Frankenstein: Origins

An Account of some Experiments made on the Body of a Criminal immediately after Execution, with Physiological and Practical Observations. By Andrew Ure, M.D.M.G.S.

Read at the Glasgow Literary Society, Dec. 10, 1818

Convulsions accidentally observed in the limbs of dead frogs, originally suggested to Galvani, the study of certain phenomena, which from him have been styled Galvanic. He ascribed these movements to an electrical fluid or power, innate in the living frame, or capable of being evolved by it, which he denominated Animal Electricity. …

Many experiments have been performed, in this country and abroad, on the bodies of criminals, soon after their execution. Vassali, Julio, and Rossi, made an ample set, on several bodies decapitated at Turin. They paid particular attention to the effect of Galvanic electricity on the heart, and other involuntary muscles; a subject of much previous controversy. …

Most of the above experiments were however made, either without a voltaic battery, or with piles, feeble in comparison with those now employed. Those indeed performed on the body of a criminal, at Newgate, in which the limbs were violently agitated; the eyes opened and shut; the mouth and jaws worked about; and the whole face thrown into frightful convulsions, were made by Aldini, with, I believe, a considerable series of voltaic plates.

[Ure spends some time discussing various theories of the relationship between electricity and life, and then continues:]

These general physiological views will serve, I hope, as no inappropriate introduction to the detail of the galvanic phenomena, exhibited here on the 4th of November, in the body of the murderer Clydsdale; and they may probably guide us to some valuable practical inferences.

The subject of these experiments, was a middle sized, athletic, and extremely muscular man, about thirty years of age. He was suspended from the gallows nearly an hour, and made no convulsive struggle after he dropped; while a thief executed along with him, was violently agitated for a considerable time. He was brought to the anatomical theatre of our university in about ten minutes after he was cut down. His face had a perfectly natural aspect, being neither livid nor tumefied; and there was no dislocation of his neck.

Dr. Jeffray, the distinguished Professor of Anatomy, having on the previous day requested me to perform the galvanic experiments, I sent to his theatre with this view, next morning, my minor voltaic battery, consisting of 270 pairs of four inch plates, with wires of communication, and pointed metallic rods with insulating handles, for the more commodious application of the electric power. About five minutes before the police arrived with the body, the battery was charged with a dilate nitro-sulphuric acid, which speedily brought it into a state of intense action. The dissections were skilfully executed by Mr. Marshall, under the superintendance of the Professor.

Exp 1. A large incision was made into the nape of the neck, close below the occiput. The posterior half of the atlas vertebra was then removed by bone forceps, when the spinal marrow was brought into view. A considerable incision was at the same time made in the left hip, through the great gluteal muscle, so as to bring the sciatic nerve into sight; and a small cut was made in the heel. From neither of these did any blood flow. The pointed rod connected with one end of the battery was now placed in contact with the spinal marrow, while the other rod was applied to the sciatic nerve. Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated, with convulsive movements, resembling a violent shuddering from cold. The left side was most powerfully convulsed at each renewal of the electric contact. On moving the second rod from the hip to the heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such violence, as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension. …

Exp. 3. The supra-orbital nerve was laid bare in the forehead, as it issues through the supra-ciliary foramen, in the eyebrow: the one conducting rod being applied to it, and the other to the heel, most extraordinary grimaces were exhibited every time that the electric discharges were made, by running the wire in my hand along the edges of the last trough, from the 220th to the 227th pair of plates; thus fifty shocks, each greater than the preceding one, were given in two seconds: every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united in 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. …1

These experiments of Ure (or perhaps those of his predecessors) are mentioned by the unfailingly interesting Rav Eliyahu Kalatzkin:

וזה איזה שנים אשר אנשי החברה מגיני בעלי חיים (טהיערשוטץ פעראיין) [Humane Societies] החלו לחקור ולדון על דבר שאלת השחיטה, ובאיזה מחוזות במדינות שווייץ, מצאו האנטיסעמיטין תואנה להוציא חוק לאסור השחיטה, ולהנהיג הטביחה על ידי הבוטעראל, שיסמאסקע או מכונה עלעקטרית, ובעוד אשר ילכו לצוד ציד ויגרו כלבי הציד בטרפם, לעונג ושעשוע נפשם, יהפכו לרגע כרחמנים, ותחת מסוה החמלה והרחמים, יתנפלו להציק רבבות אנשים, ולהכרית אוכל מפי אחינו בני ישראל, ולא ישימו לב למופתי החכמה אשר הראו לדעת גדולי הפראפעסארין כי השחיטה נעלה וטובה מכל אופני הטביחה ומיתה האחרים, ובא קבוצת דבריהם במחברת הד”ר עהרמאן מטריער, אשר נקראה בשם טהיערשוטץ אונד מענשען-טרוטץ והובא דבריו במכה”ע יידישע פרעססע 18 אפריל שנה תרמ”ה, …

