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Excerpt: 'Elephants on Acid'

Elephants on Acid Book Cover

Chapter One: Frankenstein's Lab

Beakers bubble over. Electricity crackles. A man hunches over a laboratory bench, a crazed look in his eyes. This is the classic image of a mad scientist—a pale-skinned, sleep-deprived man toiling away in a lab full of strange machinery, delving into nature's most forbidden and dreadful secrets. In the popular imagination, no one embodies this image better than Victor Frankenstein, the titular character of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel. Gathering material from charnel houses and graves, he created an abomination—a living monster pieced together from the body parts of the dead. But he was just fictional, right? Surely no one has done that kind of stuff in real life. Well, perhaps no one has succeeded in creating an undead monster, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. The history of science is full of researchers whose experiments have, like Frankenstein's, gone well beyond conventional boundaries of morality and plunged them deep into the realms of the morbid and bizarre. These are the men—for some reason, they are all men—we meet in this chapter. Prepare yourself for zombie kittens, two-headed dogs, and other lab-spawned monstrosities.

The Body Electric

"Frog soup," Madame Galvani wheezed. "Make me some frog soup." She had been sick in bed for over a week, aching, feverish, and suffering from a wracking cough. The doctor had diagnosed consumption. Frog soup, he assured her, was just the thing to put her on the road to recovery. She asked her servants to prepare some, and soon they were scurrying about, gathering the ingredients. Painfully, she forced herself out of bed to supervise. It was just as well she did so. She found them milling around, searching for somewhere to lay out the frogs. "Put them on the table in my husband's lab," Madame Galvani instructed. A servant obediently carried the tray of skinned frogs into the lab and set it down next to one of the doctor's electrical machines. He picked up a knife and began to carve a frog, but just then a spark flew from the machine and touched the knife. Instantly the legs of the frog twitched and spasmed. Madame Galvani, who had followed the servant in, gasped in surprise. "Luigi, come quick," she cried. "The most remarkable thing has just happened."

In 1780 Luigi Galvani, an Italian professor of anatomy, discovered that a spark of electricity could cause the limbs of a dead frog to move. Nineteenth-century popularizersof science would later attribute this discovery to his wife's desire for frog soup. Unfortunately, that part of the story is a legend. The reality is that Galvani was quite purposefully studying frogs, to understand how their muscles contracted, when a spark caused movement in a limb. However, the frog-soup story does have the virtue of restoring to his wife a greater role in the discovery than Galvani granted her—credit she probably deserves since she was a highly educated woman from a family of scientists. And Madame Galvani did develop consumption, and may well have been treated with frog soup. Unfortunately, the frog soup didn't help her. She died in 1790.

A year after his wife's death, Galvani finally published an account of the experiment. It caused a sensation throughout Europe. Many believed Galvani had discovered the hidden secret of life. Other men of science rushed to repeat the experiment, but it didn't take them long to grow bored with frogs and turn their attention to more interesting animals. What would happen, they wondered, if you wired up a human corpse?

Galvani's nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took the initiative and pioneered the art of corpse reanimation. He promoted his publicity-shy uncle's work by embarking on a tour of Europe in which he offered audiences the greatest (or, at least, most stomach-wrenching) show they'd ever seen—the electrification of a human body.

Aldini's most celebrated demonstration occurred in London on January 17, 1803, before an audience of the Royal College of Surgeons. The body of twenty-six-year-old George Forster, executed for the murder of his wife and child, was whisked straight from the gallows to Aldini and his waiting crowd. Aldini then attached parts of Forster's body to the poles of a 120-plate copper-and-zinc battery.

First the face. Aldini placed wires on the mouth and ear. The jaw muscles quivered, and the murderer's features twisted in a rictus of pain. The left eye opened as if to gaze upon his torturer. Aldini played the body like a marionette, moving wires from one body part to another, making the back arch, the arms beat the table, and the lungs breathe in and out. For the grand finale he hooked one wire to the ear and plunged the other up the rectum. Forster's corpse broke into a hideous dance. The London Times wrote of the scene: "The right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life."

A few days later Aldini continued his London tour with a show at a Dr. Pearson's lecture room. There he unveiled the decapitated head of an ox and extended its tongue out of its mouth by means of a hook. Then he turned on the current. The tongue retracted so rapidly that it tore itself off the hook, while simultaneously "a loud noise issued from the mouth by the absorption of air, attended by violent contortions of the whole head and eyes." Science had at last created an electric belching ox head.

An even more spectacular demonstration occurred on November 4, 1818, in Glasgow, when Scottish chemist (and later industrial capitalist) Andrew Ure connected the corpse of the executed murderer Matthew Clydesdale to a massive 270-plate battery. Twice the power, twice the fun. When he linked the spinal marrow to the sciatic nerve, "every muscle in the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements, resembling a violent shuddering from cold." Connecting the phrenic nerve to the diaphragm provoked "full, nay, laborious breathing . . . The chest heaved, and fell; the belly was protruded, and again collapsed, with the relaxing and retiring diaphragm." Finally Ure joined the poles of the battery to an exposed nerve in the forehead and to the heel: "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, surpassing far the wildest represenations of a Fuseli or a Kean." Some spectators fainted, and others fled the lecture hall in terror.

Men of science such as Aldini and Ure were confident galvanic electricity could do far more than provide a macabre puppet show. They promised that, under the right circumstances, it could restore life itself. Ure wrote of his experiment on the murderer Clydesdale, "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."

As late as the 1840s, English physicist William Sturgeon (inventor of the first electromagnets) described electrifying the bodies of four drowned young men in an attempt to bring them back to life. He failed but felt sure he would have succeeded had he only reached the scene sooner.

Mary Shelley never indicated on whom she had based her character of Victor Frankenstein, but the experimental electrification of corpses was undeniably a source of inspiration for her. In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she wrote that the idea for the novel came to her in June 1816, after she overheard Lord Byron and Percy Shelley discussing recent galvanic experiments and speculating about the possibility that electricity could restore life to inanimate matter. That night she had a nightmare about a "pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion." And so, from a journey of discovery that began with a twitching frog, Victor Frankenstein and his monster were born.

Excerpted from Elephants on Acid, Copyright © 2007 by Alex Boese.

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Alex Boese