Some other writing by Sarah Bakewell
Guillaume Duchenne du Boulogne, electrical stimulation machine, De l’electrisation localisée, 2nd ed. (1861)
Essays and ramblings
From time to time I write short essays and opinion pieces for The Guardian, on subjects from Martian travel to street photography. Instead of having a long list on this page, here's the complete list on their excellent website , which gives links to each article.
"The Two Loves of Andre Maurois," (The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, 13 November 2012). About a very underrated French novelist, and the emotional tangles that inspired his novel Climates.
“Lives actually lived,” (The Philosophers’ Magazine, 56 (1), 2012, 66-9). A few pages on philosophers, biographies, and writing biographies of philosophers. Follow the link to find it online, although I’m afraid it’s behind a paywall.
I review books for The New York Times, The Independent, and other publications. Here's a few that I particularly enjoyed (and that are findable online, which rules out a few others):
Judith Flanders's The Victorian City: everyday life in Dickensian London. (The Independent, 6 October 2012). Everything you always wanted to know ..
Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An existential detective story. (The New York Times, 5 August 2012). In search of being, nothingness, and the perfect Shiraz.
Jerry White's London in the Eighteenth Century: a great and monstrous thing (The Independent, 16 March 2012). London history: a subject close to my heart.
Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: how the world became modern (The New York Times, 28 September 2011). The story of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and how the manuscript was almost lost.
Tom Hodgkinson’s Brave Old World: a month-by-month guide to husbandry, or the fine art of looking after yourself. (The New Statesman, 11 July 2011). On self-sufficiency and ukulele-playing, by the creator of The Idler. “Toil, endless toil – that is the only way, my idle friends!” he writes. A most enjoyable book.
James Miller’s Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche. (The New York Times, 20 January 2011). On the lives of philosophers, and whether they are worth emulating.
Also from the last few years:
"My playlist" (Largehearted Boy - Book Notes , 2 February 2011). Things I listened to (or not) while writing How to Live.
"What Bloggers Owe Montaigne" (Paris Review Online, 12 November 2010). It's about Montaigne's influence on English-language writers of all kinds, not just bloggers. Why did I call it that, then? Answer: I didn't. Writers never write their own headlines. I don't mind it, though.
"When We Fell in Love"(Three Guys One Book, 11 November 2010). A few favourite books, from Montaigne's Essays to In the Land of the Thinsies.
"Book of a Lifetime: Orwell's Essays" (The Independent, 15 January 2010). On the killing of elephants, the rebirth of toads, and why I admire George Orwell as an essayist.
"Michel de Montaigne - Go with the flow" (The Independent, 1 January 2010). On Montaigne, self-understanding, and not making New Year's Resolutions.
Older articles on various things, including a set of my early indulgences from the Fortean Times:
"Nothing Like a Dane" (The Times, 5 March 2005). A piece on what Britons can learn from immigrants’ perceptions of our country; my starting point is Jorgen Jorgenson, subject of The English Dane, an adoptive Englishman who was both a tough critic and a passionate admirer of English ways.
"It’s Life, Ernst" (Fortean Times 174, September 2003).
The story of the glutinous substance Bathybius haeckelii, dredged up by the Challenger oceanographic expedition in 1857 and mistaken by the day’s top biologists for primordial “ur-slime”, origin of all other life-forms.
"Scratching Fanny" (Fortean Times 150, September 2001).
The Cock Lane ghost – a hair-raising tale from 1762.
"The Reanimators" (Fortean Times 139, October 2000).
On the real-life experimenters who tried to revive dead bodies with electricity, or thought they had generated insects in electrical fields – the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
"Cooking With Mummy" (Fortean Times 124, July 1999).
The medical uses of human flesh, and the lengths to which people would go to get a supply of it.
Fortean Times/Alex Howe
It’s Life, Ernst: Bathybius haeckelii, primordial slime, and the end of a beautiful hypothesis.
By Sarah Bakewell
Fortean Times 174, September 2003.
In 1868, nine years after the publication of the Origin of species, Darwin’s great disciple Thomas Henry Huxley took a second look at an old sample of mud brought up from the floor of the Atlantic by a telegraph survey ship in 1857. On first examining it, he had found it full of tiny protozoan shells and strange particles which he and colleagues named coccoliths and coccospheres. He observed and described these, and then put the sample back into storage in its jar of alcohol, where it remained undisturbed for over a decade.
This time, when he retrieved the jar, he found that the sample had a different appearance. It now contained not only mud and shell particles but also a surprising sort of gloopy, webby, albuminous slime which drifted around when the jar was shaken, like blobs of phlegm mixed with grit. The stuff didn’t exactly look alive, after being pickled for eleven years in a jar of alcohol - but it did look organic.
Huxley was usually cautious about leaping to conclusions, but this time the excitement of discovery overcame his better judgement. The slime bore an intriguing resemblance to his favourite material of the time: cell protoplasm. It also looked like egg-white, and perhaps a bit like semen - both substances associated with life and its production. The ocean floor at this time was still unknown territory: there was little reason to doubt that weird, alien things like this might populate it. Huxley felt sure he was looking at the remains of a living substance new to science, and he honoured it with the formal scientific name Bathybius haeckelii - from the Greek for “deep” plus the name of his German fellow evolutionist Ernst Haeckel.
This choice was inspired by more than the general respect of one biologist for another. Haeckel was the author of important works on evolutionary theory, and had constructed a transformist system of life modelled on a vast tree, with humanity on the top twig and the simplest plants and protozoa on the lower branches. He and Huxley agreed on many things; if they differed it was mainly a matter of style - or of nationality. Huxley, an inductivist in the British tradition, sought always to trust experiment before theory. “Sit down before fact as a little child,” he once instructed a friend. “Be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads.” (1) Haeckel’s heritage, by contrast, was that of Germanic Naturphilosophie, which set out to construct an intellectually rigorous and all-embracing theory of life into which data could then be fitted. Observation could ascertain many things, wrote Haeckel, but the ultimate questions - like “What is life?” and “How did it begin?” - must be addressed through philosophy. (2). Unlike Darwin, who dismissed such questions as meaningless because unanswerable (“It is mere rubbish thinking of the origin of life, one might as well think of the origin of matter” (3)), Haeckel considered them fundamental to any complete evolutionary theory. If the possibility of life emerging from non-life could not be proven, then it must be assumed, since without it there could be no life to theorize about. He accordingly posited a class of primal beings simple enough to be spontaneously generated out of inorganic matter, and named them Monera. They were single cells of sorts, but had no nucleus or membrane - they were just undifferentiated protoplasm. “The entire body of one of these Monera, during life, is nothing more than a shapeless, mobile, little lump of mucus or slime,” he wrote, and he compared them to the “Urschleim” (Primordial Slime) of an earlier theorist, Lorenz Oken. Through the simplest members of Monera, Haeckel believed, biology could bridge the gap between the earth and all its other lifeforms, and proclaim “the unity of all Nature, and the unity of her laws of Development.” (4) The only thing that was lacking, alas, was any example of such a creature.
Huxley, though wary of philosophizing, had been impressed by Haeckel’s interest in protoplasm. He himself had recently argued that this substance was the one thing every living being had in common: flowers, whales, lichen, jellyfish, lobsters, and evolutionary biologists could all be seen as expressions of protoplasm. (5) If there existed a lifeform consisting of this substance alone, it would be a sort of universal, lowest-common-denominator creature. One didn’t have to be German to sense the power of this thought. Even the most rigorous Anglo-Saxon Darwinists loved continuities of all kinds, as has been pointed out by Charles S. Blinderman - most notably that between apes and humans. (6) Establishing continuity between life and non-life was even more desirable, and it addressed a genuine difficulty for Darwinians, since creationists regularly mocked them (and still do) for being unable to explain how life got started. Bathybian Urschleim would be just what was needed: the missing link.
