The real scientific experiments that inspired Frankenstein

It all started on January 17, 1803. On this day, a young man named George Forster was hanged in London’s Newgate Prison on murder charges. Forrester was charged with drowning his wife and children in the Paddington Canal. Hanging was not only Forrester’s punishment, but after his execution, as was customary at the time, his body was given to a group of Royal College surgeons. His body was to be autopsied in front of an audience at a public hearing. Of course, the story goes beyond a simple autopsy and turned into a shocking experiment that did not leave the nightmare of the audience and the people who had heard the news from the press for a long time.

Royal College scientists wanted to pass electricity over Forrester’s body. The experiments were initiated by Giovanni Aldini, an Italian physician and physicist known as Luigi Galvani. His uncle had previously discovered a concept called “animal electricity” in 1870. The concept was later renamed “Galvanism”. While experimenting with electrical currents on the frog, he noticed its effect on the frog’s muscles. Now his nephew had decided to do the same test on humans this time.

Painting the front page of Frankenstein's novel, edited in 1831, by Theodor von Holst Painting the front page of Frankenstein’s novel, edited in 1831, by Theodor von Holst

Giovanni Aldini and his colleagues laid Forster on the bed and began their experiment. “At the first electric shock, the deceased criminal’s jaw began to vibrate, the muscles adjacent to his jaw became terribly deformed, and one of his eyes really opened,” the Times reported, covering the experiment. In the next part of the experiment, the right hand of the corpse was raised and his fist was gathered and his legs and thighs were moved. “Some spectators thought that the unlucky man was really coming to life.”

This shocking experiment has long been a nightmare for the people

In fact, during Aldini’s horrific ordeal, some in the audience really thought the dreaded murderer wanted to be resurrected and had to be executed again. Meanwhile, it is said that one of the attendees had a stroke a few minutes later due to extreme panic. When Aldini was experimenting on the unfortunate Forster’s body, there was a hypothesis that was at least a hundred years old, that there was a connection between electricity and life processes.

Isaac Newton hypothesized such a connection in the early eighteenth century. In 1730, the British astronomer Stephen Gray proved the principle of electrical conductivity. Gary hung an orphan boy from the ceiling with silk ropes, placed a positively charged tube near the boy’s feet, and generated the negative charge without contact with him with an electrostatic generator. Due to the electrical separation, this process created a positive charge in the boy’s other organs and caused a container of thin gold foil to be absorbed by his fingers.

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Giovanni Aldini during one of his famous experimentsGiovanni Aldini during one of his famous experiments

The Frenchman Jean-Antoine Nolt also underwent a strange experiment in 1746 to surprise the court in Versailles. By passing electricity through a Leiden cup (a device for storing electricity), Nolt caused 180 guards to jump at the same time as electricity passed through their bodies. Nolt conducted this experiment to prove his uncle’s theories, which had many opponents, such as Alessandro Valletta.

Volta claimed that animals’ electricity was generated by contact with metals instead of living tissue. But several other naturalists and physicists enthusiastically accepted the hypothesis of galvanism. Alexander von Humboldt experimented with batteries made entirely of animal tissue. Johannes Ritter even performed electrical experiments on himself to assess the effect of electricity on the senses.

Some in the audience thought the dreaded killer wanted to be resurrected

The assumption that electricity was indeed the carrier of life and might be used to bring the dead back to life was certainly a familiar hypothesis in circles attended by Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein’s famous novel. English poet and family friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also fascinated by the possible connection between electricity and life. Percy Bisley Shelley, who married Mary Shelley in 1816, was another interested in galvanizing experiments.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monsterBoris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster

Aldini’s experiments with corpses attracted much attention. Some commentators ridiculed the assumption that electricity would bring the dead back to life, and mocked Aldini, who thought he could make the dead dance. But there were others who took this assumption very seriously. Charles Galkinson, who accompanied Aldini in his experiments, argued that “galvanism is an energizing principle that distinguishes between matter and spirit, forming the great chain of creation and the link between physical matter and vital substance.”

John Aberneth, a British surgeon, made almost the same claim in 1814 during the annual lecture of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. His speech sparked a very serious controversy with another surgeon, William Lawrence. Aberneth claimed that electricity (or the like) is a vital force, while Lawrence completely rejected the principle of induction of vital force. Mary and Percy Shelley were certainly well aware of the details and how much of these discussions, because Lawrence was their doctor.

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When Frankenstein’s novel was published in 1818, readers were familiar with the concept that life can be generated by electricity or revived. Just a few months after Frankenstein’s book was published, Scottish chemist Andrew Over performed electrical experiments on the body of Matthew Clydesdale. Like Forster, Clydesdale became the subject of an experiment after his execution. “All the muscles of his face were simultaneously in a state of fright, such as anger, fear, resentment, fear and a sad smile,” Avar wrote in his report after the body was electrocuted.

He said his experiments were so frightening that a number of spectators were forced to leave the apartment, and a gentleman fainted from fear. While we do not know to what extent Avar was influenced by Mary Shelley’s novel at the time of these experiments. But his report shows that he deliberately tried to give more water to his writings.

Portrait of Mary Shelley, by Richard RutwellPortrait of Mary Shelley, by Richard Rutwell

Frankenstein may have been a fantasy story for modern readers, but for the author and lead readers of the day, there was no element of fantasy. Just as few now know much about AI, so did Shell readers know about electrical life, and just as AI fueled endless debates, so did Shell’s electrical life and novel.

The scientific information used in Frankenstein’s novel reminds us that current debates have a long history. It was in the nineteenth century that people envisioned a future that resembled a new world built throughout it with technology and science. Novels such as Frankenstein, which wrote future writers by combining the knowledge of their time, were rooted in this kind of thinking. Understanding the scientific knowledge that made Frankenstein so real in 1818 may have helped us today to think more carefully about the dangers and possibilities of the world to come.

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