The Unfortunate George Foster

I was listening to the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast tonight titled “Who was the real Dr. Frankenstein?“.  The podcast was ok, was familiar with the popularity of “let’s shock dead things and see what happens” experiments in the early 19th century, and that the discussion of these had most likely sparked the idea of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in Mary Shelley.

One specific detail really grabbed me.  While there was a fad, the original idea seems to have been largely conceived of by Luigi Galvani and popularized and refined as a road show by his nephew Giovanni Aldini.  I certainly don’t want to give these guys short shrift as they were clearly serious scholars.  Galvini gave his name to the process of galvanizing metals, among other achievements, and Aldini is the direct father of electro-shock therapy and the removed ancestor of the defibrillation process.  But, without quite so much academic detachment, what you basically had was a guy shocking a corpse in front of a live studio audience (don’t forget to tip your waitress!).

On January 18, 1803, George Foster was hung as the convicted murderer of his wife and youngest child.  After he was dead he was cut down and taken to the Royal College of Surgeons, where he was to be the main exhibit for Aldini’s performance that evening.  Aldini applied direct current to the face, causing muscles to clench and Foster’s left eye to open.  The show-stopper, though, was the application of the current to Foster’s rectum, resulting in convulsions in the entire body, including his arms being thrown into the air and his back arching as if he were taking a gasping breath.

Good times, good times.

After all this, the whole reason this really captured my interested was a statement made in the podcast that even if Aldini had “reanimated” Foster.  The exact words in the podcast were something like “police had a plan – if Foster had been reanimated he would have been re-executed”.

This strikes me as kind of a raw deal.  Not that I’m a big fan of murder, but, come on, being killed once should be enough.  I decided to track down this statement in the podcast and see if it had any basis in fact.

The first hit is George Foster’s wikipedia page, always a good place to start research (though a poor place to finish it, of course).  That page states that “[t]he Newgate Calendar reports that even if this had been so, he would have been re-executed since his sentence was to ‘hang until he be dead'”.  Nice.

The Newgate Calendar is two things.  First, it was a monthly summary of executions at Newgate Prison.  Secondly, it was very popular collection of stories of the various crimes committed and punishments received.  As I read it, in 1825 the parents in a family would have this book in the home to “scare straight” the kids.  It also appears to be fairly entertaining reading, in much the same way a horror movie can be entertaining.  But more on that in a minute.

I found two very good sources for the Newgate Calendar’s entry on George Foster.  The easiest to read is at a very interesting site I just found tonight called “The Ex-Classics Website“.  There is a page dedicated to George Foster’s entry.  Since I don’t know the reputation of Ex-Classics, I also found the entry on Google Books.  The Google Books entry corroborates the Ex-Classics page but is harder to read.  It’s worth it though because it provides the original layout – some context was lost in the Ex-Classics page.

Here’s the specific entry I’m curious about, the one regarding re-executing Foster (the line’s in a footnote, including the footnoted body text also for context):

[…] On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. *[…]

* An experiment was made on a convict named Patrick Redmond, who was hanged for a street robbery, on the 24th of February, 1767, in order to bring him to life. It appeared that the sufferer had hung twenty-eight minutes when the mob rescued the body and carried it to an appointed place, where a surgeon was in attendance to try the experiment bronchotomy, which is an incision in the windpipe, and which in less than six hours produced the desired effect. A collection was made for the poor fellow, and interest made to obtain his pardon, for it will be remembered that the law says the condemned shall hang until he be dead; consequently men who, like Redmond, recovered, were liable to be again hanged up until they were dead.

This isn’t really what I was hoping for.  I imagined a court decree and armed guards around the building.  Instead we get this footnote, and here begins my real concern with the historical accuracy.  Because the popular Newgate Calendar essentially justified its existence by editorializing the crimes, this footnote basically reads to me as “Hey you kids, don’t think just because you might get resurrected that you can escape the fate that awaits you should you slip into a life of sin”.  So it appears that I have a contemporary source for the statement, but the source isn’t reliable.

I did have fun looking through this tonight even if the final stop isn’t the most satisfying.  I’ll end this with a great sentence, from George Foster’s entry in the Newgate Calendar

 [T]he cap was pulled over his eyes, when the stage falling from under him, he was launched into eternity.


1 thought on “The Unfortunate George Foster

  1. great post. I was having trouble finding more details on the newgate calendar entry but it appears this is all we have. Thank you for the well written post

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