Do Victorians dream of electric sheep?

Well, they did do, possibly, but it might not have been sheep. It was more likely to be cows, dogs, or even freshly hung prisoners. Either way, I thought I’d score points with the nerds for the Bladerunner reference.

So we all know that the Victorians were a strange bunch; excited by technology and inventions, yet still living by religious ideals and strict cultural norms (despite limited sanitation, poverty, and sickness), but some of the shit they got up to was not just weird, it was downright odd.

One trending topic in the days before Twitter was the discussion of science bringing things back to life. The theory was that with the application of electricity, scientists could successfully bring something - or at least, parts of it - back to life.

This story begins little before the Victorians however, when in Italy, an anatomy professor called Luigi Galvani discovered - by accident - that when he applied electricity to a dead frog, he could make it twitch about. From this discovery, others with access to a lab, a battery and a bucket of dead things were soon nobbing about making body parts move artificially. In fact, Galvani’s nephew who grew up to be a physicist called Giovanni Aldini managed to get hold of an ox. Unfortunately for the creature, he cut off its head before using electric rods to twist its the tongue. He then applied so much power to its throat that it sent “a very strong action on the rectum, which even produced an expulsion of the feces,” Aldini noted afterward..

These experiments, as macabre as that sounds to us now, were a hot topic amongst the general public and soon folk could pay for tickets to performances in theatres to watch this happen live. Scientists - and I’m using that term very loosely here - would rock up with nothing more than some batteries and a couple of dead animals and bring them to life, making them blink, yawn and look around at their audience.

Before long though, others wanted to up the ante and would try to reanimate bigger and bigger dead things. A Scottish chemist Andrew Ure back in 1818 reanimated the corpse of a freshly hung murderer, who had been strung up just minutes before. Ure was doing this live - in a theatre full of eager scientists and students - and the crowd was, by all accounts, loving it. Ure took two metal rods connected to a battery and spadged them into different nerves of the corpse, causing it to convulse and writhe about.

“When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger,” Ure said, reviewing his performance to the Glasgow Literary Society, “the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.”

This, I’m sure you’ll agree, sounds fucking horrifying. I couldn’t get through watching Hostel when it came out, so the idea of being trapped in a theatre with some dead body pointing into the crowd sounds like an absolute nightmare.

Ure became obsessed with reanimating a person, and thanks to the Murder Act of 1751, which allowed the corpses of executed murders to be used for experiments as an extra punishment; their bodies would not be laid to rest in a peaceful graveyard after a service and would instead be cut up, poked, prodded and electrified in the name of science.

When the electricity was sent through the prisoner’s fresh corpse, the chest heaved, which Ure described as ‘truly wonderful’. He also noted that “a violent shuddering from the cold” and that the fingers “moved nimbly, like those of a violin performer...Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean...At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.”

After the hour-long performance, crowds (presumably a little freaked out or in the very least nauseous) filed out of the theatre and Ure concluded that although reanimation may be possible, it would not be celebrated because it would be a crime that he brought back to life.

Despite their popularity, there were no new discoveries or particularly useful data that came from these performances, and eventually, they fell out of fashion as they were deemed ‘satanic’ and ‘evil’.

The only really benefit to us today was that those experiments paved the way for the defibrillators that we see used to restart the heart used in modern medicine, but as for reanimating anything, science is (thankfully) still a long way away from making dead things live again without debilitating disabilities brought on my brain damage. Bit of a shame really if you’re one of those who have invested into getting your head cryogenically frozen when you die - I’m afraid your nut is gonna be sitting floating in a jar in a cupboard for a good few years yet.

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