The substance in Huxley’s jar looked just the way Urschleim might be expected to look: protoplasmic, like mucus, or slime, or the inside of an egg. It seemed worth a vote of confidence. Huxley published a description of it, and at the same time wrote to tell Haeckel personally about his “godchild”. Haeckel wrote back with hearty congratulations. “I am, of course, most especially delighted by “Bathybius Haeckelii” and am very proud to be the godfather at its christening!” (7). He procured a sample for himself and described it in his “Beiträge zur Plastidentheorie” in the Jenaische Zeitschrifte of 1870, unhesitatingly identifying it with Oken’s Urschleim. In the next edition of his textbook The history of creation he went a step further and proposed that the stuff was constantly coming into being on the ocean floor, forming the first step in what has been dubbed the “escalator” view of evolution, in which simple organisms constantly evolve into more complex ones and are replenished at the source through spontaneous generation. (8)
Huxley himself refrained from wondering publicly how Bathybius was generated - although, after reading the Beiträge, he did remark in Nature: “It is a matter of great satisfaction that Prof. Haeckel has arrived at conclusions which, in all the main points, agree with my own respecting these remarkable organisms.” (9) Whether this was genuine agreement or professional politeness is hard to tell. In his lecture “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis” shortly after this, he argued that spontaneous generation had probably happened in the distant past, but that it was unlikely still to go on - which effectively ruled out the escalator view - and he did not mention Bathybius at all in this context. “Belief, in the scientific sense of the word, is a serious matter,” he remarked, “and needs strong foundations.” (10) However, he did allow himself one moment of wild speculation about the nature of Bathybius, suggesting that it “probably” formed one continuous mat of living protoplasm “girding the whole surface of the earth" - an extraordinary and rather alarming idea. (11)
Others expressed doubts. Charles Wyville Thomson, later the leader of the Challenger oceanographic expedition, examined some samples in 1869. At one point he fancied he saw the slime moving (an absurdity, since the preservative in the jar would have killed it) - but he finally concluded: “I feel by no means satisfied that Bathybius is the permanent form of any distinct living being ... I think it not impossible that a great deal of the “bathybius” ... may be a kind of mycelium - a formless condition connected either with the growth and multiplication or with the decay - of many different things.” (12) Or as another sceptical biologist, George Charles Wallich, more concisely put it: it was the product of life in disintegration, not its source. (13) This calls up an unappetizing vision of the ocean floor as something out of Coleridge’s Ancient mariner:
“The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.”
It was time for the matter to be investigated further, and the opportunity arose in December 1872 with the launch of the Challenger expedition: a colossal global oceanographic research project based on board a converted British warship stripped of guns to make room for equipment, trawls, dredges, laboratories, storerooms, and scientists. The Challenger was to spend three and a half years exploring the world’s oceans, covering almost 70,000 miles and crossing the Atlantic five times. It collected 13,000 samples of animals and plants, among which 4,717 new species were found; and the bottom was dredged in 362 different places, at each of which a dozen or so different oceanographic procedures were performed. The sailors looked on with amusement: one wrote home to his family, “When the dredge came up this morning full of mud & shell fish, it was laughable to see the scientific gents with their sleeves rolled up overhauling the mud for Fish & insects.” The captain’s nine-year-old son joined in the fun and was “very busy amongst the mud”, and when the dredge had been emptied: “down they all go to dissect and pickle them in glass jars”. (14).
It was easy to have these scientists check the samples for Bathybius as well, and they gladly did so - but during almost the entire voyage, not one fleck or blob of the stuff was found. It was not until 1875 that some jelly-like material was noticed in a sample collected earlier in the expedition, which had been preserved in alcohol and lime ever since. The ship’s chemist John Young Buchanan analyzed it - and found that the jelly was a colloidal precipitate of calcium sulphate from the sea water, caused by a chemical reaction with the preservative liquids. It was not of biological origin at all. It was not from the ocean floor, and it had certainly never been alive.
Buchanan guessed that all the previous Bathybius samples had been produced in the same way, and he reported his findings to the expedition’s leader, who broke the news diplomatically in a letter to Huxley. The letter courteously left open the possibility that Bathybius might be found elsewhere, but Huxley realized his mistake and published parts of the letter in Nature by way of a public recantation. (15) Writing to a friend, he punned that this “precipitate” might be considered the result of his own all-too-precipitate conclusions, and added in a Shakespearean reference, “I shall eat my leek handsomely if any eating has to be done.” (The phrase comes from Henry V, and Huxley used it more than once; of leek-eating he had earlier written to a young student that “every fine man has to do that now and then, and I assure you that if eaten fairly and without grimaces, the devouring of that herb has a very wholesome cooling effect on the blood.”) (16)
At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879, he further reflected on the experience:
I thought my young friend Bathybius would turn out a credit to me. But I am sorry to say, as time has gone on, he has not altogether verified the promise of his youth. In the first place ... he could not be found when he was wanted; and in the second place, when he was found, all sorts of things were said about him. Indeed, I regret to be obliged to tell you that some persons of severe minds went so far so to say that he was nothing but simply a gelatinous precipitate of slime ... If that is so, I am very sorry for it, for whoever else may have joined in this error, I am undoubtedly primarily responsible for it. But I do not know at this time of my knowledge how the matter stands ... Therefore my own judgment is in an absolute state of suspension about it. (17)
His friend Foster congratulated him: “You did that Bathybius business with the most beautiful grace - I wish you would sell me a little morsel of that trick.” (18) In a report on the meeting on 22 August, the Daily News praised Huxley’s honesty. "A scientific man who can afford to acknowledge that he may have been in error, and even to laugh at his own possible mistake, is a rare and admirable character." It was the perfect example of a phenomenon Huxley had already alluded to in one of his most famous sound-bites: “the great tragedy of Science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”. (19)
Ernst Haeckel took it less gracefully. This is understandable: Huxley had considered Bathybius an intriguing oddity, albeit one with protoplasmic interest; for Haeckel, it was the long-expected foundation stone of his entire theory. In his first response, an article entitled “Bathybius und die Moneren”, he insisted that Bathybius had definitely been observed in the North Atlantic: just because the Challenger couldn’t find it later on didn’t mean it had never existed. Of Huxley, he added: “The more the real parent of Bathybius shows himself inclined to give up his child as hopeless, the more I feel bound, as its godfather, to look after its rights.” (20) He continued to include Bathybius in his books until 1883, when he finally caved in to the majority view.
Ever since the Challenger’s analysis, the colloidal precipitate has generally been accepted as Bathybius’s true explanation - but not by everyone. The anti-Huxleyan Wallich scoffed at the thought of its being an honest mistake at all, and seemed to suspect Huxley of deliberate fraud; he certainly accused Haeckel of falsifying evidence. (21) More recently and more seriously, A.L. Rice has argued that although the mistake was genuine, the traditional dénouement may be wrong as well. The key to his revised version is the slight seasonal variation in material drifting down to the deep ocean from shallower waters. Photographs and samples taken of the bottom during late spring and early summer show either a mucus mixed with coccoliths, or a layer of fluff derived from phytoplankton blooming above. The rest of the year there is no sign of it. Since Huxley’s original sample was taken in June, Rice believes this plant-based material could be the explanation. The Challenger collected samples at all seasons, so should not have missed anything - but Rice suggests that their heavy dredges may have disturbed the substance so that it drifted away before it could be raised. (The earlier ship had used valve-tipped sounding rods instead). (22)
Whatever the true cause of Bathybius haeckelii, the story remains of high Fortean interest as an example of speculative science going awry. As the late Stephen Jay Gould argued in an essay on the topic, Bathybius found rapid acceptance not only because it filled a gap, but also because of an unquestioned assumption that primordial lifeforms must be amorphous and gloopy. In reality, as he points out, even viruses and bacteria have pronounced and distinctive shapes, and the primitive Radiolaria are “the most beautiful and most complexly sculpted of all regular organisms.” (23) DNA itself is highly structured. It would be foolhardy to go to the other extreme and assume that everything must arise from form rather than substance, or that life could be implemented by almost any type of matter if it is organized in the right way (as a handful of modern thinkers have proposed) - and it may well turn out that life began in a thick, gelatanous “soup” after all. The jury is still out on that one, and probably will be for some time.
