Shocking George Forster

On January 18, 1803, convicted murder George Forster was hanged at Newgate Prison inside the City of London.   After he was cut down and a physician verified that he was indeed dead, the corpse was then taken to a nearby house for what would prove to be a bizarre scientific experiment. 

According to the Newgate Calendar, George Forster was a "decent looking young man" who had been tried and convicted for the murder of his wife and infant by drowning them in London's Paddington Canal.   His reasons for such a crime seemed unclear but witnesses who had seen the wife just before her body was found described her as being in an emotional state and that they had been quarreling over money.   Two of their oldest children were already living at a workhouse and their financial future seemed bleak.   Due to their limited finances, Forster and his wife didn't live together and she instead lived with her mother.  She only saw her husband on Saturday nights  when he was free from work.  

The trial was extremely rapid, even by the standards of the time, and Forster was largely convicted by circumstantial evidence that he and his wife had been on poor terms.   While he presented evidence of having been at a pub when the deaths took place, it was ruled inadmissible by the court.   There was also suggestions that the wife could have killed herself since she was known to be unhappy since everyone who testified on Forster's behalf vouched for his character and diligence.  As well, there was the fact that no signs of violence could be found on the bodies of the wife and child and nothing to indicate that they had been forcefully drowned. 

Though the presiding judge admitted that the case was largely circumstantial, he concluded that Forster was guilty based on certain inconsistencies in his testimony.   The judge then sentenced Forster to be hanged which was carried out just a few days later.  Forster seemed resigned to his fate and he scarcely ate anything during the final weeks of his life.  At the time of his hanging, he was so emaciated that he needed to be helped up to the gallows.  Even though the condemned man made a full confession prior to the hanging,  his mental state seemed questionable since he was visibly despondent and insisted that he deserved to die.   Whether or not the confession was valid under the circumstances is highly questionable.  

What made Forster's hanging so memorable was what was done with the corpse afterward.   While the judge had sentenced Forster's body to be anatomized, it was instead taken to a nearby house for what would be a historic experiment conducted by Giovanni Aldini, nephew of Luigi Galvani who had first discovered what was already being called galvanism (a.k.a., electricity).   Aldini was a scientist in his own right and had become an enthusiast supporter of his uncle's research and how it could be used to shock dead muscles into seemingly coming alive.    Several other scientists were also in attendance to watch the proceedings as were a number of spectators who were simply curious to see what the learned scientists were up to with the dead man's corpse.

It was Luigi Galvani who had first discovered that applying an electric current to the muscle of a dead animal caused that muscle to jerk suddenly as if it were still alive.   His research had led to a lively debate between Galvani and fellow physicist Alessandro Volta on the nature of electricity and whether it could be replicated outside the body.  Though Galvani had proposed the concept of an "animal electric fluid", Volta had disproved this by building one of the first true batteries to store electricity and showed that it was a completely physical phenomenon.

As for Giovanni Aldini, he had already made a name for himself testing his uncle's theories with  demonstrations on dead human and animal bodies across Europe.  One typical demonstration involved electrical stimulation of the decapitated head of a recently-dead dog which, according to one eyewitness, caused extreme convulsions at which point:  "The jaws open, the teeth chatter, the eyes roll in their sockets; and if reason did not stop the fired imagination, one would almost believe that the animal is suffering and alive again".

But Aldini wanted to prove the power of galvanism in a way that had never been tried before.   Hence the London demonstration that Aldini and his fellow scientists had arranged with the cooperation of prison officials.  Once George Forster's corpse was delivered, the experiment could begin.   According to one description:

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. This, however, was impossible, as several of his friends, who were under the scaffold, had violently pulled his legs, in order to put a more speedy termination to his sufferings.

After the success with Forster's corpse (which was presumably taken away to be anatomized afterward), Aldini published a book on the medical possibilities of galvanism and was even one of the first 220px-A_Galvanised_Corpse[1] doctors to try using electric shocks to treat insanity in mental patients.  He also suggested that electric shock could be used to revive drowning victims and restart hearts.  Despite being a pioneer in the use of electricity in medicine, Giovanni Aldini's greatest claim to fame may stem from the influence that his experiments had on a group of travelers staying at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1816.  

Given the bleak weather (it was The Year Without A Summer caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia), the travelers, including such illustrious figures as Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, spent their time talking about life, death, and literature.   Among the various topics raised was how galvanism could be applied in reviving dead corpses (Byron and Shelley both had a keen interest in scientific matters).   They also read scary stories and worked on writing their own ghost stories to pass the time.   That night, one of those present,  Shelley's mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley), experienced a "waking dream" in which she later reported: 

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Based on that dream (which had more than a superficial resemblance to Giovanni Aldini's experiment), Mary Shelley went on to write Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus which was published anonymously in 1818.   And thus, one of the great classic horror studies (and arguably, one of the first true science fiction novels) was born.    If Giovanni Aldini did help inspire Mary Shelley, then his legacy was far more profound than anyone at the time ever realized.

But that's another story.






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