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 I

After breakfast was over, the ogre called out, “Wife, wife, bring me my golden harp.”

So she brought it and put it on the table before him. Then he said, “Sing!” and the golden harp sang most beautifully. And it went on singing till the ogre fell asleep, and commenced to snore like thunder.

Then Jack lifted up the copper lid very quietly and got down like a mouse and crept on hands and knees till he came to the table, when up he crawled, caught hold of the golden harp and dashed with it towards the door.

But the harp called out quite loud, “Master! Master!” and the ogre woke up just in time to see Jack running off with his harp.

Jack and the Beanstalk, as recorded by Joseph Jacobs.

וְלָבָן הָלַךְ, לִגְזֹז אֶת-צֹאנוֹ; וַתִּגְנֹב רָחֵל, אֶת-הַתְּרָפִים אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ.1

This terse report of Rachel’s theft is surely one of the most mystifying bits of Biblical narration: what on earth are תרפים, and why did Rachel steal them? Our exegetical tradition contains two main approaches to this narrative:

  • The תרפים were magical entities, and Rachel stole them to forestall the possibility of their communicating to Lavan the fact of her family’s flight.
  • The תרפים were idols worshipped by Lavan, and Rachel stole them to wean him from idolatry.

This post discusses the former approach; a follow-up will discuss the latter, בג”ה.

מדרש תנחומא

למה גנבה אותם? כדי שלא יהו אומרים ללבן שיעקב בורח עם נשיו ובניו וצאנו. וכי התרפים מדברים הם? כן, דכתיב: (זכריה י) כי התרפים דברו און. ואתה אומר עיניים להם ולא יראו כל אותו עניין?! אלא תרפים. למה נקרא תרפים? לפי שהן מעשה תורדף מעשה טומאה. וכיצד היו עושין? מביאין אדם בכור ושוחטים אותו ומולחים אותו במלח ובשמים, וכותבין על ציץ זהב שם רוח טומאה ומניחין הציץ במכשפות תחת לשונו, ומניחין אותו בקיר ומדליקין לפניו נרות ומשתחווים לו, ומדבר עמם בלחש, זה שאמר הכתוב: כי התרפים דברו און, לפיכך גנבה אותן רחל.2

The Tosafists ask: why did the תרפים not call out to Lavan “Here we are!” as he searched for them?

Their answer is one of the most humorous ideas I have ever encountered in Biblical exegesis: since the תרפים were currently situated under Rachel’s posterior, announcing their location would have been deeply humiliating to entities that styled themselves as gods:

מה תרפים? שוחטין אדם … ולמה גנבתם רחל? שלא יגידו ללבן שברח יעקב. ואם תאמר אם כן מדוע לא הגידו לו “כאן אנחנו עומדים” כשבקש באהל רחל. יש לומר לפי שרחל יושבת עליהן וגנאי גדול היה להם לומר שהם תחת אחור רחל שהם עושין עצמן עבודה זרה.3

Perhaps we may suggest an alternate approach: (semi-)sentient magical artifacts have been known to betray their current possessers in favor of others; perhaps the תרפים decided that they preferred the company of Rachel to that of Lavan …

  1. בראשית לא:יט []
  2. מדרש תנחומא פרשת ויצא סימן י”ב, תורה שלמה חלק חמישי עמוד תתתכח אות מ”ג. וכן פירש בחזקוני שם, ועיין רלב”ג ורבינו בחיי שם. []
  3. הדר זקנים שם []

Thanksgiving Day, Thanksgiving Days, and The Ten Branched Menorah

My weekly parashah lectures and halachah column for this past פרשת צו discussed the establishment of days of thanksgiving, as well as other rituals of thanksgiving. One fascinating practice that I discussed in the lectures is the custom of some Syrian Jews, of Sephardic extraction, to kindle an extra light on each night of חנוכה. Here is R. Haim Sabato’s explanation of the story behind the custom:

[S]he brought out an ancient lamp, many years old, inherited from his fathers and his fathers’ fathers, men of the Spanish exile. It was old and damaged and could not hold oil, or be used for any ritual purpose. He saw that engraved on it was the name Sapporta and the picture of a ship. They went and showed it to the foreign trader, and when he saw it he was overjoyed and offered a generous price for it, enough to keep the sage solvent for months.

And what was special about it? It was made to accord with a custom maintained by many of the people of Aleppo, that rather than light one candle, they lit two, thus on the first day of Hanukkah three candles were lit instead of the more usual two, up to the eighth and last day, when ten candles were lit.

This custom has been vouched for by my father, who saw his late father following the practice, and to this very day, in the Aram Zova community of New York, I have seen many doing this and not knowing why. I have heard it said that this tradition was instituted by exiles from Spain, who arrived in Aleppo at Hanukkah time and were saved from shipwreck by a miracle, and added an extra candle in memory of the miracle. So this ancient menorah belonging to Hacham Sapporta was designed to hold ten candles, and few of its type remained in the world. It was for this reason that the man was so delighted to have it and was prepared to pay so much for it. And he too did not lose on the deal, as it was eventually bought from him by the Louvre, for a substantial sum.1

When I read this some years ago, I was unsure as to whether this was fact or fiction. It is from Aleppo Tales, a novel, but Sabato’s writing is always remarkably meticulous and exhibits a marvelous verisimilitude. I consulted a Sephardic friend, who assured me that this was indeed an actual custom among some Syrians.

It turns out that the custom itself is documented, although I am not aware of a documented source for the reason Sabato gives and the legend he recounts. R. Avraham Adas, in דרך אר”ץ – מנהגי ארם צובה mentions two other explanations (as well as noting that Libyan Jews also have a similar custom, and that contemporary Aleppan custom varies):

בימי החנוכה נוהגים ק”ק ספרדים להדליק נר נוסף בכל לילה, דהיינו בליל ראשון מדליקים שלשה נרות – אחד למצות חנוכה שני נרות שמשים; וכן בכל לילה מדליקין שני נרות שמשים, פרט לנרות החובה, …

וטעם למנהג זה – שמעתי מהרב יצחק טוויל שליט”א, כי בני ספרד היו אנשים מכובדים ורמי מעלה, ובכל ימות השנה היו מדליקים שני נרות כדי להאיר את הבית, וכם כן בחנוכה לא היה היכר כאשר מדליקים בלילה הראשונה שני נרות בלבד – משום כך הדליקו שני שמשים; וממילא בכל לילה מוסיפים נר, ולכן המשיכו בכל הלילות להדליק שני שמשים [על פי השמועה];

ועוד טעם הוסיף מדעתו, והוא שחוששים משום “זוגות” – על פי הגמרא במסכת פסחים [דף קי.], ולכן הדליקו בלילה הראשונה בסך הכל שלשה נרות, [והעיקר שלא להתחיל בזוגות; אך אין חשש במה שמדליקים בליל ב’ ארבעה נרות, שהם שתי זוגות] – עד כאן מדברי הרב יצחק טוויל הנ”ל.

ועיין בספר היכל עבודת השם [חלק שני עמוד ש”ה] שכתב שגם יהודי לוב נוהגים להדליק שני שמשים – [בבית הכנסת].

ולענין מנהג חלב היום – יש מדליקים שני שמשים כנ”ל, ויש המדליקים שמש אחד בלבד, – הרב יעקב עטייה שליט”א, ור’ חיים דאיה נ”י – [היום, כידוע התמזגו הקהילות – ואין “ק”ק ספרדים” לחוד).2

There is a custom observed by some Jews with roots in Aleppo to light an extra candle each night of Hanukah. This means that on the first night they light three candles – one for the Misva, and two to serve as the “Shamosh” – on the second night they light four, and so on. This practice is mentioned in the work “Derech Eretz,” which documents the customs of the Aleppo the Jewish community (listen to audio recording for precise citation). The author writes that this custom was observed specifically by the “Kahal Kadosh Sepharadim” – the community of Jews that observed the practices of the Jews of Spain. It appears that there was a particular segment of the Aleppo community that made a point of following the customs of the old Jewish community of Spain, and it was this segment which had the custom of lighting the extra candle.

The author of “Derech Eretz” mentions two possible reasons for this custom, in the name of Rabbi Yishak Tawil. One possibility is that the members of the “Kahal Kadosh Sepharadim” were wealthy and would always have two candles lit in their homes at night for illumination. (We have to remember that we are speaking of a time many centuries ago, before electricity, when not everyone had the means to properly illuminate their homes.) Therefore, the two candles lit the first night for Hanukah would not be recognizable as Hanukah candles, and so they decided to add a third candle to make it clear that the candles were lit for the Misva of Hanukah candles. And once they lit an extra candle the first night, they added an extra candle each subsequent night, as well. Another reason mentioned by Rabbi Tawil is that the members of this community were concerned about “Zugot” – dong things in pairs – a concept which the Gemara discusses in Masechet Pesahim, and which is based on the concern that this could pose danger. (Apparently, they were not concerned about having four, six or eight candles, but only two candles.) The custom therefore developed to add an extra candle the first night, and once this was done they added a candle each subsequent night.

My column:

Parashas Tzav discusses the thanksgiving-offering (korban todah). Although the sacrificial rites are unfortunately today in a state of desuetude, various other halachically sanctioned ceremonies of thanksgiving to Hashem for salvation and deliverance from catastrophe remain. One of these is the establishment by individuals or communities of local “Purims” (i.e., “Thanksgiving Days”) – days of celebration and expression of gratitude to Hashem in commemoration of particular incidents of His miraculous salvation from some grave danger.

R. Moshe Alashkar (Shut. Maharam Alashkar #49) endorsed the solemn enactment of the residents of a certain city and their beis din establishing “for them and for their descendants and for all who followed them, in perpetuity” the date of 11 Teves to be “like the day of Purim in all respects”, to publicize a “great miracle” that they had experienced on that day. Although R. Hezekiah da Silva (Pri Chadash OC #496 Dinei Minhagei Isur #14) dissents and rules that subsequent to the destruction of the [Second] temple, the institution of a new holiday is not binding, the halachic consensus apparently follows the view of R. Moshe Alashkar (see Magen Avraham siman 686 s.k. 5). The Chasam Sofer (Shut. OC #191) mentions a permanent “day of rejoicing” on 20 Adar established by the community of Frankfurt am Main in response to a miracle that had occurred there. He reports that he saw that his great teacher R. Nathan Adler, who had been born there, observed the day, and relates that he, too, observed it, even though he was [at the time of writing] living far from Frankfurt.

R. Avraham Danzig (at the very end of Chayei Adam) relates that he personally had established the date of 16 Kislev for his family as a day of commemoration and celebration of their having all survived a terrible (gun)powder conflagration that had claimed thirty one lives in their neighborhood.

R. Ovadia Hedaya (Shut. Yaskil Avdi 7:OC:44-12) ruled that immigrants to Israel from Tripoli, who had previously observed no fewer than three local Purims, must continue to observe them in Israel.

My lectures, along with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive.

Update: My weekly halachah column of two years ago also covered some of the same ground:

Parashas Tzav discusses the thanksgiving-offering (korban todah). Although the sacrificial rites are unfortunately today in a state of desuetude, a formal halachic obligation to acknowledge Hashem’s salvation remains in the form of the “bestowal blessing” (birchas hagomel), recited upon surviving a dangerous situation. R. Asher (Piskei Ha’Rosh Berachos 9:3) explains that this blessing was instituted in place of the thanksgiving-offering. R. Avraham Danzig recommends that one should additionally set aside money equal in value to one of the types of animals brought as a thanksgiving-offering and disburse it as charity to students of Torah, as well as recite the Biblical passage of the thanksgiving-offering followed by a detailed explication he provides of its laws and procedures. He relates that he, himself, did so following a terrible gunpowder fire in which he and his family suffered severe property damage and personal injury, but fortunately all survived (Chayei Adam, Seder Amiras Korban Todah at the conclusion of the work’s first section, and cf. Hilchos Megillah 155:41).

The Talmud (Berachos 54b) declares that “Four are required to give thanks: seafarers, desert travelers, one who was sick and became healed, and one who was confined in prison and left.” The exact definitions of these categories, their applications to scenarios of modern life and the basic question of whether the listed situations are the only ones requiring the blessing, or are merely commonly arising ones, from which we generalize to any situation involving serious danger, are subject to considerable dispute. In practice, the two most common experiences upon which the blessing is recited are airplane trips and illness (or childbirth).

  1. Haim Sabato, Aleppo Tales, pp. 61-62. []
  2. דרך ארץ (עדס: בני ברק ה’תש”נ), סדר הדלקת נרות חנוכה אות א’ עמודים קמג-מד []