Although it is one of science’s great cautionary tales, however, Bathybius also provides a salutary example of how an incident can be abused by the opposing team. Haeckel’s godchild has regularly been seized on by anti-evolutionists as a weapon against evolutionary theory in its entirety. One of the earliest attacks was perpetrated by the Duke of Argyll in 1887; Huxley defended himself by stating that he had never made unjustified claims for Bathybius’s significance, and that “speculative hopes or fears had nothing to do with the matter”. (24) A few years later, in 1890, the theologian William Mallock did it again, and this time Huxley complained, “Bathybius is far too convenient a stick to beat this dog with to be ever given up, however many lies may be needful to make the weapon effectual ... Clerically minded people cannot be accurate, even the liberals.” (25)
The stick is still being wielded. An Internet search on “Bathybius” brings up a slew of religious websites, all gleefully telling the story at various levels of simplification and inaccuracy, and in some cases holding it up as a virtual disproof of evolutionary theory. Haeckel is a particular favourite of creationists, because he made other mistakes as well. In reality, Haeckel’s blunders invariably had more to do with his Naturphilosophie than with his Darwinism, and as for Huxley, his willingness to suspend belief in his offspring when contrary evidence appeared might just as well be cited as a perfect model of scientific propriety.
Huxley was a lifelong defender of scientific scepticism, and there is no question that he did his best to apply it thoughtfully. Yet one can’t help suspecting that at his first sight of Bathybius haeckelii he was just a little bit seduced by philosophy. Only later did he remember his own command to do the near-impossible, and to “sit down before fact as a little child” - a fine Fortean ideal if ever there was one.
1. Huxley to Charles Kingsley, 23 Sept. 1860. Quoted Stephen Jay Gould, “Bathybius and Eozoon”, The Panda’s Thumb, NY: Norton, 1980 (236-244), p. 236.
2. Haeckel: Sammlung gemeinverständlicher wissenchaftlicher Vorträge, Heft 140, 1870, p. 1. See Rupke, N. A. “Bathybius haeckelii and the Psychology of Scientific Discovery”, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science. 7 (1976), 53-62, p. 57.
3. Darwin to Hooker, 29 March 1863. Quoted J.E. Strick, Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian debates over spontaneous generation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 2000., p. 49.
4. Haeckel, E. (tr. E. Ray Lankester). The History of Creation 2nd ed. London: Henry S. King, 1876, v. 1, p. 184; v. 1, p. 349.
5. Huxley: “On the Physical Basis of Life” (1869) in Collected essays I
6. Blinderman, Charles S. “Huxley, Pater, and Protoplasm,” Journal of the History of Ideas. 43 (1982) 477-486. p. 480.
7. Uschmann and Jahn (eds): Briefwechsel ... Huxley ... Haeckel. Quoted P. F. Rehbock, “Huxley, Haeckel, and the Oceanographers: the case of Bathybius haeckelii.” Isis, 66(1975), (504-533), p. 518.
8. Haeckel, op. cit, v. 1, p. 344. For the escalator view, see Strick, op. cit. p. 72.
9. Nature, July 1870, p. 187.
10. Huxley: “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis” (1870) in Collected Essays VIII, p. 256.
11. Huxley: Speech to the Royal Geographical Society, in its Proceedings, 15 (1871), p. 37. Also see letter from Huxley to W.C. Williamson, 16 Oct 1869, quoted in A. Desmond, Huxley. London: Penguin, 1998, p. 365.
12. Thomson, C. Wyville, The Depths of the Sea. London: Macmillan, 1873, p. 411; p. 415.
13. Wallich, G. C. “On the Vital Functions of the Deep-Sea Protozoa," Monthly Microscopical Journal. 1, 1869, 32-41. p. 39.
14. Matkin, Joseph (ed. Philip F. Rehbock), At Sea with the Scientifics: the Challenger letters of Joseph Matkin. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, pp. 38-40.
15. Letter Thomson to Huxley, 9 June 1875, quoted Rehbock, op. cit. pp. 528-9. Huxley then quoted the letter in his “Notes from the Challenger,” Nature, 1875, 12, pp. 315-6.
16. Huxley to Michael Foster, in L. Huxley, Life and Letters of T.H. Huxley, v. 1, p. 480, quoted Rehbock op. cit. p. 529. Huxley to Dohrn, 4 July 1868, quoted Strick op. cit. p. 82.
17. Published in Nature, 1879, 20: 405. Quoted Rehbock op. cit. p. 530.
18. Foster to Huxley, 14 Sept 1879, quoted Strick op. cit. p. 82.
19. Huxley: “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis”, op. cit. p. 239. (referring to Pasteur’s disproof of a different kind of spontaneous generation).
20. In Kosmos (1877). I, pp. 299-300. Quoted Rehbock op. cit. p. 531.
21. In his private notes, Wellcome Library MS 4962.
22. Rice, A.L. “Thomas Henry Huxley and the Strange Case of Bathybius haeckelii; a possible alternative explanation.” Archives of Natural History, II (2) (1983), 169-180. pp. 175-8.
23. Gould op. cit. p. 240.
24. George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, “A Great Lesson”, Nineteenth Century, 1887, 22: 293-309, with reply from Huxley in “Science and the Bishops”, Nineteenth Century 1887, 22: 625-641 (p. 638). Both quoted Rehbock op. cit. p. 532.
25. L. Huxley, Life and Letters of T.H. Huxley, v. 2, p. 171. Quoted Rehbock op .cit. p. 532.
Scratching Fanny - The Cock Lane Ghost
By Sarah Bakewell
Fortean Times 150, September 2001
For several months in early 1762, London was hooked on a ghost story involving a teenage girl, a drunken parish clerk, a horde of nosy aristocrats and intellectuals, and an accusation of murder. The story became a media phenomenon, preoccupying the newspapers and attracting a nightly crowd to rival those that flocked to the Covent Garden theatres.
Cock Lane as it is now
It all began in an alley near St Paul’s called Cock Lane, in a house so narrow that each of its three storeys contained just one room. The house’s owner was Richard Parsons; he was a church clerk with an excessive fondness for drink, and he shared his home with his family and a succession of lodgers from whom he frequently borrowed money but rarely paid it back. Among these were a couple who lived as William and Fanny Kent – though in fact they were not married and the woman’s surname was Lynes. They stayed with Parsons for just six months in 1759, then moved out after a quarrel over money. Although it was Kent who had lent Parsons money and lost it, Parsons was the one who seemed to hold the greater grudge over it: Kent had threatened him with the law and he resented this uncompromising attitude.
William and Fanny stayed temporarily with a neighbour after their eviction, and it was whilst there that Fanny suddenly fell ill of what was diagnosed as smallpox. A few days later, on 2 February 1760, she died of it. Kent had her buried in a coffin without a nameplate – a rather odd circumstance which he later explained by saying that he had wanted to avoid either revealing her unmarried status or, if he gave her his own name, exposing himself to attack by her relatives. And indeed, he did have good reason to be fearful of the Lynes family: Fanny had almost entirely cut them out of the will, leaving everything to Kent, and they were determined to do anything they could to discredit him.
Two years went by. Then, in the early days of 1762, a newspaper called the Public Ledger suddenlyissued a series of sensational gossip pieces concerning Fanny’s death. The smallpox diagnosis had been a fraud; the truth was that she had been poisoned by her “husband” William Kent, who had slipped arsenic into her drink. Moreover, this information came from none other than the ghost of the murdered woman herself, appearing at her former lodgings in Cock Lane and communicating with the world through a system of coded knocks. Curious readers were invited to seek more information from Parsons’ neighbour and friend, a clergyman named John Moore.
Alarmed, Kent called on Moore at once, and was told that the phenomenon was concentrated upon Parsons’ eldest daughter, twelve-year old Elizabeth, and usually occurred in her room while she was asleep. Many people had heard Fanny scratching and knocking, and a local publican had even seen a glowing figure flit past him on the stairs. Elizabeth herself had seen the ghost, too, and described it as having no hands and wearing a shroud. Usually, however, there was no visible apparition at all: there were only noises. Simple questions could be called out to the ghost, and she would answer using a simple code: one knock for yes, two knocks for no.
