COLUMBUS, OH — On October 4, 1872, John Barclay climbed the stairs to the gallows at Ohio’s Columbus Penitentiary.
The condemned prisoner had admitted out loud to murdering livestock merchant Charles Garner the previous year. From there, Barclay stepped into the noose, and, as ordered by the court, was hanged by the neck until dead.
Physicist Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, who taught at Columbus Central High School, stood among those who witnessed the execution. Barclay had willed his body to science, and Mendenhall was on hand to make use of the remains in an experiment approved, and even overseen, by the Ohio government.
In short order after the hanging, then, Thomas Mendenhall transported Barclay’s corpse to the nearby Starling College where he would galvanize it with electricity in hope of shocking the dead man back to life.
First, let’s recap how Barclay ended up on the noose. In November 1872, Barclay observed Charles Garner cash a sizable check at a Columbus bank after the meat supplier made a delivery deal in the city.
Barclay, who’d been deemed a local “knockabout” that regularly got up to no good, eyeballed Garner as a potential source of quick cash just waiting to be robbed.
With theft in mind, Barclay bought a hammer and tailed Garner the rest of the day. When the merchant departed Columbus by covered wagon, Barclay hopped on the back of the vehicle and crouched down out of sight. He waited until the wagon was four miles out of town, on a bridge over Alum Creek, to attack. In a flash, Barclay pummeled Garner with the hammer, stole the victim’s cash, and took off on foot.
Remarkably, Garner, whose skull had been crushed “so that the brain was exposed,” managed to drive the wagon to a farm about two miles up the road. He didn’t die until five days later.
Police picked up Barclay in fairly short order and he confessed to the crime.
At the same time, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall had been persuading the state of Ohio to allow him to use a freshly executed prisoner to see if a corpse could be reanimated by way of electrical jolts. The government agreed and granted Mendenhall access to Barclay’s body.After getting the dead prisoner to the laboratory, Mendenhall repeatedly juiced the cadaver with electricity — and it reportedly jumped and moved as though alive — but, clearly, it was not.
The Cincinnati Commercial newspaper chronicled the process thusly:
“The first test was on the spine. This caused the eyes to open, the left hand to become elevated, and the fingers to move, as if grasping for something. The hand finally fell, resting on the breast. The battery was then applied to the nerves on the face and neck, which caused the muscles of the face to move as in life. The test was next applied to the phrenic nerve of the left arm, and afterward to the sciatic nerve.”
Various law-enforcement officers, including judges from the Ohio Supreme Court, remained on hand in the event that the experiment might actually prove successful.
As The Police Gazette reported:
“In so far as anyone knew, the Judges might have to pass upon the uncanny question of Barclay’s legal status as a living person who had already suffered the death penalty. However, they were spared that embarrassing situation.”
Eventually, Mendenhall powered down his generators, and prison employees laid Barclay to rest.
Despite his flop as a reanimator, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall went on to be the founding professor at Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, which became a branch of Ohio State, and even taught physics for three years at Imperial University in Tokyo.
Upon returning to America, Mendenhall directed the Ohio Meteorological Bureau, became president of Indiana’s Polytechnic Institute, oversaw President Benjamin Harrison’s Coast and Geodetic Survey, and even had a glacier named in his honor.
In 1900, Ohio State University granted Professor Emeritus status to Mendenhall. He died 24 years later at age 82. It’s believed no one tried to reanimate him afterward, though.
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Main image: Galvanism experiments, Giovanni Aldini, 1804 [Wellcome Library, London]