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.

Prisoners infect judges with typhus – jail fever!

Eighteenth century courtrooms were a dangerous place. For the convict there was a good chance you’d dangle from a rope. But even for the judge – the risk was high. The prisoners were so filthy and disease ridden that you might catch jail fever. Or what we call typhus these days.

Judges catch jail fever from typhus ridden accused

The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners and the death sentence was anticipated.

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, the grubby criminals were seated right in front of the dock. And not only did they stink to high heaven but there had been an outbreak of jail fever within Newgate prison. The place was rife with typhus.

Typhus, by the way, was also referred to as hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It was and is caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.

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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.

One of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant (pictured with a louse) – who was also 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.

Another little fact about Sir Samuel – apart from being Lord Mayor and dying of typhus – was that he was a prolific slave owner. The 18th century was the height of British activity in the trade and he was actually born in Jamaica on his father’s plantation. I’m shedding less tears about his fate now.

Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. It was demolished at the turn of the 20th century when Londoners decided they’d rather not have large prisons in the middle of town.

But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door to the courthouse.

Jail fever brings typhus straight from prison to courtroom

Prisoners were therefore brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey. And along came the lice and fleas with them.

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 gang that terrorised Georgian London!

So you think urban gangs are a modern phenomenon? Well, 18th century Georgian London was horrified by the activities of the Black Boy Alley gang who showed no mercy to their victims but came to a pretty gruesome end themselves!

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 London 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 was where a gang operated from in Georgian London

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!

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!