Because under the reign of King George II (reigned 1727 to 1760), Black Boy Alley was “the terror of the whole city” – according to Hughson. The Black Boy Alley Gang used prostitutes to lure passers-by into the grubby tenements. These hapless individuals were then gagged, robbed and murdered. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch with all the city rubbish.

Women played a prominent role in the crimes and three were executed in 1743. These included Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (I’m not making these names up!!). A man called George Cheshire survived an attack by both of them in nearby Chick Lane. Duck and Barefoot beat Cheshire giving him some severe cuts and bruises. In total, they stole four pence. And for that crime – both women were hanged.

Sarah Bartlet and Martha Ewers were sentenced to transportation for luring a man called Robert Copperthwait into a house on Black Boy Alley and relieving him of his watch. Lucky for him he wasn’t murdered but inexplicably decided to return and they mugged him again – this time taking his money.

The gang included a 21-year-old local lad known as Gugg (real name William Billingsley). He had gone to the free school to learn to read and write but crime was way more attractive than working as a lamp lighter. Then there was Thomas Well, reputed to be the husband of Ann Barefoot mentioned above. At his trial, he was said to have been “much addicted to vile women and drinking, swearing, gaming and every other destructive vice”.

Then there was Dillsey (real name William Brister) and a fourteen-year-old called Scampey (real name Henry Gadd). At his trial, Scampey was asked who was his Redeemer and instead of saying “Jesus”, he scandalised the court by yelling “the Devil!”. Another gang member was a Frenchman called Sulspice du Clot who was a Roman Catholic, as was an Irish gang member, Patrick Bourk.

The Black Boy Alley gang also had two Jewish members: Benjamin David Woolfe who was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia and now the capital of the Czech Republic. And Hannah Moses was from Frankfurt. She had seen her husband executed in February 1743 in London for robbing a silversmith.

The law eventually caught up with the gang and a staggering nineteen were executed on a single day at Tyburn gallows – near where Marble Arch is today at the end of Oxford Street. The mass hanging took place on Christmas Eve 1744. Gugg, Dillsey, young Scampey, the Frenchman Sulspice and the two Jewish gang members all swung from the end of a rope in front of a large, festive crowd.

And so ended the terror of the Black Boy Alley gang!