Galvanic Reanimation of the Dead
In biology, galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that is stimulated by an electric current. The effect was named after the scientist Luigi Galvani, who investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals in the 18th century. When Galvani was doing some dissection work in his lab, his scalpel touched the body of a frog, and he saw the muscles in the frog’s leg twitch. Galvani referred to the phenomenon as animal electricity, believing that he had discovered a distinct form of electricity. [Source]
Two decades later, Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took the process one step further when he applied it to the corpses of humans. In 1803 he performed experiments in public on the severed heads of ‘malefactors,’ despatched in Bologna and London. The following accounts demonstrate what was witnessed:
“George Forster was hung … at Newgate Prison, for the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal. After hanging for an hour in sub-zero temperatures, Aldini procured the body and began his galvanic experiments. 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.”
“[The galvanic] stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.”
There is much speculation that Aldini’s experiments were the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.