Can electricity be used to raise the dead?
The opening decades of the 19th century was an exciting era for scientists exploring the things that could be done with electricity. Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Benjamin Franklin, Alesandro Volta, and William Gilbert, inventors on both sides of the Atlantic began experimenting with Leyden jars, lightning rods, and crude batteries to see what could be learned about this mysterious new force. But it was Luigi Galvani's discovery of bioelectromagnetics in 1791 which first suggested that electricity could be the key to the mystery of life itself. Through a series of riveting demonstrations, Galvani showed that electrical stimulation could cause twitching in the muscles of dead frogs. Based on his findings, Galvani argued that electricity played a fundamental role in nerve and muscle functioning.
The concept of biological electricity (rechristened galvanism in his honour) quickly gained prominence, largely helped along by some very public demonstrations by Galvani's nephew, Giovanni Aldini. It was Aldini who first showed what galvanism could accomplish when he experimented on the body of an executed criminal, George Forster, in 1803. According to one description of what happened: "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." Aldini's experiment inspired numerous other medical doctors to try their own luck applying electric current to dead bodies. Since capital punishment continued to be used for a wide range of offenses, gaining access to dead bodies wasn't difficult (though the families of the condemned prisoners weren't too happy about it).
Which brings us to a somewhat memorable episode in the history of science that occurred on November 4, 1818 in Glasgow, Scotland. The anatomists ready to perform the experiment were Dr. Andrew Ure, senior lecturer at the newly-founded Andrew's Institution (now part of the University of Glasgow) and Professor James Jeffray who taught anatomy, botany, and midwifery at the University of Glasgow. Both men were eager to try reproducing Aldini's experiment and, quite possibly, moving into completely new territory. Instead of simply stimulating a few muscles, what if it were possible to bring a dead body back to life completely?
Andrew Ure seemed particularly eager to give it a try. As he later wrote about his experiments: "This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to the law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science." To make their experiment work, they had all the equipment they needed, including a state-of-the-art galvanic battery to provide the needed current. All that remained was to obtain a body.
Which brings us to Matthew Clydesdale...
A weaver who had been born and raised in the town of Airdrie, the middle-aged Clydesdale had been convicted of murder on September 1, 1818. There doesn't seem to be any question that he was guilty of killing a 70-year-old man in a drunken rage and he was condemned to death following a quick trial. Given that the sentence called for his body to be anatomized after his death, that made him an ideal subject for the experiment being planned by the two doctors.
The execution took place on October 3 and thousands of people turned out for the occasion. As the first public execution to be held in Glasgow in ten years, the double execution of Clydesdale and a second man, Simon Ross ensured a good turnout. Not much needs to be said about Ross who was sentenced to be hanged for the much less memorable charge of theft. Also, unlike his more murderous colleague, no directive had been given to anatomize his body. Given the massive turnout, soldiers had to guard a nearby footbridge to keep it from collapsing as members of the crowd pushed closer. Even though the gallows had been erected in the public square in front of the new courthouse, people kept trying to get a better look at the proceedings. This was well before the implementation of the "Marwood drop" so onlookers could look forward to the prospect of seeing a hanged prisoner strangling to death at the end of a rope. They were probably disappointed since Clydesdale died quickly though Simon Ross did a lot of twitching before dying. His body was then taken down to be buried the next day.
As for Matthew Clydesdale, his body was taken down after he was declared dead and carted to the University of Glasgow as quickly as possible. Considering what Ure and Jeffray were planning, it was essential that they get the body before decomposition could set in. The operating theatre where the experiment was to be held was filled to capacity given the number of people who had already heard about Aldini's experiments and hoping to see for themselves what would happen. Andrew Ure was in fine form as he publicly tested his galvanic equipment while waiting for the body. This basically meant making sure the battery was fully charged and the electrodes were ready to be applied. Once the body was wheeled in, both anatomists went to work performing partial dissections to prepare for the experiment. As the audience could see, the lack of any bleeding meant that Clydesdale was definitely dead.
By all accounts, the experiments went extremely well. Current applied to Clydesdale's spinal cord and heel caused one of the knees to contract violently. When current was applied to the left phrenic nerve and the diaphragm, the body actually appeared to be breathing. As Ure described: "‘The success of it was truly wonderfull. Full, nay, laborious breathing instantly commenced. The chest heaved and fell; The belly was protruded and again collapsed, with the retiring and collapsing diaphragm’.
But when current was applied to the supraorbital branch of the frontal nerve, things really became unnerving. Since the frontal nerve controls facial muscles, audience members were unsettled by the sight of Clydesdale making gruesome facial expressions. As Ure later described: "Rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face’…At this period several spectators were forced to leave the arena from terror or sickness, and one Gentleman fainted." To top this off, Ure and Jeffray also applied current to the body's forefinger and made it seem as if Clydesdale was deliberately pointing his finger at members of the audience. Aside from these highlights, nothing else extraordinary took place. Matthew Clydesdale's body was returned to storage and was dissected on the following day, again by Ure and Jeffray.
Though nobody outside the medical community really took note of the experiments, and Clydesdale subsequent dissection, a strange tale about what supposedly happened with the body came to light many years later. In a book published in 1865 titled Reminiscences of Glasgow and West of Scotland, local writer Peter Mackenzie would claim that he had been present to watch Ure and Jeffray's experiments and the later dissection. He also claimed that the researchers had actually succeeded in reanimating Matthew Clydesdale but Jeffray, who was likely afraid of what would happen next, killed him again by cutting his throat with a scalpel. While this seems to be a pure invention by Mackenzie (nobody else reported on this despite the experiment being covered by a local newspaper), Mackenze was quick to point out that "this was the last case of dissection, under the sentence of the Lords of Judiciary, that took place in the University of Glasgow." True or not, it made for a good story.
Ironically,during the 1980s, anatomist Fred Pattison would rediscover Ure's notes on the original 1818 experiment and had the final word on what the two scientists had tried to achieve. As Pattison pointed out, Ure and Jeffray had come tantalizingly close to the truth in their efforts to revive a dead body when he wrote: “Although Ure concluded in his discussion that direct stimulation of the phrenic nerve was the most promising procedure for restoring life to a dead individual, he did suggest in a prophetic aside that two moistened brass knobs, connected to the battery and firmly placed on the skin over the phrenic nerve and the diaphragm, might also be effective. Unwittingly, he had come close to describing the electric defibrillator which, a century later, has saved so many lives."
In another strange coincidence, 1818 was also the year when Mary Shelley first came out with her book, Frankenstein, or A Modern Prometheus, about a scientist who succeeded in bringing an undead creature to life. While Shelley's book never mentioned the use of electricity, she had certainly been present during one of Giovanni Aldini's public demonstrations and what she saw firsthand helped inspire her writing. And so, along with providing new insights into the role that electricity could play in reviving dead bodies, experiments like the one carried out on Matthew Clydesdale's body also provided the world with one of its most famous stories about what happens when science goes wrong.
Such is life.