Moore suggested that Kent visit the ghost himself, and Kent agreed – his only hope of clearing his name was to flush out the story and prove it to be a fraud. And so, on 12 January 1762, he and Moore called on Parsons together. They found Elizabeth in bed in the top floor bedroom, surrounded by a huddle of journalists, church officials, ghost enthusiasts and nosy-parkers of all sorts. Also in the room was a servant named Mary Frazer: it was her job to convey the questions and interpret the sounds which came in reply. She threw herself into this role with abandon, running around the room and raucously wailing, “Fanny, Fanny, why don’t you come? Do come, pray Fanny, come; dear Fanny, come!” For a long time the ghost did not answer, and in the end Moore sent everyone out of the room for a few minutes while he successfully raised it himself by stamping on the floor.
The first question to Fanny was: “Did you die naturally?” There was no noise or movement from the bed where Elizabeth lay, but two clear knocks were heard from the walls of the room – meaning “no.”
“Was it by poison?” There was one knock: yes.
“Did any person other than Mr Kent administer it?” Two knocks for no.
Fanny was asked how the poison was given, and by choosing from a list of alternatives replied that it had been put into her purl, a mixture of hot beer and gin that was popular at the time.
“How long did you live after receiving it?” Three knocks: one for each hour.
Did “Carrots” (Fanny’s former maid) know of the poisoning? Yes; she did.
“Should Mr Kent be arrested?” Yes.
One of the men in the room called out: “Kent, ask the ghost if you’ll be hanged!” The ghost knocked once for yes; Kent leaped angrily to his feet and shouted, “You are a lying spirit! You are not the ghost of my Fanny. She would never have said any such thing.” The ghost replied with a flurry of angry scratches, and the séance fell apart in scenes of disorder.
Newspapers reported the event with relish, and dubbed the ghost “Scratching Fanny”. By the following evening a mob of sensation-seekers was assembled around the house, jostling for space and trying to bluster or buy their way inside. After one or two nights like this a miniature economy grew up around Cock Lane: local publicans thrived on the extra trade, street hawkers sold food and drink, and the canniest entrepreneurs of all made money by simply selling positions near the door.
In the attempt to pin the accusation down to something concrete, Kent seized on the spirit’s only truly testable claim: that she had told “Carrots” of the poisoning. If Carrots denied this, the whole story would lose credibility. He therefore had Carrots traced to her new household and brought to visit the ghost herself on 19 January.
As usual, there were about twenty observers in the room. Elizabeth was put to bed, and Mary Frazer began her usual warm-up: “Fanny, Fanny, are you coming, Fanny?” In a new enhancement, she banged on the walls as she ran around the room. Moore asked her to desist and leave, but a sharp scratch of protest was heard from Fanny, followed by a long sulking silence even after Mary had been brought back. Once again everyone had to wait outside while Moore coaxed the spirit into talking. At last the knocking resumed and the audience were retrieved; Fanny was asked whether Carrots knew about the murder. She gave one knock in reply.
“If Carrots and her master were taken up and carried before a magistrate, would they confess?” There was one knock, followed by a noise like wings fluttering - a sign that the ghost was happy.
Carrots herself asked Fanny, “Are you my mistress?” A single knock was heard for yes, but then the fluttering sounds were again replaced by irritable scratching. “Are you angry with me, Madam?” asked Carrots. There was one sharp knock.
“Then I am sure, Madam, you may be ashamed of yourself.” Carrots turned and declared to the others in the room that she had never heard Fanny breathe a word about any poisoning before her death - indeed, she had been unable to speak at all in the last four days of her life.
By this time Cock Lane was so jammed with crowds every night that higher-class stickybeaks could barely squeeze through in their coaches. There was a carnival atmosphere, as the onlookers enjoyed “all the good-humour which the spending one night with novelty inspires”.  The writer and socialite Horace Walpole visited the house and described his experience in a letter to a friend:
“We set out from the Opera ... the Duke of York, Lady Northumberland, Lady Mary Coke, Lord Hertford, and I, all in one hackney-coach, and drove to the spot; it rained torrents; yet the lane was full of mob, and the house so full we could not get in; at last … the company squeezed themselves into one another’s pockets to make room for us … When we opened the chamber, in which were fifty people, with no light but one tallow candle at the end, we tumbled over the bed of the child … whom they are murdering by inches in such insufferable heat and stench. At the top of the room are ropes to dry clothes. I asked if we were to have rope-dancing between the acts.” To everyone’s disappointment, no noises were heard at all, and the visitors were told to expect nothing until around seven in the morning. Walpole gave up long before then, and his party left with an air of amused disdain. 
Another writer, Oliver Goldsmith, also gave a vivid account of a typical séance: “The spectators … sit looking at each other, suppressing laughter, and wait in silent expectation for the opening of the scene. As the ghost is a good deal offended at incredulity, the persons present are to conceal theirs if they have any, as by this concealment they can only hope to gratify their curiosity. For if they show, either before or when the knocking is begun, a too prying inquisition, or ludicrous style of thinking, the ghost continues usually silent, or to use the expression of the house, Miss Fanny is angry.”
The crowds were now so impossible that Parsons arranged for Elizabeth to be regularly moved from house to house. Poltergeist-like, the ghost followed her wherever she went. Eventually, a proper investigation was scheduled to be held at the house of one Stephen Aldrich, conducted by a committee of experts - the most notable being the great and grave Dr Samuel Johnson. Others included the matron of a local maternity hospital, an eminent physician, an impostor-buster who had already exposed many frauds, and for some reason a trigger-happy eccentric named Captain Wilkinson who had turned up at a previous séance with a gun and a big stick - the gun for firing into the knocking sound and the stick for beating his way out if there was any trouble; fortunately no noises were heard on that occasion.
The event was a double bill. First, the committee tried to speak to the ghost as usual in the room where Elizabeth was sleeping. Fanny declined to respond, although Elizabeth told her visitors that she felt the spirit “like a mouse, upon her back”. Then the group proceeded to the vault where Fanny was buried, and the ghost was asked to knock on her own coffin for dramatic effect. This, too, was greeted with silence. In his report for the Gentleman’s magazine, Johnson concluded: “It is therefore the opinion of the whole assembly, that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting particular noises, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.”
Johnson’s reaction to the ghost was to be frequently misunderstood, largely because of a mischievous caricature in a play by Charles Churchill. As “Pomposo”, Johnson was portrayed as falling for the ghost completely and spouting his belief with great airs of superiority and grandeur. In fact, this was merely a glorious act of revenge by the playwright, whose previous play had been badly reviewed by Johnson. Many years later Boswell still felt the need to defend his hero against the “Pomposo” image: “So far was he from being the dupe of implicit faith, that he examined the matter with a jealous attention, and no man was more ready to refute its falsehood when he had discovered it.” Boswell did admit, however, that in later years Johnson became a little too fond of relating “with much satisfaction, how he had assisted in detecting the cheat, and had published an account of it in the news-papers.” 
The attack on Johnson was not the only one to be inspired by “Scratching Fanny”. There were satirical songs with titles like “Cock-Lane Humbug”, the actor David Garrick performed a humorous interlude on the topic, and verses in the London Chronicle related how Fanny “began her old pranks, / With a furious scratching with one of the planks”. Another ballad mocked the involvement of the sinister Reverend Moore:
“I come, quoth the Parson, whatever may hap,
For the Sake of my Country I’ll stand in the Gap:
But prepare me a Bed, and a pretty young Maid,
For it is by this Means that the Ghost must be laid.” 
The long-suffering Elizabeth, who was now showing increasing signs of mental derangement, was still being shunted around from place to place. Each householder was free to examine her and listen for the ghost in whatever way he pleased. At one of these houses, that of a Mr Missiter, she was subjected to a particularly gruelling investigation. For several nights she was tied with ropes, or held down by a maid, or confined in tight hammocks, but she always managed to slip out of the restraints somehow and the noises continued. At last Missiter told her that she had just one more night to prove her innocence, and if she failed she and her parents would all be sent to prison. She was then put to bed, and servants watched her through peep holes in the wall. Sure enough, Elizabeth crept out and removed from the chimney a short board on which a tea kettle normally stood, took it back to bed, and rapped on it to make the noises - although they did sound somewhat different from usual, a fact later adduced by her defenders. She was woken up, and tearfully admitted that she had resorted to trickery this time – but only because she was so terrified of being sent to prison.
