|Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'|
On Monday morning 6 December John Atkins, a boatman on the Grand Union Canal, made a harrowing discovery, the ice-covered body of a drowned baby had somehow wedged itself under the bow of his barge at Westbourne Green. He promptly informed the authorities and Sir Richard Ford, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street and so effectively London’s police chief, instructed him to drag the canal looking for further bodies. In the meantime, the dead baby was removed to Chelsea workhouse where a few days later it was seen by Margaret Bradfield, George Foster’s landlady. When she was later asked at his trial if she had recognised the deceased she responded “it was the prisoner's child; I pulled up its eye-lids to look at the colour of its eyes; its name was Louisa.” It took three days of dredging by bargemen to find the corpse of a woman entangled in a submerged bush “close by the window of the Mitre Tavern”. The landlady and waiter of the Mitre both recognised the body as a customer from the previous Sunday afternoon who had drunk rum and porter in the company of an unknown man. No further bodies were discovered and George Foster was not taken into custody until after Christmas. He was interrogated by Sir Richard Ford himself and made the following statement:
‘My wife and child came to me on Saturday se’nnight, about eight o’clock in the evening, and slept at my lodgings that night. The next morning, about nine or ten o’clock, I went out with them, and walked to the New Cut at Paddington; we went to the Mitre tavern, and had some rum, some porter, and some bread and cheese. Before that we had stopped at a public house near the first bridge, where we had some beefsteaks and some porter; after which she desired me to walk further on by the cut, so I went with her. I left her directly I came out of the Mitre tavern, which was about three o’clock, and made the best of my way to Whetstone, in order to go to Barnet, to see two of my children, who are in the workhouse there. I went by the bye lanes, and was about an hour and a half walking from the Mitre to Whetstone. When I got there, I found it so dark that I would not go on to Barnet, but came home that night. I have not seen my wife nor child since; I have not enquired after them, but I meant to have done so to-morrow evening, at Mrs. Hobart’s. -- I came home from Whetstone that evening between seven and eight o’clock; I saw no person in going to Whetstone; nor did I stop any where, at any public house, or elsewhere, except the Green Dragon, at Highgate, where I had a glass of rum. My wife had a black gown on, and a black bonnet; the child had a straw bonnet, and white bed gown. My wife was a little in liquor.’
|The entry on Jane Foster in the curate's notebook|
|Baby Louisa Foster in the burial Register of St Luke's, Chelsea|
A Coroner’s jury delivered a verdict of accidental death on Jane and Louisa Foster and George Hodgson, the Middlesex Coroner, later testified that he had viewed the bodies and also had them examined by a surgeon and that neither he nor the surgeon had observed any sign of violence. Despite this George’s story was not believed by Sir Richard Ford and he was charged with the murder of his wife and child. At the trial at the Old Bailey there were hints that Jane Foster may have taken her own life. The landlady of the Mitre reported that her parting remark on quitting the tavern had been “this is the last time I shall come here,” though she said this was not said despondently but more in a huff. Another witness, Sarah Goring in whose house the Fosters had lodged four years previously was asked if Jane Foster has “ever said any thing to you respecting her inclination or disinclination to remain in this world?” No she said, adding “I was very much surprised to hear she was in the work-house, because he was a very tender husband and a good father.” George’s employer and four other witnesses gave him a good character but his story of walking to Whetstone, more than 9 miles away from the Mitre tavern, in an hour and a half and of walking almost 20 miles in a little over three hours, was not credible. And why would he be lying? The only possible reason as far as the jury were concerned was to hide his guilt. They found him guilty as charged and he was condemned to hang and his body to be handed to the surgeons for dissection.