וכבר העיר בצדק החכם מהרי”ם ראבינאוויץ בחוברת “יסודי השחיטה”, שאין הפרכוס ותנועות של הבהמה אחר שחיטתה, מוכיחין שתרגיש אז צער וכאב, כאשר גם אחר כריתת כל הראש במכונת הגוילאטינע [guillotine], נראה בה לפעמים קריצת העינים וכדומה עכ”ד, והחוקרים בחנו בהגישם גוף אדם תלוי לצירי עמוד הגאלוואני, וראו שפרפר בתנועות מוזרות2

But while Ure understood his experiments to demonstrate that electricity could actually restore life to the dead, R. Kalatzkin rejects this interpretation:

In deliberating on the above galvanic phenomena, we are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first, (as I proposed) by electrifying the phrenic nerve (which may be done without any dangerous incision,) there is a probability that life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science. …

It is known, that cases of death-like lethargy, or suspended animation, from disease and accidents have occurred, where life has returned, after longer interruption of its functions, than in the subject of the preceding experiments. It is probable, when apparent death supervenes from suffocation with noxious gases, &c, and when there is no organic lesion, that a judiciously directed galvanic experiment, will, if any thing will, restore the activity of the vital functions. …3

ואשר יש שישפטו מזה כי כח העלעקטרי יפעול על הנפש, לא כן הוא, ואך כאשר נשאר עוד בגופו כח חיים בלתי מורגש שב לתנועה מורגשת בכח גירוי הזרם העלעקטרי, וכאשר נראה כי הזרם העלעקטרי לא יפעול מאומה על הגוף אשר כבר אבד ממנו כל כח חיים, ופעמים נשאר בו כח חיוני, גם כשלא נראה בו אות ורגש חיים, וכמפורש בנדה (דף ס”ט) דזב וזבה שמתו מטמאין במשא עד שימוק הבשר, דאז הוא דהוי מת בודאי, ובפ”ת דמסכת שמחות שפוקדין על המתים עד ג’ ימים ומעשה שפקדו אחד וחיה כ”ה שנים, ועיין מ”ש בזה החת”ם סופר (חלק יו”ד תשובה של”ח), וכן יאמרו הרופאים שביחוד בתליה וחניקה, יארע כזאת, ולזאת פעל עליו הזרם העלעקטרי כמבואר

R. Kalatzkin’s cited remarks occur at the end of his long discussion of צער בעלי חיים, which we have previously discussed here and here. His essay was also the subject of a recent Reading Responsa lecture of mine, available at the Internet Archive.

  1. The Journal of Science and the Arts, Edited at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Vol. VI, London 1819, pp. 283-290. See Lauren Young, The Real Electric Frankenstein Experiments of the 1800s, and John Simkin, Andrew Ure. []
  2. אמרי שפר סימן ל”ד אות י”ז []
  3. Ibid. pp. 292-93. []

Theft and Thaumaturgy II

The previous post in this series discussed the idea that Rachel stole Lavan’s תרפים in order to prevent them from informing Lavan of her family’s flight; this post discusses the other main traditional explanation of her theft, that the תרפים were idols worshipped by Lavan, and Rachel stole them to wean him from idolatry.

בראשית רבה

והיא לא נתכוונה אלא לשם שמים. אמרה: מה אנא מיזיל לי, ונשבוק הדין סבא בקלקוליה?! לפיכך הוצרך הכתוב לומר: ותגנוב רחל את התרפים אשר לאביה:1


להפריש את אביה מעבודה זרה נתכוונה:2

The simple version of this approach is that Rachel’s goal was practical: by removing the objects of Lavan’s worship from his possession, his ability to worship them would be thus thwarted. Abarbanel seems to have so understood Hazal, and he rejects their interpretation of Rachel’s motive (in favor of basically that of the previous post), essentially accusing them of naïveté: he considers it preposterous that a daughter might alter her elderly father’s religious convictions, and insists that Rachel would have been quite foolish to have had such a hope:

איך נתפתה רחל לגנוב את התרפים אשר לאביה האם חשבה להרחיקו מעכו”ם כדבריהם ז”ל באמת סכלות גדולה יהיה זה לה בחשבה כי לעת זקנתו בתו תטה את לבו ועם היות שנגנבו ממנו התרפים יעשה לו אלהים אחרים תחתיהם3

It is perhaps to counter this objection (as Dr. Alexander Klein suggests) that R. Hananel explains that Rachel’s action was not a pragmatic attempt to prevent her father from worshipping his idols, but rather a theological demonstration of their worthlessness: she meant to lead her father to the realization that “there can be no substance to a god who is stolen”:

