The Geologist Who Tried To Electrocute An Executed Murderer Back To Life

An illustration of the attempted ressuscitation. Louis Figueir via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

On November 4, 1818, a large crowd gathered at a medical theater in the University of Glasgow and waited patiently for a man to be executed, so that a geologist could begin attempting to electrocute him back to life.

Matthew Clydesdale had been sentenced to death for murdering a 70-year-old man some two months previously. Part of the punishment was that he was to be anatomized following his death, allowed by the Murder Act passed in 1751. This killed two birds with one stone: giving extra humiliation to the deceased, and supplying physicians with a body to train on – or in this case, a geologist to electrocute the hell of in front of a large audience.

The execution took place at Jail Square, after which he was thrown on a cart and taken to the university, where a crowd waited for what happened next.

Andrew Ure is best known for his contributions to geology, though he also dabbled in business theory and chemistry. He was absolutely convinced that he could reanimate the dead using electricity, having learned of the limbs of frogs convulsing following the application of electricity, as well as previous attempts to electrocute the human hearts of criminals surely after execution (at this time, the British basically saw it as a hobby).

Ure wanted to conduct his own experiments using more powerful batteries, and unlike previous scientists who shocked bodies to learn about electricity and its effects on muscles and nerves, he believed that if he kept going for long enough, he would be able to bring someone back to life.

Naturally, when somebody believes that and has access to a corpse and a massive battery, a large crowd tends to gather. And so, in front of a large crowd of looky-loos, Ure set to work draining the blood of the corpse, before cutting into his neck and spine, then connecting the battery up to the spinal marrow.

"Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements, resembling a violent shuddering from cold," Ure wrote of the experiment. "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."

He continued to shock the corpse with greater voltages, even as the audience of people who thought that going to watch a corpse getting shocked would be a fun night out began to faint and leave.

“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," Ure continued. "At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted."

Over the course of an hour, he attempted to stimulate the lungs. "The success of it was truly wonderful," he remarked. "Full, nay, laborious breathing instantly commenced. The chest heaved and fell; the belly was protruded and again collapsed, with the retiring and collapsing diaphragm.”

He speculated that had he left the blood within the man, he may have come back to life.

"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."

In the end, however, he hadn't actually proved much, beyond the fact that you shouldn't let geologists loose with a corpse just because he fancies a go.

 


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