In 1780 the Italian anatomy professor Luigi Galvani discovered that a spark of electricity could cause the limbs of a dead frog to twitch. Soon men of science throughout Europe were repeating his experiment, but it didn’t take them long to bore of frogs and turn their attention to more interesting animals. What would happen, they wondered, if you electrified a human corpse?
Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, embarked on a tour of Europe in which he offered audiences the chance to see this stomach-turning spectacle. His most celebrated demonstration occurred on January 17, 1803 when he applied the poles of a 120-volt battery to the body of the executed murderer George Forster.
When Aldini placed wires on the mouth and ear, the jaw muscles quivered and the murderer’s features twisted in a rictus of pain. The left eye opened as if to gaze upon his torturer. For the grand finale Aldini hooked one wire to the ear and plunged the other up the rectum. Forster’s corpse broke into a hideous dance. The London Times wrote, “It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
Other researchers tried electrifying bodies, with the specific hope of restoring them to life, but with no success. Early nineteenth-century experiments of this kind are considered to have been one of Mary Shelley’s main sources of inspiration when she wrote her novel Frankenstein in 1816.