The Man Who Raised the Dead (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

It's hard to say what inspired Thomas McMonigle to try for a place in medical history.

Convicted in 1946 for the murder of 15-year-old Thora Chamberlain, McMonigle was sentenced to death despite his victim's body never being found.   McMonigle took advantage of that during the trial by alleging that Thora was still alive and working as a prostitute somewhere.  Then again, he also claimed that she had fallen out of his car, or else that he had hidden the body somewhere in San Mateo country (he could never be quite certain where), etc.   Along with Monigle's repeated fabrications, jurors were also forced to come to terms with his strange dual existence.  Along with having been a full-time truck driver who was married at the tie of his arrest, but also had a lengthy history of assaults and rapes.  He also confessed to killing another woman at about the same time that Thora Chamberlain disappeared but, once again, no body had ever been found).   Which is likely why it only took a few hours for the jury to  find him guilt and  for the judge to sentence him to death.  It also helped explain why his repeated appeals all failed.

And yet, when McMonigle contacted Robert E. Cornish shortly after being sentenced to death and asked to be part of his reanimation research, he had little difficulty convincing the scientist that he was serious.  While Cornish's experiments had stalled years earlier due to the lack of a suitable human subject (executed corpses are harder to come by than you might think), he was still intrigued enough by the request to visit McMonigle on San Quentin's Death Row.   In a letter that Cornish then wrote to California governor in 1947, he asked for permission to use the condemned prisoner in his experiment.    "McMonigle apparently believes in his innocence and hopes that the execution will not take place," his letter read.  "But in the unhappy event that he is placed in the gas chamber, he wishes to give us his body for experimental purposes. McMonigle wishes that we should attempt to revive him after he was declared dead.  He feels that if this should prove possible, the successful method could then be used to save the lives of countless innocent persons who would otherwise die permanently from drowning, from electric or other shock, or from asphyxiation."    

As for the legal ramifications if the revival was successful, Cornish  stressed that the condemned man was well aware that he would  remain in prison if the experiment worked.  Since no execution date had been set, Cornish said that he would need at least six months advance notice to make the needed preparations if the experiment went ahead.   Given that McMonigle's body would have to be as fresh as possible,  the revival would have to begin within minutes of the execution and with the full consent of the prison staff.   

Cornish also acknowledged that his previous experiments  had not been the complete success that he had hoped (Lazarus V, the last dog to be revived, had been left blind by the experiment ).  He had also tried his apparatus on a human subject in 1933, a 62-year-old heart patient named Walter Gosse, but this experiment had failed as well.    Despite these failures, Cornish assured Governor Warren that he would be continuing the dog experiments to perfect his revival technique.  He also added that similar experiments had been tried in other countries, including Russia where researchers had claimed to be successful (no further details were provided).   Recognizing the bizarre nature of his request, Cornish also offered to meet with Governor Warren and discuss the proposal in more detail.

Newspapers had a field day with the story including  headlines such as "Savant May Cheat Death,"  Thomas McMonigle probably enjoyed all the publicity but prison officials certainly didn't.   Almost immediately after the first stories came out, San Quentin  Warden Clinton Duffy categorically denied that he would ever allow such an experiment in his prison.  "Either the next of kin will claim McMonigle's body or he will be buried in the prison cemetery," he said in an interview.  "No doctor will try any experiments."  Duffy added that, due to safety procedures following executions, McMonigle's body would remain in the death chamber for at least an hour after the execution which would render the body unfit for revival.   Perhaps fittingly, he also noted that "I don't think it would be legal for McMonigle to give directions for what might happen after he is in another world."  To add insult to injury, Patsy Ruth Fergus, the blind girl to whom McMonigle had offered his corneas for transplantation in the event that Cornish's proposal was rejected,  announced that she wasn't interested.   Though she declined the offer with thanks, she added that she "didn't like the idea of seeing through a dead person's eyes."  

And that was it for Thomas McMonigle.   After exhausting numerous appeals, he was finally executed on  February 20, 1948 and protested his innocence to the end.  No word on what became of his body afterward.

As for Robert Cornish, he was likely bemused to find that numerous people from across the country were offering to take McMonigle's place in his reanimation experiment.  One offer came from an ex-Canadian war veteran who was having trouble making ends meet on his limited pension.  He offered the use of his body on the condition that he receive a wood and coal range, a comfortable chair, and a hot water heater to enjoy following his successful reanimation.   Cornish had no difficulty turning these various offers down.   "It's preposterous to think I would kill people to further my work," he said.  "It's different asking for bodies of men who have been condemned to death."   

With no realistic prospect of following through on his reanimation experiments, he stopped them completely.  Instead he undertook a series of bizarre projects in the following years.   For example, he earned headlines by training  a five-legged frog that was entered  in the annual Jumping Frog Jubilee in Calaveras County (the frog lost).   He was also publicly consulted about the prospect of reviving a frog that had been found frozen in a glacier centuries before.   Despite his expertise with reanimation and frogs, Cornish remained skeptical. 

Aside from a conviction in 1954 for making adulterated tooth powder (don't ask), his later life seemed strangely uneventful for a man whose scientific career had begun with such promise.  Robert E. Cornish died of a heart attack in 1963, he was fifty-nine.   Never having married, he was  survived by his siblings and their children.  His official obituary listed his long-ago experiments with reviving dogs but no other accomplishments of note.

While there was likely no possibility that the proposed experiment with Thomas McMonigle's body would have ever been allowed, the prospect of reanimating a body declared clinically dead doesn't seem as implausible as it used to be.   Advances in emergency medicine has led to some remarkable stories of survival as long as the brain is kept properly oxygenated to prevent tissue damage.   Given concerns about double jeopardy, we aren't going to be seeing experiments like the one Robert Cornish planned any time soon.   If  nothing else, we can still enjoy the horror movies he helped inspire. 


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