“The success of it was truly wonderful. Full, nay, laborious breathing instantly commenced. The chest heaved and fell; the belly was protruded and again collapsed, with the relaxing and retiring diaphragm. 

“Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements, resembling a violent shuddering from cold… On moving the second rod from the hip to the heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such violence, as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension. 

“Rage, horror, despair, anguish and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean. At this point several spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted. ”  


Matthew Clydesdale was a 35-year-old ex-colliery worker who, in October 1818, was convicted of murdering an elderly man after a day’s heavy drinking. His public hanging on 4th November 1818, the first in Glasgow for nearly a decade, drew enormous crowds to the gallows on Glasgow Green, just at the foot of the Saltmarket. At around 4pm, after hanging for nearly an hour, during which he made no convulsive struggle, his lifeless body was lowered into a black fir box and placed upon a cart, surrounded by eight or ten town officers. Leaving the Green under this protective escort, the vehicle bore left and proceeded up Saltmarket, on to High Street, where it eventually reached its destination at the old Glasgow University anatomy theatre.

The subsequent experiments performed upon Clydesdale’s body that afternoon by Professors James Jeffray and Andrew Ure have been recorded and recounted variously with some quite startling differences of opinion as to what actually occurred in that packed lecture theatre. What is certainly beyond dispute is that an investigation was conducted that day into the possibility of the resuscitation of the dead man via the use of electrical stimulation, applied through connecting rods which were attached to a charged chemical battery.

Andrew Ure’s paper An Account of some Experiments made on the Body of a Criminal immediately after Execution, with Physiological and Practical Observations was read at the Glasgow Literary Society on 10th December 1818 and recounts the events of that afternoon in quite some detail. We can probably assume that it is as close to a prima facie account as can be hoped for on the matter of what actually occurred. However, aside from the in-depth description of scientific procedure, the text is infused with both a curious moral tone and at times a giddy sense of excitement and wonder at the possibilities arising from this foray into the barely understood world of Galvanism. One imagines the palpable exhilaration experienced by Ure and Jeffray being amplified by the theatrical manner and physical framework within which the experiments were conducted. Was this ghoulish interrogation of physical matter entirely requiring of a large audience, like some kind of proto-Grand Guignol? Clydesdale is frequently referred to as ‘the murderer Clydesdale’ and a moral certitude permeates throughout that seems thoroughly at odds with the kind of scientific impartiality we are used to today.

Further investigation in the Glasgow University archives reveals journalist Peter Mackenzie’s account of the story written some 50 years after the event took place. This reads like a present-day tabloid splash, revelling in gruesome detail while appearing to differ with Ure’s paper on a number of counts. Foremost is the description of how Clydesdale “stood upright” and “had now actually come to life again through the extraordinary operation of that Galvanic battery” only to be stopped in his tracks by Dr Jeffray who “pulled out his unerring lancet and plunged it into the jugular vein of the culprit, who instantly fell down on the floor like a slaughtered ox on the blow of the butcher”. One imagines the Victorian reader eagerly anticipating such horrors upon reading about an event such as this; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published, coincidentally, in 1818) would, after all, have been firmly cemented in the public imagination by then.

In both accounts we learn little about Clydesdale; the man becomes merely matter in the hands of Ure and Jeffray, voiceless and stripped of dignity even in death. His silence and relative anonymity speak volumes about early nineteenth century class stratification. It’s surprising we even know his name, though if he had been afforded today’s legal and moral protections as a scientific specimen, we almost certainly wouldn’t.


Douglas Morland. October 2014.

Andrew Ure: “An Account of some Experiments made on the Body of a Criminal immediately after Execution, with Physiological and Practical Observations”, Journal of Science and the Arts 6, 283-294 . (1819)



Mon texte multi-lignes
Douglas Morland
The strange case of Matthew Clydesdale