By spring, Kent felt he had enough evidence to take the case to court, and he filed a lawsuit for conspiracy against Parsons together with his wife, John Moore, and Mary Frazer. The case was heard on 10 July at the King’s Bench, in front of a huge crowd. Kent produced Carrots, several doctors who had attended Fanny on her deathbed, and quantities of people who testified that the noises had stopped whenever Elizabeth was closely watched or restrained. The defendants countered with other people who had heard the knocking even when cheating seemed impossible, and who were convinced of the ghost’s reality. Then, when all the evidence had been heard, the jury went into a huddle to discuss it. (Juries did not normally retire at that time). It took just fifteen minutes for them to reach a verdict - guilty.
Parsons and Moore were ordered to pay fines and compensation to Kent, and Mrs Parsons and Mary Frazer both received short prison sentences. True to form, Parsons never got around to paying a penny, and so eight months later he was given a further sentence of two years in Newgate and three sessions in the public pillory. Many people must have believed in his innocence, however, for each time he stood in the pillory he was not only spared the traditional pelting with stones and rotten eggs, but even had a collection taken up for him.
And so the case passed into history, and was almost forgotten until it was included in Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of extraordinary popular delusions in the mid-nineteenth century. Mackay’s illustrator, J.W. Archer, had the coffin opened in search of new evidence - and shockingly reported that there were no signs of smallpox on Fanny’s body, and that the face was perfectly preserved in a way that was typical of arsenic poisoning. No further investigations took place, and the coffins were disposed of ten years later, so this account could never be checked. An added complication is that, since the coffin was unnamed, he could well have had the wrong body.
Although it has usually been written off as a case of fraud, some writers have continued to find room for doubt, particularly those interested in poltergeist phenomena, of which it has all the hallmarks. The exact mechanism of deception was never conclusively discovered – if one assumes that the noise made at Missiter’s house was indeed different. In fact, this was almost certainly not the usual method, for most witnesses described the knocking as coming from the walls rather than the bed. If it was a fraud, an accomplice must have been making the noises from outside. Elizabeth’s mother or younger siblings are all likely suspects, since they were rarely present; Richard Parsons himself and Moore were generally in the room – but the latter’s habit of sending all the spectators away every so often is suspicious, to say the least.
What of motive? Mere resentment over an old financial squabble hardly seems adequate for such an elaborate plot – although it has also been pointed out that Parsons stood to make a great deal from selling “tickets” to the seances, and that he may have received pay-offs from the traders outside the door as well. Moore, too, was probably making a profit, since there is no other reason why he should have been involved. But if it was more than just a basic financial scam, then an interesting possibility is that the Lynes family were behind it. After all, if Kent had been convicted of murder, Fanny’s will would have been overturned and the fortune would have reverted to the people they felt were the rightful heirs – themselves.
Whatever the true story, the Cock Lane ghost was such an outstanding source of entertainment in 1762 that it won pride of place among the many fanciful impostures and frauds that festooned that most theatrical of centuries. Even at the time, cultural pundits understood that the interest aroused by the case was not merely a sign of popular gullibility, for as Oliver Goldsmith observed, “even the vulgar” were sure that it was a trick, and their curiosity had less to do with the supernatural phenomenon itself than with how such a thing could be done, and why it should be done. It was, quite simply, a good yarn.
And although there is still room (as there always is) for Fortean doubt, these questions of how and why are the ones that continue to intrigue us now. Unfortunately, they are questions to which we are unlikely ever to know the answers.
1. Oliver Goldsmith, The Mystery Revealed.
2. Horace Walpole, letter to George Montagu, 2 Feb 1762.
3. James Boswell, Life of Johnson.
4. “The Ghost of Cock Lane”.
By Sarah Bakewell
Fortean Times 139, October 2000
Doctor Frankenstein undoubtedly needed a strong stomach and nerves of steel to bring his creature into the world. What is less clear is exactly what sort of laboratory equipment was required. The animation scene in Mary Shelley’s book is as vague about this as it is melodramatic about atmosphere:
“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning ... when, by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1831)
Despite the lack of details, we naturally tend to picture this as an electrical moment, with force fields humming and electrodes crackling as the body on the slab comes to life. This image derives entirely from movie versions, and is not directly supported by the book. Yet Shelley does give us a few hints. As well as using evocative phrases such as “spark of being”, she tells us that as a child Victor Frankenstein received his own spark of inspiration from the sight of a tree being struck by lightning.
Shelley herself took a keen interest in the science of her day, and especially in electrical matters. Her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was even more enthusiastic, and had once accidentally killed the family cat whilst trying to give it electrotherapy. (He attempted something similar on his sister, but she was luckier and survived.) The Shelleys and their circle frequently discussed scientific subjects, and let their imaginations roam on the wilder shores of philosophy.
In the Preface to Frankenstein, Mary describes the particular conversation which gave her the idea for the story. First, someone mentioned an experiment thought to have been conducted by Erasmus Darwin - “who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.” From this, they speculated that “perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” There was then some talk of experiments by mysterious “German scientists”. That night, the impressionable eighteen-year-old suffered bouts of insomnia alternating with terrifying dreams, in which she 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.” On waking, she sprang to her desk with the glee of a born horror writer - “What terrified me will terrify others” - and at once set to work on Frankenstein.
We know, then, that genuine experiments on life and electricity were going on behind Shelley’s famous story, and that she was well aware of them. So who were these mysterious galvanists, the real-life Frankensteins who had “given token of such things”?
General investigations into the power of electricity on the had been going on thousands of years before Frankenstein: the Greeks and Romans administered shocks to victims of paralysis and other disorders using electric eels and fish. However, the value of such treatments remained limited until the invention in the eighteenth century of the “Leyden jar”, a form of battery which made it possible to store and regulate the charge. This opened up a whole new world of electrical fun. One experimenter, Jean-Antoine Nollet, liked to demonstrate the power of the new equipment by lining up 180 of the king’s guards with hands clasped and connecting the man on the end to a Leyden jar, so that the whole line leaped involuntarily into the air.
From then on, electric shocks were used to treat a wide range of conditions, from mental illness to near-drowning - complementing such traditional resuscitation methods as blowing tobacco smoke into the anus. It was also popular for more domestic ailments such as headache and impotence, and a thriving trade began in galvanic belts and amulets. People treated themselves, or went to public establishments such as James Graham’s “Temple of Health”, where infertile or sexually challenged couples could reinvigorate themselves by making love on an electrified bed. The popularity of such things owed a great deal to a principle which increasingly held sway in the minds of scientists and ordinary people alike: the equation of electricity with the force of life itself.
This idea rested primarily on the work of a new theorist of the subject, named Luigi Galvani. He used the phrase “animal electricity” to describe the electric charge which he believed was generated by the nervous power of the body, and whose existence he demonstrated by applying conductors to detached frogs’ legs to make them move in a lifelike manner. Galvani’s interpretation of his results was far from accurate, as was soon pointed out, but his vision of electrophysiology remained influential.
An army of “galvanists” soon sprang up to defend and develop the theory. A veritable orgy of twitching limbs therefore began all over Europe, as electricity was applied not only to frogs’ legs but also to dismembered cows, horses, dogs and sheep to prove Galvani’s point. What people were even more curious about, though, was the power that moved their own living bodies – and so it was not long before the animal parts were joined by human ones.
Heads and bodies
The French revolution came at a convenient moment for science. It ensured a plentiful supply of torsos and heads, not necessarily attached to one another. Physiologists in France competed to get hold of these bodies and study the motions produced in them by electrical stimulation, mapping the network of nerves in the body and speculating on their nature. Other European countries followed suit: Germany was particularly keen, and the Academy of Turin in Italy appointed a special commission to investigate the subject. Its researchers worked their way through a variety of bodily organs, discovering, for example, that the pupil of an eye laid upon an electrified plate would still contract. The one thing neither the commission nor anyone else managed to do, however, was to restore the heart beat.
The greatest of all Galvani’s supporters was his own nephew, a man named Giovanni Aldini. Aldini travelled all over Europe publicly electrifying both human and animal bodies, and his performances were extraordinary theatrical spectacles. The most famous took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1803, on a hanged man named George Forster. Anatomical dissection had formed part of Forster’s death sentence, but no one could have visualized quite the violation that Aldini was going to inflict on him.
