Newgate Jail – a notorious prison

Professor Brian Cox at former Newgate Jail
Professor Brian Cox at the Old Bailey

Professor Brian Cox guides viewers through 350 years of British science. He grapples with science’s darker side, asking why it often gets such a bad press. This is the Old Bailey. Today, it’s the central court but until the mid-19th-century, this site was the home to Newgate Jail, the most notorious prison in Britain.

On the morning of 18th January, 1803, George Foster was taken from his cell here in Newgate Jail and led down this corridor. The reason this corridor narrows as you walk down it is that as prisoners were led down here, they had a tendency to panic and that’s because this is the last walk they made of their life.

This was the route to the public hanging.

Vast crowds had gathered outside Newgate Jail to witness George Foster’s last moments. According to one contemporary account, Foster died very easily as several of his friends who were under the scaffold had violently pulled his legs in order to put a more speedy termination to his sufferings.

Now, Foster’s hanging was an unremarkable event. Public executions were common in 19th-century London, but what was unique was what happened to Foster’s body after he died, because it was taken directly from the gallows to an operating theatre.

Frankenstein’s Monsters

Professor Giovanni Aldini
Professor Giovanni Aldini

George Foster’s corpse was to be the centrepiece of a public demonstration by Professor Giovanni Aldini, a practitioner of the latest field of scientific experimentation… galvinism.

Galvinism was the belief that electricity was the spark of life, perhaps even the very essence of life itself, this is what Giovanni Aldini intended to demonstrate by taking a pair of electrodes and in front of the watching audience, thrusting them into George Foster’s corpse.

To the audience’s amazement, the dead body in front of them twisted and contorted. When current was applied to the face, the dead man opened his eye. Giovanni Aldini was hoping that, through these experiments, he would one day be able to bring people back from the dead.

Newgate Jail
Frankenstein’s Monsters

For many watching in the audience, this was a step too far. It was outrageous, immoral even, and ultimately Aldini was forced to leave the country.

A few years later, Mary Shelley wrote her seminal work, Frankenstein, the story of a corpse brought back to life. And it’s said that the eponymous scientist was based on Professor Giovanni Aldini himself. This image of scientists as Frankensteins, meddling with powers beyond their control, is a vivid one that colours the public’s perception of science to this day.

The idea of mad scientists creating dangerous monsters has haunted the story of British science. In this film, I want to find out why.

I’m going to visit the locations where some of the most controversial discoveries in British science were made… and examine the impact they had on the world.

I’ll be looking at scientists whose research horrified the public… and I’ll be meeting researchers whose work remains controversial to this day.

External Links

Newgate Prison – Wikipedia Page

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