While most people are content to let the dead remain dead – even if they would dearly like to see their loved just one last time – that is certainly not always the case. Take, for example, Giovanni Aldini. Although many have seen fit to dismiss him as an outright crank, or as a definitive mad professor-type, this is not the case at all.
Born in 1762, Aldini, at the age of thirty-six, achieved the position of a professor of physics at the University of Bologna, in northern Italy. Although much of his work was focused upon issues of a very much down to earth nature, there was a darker, and highly controversial side to Aldini, too.
It’s important to note that Aldini was the nephew of one Luigi Galvani, also of the University of Bologna. Galvani – from whose name the term “galvanism” is directly derived – was someone who spent a great deal of time experimenting on dead frogs.
Galvani came to realize that while it was not possible to breathe new life into the dead creatures, directing an electric current through the spinal cord of the frogs caused the creatures to twitch and move as if they were alive – or had been successfully brought back from the other side.
Not only was Aldini deeply influenced by the work of his uncle Luigi, he took matters yet another step further. It was, in fact, just about the most controversial step of them all that anyone could take.
To say that Aldini literally reanimated the dead would be incorrect. It would be right on target, however, to say that he animated them. And he did so in a fashion that followed directly in the path of Luigi Galvani. But, Aldini’s grisly experiments were not undertaken on frogs: his test-subjects were nothing less than the human dead.
Such was the scale of the public and media fascination with Aldini’s work in the fields of galvanism – that some even perceived as being outright devilish in nature – he traveled the length and breadth of Europe demonstrating how, in an uncanny and disturbing fashion, the dead could be made to appear not quite so dead, after all. As was the case with his Uncle Luigi, Aldini’s work was all based around the careful application and use of electric currents.
Certainly, the most memorable and fear-inducing of all Aldini’s experiments occurred in 1803, at the London, England-based Royal College of Surgeons. Aldini’s test-subject was a man named George Forster, who had been hanged by the neck on January 18, 1803, after being found guilty of murdering – by drowning – both his wife and his youngest child.
Aldini wasted no time in securing Forster’s fresh corpse for his strange experimentation. The result was uncanny and amazing: only mere hours after his death, Forster was on the move again, so to speak.
As a captivated and spellbound audience looked on in near-hypnotic fashion, Aldini attached two conducting rods to a large battery. The other ends of the rods were affixed, respectively, to Forster’s right ear and mouth. When the surge of electricity hit Forster’s body with full force, something incredible and obscene occurred: Forster’s left-eye opened wide, appearing to stare wildly and malevolently at the shocked crowds, and his jaw began to move and quiver, as if he was about to utter something awful and guttural.
If that was not enough to provoke terror in all those in attendance, when the electrified rods were attached to Forster’s right arm, his hand rose and his fist clenched. There were audible gasps in the audience and more than a couple even fainted on the spot.
Aldini was not a carnival showman, however. That’s to say he did not deceive his audiences into thinking that he had literally raised the dead. Certainly, he was careful to point out that the power of electricity only appeared to make the dead come back to life. Nevertheless, in later years, and hardly surprisingly, Aldini became known as a definitive, real-life Dr. Frankenstein, even though he was actually nothing of the sort.
Aldini died in 1834, at the age of seventy-two. His reputation as an animator of the dead remains intact two centuries after his death (from which, in case you may be wondering, he did not return).