Before a large medical and general audience, he took a pair of conducting rods linked to a powerful battery, and touched the rods to various parts of the body in turn. The results were dramatic. When the rods were applied to Forster’s mouth and ear, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation.” And so it went on, with Aldini moving the two rods around the body in a different combinations like a switchboard operator.
According to newspaper reports of the time, some of the spectators genuinely believed that the body was about to come to life, and were suitably awestruck even though it did not happen. But Aldini himself gave no indication that he expected any such thing - although he did describe his ultimate aim as learning how to “command the vital powers.” In practice, he confined himself to concluding that galvanism “exerted a considerable power over the nervous and muscular systems.” He also noted that nothing could be done with the heart.
Another, more ambitious researcher of the time did appear to hope for something more. His name was Andrew Ure, and in Glasgow in 1818 he attempted an experiment modelled on Aldini’s. He took the corpse of another hanged murderer, Matthew Clydesdale - “a middle-sized, athletic, and extremely muscular man, about thirty years of age” - and applied electrified rods to incisions all over the body. Once again, the effects were startling.
When a rod was touched to a heel, “the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension.” Connecting the rods to the left phrenic nerve and the diaphragm produced a perfect imitation of breathing. Next, the supra-orbital nerve of the forehead and the heel were linked, and “most extraordinary grimaces” resulted: “Rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face.” This crazed welter of apparent emotion in the deceased was too much for some of the audience: “At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.” Any remaining onlookers were finished off by the final melodrama, when a rod was applied to the tip of a finger. It extended instantly, and “seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.”
Ure came very close to saying in print that he believed full resuscitation could one day be possible. “We are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first ... 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.” Yet in the end Ure stopped just short of dropping the “almost” in his claim.
A German scientist of the same period, Carl August Weinhold, had no such reservations. He unequivocally stated that he had in fact brought dead animals back to life. He also maintained that the same could be done with a human, but refrained from making the attempt himself.
Still, his experiments make unsettling reading, especially for cat lovers. Weinhold removed the spinal cords from a series of decapitated kittens, and filled the gaps with zinc and silver, producing an electric charge. According to him, the hearts started pumping again – no problems with the heartbeat this time - and the kittens even hopped and jumped around. Another individual came back to life even after the complete removal of its cerebrum and cerebellum. “For almost 20 minutes, the animal got into such a life-tension that it raised its head, opened its eyes, stared for a time, tried to get into a crawling position, sank down again several times, yet finally got up with obvious effort, hopped around, and then sank down exhausted.” A fourth victim flinched at the sound of keys falling on a table. Weinhold boldly proclaimed that these experiments proved it possible to “create a complete physical life.”
Few people have ever given Weinhold’s claims much credence. Unlike the results of Aldini and Ure, a dead and brainless cat gambolling about and reacting to noises is hard to reconcile with what we understand of corpse physiology. More importantly, there was a notable absence of proof – or of an audience of spectators to testify that they had witnessed the kittens in action.
Weinhold has been credited with being an inspiration for Frankenstein, and he may well have been among the “German scientists” Mary Shelley had in mind. A more common, though perhaps less likely, candidate for the Frankenstein role has traditionally been an experimenter of a rather different sort, named Andrew Crosse.
Crosse is often portrayed as the archetypal “mad scientist” on which Victor Frankenstein was modelled , despite the fact that his supposed creation of life did not occur until almost two decades after Frankenstein was written. He was indeed something of a romantic figure, living in isolation in a country house with its own private laboratory, into which ran wires attached to lightning conductors, and out of which came the regular snap, crackle and pop of electrical experimentation. Yet in truth, Crosse scrupulously struggled to adhere to proper scientific method, and to be cautious in drawing conclusions. The fact that his careful “discoveries” turned out to be the stuff of bizarre fantasy is attributable less to undisciplined thinking than to the perils of the DIY laboratory.
What happened was this. Having experimented on electrical phenomena for years, Crosse one day in 1836 looked into a dish of chemicals through which he had been passing an electrical current in an attempt to influence crystal formation. Instead of crystals, he saw in the dish “a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail.” It resembled “a microscopic porcupine.” Other insects joined it, and two days later the creatures moved their legs, then detached themselves and “moved about at pleasure” in the dish. “I must say I was not a little astonished,” remarked Crosse. A hundred or more of the creatures appeared over the next few weeks. “As they successively burst into life, the whole table on which the apparatus stood was at last covered with similar insects, which hid themselves wherever they could find a shelter ... They were plainly perceptible to the naked eye as they nimbly crawled from one spot to another.” Crosse identified them as the genus Acarus, but was not sure whether they were a known species or a new one.
Crosse's sketch of his acarus (1837)
At first he mentioned the event only to a handful of people, but word got around, and before long a local newspaper caught on to the story. Under the headline “Extraordinary Experiment,” its editor sensationalized the discovery, naming the creature Acarus galvanicus. The tale “flew over England, and indeed Europe, satisfying at once the credulity of those who love the marvellous, and raising up a host of bitter and equally unreasoning assailants.” The idea of electrically generated insects upset many people on religious grounds, for Crosse appeared to be trying to usurp God’s role of Creator, and the reaction to him was extreme. He received threats of violence; local agriculturalists blamed him for a blight on the wheat crop, and an exorcism was carried out on nearby hills.
Most writers now agree that, in reality, the insects were probably either dust- or cheese-mites which had somehow got into the liquid. Crosse tried to be careful, but he was not working under controlled conditions, and contamination can happen very easily.
The tale of Andrew Crosse quickly became the stuff of melodramatic horror yarns. Indeed, it is more true to say that Frankenstein influenced the public response to Crosse’s insects than to say that Crosse influenced Frankenstein. A story called “The Electric Vampire” depicted the Acarus as an enormous, hideous spider, with owl-like, unblinking eyes. “It vindicates Crosse absolutely,” says the doctor who created it. “Don’t you think it is superb?” The creature lives by sucking the blood from mice, but then graduates to human victims, beginning – of course - with the doctor himself. In “Death of a Professor” by Michael Hervey (“If you’re nervy don’t read Hervey!” was his catchphrase) the tiny Acari consume their victim’s bones from inside the body. This time their progenitor is discovered as an empty, boneless bag of skin on the floor - and the Acari are nowhere to be seen, having escaped into the world.
These, then, were some of the stories which lay behind Frankenstein.
After Crosse, there were no more practical attempts to use electricity to create life, although a series of ever more esoteric theorists speculated on its exalted role in the body, soul and universe. Practical experimenters continued to investigate the role of electricity in such processes as growth, healing, reproduction, and the origin of life on Earth. And, ironically, electroshock techniques ultimately had the greatest success in the one area which caused most difficulty for the early reanimators: reviving the heartbeat.
Today, we tend to take electric power for granted, and the Promethean flights of fancy which it inspired in the nineteenth century seem remote, even quaint. We are more impressed by nuclear forces or the informational abstractions of DNA. Yet the grand electric dream is not entirely dead: it lives on in some strange and intriguing forms. For example, victims of some types of paralysis have recently been enabled to walk again by the use of microchip-controlled electric signals which bridge their severed nerves. This sounds very much like Aldini and Ure, updated in a way they could almost – but not quite - have visualized. And if such things can be done today with paralyzed limbs, why not one day with an entire body – maybe even a dead one?
But if some science fiction writers are to be believed, an even more exotic technology may lie on the distant horizon. One day, we might be reanimated not merely by rewiring our old bodies, but by “downloading” our entire being into electrified data stored in a computer and discarding the flesh altogether. If such a thing ever becomes feasible, it will far surpass the fantasies of even the wildest nineteenth century reanimator – and will truly be the ultimate merging of electricity and life.
One wonders what fertile nightmares Mary Shelley might have had if her late-night conversations had given token of this idea.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Frank A.J.L. James and J.V. Field: “Frankenstein and the Spark of Being.” History Today, 44(9), Sept. 1994, pp. 47-53.
Iwan Rhys Morus: Frankenstein’s Children: electricity, exhibition, and experiment in early nineteenth-century London. Princeton, 1998.
