Question: What were electric baths used to treat in the 19th century?

Answer: Electric baths were used for stimulating organ function and circulation in patients.

On a cold day in 1803, George Foster, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and child, was hanged outside of Newgate Prison in London. Due to the hateful nature of his crime, the court also sentenced his corpse to dissection, which meant for Christians of the time that Foster could not be resurrected on Judgement Day, as his corpse would have been dismembered, and thus disqualified from the event.

However, in the name of scientific discovery, Italian physician Giovanni Aldini, who had been charged with the task of the dissection, used the opportunity to put in place an experiment he had long been planning. Following the discovery by his uncle Luigi Galvani that frogs’ legs twitch when struck by an electric spark, Aldini decided he would see if the same reaction took place on a human corpse.

Once proclaimed dead, Foster’s body was given to Aldini for experimentation. For the sake of the potential for theatrical splendor, Aldini propped the corpse up in front of the crowd, which was still mingling following the hanging, before shooting electrical currents through the corpse.

A reporter for The Newgate Calendar was in the audience and described what transpired in detail in the next day’s paper.

“On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion,” the reporter wrote.

Upon seeing Foster’s body twitching and flailing after it was declared dead, many onlookers became certain that he had been raised from the dead by Aldini’s magic. Due to this seemingly valid concern, the court reconvened and made the decision that executioners would need to be on standby for the time being in case of resurrection, at which time they would hang him once more, but with some added measures to be sure this time it would stick.

Despite the seeming theatrical thrust of Aldini’s experiment on Foster’s corpse, he had actually demonstrated something of scientific relevance at the time, as he had shown to the crowd of people that it was indeed possible to manipulate the body using electricity.

This was big news, as electricity was still quite new. The word “electricity” had only been coined 200 years earlier by William Gilbert, a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, in 1600. After observing the reaction that occurred when rubbing amber and seeing that it attracted hair and other light objects, Gilbert distinguished the process from magnetism by calling it electricity, from the Greek electron, which meant amber.

Outside of the electrification of corpses and frogs, a medical practitioner named Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein had also been conducting experiments on the curative properties of electricity during the late 18th century. He specifically looked at whether electrical shock worked as a treatment for patients with rheumatism, malignant fever, and the plague.

He was not able to confirm whether administering electrical shocks did much of anything other than increase a patient’s heart rate; however, he did observe that electrification made patients tired. For this reason, he suggested electrification as a treatment for patients whose “riches, woes, and worries prevent them from closing their eyes at night.”

In France during the mid-18th century, physicians conducted similar experiments on paralyzed soldiers to see whether electrification could cure paralysis. One physician in 1747 conducted an experiment in which he placed electric currents onto a soldier’s paralyzed arm for 2 hours in the morning and 2 to 3 hours in the afternoon. After a month of this treatment, the physician found that the arm did regain its mobility.

However, ongoing attempts at this same treatment did not lead to the same results for other patients. Despite this, one French physician at the time commented that following the success of that initial solder’s cure, “in this town, everybody wants to be electrified.”

And there were many inventors who were willing to fulfill this desire. Due to public enthusiasm for electricity and its potential curative properties, several new inventions were patented, such as the electrical hairbrush to cure baldness, the electric corset for weight loss, electric belts for erectile dysfunction, and electric baths for stimulating organ function and circulation.

Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.