Did you hear the one about the early 19th century blogger, an anatomist, a hanged man and a well-known author? I hadn’t until I was reading through some old writings about Glasgow.
I had abandoned reading all my Christmas present cook books, my husband being too much of a gentleman had bought nothing that was low fat or healthy. With my beach body calling and not quite fitting me yet, I just had to put the lovely thick creamy sauces aside. I hear it’s to be a fine warm year in Scotland so Troon beach should be a blistering paradise, unlike the dreich drizzle that has confined me and my old bearded collie to cuddles on the couch. He hates the soakings at his age so I found myself searching through old student writings online. I enjoyed reading the works I am terming ‘the early 19th century bloggers’.
I found a copy of The Glasgow University College Album of 1828 online and lost myself in it for quite a few hours. It’s a collection of student writings and translations dedicated to the fair ladies of Glasgow to distract them from their “ennui”. The students writing were all aged about 16 or 17 and were identified by their initials, they appealed to the fine ladies of Glasgow not to enquire as to their studies as they would be too complicated for them to understand. Women seemed to have been granted education in order to read, but talking must have been hard for them, according to our band of young writers. I am sure many of us reflecting on this will think hard, trying to imagine any woman from Glasgow not being blessed with the ability to let her opinions be known.
One rather strange tale “The Parisian Student” written by R.M. His tale is written with a romantic flourish of language and a great sense of the dramatic, which is sometimes a bit clumsy and distorts the plot. The tale is set in autumnal Paris and the central character is DeMottier, a student of anatomy, whose wife and love Constance, has just passed away. The story opens at her funeral and we are introduced to DeMottier’s grief and the fact that he has a shadowy love rival in attendance at the funeral of his beloved. A few days after the funeral there is a huge electrical storm in Paris; DeMottier driven by grief goes to visit Constance’s grave. Sensing the presence of his rival, he turns at the wall of the graveyard and hurries to his anatomy room where he finds the door unlocked and Constance lying on the table.
I had a lot of questions running through my head when I read this, the main one being was why such a young student was writing such a ghoulish tale that grappled with life and death. I get the feeling Constance was returned to him in order for De Mottier to return her to life as both he and his rival could not bear her loss. I thought perhaps other works of fiction from that time had influenced the writer, in particular Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and early 19th Century ideas of bringing the dead back to life through the advancement of science. Certainly, RM, a young student at Glasgow University would have been well aware of the works of prestigious anatomists of the time , who included Dr Andrew Ure of Anderson's Institution and James Jeffray, Professor of Anatomy at the University. The two must have been viewed as either Gods or Demons after their experiment with the hanged man.
Anatomy theatre at the Old College in High Street, where Dr Andrew Ure of Anderson's Institution and James Jeffray, Professor of Anatomy at the University, conducted a series of experiments using a galvanic battery,
In 1818, eight months after Frankenstein was published, Matthew Clydesdale was hanged in the courtyard of the Glasgow Jail. He was sentenced to death for the murder of an 80 year old miner, Andrew Love, in Clarkston Road, New Monklands. (In some reports Love’s age is given as 70.) After a brawl Clydesdale, in a drunken stupor, attacked the old man and his grandson with his mining pick. As a convict, Clydesdale’s body was to be released to the anatomists for dissection at the University of Glasgow. The law provided for this through the 1753 Act for Better Protecting the Horrid Crime of Murder, which ruled the use of criminals’ bodies for dissection. The only thing is, they didn’t just dissect him.
The story of what happened to Matthew Clydesdale is very well documented. After Clydesdale was hanged in front of a huge crowd, his body was placed in a cart and taken up the Saltmarket to the Anatomy Theatre at the Old College, where Ure and Jeffray were waiting. Their macabre plan was to attempt to juice the life back into the corpse with a Galvanic battery. This seemed to be the hottest ticket in town that day and there are various accounts of Matthew’s body, jerking and writhing to the surges of electricity and his throat being slit to drain the life again; with men fainting and in panic at the gruesome sight of the hanged man returning to life – smiling a twisted smile.
I spent hours reading various descriptions of the incident, terribly ghoulish, but strangely compelling. Online I also found many opinions and facts about the use of Galvanic batteries and attempts to reanimate dead bodies in other places. A simple internet search throws up the rumour about how Mary Shelley was present at such an attempt in London; apparently this experience influenced her work. Some even credit Ure and Jeffray with creating the first defibrillator.
If you are bored and stuck in due to inclement weather, I can recommend a wee afternoon on the internet embarking on your own search. It’s quite peculiar how a 21st century reader can find historical accounts almost darkly comic. I think my soul must be in poor shape as I found myself laughing at the Glaswegians of the day fainting fair away in fits of hysteria. The words of my inimitable pal in her best Glaswegian proclaiming: “Och, they’re a bunch a Jessie Teabiscuits!” Sprang to mind, as I said earlier, I don’t know a Glasgow woman without the ability to express opinions with such eloquence.
However, it is the voice of a young man, RM, floating through two hundred years and illustrating to us through his gory love story the thoughts, opinions and culture of the day that really interests me. I have no doubt his tale was influenced by works of fiction and fact, written with an air of grandeur that the young possess. He based his story in Paris possibly to show off either his travels or knowledge of the geography of the city. He seems to have been a young man with flair. You can almost see the young students at University huddled round, discussing the events of grave robbers and anatomists. Possibly grappling with issues of mortality at a time when religion would have been heavily influenced by science and scientific practice. Daydreaming about their first loves and moving from being 19th century teenagers into the grown up world around them. Conceptualising their text books, the way students do, through discussion, banter and a fair few arguments. Certainly hinting at the knowledge that science was the way forward to prolong life, even bring life back. Death could be defeated through advancements in science and increased knowledge gained from experiment, no matter how bizarre that experiment seems to us, safely housed in the 21st century.
I suppose modern science strives for the same outcome and despite the time lapse of two hundred years scientists still share the same hopes and today’s students are very similar to their predecessors.
Jane Sweeney, February, 2017