James A. Secord: “Extraordinary Experiment: electricity and the creation of life in Victorian England.” in The Uses of Experiment, ed. D Gooding, T Pinch, S Schaffer. Cambridge, 1988. pp. 337-383.
1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
2. Giovanni Aldini: An account of the galvanic experiments performed by John Aldini ... on the body of a malefactor executed at Newgate (London, 1803).
3. Andrew Ure: On galvanism: extracted from his ‘Dictionary of chemistry’ (London, ). Based on a paper in the Journal of science and the arts, January 1819. See also Dr Andrew Ure ... a slight sketch (London, 1875).
4. Weinhold, Carl August. Versuche über das Leben und seine Grundkräfte. Magdeburg, 1817. See Stanley Finger and Mark B. Law: “Karl August Weinhold and his ‘science’ in the era of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: experiments on electricity and the restoration of life” in Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences. 53(2), April 1998, pp. 161-180. The authors argue that Weinhold’s experiments were an inspiration for Frankenstein.
5. Memorials, scientific and literary, of Andrew Crosse, the electrician. (London, 1857). On Crosse, see James A. Secord: “Extraordinary experiment: electricity and the creation of life in Victorian England.” in The uses of experiment, ed. D Gooding, T Pinch, S Schaffer (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 337-383. Peter Haining: The man who was Frankenstein (London, 1979). Oliver Stallybrass: “How Faraday ‘produced living animalculae’: Andrew Crosse and the story of a myth”. Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. 41(5), 1967, pp. 597-619.
6. Memorials ... of Andrew Crosse (ibid), p. 170.
7. See Haining, op. cit, pp. 151ff. and also his Frankenstein omnibus (London, 1994).
8. Notably the famous experiments concerning the effects of electricity on a “primordial soup” of chemicals by Stanley Miller and his colleagues in the 1950s. Miller, S. L. 1953. A production of amino acids under possible primitive earth conditions. Science 117: 528-529.
Cooking With Mummy
By Sarah Bakewell
Fortean Times / Alex Howe
Fortean Times 124, July 1999.
Mummy, or processed dead flesh, was, for centuries, one of the most popular cure-all remedies in Europe. It was so fashionable in one period that noblemen carried tiny bags of mummy powder tucked into their clothing wherever they went. (1). François I of France always rode with a leather pouch of it attached to his horse's saddle (2), and Shakespeare's Othello carried a handkerchief "dyed in mummy, which the skilful / Conserved of maidens' hearts."(3)
Mummy's virtues were innumerable. It was thought to cure, among other things, epilepsy, abscesses, rashes, fractures, paralysis, migraine, throat diseases, coughs, palpitations, stomach ailments, nausea, ulcers, liver disorders, hæmorrhage, bruises, and poisoning - and it even protected against the plague. It was listed in official pharmacopœias and sold by apothecaries well into the 18th century. As late as 1908 it could still be ordered from the catalogue of the pharmaceutical company E Merck, who advertised "Genuine Egyptian mummy, as long as the supply lasts, 17 marks 50 per kilogram."(4)
Not all contemporary doctors approved. Rob Pitt wrote that it "ought to be rejected, as loathsom and offensive....", in the same way as worms and dried fox lungs and other popular remedies of the sort.(5) In his Workes, the 16th-century surgeon Ambroise Paré advised, "This wicked kind of Drugge doth nothing help the diseased... but it also inferres [causes] many troublesome symptomes, as the paine of the heart or stomacke, vomiting and stinke of the mouth." (6)
This is almost certainly true. Although it was originally supposed to be made only from the purest Egyptian flesh, much of what was sold as mummy was in fact made of the decomposing bodies of humans or animals who may have died of all sorts of communicable diseases. (7) It must have been lethal on occasion, though most of the tougher folk of those times probably escaped with nothing worse than a severe "stinke of the mouth" and a depleted pocket.It turns out that the idea of mummy was founded on a misunderstanding. Ancient Persians made medicinal use of a black, bituminous and probably harmless substance, "mumia", which oozed from a local mountain. The Greeks knew about it, but believed that it was also used by the Egyptians for embalming. This was not so. The name stuck, however, and the Egyptian bodies became known as "mummies".
When the original source of mumia dried up, the obvious alternative was to raid Egyptian tombs, so a great mummy-smuggling trade began. Eventually, the preservative substance was forgotten, and it was the flesh itself that was thought to have healing powers(8).
Later still, even the Egyptian connection became unimportant, and any corpse would do.
The flesh was not normally eaten in its raw state, although there are accounts of cups of blood and gobs of "man's fat" being sold by the executioner straight from the chopping block(9). It was generally refined in some way, and mixed with other ingredients. The consumer was advised to choose a mummy which had a "resinous, harden'd, black shining surface," and was "of a somewhat acrid and bitterish Taste, and of a fragrant smell."(10) Mummy that was "full of Bones or Dirt," or which stank of pitch when burnt, was to be avoided.(11)
A classic recipe, given by Oswald Croll's Basilica chymica in the early 17th century, begins:
"Take the fresh corpse of a red[-haired], uninjured, unblemished man, 24 years old and killed no more than one day before, preferably by hanging, breaking on the wheel or impaling... Leave it one day and one night in the light of the sun and the moon, then cut into shreds or rough strips. Sprinkle on a little powder of myrrh and aloes, to prevent it from being too bitter."(12)
This should produce a relatively wholesome mummy. The body has died of violence rather than disease, and it hasn't been left lying around too long. Many recipes do specify that death should be sudden and clean. Indeed, the best bodies were said to be those that had suffocated instantly in a Saharan sandstorm (13) - but if they were not available, as they generally were not, the gallows made for a reasonably good substitute.
Croll's recipe continues as follows:
"Steep [the flesh] in spirit of wine for several days. Then dry the strips by hanging in the air [...] Afterwards you should use spirit of wine again, or spiritus Sambucinus, to restore the red tincture. As the foulness of it causes an intolerable humidity in the stomach, it is a good idea to macerate the mummy with olive oil for another month. The oil is thus tinctured with the mummy, and can be added as desired later, before mixing the mummy with theriac."(14)
Extract of mummy: 0.5 pound
Theriac Andromach 4 oz
Mummy-tinctured olive oil: 2 oz
Pearl salt 2 drachms
Sigillated earth 2 oz.
(an astringent, fatty soil)
Musk 1 drachm (15)
This "Theriac of Mummy" was then to be kept for use against poisoning, or taken daily in small quantities to keep the plague at bay.
Nicolas Le Fevre gave a recipe for "mumiall balsam," also using olive oil. First you make your basic mummy by cutting up the muscles of a "young lusty man's body," dipping them in spirit of wine, and hanging them in a dry place. If the weather is damp and rainy, "these Muscles must be hung in a Chimney, and every day aired with a small fire of Juniper wood, having all its leafs and berries, untill they become as dry and well seasoned as the powdered Beef, which Mariners use for long Sea-voyages."(16)
Official pharmacopœias included a variety of recipes for mummy and other human products. The 1682 edition of the Pharmacopœia Londinensis includes the following recipe for a "tincture of skulls" brewed in a steam bath:
"Digest filings of skulls with Juniper or Sage... in a Bolt-head well luted, with a gentle heat for fifteen days; then strain it out with a press, so have you a red Liquor; strain it again, and abstract in Balneo Vaporis to the consistency of Honey."(18)
This was good for epilepsy, as was the following flowery concoction from the same pharmacopœia:
"[Take] the Brain of a young man slain, with all its Membranes, Arteries, Veins, and Nerves, with all the spinal Marrow, beat them, and add Essence of Tile-flowers, Peony, Bettony, black cherries, Lavender, Rosemary, Lilly of the Valley, Cowslips, Sage, Mesleto [..] digest a while; then distil."(19)
|Fortean Times / Alex Howe|
In this case the added ingredients are fragrant and pleasant-sounding, but this was not always the case. A recipe for a "balm or ointment of sympathy" included bole armeniac (another astringent soil) and rose oil, but also human fat, human blood, mummy and "skull moss" - green mould scraped from old skulls. The moss, mummy, blood and bole armeniac were dried and reduced to a fine powder, and the fat and oil were then added and heated on a slow fire until a "balm" was created (20).
