It’s October, the season of bats, witches and monsters! We all love to hear the traditional spooky tales as Halloween approaches! This tale, in particular, is the true story that inspired one of the season’s standard haunting tales: Frankenstein’s Monster!
Imagine this, George Foster is sitting in what was known as a prison cell in London. It’s January 17th, 1803. So, we’re basically talking about a dank and filthy pit with iron bars for a door. It’s freezing outside, and just as cold in his cell.
Foster had been arrested, indicted and found guilty of murdering his wife and child. He was sentenced to death, the gallows had already been erected in his honor. Now there was nothing left to do but sit and wait, the guys is terrified, right?!
Here’s the kicker, Foster was out of town when his family was found dead. That didn’t matter. He argued his case and even had witnesses that swore he was nowhere around when the murders occurred. Unfortunately, none of it did him a bit of good.
So here’s Foster, an innocent man with the reputation of being a hard worker and good father and husband. He’s gonna hang for this crime, and not only that, he’s well aware of what comes afterward. Thanks to the “Murder Act of 1752” his body would be anatomized, basically dissected, but not before he had hanged from the noose for at least one hour. This was a gruesome production that was turned into something like a street fair. Everyone and their grand mama would be there to watch. This macabre display was one Hell of a deterrent for keeping criminals in line, or at least giving them some motivation to plan their shit out and not get caught!
As if the “legal” punishment for these crimes wasn’t enough, it wasn’t all that the “sentenced” murderers had to look forward to. First off, there was this whole spiritual dilemma thing. On Judgement Day, how is a hanged and dissected man gonna rise from his grave when his body parts were scattered to who knows where? Secondly, was the whole “scattered” thing. You see, once the body had been dissected, droves from medical schools began circling like vultures, snatching and grabbing at whatever parts they could get their hands on for medical experiments and research.
The remains of the criminal at that point, would be taken to labs and typically skinned, eviscerated and then cut into even smaller pieces, the left overs were usually burned or thrown out with the trash. You see, London had a very dark culture that was fascinated with what was known in other societies to be morbid and gruesome. The elite folks in this society saw all this madness as avant garde, only the cream of the crop showed up to watch these bizarre medical experiments. They’d show up in tuxedos and top hats, the women came wearing their finest gowns, imagine that insanity!
Sometimes there were some unexpected surprises at these events too. Rumor had it that during some of these experiments, the hanged man would wake up in the middle of being dissected, with a room full of people watching. Remember, it wasn’t required by law to dissect criminals after hanging unless they were guilty of murder. So some of these lucky bastards got to experience being hanged not once, but twice! We call that lagniappe here in Louisiana!
So, back to poor old George. He’s watching the sun rise, it’s his last day on earth. He shivers as he stands up to peek out of the tiny window of his cell. The first thing he sees are the gallows, the hang man’s noose is already in place, waiting patiently for him. It wouldn’t be long now before people start lining the streets, eager to see him hanged for a crime that he didn’t commit. George was familiar with the process, he had witnessed it many times himself. What he didn’t know is that he was destined to birth one of the most bizarre and beloved horror tales of all times.
Now, from London to Italy, and long before Foster’s trial and sentencing, Luigi Galvani, a noted Doctor and Scientist from the University of Bolongna, sat in his laboratory dissecting frogs. Luigi discovered that if the amphibian’s legs were touched with a charged wire, they would twitch wildly, thus proving that life, in some manner, could be restored.
Luigi’s work had not progressed beyond frogs up until the time of his passing, but never fear, his nephew Giovanni Aldini would pick up his work where he left off. Now, Giovanni is young and has a point to prove, this dude has a massive ego! If Luigi’s experiments worked on frogs, why wouldn’t they work on larger subjects.
People flocked to Giovanni’s laboratory to watch on as he performed his repulsive experiments on cows, sheep and pigs. They would gasp as eyes rolled in their sockets, heads jerked from side to side and tongues twitched and quivered. His experiments became notorious, some even considered their attendance quite fashionable, it was like this dude had his own little cult following.
Well, Giovanni’s ego wouldn’t allow for him to settle for experimenting on animals. There were bigger and better subjects out there. He goes and makes a deal with the hangman, and soon after, he finds himself hiding beneath the gallows where he hand picked his specimens. He would then lug the corpse back to his laboratory where he would immediately begin his experiments.
Again the gore seeking crowds gathered to watch on as the bodies twitched and contorted during his tests. But Giovanni was intrigued with his results and soon began boasting that his experiments proved that he could bring life back into newly deceased corpses. This was a point that could not be proven with the body of a criminal, you see, in Italy, once a man had been hanged for 1 hour, the laws stated that he must be decapitated before his body discarded. Giovanni’s testing had been limited by having to use subjects that had been drained of all of their blood and had no head.
So he packs up his equipment and moves to London, and this is where George Foster comes in to play. Foster’s body would be given to Giovanni intact.
Giovanni’s reputation had preceded him. He begins making public appearances and once he has captured the attention of the crowds, he announces that he will bring a dead corpse back to life as a result of his testing. So, word spreads and now everyone is planning on being present for this ground breaking event.
Now, back to Foster. They’ve come to get him, the cell door screeches as it opens. Foster shivers as he finishes the last of his praying. He’s led down a narrow passageway, his bare feet sloshing through the filth stained icy slush that’s covering the stone path. His heart is pounding, and his feet are numb, he can hardly make it up the steps. Finally he arrives at the top to be greeted by a large man with a hood on his head, propped up on the railing behind the hangman is a large axe, it’s handle stained with the blood of numerous criminals. He steps forward and hangs his head, his senses go numb as the noose is tightened around his neck. There’s a loud thud and then the floor gives way beneath his frozen feet.
Below the gallows waits his transport, when 1 hour has passed he will be rushed to the Royal College of Surgeons.
Giovanni watches on eagerly as his assistants rush toward him with Fosters corpse. He immediately begins attaching probes and electrons into the arms, legs, chest and forehead of his new subject. He then powers up his equipment and begins his work. Immediately Fosters jaw began to quiver, his muscles began to contort and then his left eye opened. Everyone that’s watching has got to be thinking that Foster has come back to life.
Giovanni continued his test and at one point it appeared that Foster seemed to inhale sharply, but no further progress was made. Now hours into his procedure his battery begins to fail and soon Fosters body lay just as still as it had when he was rushed in.
A humiliated Giovanni abandons his experiment and returns to Rome, blaming his failure on the battery. All of the folks that had been there watching, go home and begin to describe the things they had seen. Topics such as these were common “parlor talk” at this time. Children would be put to bed early so that they would not overhear the gruesome things that were being discussed.
One of these folks was medic named Anthony Carlisle. You’re going to love this part! So Carlisle is invited over for a Sunday social to the home of his friend William Godwin. Godwin’s socials were not small gatherings, they were attended by doctors, lawyers, philosophers, scholars you name it.
So, the children were rushed to bed upstairs and away from the impending discussions. Carlisle described the experiment in great detail while everyone listened in, everyone to include at least one of Godwin’s daughters, Mary.
Though Luigi and Giovanni had failed, Mary Godwin Shelley would succeed, though only in fiction. Frankenstein’s character was based on Giovanni Albini, but the monster that Frankenstein brought to life was a creation of Shelley, no doubt her vision of Carlisle’s description of the experiment that he witnessed.
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