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Dancing corpse

George Forster was executed for murder in 1803. Later that same day his corpse was dancing, thanks to Luigi Galvani’s nephew.

Galvanised corpse
Henry Robinson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Luigi Galvani touched metal to some frog’s legs and made them twitch, he believed that it proved the existence of an inherent “animal electricity” inside the severed limbs. Alessandro Volta thought that there was no such power and that the metal plates were creating the electricity that caused the twitching.

History judged Volta the winner of that contest, but they were both right in a way. The metal plates were inducing the electric current that caused those legs to move, but Galvani’s idea that electricity of some kind was the motive force in animals became the foundation of our understandings of bioelectricity.

Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini continued in his uncle’s footsteps, conducting experiments to explore the idea of animal electricity. And his most famous experiment was this: instead of frogs’ legs, what would happen if he used an actual fresh human corpse instead?

London, 1803. George Forster goes to the gallows, executed for the murder of his wife and daughter. His friends gather under the gallows to pull his legs down after the platform is released; they do so to speed his death and reduce his suffering. Forster’s corpse is confirmed dead, and then carried to a nearby house where Aldini waits to conduct his experiment.

This is what happens, according to a contemporary account:

M. Aldini, who is the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, showed the eminent and superior powers of galvanism to be far beyond any other stimulant in nature. On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home. Some of the uninformed bystanders thought that the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.

The Newgate Calendar

Forster did not return to life that day, but may have received immortality another way. Mary Shelley, in the 1831 introduction to her novel Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, wrote about her inspiration for that landmark text:

Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

Frankenstein: 1831 introduction

Categories: Arts & recreation Europe Health & medicine History Literature Modern history Places Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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