ורבינו חננאל כתב כי מה שגנבה אותם כדי שיחזור בו ושיאמר אלוה הגנוב אין בו ממש, כדבר יואש שאמר (שופטים ו’) אם אלהים הוא ירב לו כי נתץ מזבחו, וכמו שאמר הכתוב (יחזקאל כ”ח) האמור תאמר אלהים אני לפני הורגך ואתה אדם ולא א-ל ביד מחללך:4

Vandalizing Televisions

In any event, Rachel’s act may serve as precedent to justify the theft or destruction of property in order to prevent the commission of sin, and it is indeed invoked as such by R. Moshe Shternbuch, in the course of his consideration of the case of a baal teshuvah who continually (!) vandalizes the television at his parents’ home in order to prevent the family from watching it. R. Shternbuch begins by conceding that the prohibition of watching television is “very severe”, but is nevertheless unwilling to grant unequivocal permission to vandalize the television, noting that such vigilantism is often counterproductive. He points out that Rachel did not include Jacob in her scheme, and he ultimately objected to what she had done, with his imprecation against the perpetrator ultimately causing Rachel’s death!

שאלה: בעל תשובה הנמצא בבית אביו ויש שם טלויזיא ונוהג הבן להזיק את המכשיר לעתים תכופות כדי שלא יסתכלו בו בני המשפחה, ושואל אם מותר לו להזיק כן.

הנה האיסור להסתכל בטלויזיא הוא חמור מאד, ומאביזרייהו דעריות הוא …

אמנם נחלקו הקצות החושן והנתיבות המשפט (חו”מ סימן ג’) אם הדין כפייה לקיים המצוות מסור לבית דין דוקא או לכל אחד ואחד, … ונראה שצדקו אלו הפוסקים שהצריכו בית דין דוקא לכפייה … ואף אם מעיקר הדין מוטל על כל אחד ואחד, נראה שאין להפקיר ממון ישראל בחנם, וצריכים התייעצות ופסק מבית דין, דלפעמים בדרך לקיחת ממונו גורם ריחוק יותר, ואין כל אחד ואחד יכול ליקח ממון חבירו בטענה שמתכוין לשם שמים להפרישו מאיסור. …

ובברכות דחסידי קדמאי … ומשמע שראוי לקרוע בגדי פריצות ולשלם במקום שיש חילול השם וכל שכן טלויזיא שמטמא עוד יותר, ורחל גנבה התרפים של אביה להפרישו מעבודה זרה וכמבואר ברש”י …

אמנם דעתי נוטה שכל פעולה צריך שאלת חכם, וגם רב אדא בר אהבה אמר “מתון מתון וכו’”, ואפילו רחל אמנו שגנבה התרפים מאביה להפרישו מעבודה זרה והעלימה מיעקב שהקפיד בדבר, ואמר “עם אשר תמצא את אלהיך לא יחיה” הרי שלא היתה דעתו מסכמת לזה, ולבסוף נענשה רחל על ידי זה שמתה, … ולפעמים לא הגיע עדיין הזמן להפרישו מטלויזיא, ופעולה שלא בזמנה עלולה לפעמים לקלקל, ולכל עת ולכל זמן, ובעצת חכמים ישכון אור ואין לזוז מדבריהם.5

[Translations / paraphrases of R. Shternbuch’s responsum: here and here.]

Spilling Out חלב עכו”ם

R. Avraham Weinfeld was asked about a yeshivah that persisted upon serving its students חלב עכו”ם, despite the pleas of local G-d fearing individuals, until one zealot spilled out one morning’s milk delivery, to protest the sinners and raise public awareness of the infraction. The yeshivah administration responded by suing for the loss. As R. Weinfeld summarizes, “the basic question is whether one who damages another’s property in order to prevent him from sinning is liable for compensation or not”:

שאלה, מעשה שהיה בעיר אחת בישיבה קטנה נתנו בכל יום להילדים לשתות חלב שחלבו עכו”ם, ויראי ד’ שבעיר בקשו מהנהלת הישיבה חדול מזה ולא הועילו בבקשתם ודחו אותם מיום אל יום עד שקם איש אחד וקנא קנאת ד’, ובבוקר אחד כאשר הביאו החלב עכו”ם אל הישיבה שפך את כל החלב ארצה, כדי למחות בעוברי עבירה ולעורר דעת הקהל אל האיסור, אך מנהלי הישיבה תבעו אותו לשלם ההפסד כדין מזיק, ונשאלתי אם יש ממש בטענתם, ותוכן השאלה אם המזיק ממון חבירו כדי לאפרושי מאיסורא חייב לשלם או לא.6

R. Weinfeld has a lengthy analysis of the question, inclining toward the zealous defendant, and concludes by noting that “with the aid of Heaven, the protest was effective, and they henceforth distributed חלב ישראל”:

ובעז”ה הועילה המחאה ומאז הנהיגו לחלק חלב ישראל ושלום על ישראל.

