Two hundred years ago, a teenager named Mary Shelley created one of fiction’s iconic villains: Frankenstein’s monster. From the Hammer films to Mel Brooks satires, Frankenstein (which is actually the last name of the scientist who creates the creature, not the monster itself) has become both a source of fear and a beloved comedic figure. He’s a sort of loveable bumbling idiot like Lurch in The Addams Family, but the history of the barbaric human-made monster is much older—and continues to strike at the heart of our fears about scientific advances.
One of the earliest examples of a composite person is the unfortunate case of the mythological figure Pelops. Tantalus, Pelops’ father, killed his son and made him into a stew, which he served to the Gods of Olympus as an offering. While almost all of the gods refrained from eating the dish, Demeter (the grieving mother of Persephone) chomped her way through Pelops’ shoulder.
After banishing Pelops’ father to hell, the gods reassembled Pelops. They could not, however, substitute his shoulder with more flesh. Thus, Hephaestus fashioned him a new shoulder out of ivory. While not technically an example of fused corpses, Pelops was the first example of a reassembled corpse whose frame was supplemented with alien matter, and his story was influential in how Christians came to think about the resurrection.
Though the majority were committed to the reconstitution and resurrection of the human body after death, early Christians worried about the fate of those who had been eaten by lions or, worse, cannibals. Third-century thinkers like Tertullian and Athenagoras wondered: would a person who had been unlucky enough to be eaten by cannibals be fused to that other person forever?
Reasoning about reconstitution after death turned to sci-fi style fantasies in the medieval period. A fifteenth-century Spanish painting called “A Verger’s Dream” and attributed to the Master of Los Balbases hangs in the Wellcome Library in London. Unusually, for the medically oriented library, the painting shows two saints—Cosmo and Damian—in the process of surgery. Attended by angels and dressed as doctors, the saints are posed, mid-action, over the body of an obviously sick man. They have already removed the patient’s diseased leg and are in process of replacing it with that of another, darker-skinned man.
The painting refers to a story found in Jacob de Voraigne’s Legenda aurea (1275). In de Voraigne’s version, the man had an ulcer that consumed his flesh. As he slept, the saints appeared to him and transplanted the leg from a recently deceased cadaver. When the man awoke and felt no pain, he saw the transplanted limb and jumped for joy that he had been healed. He shared his experience with others and investigations at the cemetery soon thereafter revealed the source of the leg.
It is a deeply troubling story. The discussion between Cosmo and Damian makes it clear that they cannot recreate the man’s flesh out of nothing; they need a source. So, they go to a nearby graveyard and take the limb of a recently deceased Ethiopian. It is difficult not to be unsettled by the sight of the Ethiopian’s leg, clutched in the claw-like hand of the saint. Even in the fifteenth century, the reality of transplant surgery was some five hundred years in the future.
You have to wonder: what unsanctioned experimentation lay behind the fantastical healing of de Voraigne’s world? It is, in this context, reassuring to find anatomical inaccuracies in the painting itself: whatever the expertise of the tale’s author, the legs in the painting contain only one bone. The Master of Los Balbases, at least, had never tried to dissect a corpse, much less put one together. The exploitation of an Ethiopian body does not direct us to contemporary medical praxis, but rather seems intended to explain how it is that when the patient awakens he knows that the healthy leg is not his own.
In the novel, Victor Frankenstein’s methods of constructing “the Creature” aren’t as simple as the stories about saints. While we think of Frankenstein’s monster as a patchwork of flesh and limbs sourced from graves and reanimated by electricity, the book is studiously vague about how the Creature is actually made. It does not have bolts attaching his head to his body. In the book Frankenstein discovers an elemental principle that allows him to bring inanimate matter to life, but Shelley never explicitly says how, merely noting that he obtained the materials for the experiment from “the dissecting rom and the slaughter house.”
It may not be gory, but even without a grave-robbing scene, the book horrified people so much that when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein she did so anonymously with a preface by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (As she dedicated her book to her father it wasn’t actually anonymous; people were appalled that a young girl could come up with such a horrifying tale).
Shelley lived in an era in which scientists and doctors used the cadavers of executed criminals to explore the inner workings of the human body. The discovery of electricity, and its use by Luigi Galvani to force the bodies of frogs into spasm, led many to wonder, as Frankenstein did, if we were on the verge of discovering the cure for death.
Corpses were in short supply, however, and a number of physicians were not above robbing the graves of the recently dead in order to secure fresh specimens. The result, and arguably the real horror story here, is that physicians lobbied for the increased use of capital punishment as a means of securing more bodies.
Part of the issue for those interested in this area of research was the strange and undetermined boundary between life and death. In 1774, two doctors founded the Royal Humane Society with the express intention of disseminating information about how to resuscitate people who appeared to have drowned. Galvani’s experiments left an impact on Shelley; in 1803, when she was just a child, Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini reported that he had been able to use electricity to (temporarily) reanimate the corpse of murderer George Forster. According Aldini Forster had opened an eye, raised a clenched fist, and moved his legs.
Dr. Jessica Baron, historian and president of the science and ethics consulting company Arista, said that people began to worry about the treatment of vulnerable bodies in this period. Percival’s Medical Ethics (1803) discussed experimenting on the poor, but the more common victim was the criminal. Baron told The Daily Beast that the use of criminals in these experiments added to the horror: “either the body parts belong to criminals or they are procured by criminals, which makes the potential monsters scarier.”
Frankenstein has been called the original sci-fi novel for the way that it engaged contemporary experimentation. At various junctures since its publication, religious groups and ethicists have expressed alarm about the “Frankenstinian” intermingling of body parts and the manner in which new life is created in laboratories. Jehovah’s Witnesses object to blood transfusions; Roman Catholics (for a variety of reasons) to IVF; and, when it was first introduced, numerous people lodged objections to organ transplants.
As a society, meddling with God’s creation and integrating bodies in substantive ways has always troubled people in ways that mingling our saliva, sexual fluids, and skin cells do not. The spirit of Victor Frankenstein lives on in technologies designed to extend life and corporeal functionality through technological intervention. Artificial limbs, the modern heirs to Pelops’ shoulder, are widely accepted; but science continues to investigate just how much of us is replaceable in ways that still give people the shivers.