Fat, like bone and flesh, was useful for many purposes. It moisturised dry skin, smoothed over scars and invigorated the sinews. A simple recipe required the pharmacist to:
"cut it and boyl it in White-wine, untill the pieces are well crisped, and the moysture of the Wine evaporated; then crush it between two Tin-plates warmed before: and so keep it for use."(21)
Not all mummy was human. In Culpeper's Last Legacy, Nicholas Culpeper gives a recipe for
a bird mummy effective, as other types, against epilepsy: "Take a Jay, pull off her feathers, and pull out her guts, then fill her belly full of Cummin-seeds: then dry her in an oven, till she be converted into mummy; a dram of her being beaten into powder, seeds and all, is an excellent remedy."(22)
Of a more exalted type were the "spagyrical" or magical recipes of the 16th-century physician Paracelsus. He described a number of techniques for creating both corporeal mummy (made from real flesh) and several types of "spiritual" mummy, derived from other sources. One begins:
"Corporeall Mumie is to be taken when as the substance, adhering to every member, (viz) the liver, lungs, or the whole body... do putrefie during the time of a Philosophical moneth [forty days] in a viall Hermetically closed, that it may have (as it were) a mucilaginous form: the Muccago or filthy matter being wrung or drained from it, must be laid in dung to putrefie a Philosophical moneth, that so it may be reduced to a Spagiricall Embryon."(23)
Repeated rounds then take place of boiling in ashes, drying, separation of elements (fire, water, earth) and of principles (salt, sulphur and mercury) and long periods of leaving for "putrefaction". Gradually the impurities are extracted and discarded, and what remains after many days of this labour is a material that has been "sublimated to the likeness of Snow."(24) This is a seed-like substance:
"...containing in it self the Portracture and Nature of the whole World: (I mean of the Tincture extracted out of the Microcosme) and therefore called by the name of the Microcosme or little World... rather by the title of the Microcosmicall stone of Philosophers, seeing it a Medicine for all diseases."(25)
In other words, this mummy is so powerful that it is comparable to the Philosopher's Stone of the alchemists.
If this is "corporeal" mummy, you might expect "spiritual" mummy to be even more ethereal. In fact it was downright earthy and was derived from substances such as sweat and fæces. A lump of excrement was dried in the air away from sunlight, to draw forth its store of spiritual "rays or beames"(26) created by the body.
These rays exerted a creative power equivalent to that of sperm, or of a lodestone (whose magnetic qualities were then considered magical). It was enough to rub the spiritual mummy on the skin, but alternatively it could be buried in the earth of a plant pot, so that it transferred its power into the leaves of the herbs growing there. The herbs even enhanced the mummy's power, by adding their own "seminall quality."(27) This kind of mummy not only cured disease, but was also capable of reconciling enemies, especially estranged husbands and wives.
The power of mummy could be increased beyond all measure if combined with the powerful magic of human sacrifice. Just as, in Christian belief, Jesus gave his body and blood to be symbolically consumed by his followers as the ultimate "remedy" for the ills of mankind, in other nearby parts of the world there was a tradition of voluntarily sacrificing one's flesh to be made into medicine of a more tangible sort. A Chinese report has it that:
"...in Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and fæces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and the month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint."(28)
Similar "mummy confections" with honey are found in many parts of the Middle East and Asia. In a Persian recipe, a man is drowned at the age of 30 in a mixture of honey, drugs and herbs, after a short lifetime of being generously fed and looked after. The vessel is sealed for 150 years, and then the contents are dispensed as a cure for any illness.(29) And in Burma, honey was used to preserve bodies until enough dry wood could be gathered for cremation - but if the dead person was a monk, the honey left behind after the removal of the body would be sold in jars as a panacea.(30)
In Japan, too, a type of sacred auto-mummification sometimes took place. A number of monks would slowly starve themselves to death by a special diet. Their bodies were embalmed and stored in an underground stone chamber for three years, then exhumed and dried, and shredded for consumption.(31)
Death is always a powerful medicine, and many times more so when someone in the prime of life is killed or willingly offers himself as a sacrifice. This is an archetypal theme in human culture: redemption through death, or rejuvenation through decay.
Even where conscious self-sacrifice and purification rituals are not involved, and where the body belonged to a low-born criminal rather than to an Egyptian aristocrat, medical cannibalism still offered a form of spiritual invigoration. Its foulness was itself a desirable quality: the principle of Dreckapotheke or "filth-medicine" dictated that the most disgusting concoctions were the ones that did you the most good. Indeed, this popular belief survives to this day, in a less extreme form. Thanks to the placebo effect, it probably even works.
There is a wonderfully circular neatness to the idea of mummy medicine. As the Paracelsians put it, "there is no remedy more certain and more fitting for the human body than the human body itself reduced to a medicament."(32) Fashioned after the image of God, imbued with mysterious life forces even after death, and intimately related to the bodies of those still alive, what substance could be more potent for human beings than human flesh?
Whether pulverised, chopped, shredded, marinated, distilled, or flavoured with flowers, the human body was probably the strangest and most symbolically powerful drug ever to grace the apothecary's shelves.
1. R Pitt, The crafts and frauds of physick expos'd. 2nd ed. T. Childe, London, (1703), p42.
2. A-P Leca, tr. L. Asmal, The cult of the immortal. Souvenir Press, London (1980), p234.
3. Shakespeare, Othello III:4, line 75-5.
4. O V Hovorka and A Kronfield, Vergleichende Volksmedicin. Strecker & Strecker, Stuttgart, 1908-9, v 1, pp 316-7, quoted and translated by K Gordon-Brube in her "Anthropophagy in post-Renaissance Europe", American Anthropologist (June 1988), v 90, n2, pp 405&Mac173;9.
5. Pitt, op cit p42.
6. A Paré, trT Johnson, Works. T Coles & R Young, London (1634), p448.
7. See, for example, Guy de la Fontaine's account of his visit to a Jewish mummy-trader in Alexandria, who admitted to passing off mummy made from victims of contagious diseases as the genuine ancient Egyptian article. (Related in P Pomet, A compleat history of druggs. R Bonwick, London (1712), v2, p228). The production of inferior mummy was frequently said to be a Jewish plot.
8. See W R Dawson, "Mummy as a drug", Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine (1928), v21, pp 34-39.
9. See Pomet (op cit v2, p229) and Reay Tannahill, Flesh and Blood. Abacus, London, 1996, p64. The habit of sucking blood directly from wounds goes back to classical times, as do other forms of medical cannibalism - see Pliny's Natural History, 28:2.
10. R James, Pharmacopoeia universalis. J Jodges & J Wood, London (1747), p512.
11. Pomet, op cit, v2, p229.
12. O Croll, Basilica chymica. C Marnius, Frankfurt (1609), p257 (my translation).
13. See N Le Fevre, tr P de Cardonel. A compleat book of chymistry. T Ratcliffe for O Pulleyn Jr, London (1664), pt1, p138.
14. Croll, op cit, p257.
15. Ibid, p196.
16. Le Fevre, op cit, pt1, p139.
17. Ibid, pt1, pp139-140.
18. Pharmacopoeia Londonensis. London (1682), p196.
19. Ibid, p196.
20. L Penicher, Traité des embaumemens selon les anciens et les modernes. B Girin, Paris (1699), pp285-6.
21. Le Fevre, op cit, pt1, p141.
22. N Culpeper, Culpeper's last legacy. N Brooke, London (1655), p23.
23. Paracelsus, abstracted by A Tentzelius, tr F Pankhurst. Medicina diastatica or sympatheticall mumie. T Newcombe for T Heath, London (1653), p38.
24. Ibid, p41.
25. Ibid, p41.
26. Ibid, p12.
27. Ibid, pp68-9.
28. B E Reed, Chinese materia medica, v6: Animal drugs. Peking Natural History Bulletin, Peking (1931), p98.
29. B F Beck and D Smedley, Honey and your health. Museum press, London (1947), p215.
30. Ibid, p216.
31. K Sakurai and T Ogata, "Japanese mummies" in A Cockburn, E Cockburn and T Reyman (eds), Mummies, disease and ancient cultures. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1980), p212ff.
32.Penicher, op cit, p258 (my translation).