My parashah lecture and weekly halachah column for פרשת ויצא covered the topics and (most of the) sources of this and the previous post. Here is the column:

In parashas Vayeitzei, the Torah relates that Rachel stole her father Lavan’s “terafim” as she fled from him. What were these mysterious terafim, and what was Rachel’s motive and justification for stealing them? The midrashim and classic commentators offer two general approaches:

  1. The terafim were magical devices capable of speech, and Rachel stole them to prevent them from revealing to Lavan the flight of Yaakov and his household (Tanchuma #12, Chizkuni).
  2. The terafim were idols of Lavan, and Rachel stole them to cure him of idol worship (Bereishis Rabah 74:5, Rashi).

The latter approach seems to imply the legitimacy of theft as a means to prevent someone from sinning. R. Moshe Shternbuch does indeed adduce Rachel’s action in support of the permissibility of destroying property that is being used in the commission of sin, although he subsequently points out that Yaakov apparently disagreed with her decision, and that Rachel was eventually punished by death for her action (Shut. Teshuvos Vehanhagos 1:368).

In the course of his analysis, R. Shternbuch cites a dispute between the Ketzos Hachoshen and the Nesivos Hamishpat over whether the Talmudic rule approving the use of force to prevent someone from sinning (Bava Kama 28a) is limited to the courts, or endorses even vigilante action by private citizens. R. Shternbuch sides with the Ketzos that the authority to use force is the sole prerogative of the court, but he seems to overlook the fact that the Ketzos subsequently clarifies his position and concedes that even a private citizen may use force to prevent someone from actively violating a prohibition (such as eating non-kosher food), and it is only the use of force to compel someone to act in fulfillment of a positive commandment (such as taking the four species) that is limited to the court (see Ketzos, Nesivos and Meshoveiv Nesivos at the beginning of siman 3).

The lecture and accompanying handouts are available at the Internet Archive.

See also:

  1. בראשית רבה פרשה ע”ד סימן ה’ []
  2. רש”י בראשית לא:יט, ועיין גם מדרש תנחומא פרשת ויצא סימן י”ב []
  3. אברבנאל שם שאלה י”א []
  4. רבינו בחיי שם []
  5. שו”ת תשובות והנהגות חלק א’ סימן שס”ח []
  6. שו”ת לב אברהם סימן ע”ה []

Ascetics, Aesthetics, and Cosmetics

My halachah column for this past year’s פרשת נשא:

In Parashas Naso (6:11), a Nazarite is commanded to bring a sin-offering. As we have noted in previous years, the Talmud (Bava Kama 91b) cites an explanation that this is to atone for the sin of having (unnecessarily) deprived himself of the enjoyment of wine. Elsewhere (Nedarim 10a), the Talmud derives from this that one who engages in (discretionary) fasting is called a sinner.

But in yet another discussion of the topic, the Talmud (Taanis 11a-b) again begins by citing the opinion that the Nazarite and the faster are considered sinners, but then proceeds to cite two other opinions: one that considers them both ‘holy’, and one that invokes the term ‘pious’ (although Rashi and Tosafos actually disagree whether it is the faster, or the one who refrains from fasting, who is termed pious).

The Tosafos complicate matters even further, noting that the same sage (Shmuel) who maintains that the faster is considered a sinner, elsewhere maintains that fasting is permitted, and even a mitzvah! They explain that although fasting is inherently sinful, the mitzvah involved outweighs the sin. This is obviously difficult to understand.

R. An-Shlomo Astruc in his Midrashei Ha’Torah adopts a similar position, elaborating that the ‘sin’ requiring ‘atonement’ is not the Nazarite’s abstemiousness itself, but the underlying fact that his urges have become so powerful that he is compelled to become a Nazarite and renounce wine “which cheereth G-d and man” (Shoftim 9:13) in order to subdue his base nature and evil characteristics and eliminate his carnal lusts. He explains that just as some substances are good for the physically healthy but harmful to the ill, so, too, is wine good for the morally healthy but abstention therefrom a tonic for the morally deranged (cf. Gilyonot Nechama year 5710).

The Ramban in his commentary to our parashah sides with the view that Nazarism is praiseworthy. He explains that a Nazarite ideally ought to maintain his elevated status permanently – “he should remain all his days a Nazarite and holy to his G-d” – and that by declining to do so, he commits a grave sin, “and he requires atonement as he returns to becoming defiled by the lusts of the world”.

My parashah lecture, on the same topic, along with accompanying handout, is available at the Internet Archive. [See also our previous posts here and here about the permissibility of cosmetic surgery.]