London’s Undead

In 1825 London’s Humane Society held its anniversary dinner, which was followed by a procession of 530 persons who had been returned from the dead by this benevolent charity. Since its founding in 1776 they claimed to have reanimated over 5,000 people in London alone. Add to this all the societies in Britain, North America etc, this makes today’s zombie parades for halloween pretty tame stuff, but there is much importance here.

The first Humane Society was founded in Amsterdam, largely aimed at reviving those accidentally drowned. The first London House of Recovery was on the banks of the Serpentine, where a physician was on duty summer and winter where victims were taken and treated. Victims of drowning were dried out and warmeed, lightning tended to be shocked back to life with electricity, both of which were considered far more humane than the peasant habit of beating people back to life.

This could be shrugged off as the strange and varied realms of science in the 18th century, but there were important aspects to this which we still struggle with. The revival techniques were often used on suicides, or self murderers, some of whom were very angry at being saved. Suicides were still seen as damned for all time, and were often buried at crossroads or in unconsecrated ground.  If a suicide was revived, were they still damned? This was a huge moral question.

There was also links between murder and self murder. Since suicide was such a moral crime, those who opposed the death penalty also promoted the idea that people were pushed by circumstances to self murder, so those responsible for making lives unbearable should have been punished, a notion which is seldom considered today.

The Humane Society was on thin ice when some members suggested reviving criminals recently hanged, which would totally change  the punishment of hanging, so their actions here were seen as a threat to national security.  But it ws suggested that such attempts could advance the science and help revive those who accidentally died. Since 1650 there had been a number of famous hangings where the victim survived, so this was not completely far fetched.

This notion was put to the test when one of their founders and a prominent opponent of the death penalty, Rev William Dodd was convicted of forgery. He was sentenced to death but  believed he would be saved by his supporters.  But this failed to happen, and one of the great opponents of the death penalty was lost, though his sermons survive as a document of the Humane Society’s early days.

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