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The Gruesome, True Inspiration Behind 'Frankenstein'

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On January 17, 1803, George Foster sat in a grim cell of Newgate Prison, in London, awaiting execution. Having been arrested, indicted, and found guilty of murdering his wife and child, gallows had been erected, from which he would hang. January 17th dawned bitterly cold, much like that frigid morning when the bodies of the two Foster women had been found.

Foster had argued his innocence: he had been traveling to visit his other children at the time of the deaths. True, he had wanted out of his marriage, but not by killing his wife and his child. He had been relatively drunk that evening, but that didn't necessarily lead to murder. Those who spoke on his behalf agreed: he was a decent man, good in his soul but otherwise poor. He worked hard to care for his children and wife.

Despite those who spoke on his account, the juries were not convinced: George Foster would hang, and worst still, his body would be anatomized. Dissection had been added to the Murder Act of 1752 to inflict "further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy." So distasteful a procedure, it was believed that the mere notion of it would deter criminals from committing illegal acts.

English laws only allotted a few bodies for dissections, so arguments erupted from the medical schools eager to perform experiments. These ordeals were not pretty: oftentimes the bodies were skinned, eviscerated, and cut to pieces, what remained either burned or disposed of like refuse.

For many who awaited the procedures, the fear was palpable. All over London, stories of people who'd awaken while a dissection was being performed were heard. These people were then taken to the gallows for a renewed hanging, then properly dissected. And for those who believed in an afterlife the implications were even greater. If the dead physically arose from their graves on the Day of Judgment to meet the Lord, then, how was a hanged and dissected man supposed to do that with his remains scattered who-knows-where?

George Foster approached his final hours with trepidation, even though there were those outside his cell who looked toward his death with glee.

The body of George Foster was going to an Italian, Giovanni Aldini, who had approached the college members with a claim almost as big as his ego: if they would find him a perfect corpse, he would bring it back to life.

Though Aldini knew that his proposal seemed farfetched to some, it had not come about without assiduous study and experimentation. Hailing from Bologna, which boasted one of the greatest universities in the world, The University of Bologna, he was the nephew of the doctor and scientist, Luigi Galvani. It was Galvani's experiments into animal electricity that had sparked Aldini's interests in the field.

For more than a decade, Luigi Galvani had studied the properties imbued in dead frogs. He had became aware that when the amphibians' legs were touched by an electrical arc, they twitched, clearly indicating that a vital fluid circulated through all living creatures, running from head to toe, and this could be manipulated with an outside metal apparatus. If this happened, vitality could be restored.

Inevitably, upon Galvani's death Aldini took his uncle's ideas a step further: didn't it stand to reason that sheep, pigs, cows and oxen would react to the electrical arc in the same fashion as frogs? Crowds flocked to his laboratory to watch as animals' heads convulsed from side to side, eyeballs rolled back and forth within their sockets, tongues protruded ghastly, feces dripped from the anuses. The experiments became notorious, fashionable even.

But for a man like Aldini, there was only so much satisfaction in dead animals. Soon he began to stand in the cold shadows of Piazza Maggiore, awaiting a criminal's final date with the executioner. Then, he would lug the body beneath one of Bologna's many peach-colored porticoes to his laboratory, and there fire up his battery. He faced only one issue: Bologna beheaded its criminals, thus, despite his battery, it was impossible to restore life to a body drained of blood and missing its head.

But George Foster was intact. Unlike Italy, England hung its criminals, though the law required the body to dangle for an hour. When the body finally arrived at the Royal College of Surgeons, the officials surrounded it as Aldini attached probes and electrodes to arms and legs, chest and forehead.

Aldini powered the machine and began work on Foster. Right away "the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted and the left eye opened." For those in attendance, the movements on Foster's body must have seemed like an indication of its returning to life. Aldini continued his ministrations, hours passing, at a certain point Foster seeming to inhale sharply. But eventually the battery ran out and the body stilled. Silence reigned for a few minutes until all recognized the outcome of the ordeal: Foster had died at the gallows, and dead he remained.

The experiments on George Foster's body became well-known throughout London. Giovanni Aldini returned to Italy, blaming the battery for his failure. The doctors who had witnessed the experiments disbanded and on their own discussed them with family, friends, and acquaintances.

One member of the party believed to have witnessed George Foster's galvanization was the medic, Anthony Carlisle. For Carlisle, as for others at the time, reanimation was a fashionable topic of conversation in salons and informal get-togethers, particularly those he attended on Sundays at the home of his friend, William Godwin. These Sunday events were often attended by poets, writers, doctors, scientists, and all around natural philosophers, and had become an intellectually stimulating environment in which to discuss subjects of interests to all.

The house was a busy one. Aside from Godwin, there was his wife, the second Mrs. Godwin, Jane Clairmont; Godwin's daughter, Mary, born with his deceased wife, Mary Wollstonecraft; his adopted daughter, Fanny Imlay; and Jane Clairmont's two children, Jane and Charles. Mrs. Godwin ran a strict household, ushering the children upstairs when the Sunday soirées took place, as she fearing the men's conversations would be inappropriate for the youngsters. Not surprisingly, the children often hid behind sofas or sat on steps, listening to the stories the men told.

George Foster's story made the rounds in London and the suburbs in 1803, as it did in every household, and Carlisle must have spoken of what he had been privy to, to friends and those in his circle. He must have described Foster's cheeks and jaw twitching and convulsing; he must have told of the arm that had lifted slowly and then slammed back onto the table; he certainly must have described the moment when Foster's eye had opened, as if gazing at all that was occurring. The sparks that flew from Aldini's electrical apparatus, the crackling sounds the machine made, Aldini's excitement upon beginning his experiment, and the depletion of it in realizing his failure. Did Carlisle mention the morality or immorality of the acts they were performing and witnessing? The idea of overriding nature in the pursuit of scientific knowledge?

There is no indication that Carlisle, or anyone else, ever asked those questions, nor that Aldini ever thought of the consequences of his actions. But someone else did. Some years later, the little girl that lived in the Godwin's household, Mary, took off where Aldini left off and completed his mission, albeit in fiction. Mary Godwin Shelley's fantastically mad and flawed character, Victor Frankenstein, bears a striking similarity to Giovanni Aldini: both are scientists bent down a path of forbidden knowledge; both have a streak of showmanship about them; both, they say, begin their ordeals with benign intentions only to be overcome by boastful pride. Both try to restore the dead. One difference separates the two men: in Mary Shelley's account, the dead return, and Victor Frankenstein fatally pays for his actions.

Roseanne Montillo is the author of the new book The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece.