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.