Raising the dead

As part of tracing through the progress of the controversy over Judge Willis in Melbourne, I’ve been reading the Port Phillip Herald very closely. Of the three regular Port Phillip papers, the Port Phillip Herald is the only one that is available online, so I’m using it as the ur-newspaper, and just referring to the other two papers (the Port Phillip Gazette and the Port Phillip Patriot) on microfilm when I want to concentrate on a particular episode.

I’m struck by the high proportion of interstate and international news in each edition. Each edition was four pages in length, with the first page devoted largely to paid advertisements as their revenue stream. Pages 2 and 3 generally contained news from the other Australian colonies and local news from Port Phillip. Page 4, however, was generally devoted to extracts from overseas newspapers across the Empire and, to a lesser degree, from American papers. As might be expected, British news predominated and in 1841 (which is as far as I have reached so far), there is quite a bit of emphasis on China news and- rather disconcertingly for colonists on the other side of the world from ‘home’- shipwrecks! The selection of extracts wasn’t solely on the basis of their newsworthiness or interest: they could be used to make a political point. On 15 October 1841 when the Herald editor George Cavenagh was feeling particularly aggrieved at Judge Willis’ behaviour towards the press, the international news comprised an exegesis on the judicial character of Lord Denman the British Chief Justice, a report of the drowning of the Chief Justice of Sierra Leone, a romantic story of the female editor of a French newspaper who fell in love with one of her anonymous correspondents, and a humourous extract from an American newspaper about the perils of an editor working out what to print in his newspaper. There does seem to be a bit of a theme running through these extracts!

I was fascinated, and rather transfixed, however, by this rather ghoulish extract from the Port Phillip Herald on 29th October 1841:


The following, which is going the round of the papers, headed “Wonderful effects of Galvanism” is from an American paper, and we give it in illustration of the tone of feeling prevalent in the Model-Republic:-

“John White, convicted of the murder of Messrs. Gwatkin and Glenn, on board a flat boat on the Ohio river, was executed in Louisville, United States, on the 8th ult, a little after six o’clock in the morning. The rope not “playing” well occasioned the knot to slip over the chin instead of being under the ear, so that his neck was not broken by the fall. Previously to his execution he wrote a letter to his father, in which he stated that he was present when the unfortunate men were murdered; that he did not participate in the act, but was compelled to beg his own life from two men who murdered them. He was cut down after hanging about 25 minutes, and his body given to the doctors for the purpose of experiment.

The Louisville City Gazette gives the annexed extraordinary circumstances attending an experiment with the galvanic battery:- The poles of powerful galvanic pile, which had been prepared for the occasion, were immediately applied to him, and, to the unutterable joy of all present, with the most perfect success. On the first application of the fluid to his body, which was yet warm and trembling, a universal tremor was seen to pass over his frame; on a sudden he arose from the bench to a sitting posture, and, with great eagerness and impatience, raised his hand to his neck, trying to grasp the scar with his fingers and tear it from his throat. He first snatched at it with great rashness, as though the rope was yet around his neck, and then continued some moments picking at the seam with his fingers, as though it was something that adhered to his throat giving him great uneasiness. But this symptom was soon forgotten, for almost the next moment he rose upon his feet, raised his arms level with his breast, and, opening his bloodshot eyes, gave forth from his mouth a most terrific screech, after which his chest worked as if in respiration in a very violent manner. Every one at this minute was as mute as death, when one of the surgeons exclaimed that he was alive. The excitement was too great to allow time for a reply to the remark; every eye was riveted upon the agitated and shaking corpse. The operator continued to let upon it a full quantum of the galvanic fluid, til the action upon its nerves became so powerful that it made a tremendous bound, leaping by a sort of imperfect plunge into a corner of a room, disengaging itself entirely from the wires which communicated the galvanism.

All immediately drew around the body. For a moment after its fall it seemed perfectly motionless and dead; a surgeon approached, and, taking hold of its arm, announced that he thought he felt a slight though a single beat of the pulse. The galvanic operator was just going to arrange his machine to give him another charge, when the surgeon exclaimed that he breathed. At this moment he gave a long gasp, rising and gently waving his right hand; his sighs continued for two minutes, when they ceased entirely. His whole frame seemed to be agitated, his chest heaved, and his legs trembled. These effects were supposed to be caused by the powerful influence of the galvanic fluid upon the nerves; none of these movements were yet supposed attributable to the act of life. It was considered that the animating principle of nature had left his frame and could never be again restored. In the very height of anxiety, the surgeon announced that he could feel feeble pulsations. A piece of broken looking-glass was immediately held before his nostrils, which was instantly covered with a cloud. The most intense anxiety was felt for some seconds, when the motion of his chest, as in the act of respiration, became visible. He rolled his eyes wildly in their sockets, occasionally closing them, and giving the most terrific scowls. In about five minutes his breathing became tolerably frequent, probably he would give one breath, where a healthy man would give four. His breathing, however, rapidly increased. The doctors began to speak to him, but he gave no indications that he heard a word. He looked upon the scene around him with the most death-like indifference. A young medical student approached him, and, taking hold of his arm and should, White rose upon his feet, took two steps thus supported, and seated himself in an arm-chair. His muscles seemed to relax, and he appeared somewhat overcome with the exertion he had made. A bottle of hartshorn was immediately applied to his nose, which revived him, but his life seemed to be that of a man much intoxicated. He seemed upon one occasion to try to give utterance to some feeling, but from an unknown case, an impediment probably occasioned by the execution, he was unable to give utterance to a word. His system was critically examined, and though he was pronounced by the doctors to be perfectly alive, yet he could live but a very few minutes, for congestion of the brain was rapidly taking place. Every method was adopted to equalize the circulation, and save the patient from the terrible consequence of so sad a catastrophe, but in vain. The blood vessels of the head were enormously distended, and his eyes appeared to be balls of clotted blood. His system was immediately thrown into direful spasms, and he died in a few minutes in the most excruciating agonies.”

I remember reading about the Tyburn executions in Britain, and the hanging traditions about three-times botched hangings that resulted in the victim being set free. I’m curious and somewhat amused by the “anxiety” evoked by the “catastrophe” of his death- he had, after all, just been executed by the state!

One response to “Raising the dead

  1. Pingback: ‘The Age of Wonder’ by Richard Holmes « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s