In 1818, a real life Frankenstein experiment took place at the hands of a man named Andrew Ure. Coincidentally, that same year, Mary Shelley published her tale of an electrically reanimated corpse, Frankenstein. Shelley and Ure were not alone in this strange project, however. During the early 1800s, many scientists were fascinated by the idea that electricity could potentially bring a body back to life.
Scottish professor Andrew Ure was one of those scientists. Although he was a chemistry professor (and knew almost nothing about electricity), he jumped right on board and performed an experiment on a human man. Andrew Ure's Frankenstein was a convicted murderer who had just been hung at the gallows.
Ure's experiment in reanimation horrified and fascinated the general public. So who was the man he tried to bring back to life, and how did he do it?
Electricity was once thought to be the "essence of life." Scientists of centuries past were searching for the "spark" of life, at first metaphorically and later literally. Some scientists believed that electricity contained the origins of life – that electricity itself was a biological fluid that could be activated – and it could help scientists better understand diseases. This search for life led to many experiments involving electricity, especially as religion began to lose its hold, and it became more acceptable to look at the world through a scientific lens. No longer thought to be God's wrath toward humanity, electricity became ground zero in the search for the elixir of life.
The process of using electrical currents to make biological material appear to move is called galvanism, named after the man who first demonstrated the practice, Luigi Galvani. Many scientists practiced their experiments with electricity on animals instead of humans. For his part, Galvani used the bodies of frogs for his theories, and Karl August Weinfold used kittens. The latter decapitated healthy kittens and make the bodies twitch and move using electric currents. Other scientists used much larger animals, like the decapitated heads of cattle.
In 1751, England passed the Murder Act. This law meant that all people who were executed after being found guilty of murder could have their bodies used for scientific purposes, and the law had multiple benefits. First, the anatomists of the time were desperately in need of bodies, and they would have more corpses to study with the bodies of criminals readily at their fingertips. And second, it was seen as an additional punishment for the criminals, since having your body dissected was seen as desecration, harming your chances of success in the afterlife.
In August of 1818, 35-year-old Matthew Clydesdale drunkenly murdered one of his fellow coal miners, an 80-year-old man. The murder weapon was a coal pick. It was for this crime that Clydesdale was sentenced to death by hanging. After being hung and having his body drained of its blood, Clydesdale was put on the experimental table, an attempt at his resurrection about to begin.