Until 1832 the corpses of every person hanged for murder in London were carted to the College of Surgeons to be dissected. These were the only bodies legally available to medical men, under An Act for better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder (1752), which made dissecting or gibbeting the corpse a secondary punishment for this crime alone. The dissections carried out at the College were public events, theatrically performed. Then the bodies were experimented upon, or turned into gifts for well-connected surgeons elsewhere.
Social anxieties about the boundary between life and death were common in Europe at this time, expressed in novels and poems and also circulating in dark tales of people having been erroneously declared dead then buried alive.
Experiments on murderers at the College of Surgeons aimed to determine the fact of death with certainty. Some were so violently crude that William Clift, who performed them, found his job distressing. In an uncharacteristically stumbling hand, in 1814 he recorded what he was instructed to do to one body as it lay on the dissecting table, which was to thrust a needle into each eye to see if that produced an effect. Other investigations were undertaken in a more systematic way as College men sought to understand whether an absence of obvious animation was a sign that the life force had merely been suspended or was irretrievably extinguished. And although this was never stated in the context of the College’s work on murderers, they were also wondering whether it was in the power of medical men to return life to the dead.
In 1803 the College invited Professor Giovanni Aldini to carry out galvanic experiments on the body of George Foster, who had been found guilty of murdering his wife and child by drowning them in the Paddington Canal. Aldini required access to the bodies of people who had died very recently, in the belief that these still held their ‘vital powers’. In contrast, those who had died of disease might have ‘humours’ which would resist his experiments. Later, writing up his London work, Aldini admired England’s ‘enlightened’ laws, which provided murderers with an opportunity to atone for their crimes by such uses of their bodies after death. He argued that galvanic experiments were especially in the interests of a British public, for Britain was a commercial and maritime nation filled with rivers and canals. When people drowned there, he wrote, galvanism might provide the necessary ‘means of excitement’ to return them to life.1 Dealing with the dead in controversial ways always requires some form of rationalisation. It is part of the process through which access to bodies is socially negotiated.
Reading the records of this scientist’s work at the College in 1803, it is not difficult to see why others believed such men liked to play at being God. Always conscious of his audience, Aldini made the dead perform tricks. He boasted that in Europe he had once placed the heads of two decapitated criminals on separate tables, then connected them with an arc of electricity to make them grimace to such an extent as to frighten spectators. He had also made the hand of a headless man clutch a coin and throw it across a room.
The College provided Aldini with an opportunity to undertake some new experiments on George Foster, whose body had been left hanging for an hour in temperatures two degrees below freezing point. Aldini applied arcs to various parts of the corpse to make George Foster perform. His jaw quivered, his left eye opened, and his face convulsed. When conductors were applied to his ear and rectum, the resulting muscular contractions ‘almost [gave] an appearance of reanimation’.2 One hand clenched and the heart’s right auricle contracted, amazing Aldini’s audience.
The experiments continued for more than seven hours after the execution. Aldini denied any intention to reanimate the corpses upon which he went to work, but everyone in that room would have considered it a triumph had he managed to do so. The Times noted that a principle had been discovered ‘by which motion can be restored to Dead Bodies.’3
Such possibilities had not been on the minds of England’s legislators when they had worded the Murder Act. Dissection was meant to mutilate the dead, not resurrect them. Bringing murderers back to life might have been a matter of congratulations for the man who achieved it, but it would have been a complicated problem for the law. Aldini himself spoke ambiguously about his intentions. He said the object of his experiments ‘was not to produce re-animation, but merely to obtain a practical knowledge how far Galvanism may be employed … to revive persons under similar circumstances’.4
This is an edited excerpt from Helen MacDonald, Human Remains (Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2005 and Yale University Press, London, 2006).
- Aldini, John, An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism, with a series of various and interesting experiments performed before the Commissioners of the French National Institute, and repeated lately in the Anatomical Theatres in London (to which is added an Appendix, containing the author’s experiments on the body of a malefactor executed at Newgate, etc etc), Cathell & Martin, London, 1803, pp. 67-8, 189-90, 191.
- Aldini, An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism, p. 194.
- Times, 24 January 1803.
- Aldini, An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism, p. 201.