A hastily put together report by the Recorder of London recorded grounds for clemency in evidence not produced at the trial. The Rev. William Agutter, Chaplain of the asylum for Female Orphans in St George’s Fields, had written a letter to the Recorder “regarding a long consultation with Ann Arnold who was friendly with the dead woman. Arnold stated that Mrs Foster had parted from her husband and had gone into the workhouse. Mrs Foster and the child had since left the workhouse and were destitute. Arnold had told Mrs Foster to leave the child at the workhouse and obtain a nursing position, but she would not as the children 'were used so very ill.' Mrs Foster is stated to have said "If we die, we die together," and that "if something was not done for her she would put an End to her Misery." Eleanor Deker, who had met Mrs Foster at Arnolds, confirmed this statement and said they both thought that 'some mischief' would happen to Mrs Foster.”
|Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'|
In the week that George Foster went on trial Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, was astonishing polite London society with his demonstrations of the power of electricity. On 6 January 1803 the Morning Post reported:
Dr. Aldini, now in London, lately exhibited at the house of Mr. Hunter, some curious experiments on the body' of a dog newly killed, by which the company then present were exceedingly astonished by the powers of Galvanism. The head of the animal was cut off. The head and body were put beside each other, on a table previously rubbed with a solution of ammonia. Two wires communicating with the Galvanic trough, were then applied, the one in the ear, the other at the anus of the dead animal. No sooner had those applications been made, than both head and body were thrown into the most animated muscular motions. The body started up with a movement by which it passed over the side of the table. The head equally moved; its lips and teeth grinning violently. A curiosity has been expressed to have these experiments tried on a criminal newly executed. Dr. Aldini has communicated his discoveries, in an ingenious paper, to the Royal Society. He is soon to publish an English work on this subject.
George Foster was soon to satisfy the curiosity to see the dead dog experiments repeated on a human being. Since his trial he had ‘he had scarcely taken the smallest nourishment’ and had been so troubled by his conscience that he had made a full confession to his crime and in response to questions would only say that “I ought to die.” On 17 January at three minutes to eight in the morning he was brought out from Newgate wearing the same brown greatcoat and red waistcoat that he had worn through his trial. He was so enfeebled that he could not walk unassisted the short distance from the prison to the place of execution and had to be helped up the stairs to the scaffold that stood outside the debtor’s door of the Old Bailey. The reporter from Bell’s Weekly Messenger noted that when he ascended the platform “his air was dejected in the extreme, and the sorrow manifested in his countenance, depicted the inward workings of a heart conscious of the heinous crime he had committed.” According to the Newgate Calendar after “passing a short time in prayer with Dr Ford, the ordinary of Newgate, the cap was pulled over his eyes, when the stage falling from under him, he was launched into eternity.” The calendar also reports that he ‘died very easy’ with the help of his friends, who had stood beneath the scaffold with the express purpose of pulling on his legs to break his neck and cutting short his sufferings. What happened next was reported in full in the Morning Post of 22 January:
|Giovanni Aldini by William Brockedon (1830) in the National Portrait Gallery|
Later rumour had it that the raised right arm and clenched fist had connected with the nose of Mr Pass the Beadle of Surgeons Hall who suffered such a fright that he returned home and died the same night. Aldini’s grisly but theatrical demonstrations were a great success though not everyone was impressed. The American Thomas G. Fessenden who was in London at the time wrote, under the pseudonym Dr Christopher Caustic, the “Terrible Tractoration: A Poetical Petition Against Galvanising Trumpery, and the Perkinistic Institution. Addressed to the Royal College of Physicians.” This includes the following lines about Aldini:
For he, ‘tis told In public papers,
Can make dead people cut droll capers
And shuffling off death's iron trammels,
To kick and hop like dancing camels!
To raise a dead dog he was able,
Though laid in quarters on a table;
And led him yelping, round the town,
With two legs up, and two legs down!
And this most comical magicianWill soon, in public exhibition,
Perform a feat he's often boasted,
And animate a dead pig roasted!
With powers of these Metallic Tractors;
He can revive dead malefactors;
And is reanimating, daily,
Rogues that were hung once, at Old Bailey!
And sure I am he'll break the peace,Unless secured by our police;
For such a chap, as you're alive,
Full many a felon will revive.
And as he can, no doubt of that,
Give rogues the nine lives of a cat;
Why then, to expiate their crimes,
These rogues must all be hung nine times!