Friday, September 28, 2012

The Galvanist's Apprentice

The Galvanist’s Apprentice
Bobby Derie

The dull eyes quiver and the muscles of the face convulse under the primary current, and the young women in the audience gasp aloud. The professor’s second nod, not long in coming, prompt me to pull the switch, allowing the secondary current to travel up the wires of the naked torso and re-animate the pallid arms. In due course during his lecture did I follow the subtle commands to apply more galvanic force to the piecemeal creature on display.

The head sat on the top shelf, suspended on geared mounts so that the professor could shew the spasming of the windpipe and concealed it again. Likewise were each of the limbs mounted to move independently—the whole arm and leg on the left, and the hand and foot on the right. For the torso, the professor had me go to with a bone saw to make of the chest a kind of door, so that the currents could be applied direct to heart and lungs by long steel pins. Of the poor fellow’s male member, I cannot say that is received any more dignified treatment, save that the professor kept it laid out on a wooden block and covered under a black cloth until he at his call the vivifying galvanism was applied to the metal rings attached to either end, allowing it to rise for the astonishment and edification of select clients.

I watched the batteries with some urgency, for the presentation grew long and above the acrid stink of chemicals and metals came the all-to-familiar odor of crisping flesh, and I fancied to see streams of boiling fat begin to seep from where the wires were embedded in the corpse. Yet I was happy with my work, happier than I had ever been. Alas, such days were not to last.


I was put apprentice to Professor Blackslate at the age of eight. My father had played at being a resurrection man, but ran afoul of a sexton at midnight and a hastily-swung lantern saw two new bodies in the graveyard that night. The professor had been a sometimes acquaintance with my father, and with my mother afloat in drink it was needed I should find work.

His rooms at the time occupied a small attic off Grape Lane, though I soon learned he was forced to move frequently do to the many smells and other minor discomits associated with his practice. There were pans of acid placed about, sheets of dissimilar metal, and assorted lengths of wire, but the highlight of his setup at the time was his primary apparatus - a barber's chair adapted to the medical application of galvanism to different parts of the body. It was in this chair I sat during our brief interview, and he alternately quizzed and lectured me on the mysteries of the galvanic forces and the human form, his Scots slipping sometimes into French, and often railing against the Hallerians.

I did not know then exactly what my duties were to be. Looking back, if I had but known the scope of the education that would soon be mine, perhaps...but as then, there are questions better left unasked.

The end came quickly, when it did. The Professor had achieved a modicum of success in his business and his experiments, forcing motion back into dead tissues and through gentle stimulus of the currents affecting remarkable cures to many ailments. We had several patients to recommend us in our practice, for we seldom if ever burned or worsened any cause, and the Professor had published advertisements and pamphlets with their kind remarks prominently displayed. It was at this time, at the height of his success, that the Professor grew more daring and began to host those private entertainments for a discerning clientele. I believe the true rot sat in when a local squire, whose dalliance with doxies was notorious even in those days, commissioned a smaller version of Blackslate's apparatus for personal use. The squire was not unfamiliar with the principles of galvanism, and had taken a fancy to the stimulating effect on certain members as demonstrated by a German envoy in London. With the squire's detailed description of the machine and its effects, it was little work for the Professor to deduce its operation and construct a similar device.
The squire paid in guineas for the galvanist's troubles, and I think it was the gold fever that gripped him then - for where one such device was made, so could more. There seemed no end to such clients, often quite well-off and established members of the town, and the Professor was forced to improve our working apparel and quarters to better receive such guests. Perhaps some lingering guilt on the practice still lay on Blackslate's breast, for he did not include me in this private work at first - but as demand increased, and his attention was drawn to the development of newer devices for the precise application of currents, so did my duties come first to assisting in the manufacture of the strange leather-and-copper belts, and then in their demonstration.
All told, however, this could not have been more than seven or eight months. Then one warm night in midsummer I was called on to assist the Professor with a particular client - a fine lady of good breeding and great beauty, gone somewhat the worse with the rigors of marriage and childbirth. I parted the black curtains to the private room and discovered her there in the apparatus-chair, covered with a black sheet, but otherwise appeared to be naked - her dress and skirts hung carefully in the closet. The Professor held in his hands a new device - twin rods of copper and zinc, perhaps three inches long and rounded at the tip, held to a flexible strap of stout leather, from which dangled the cords to the battery - which he declared a cure perpetual for the female hysteria, which required no doctor's visit to alleviate the rigors of that ailment. I watched and listened as he instructed the matron on the proper installation of the device, and dipping his arms beneath the sheet, proceeded to demonstrate this process, which caused the lady some excitement.
Then, at his instruction, I applied the current.
Ladies and gentleman, I will not expound what occured thereafter, save only that the poor lady was dead before we could fetch a proper doctor. That smiling c
orpse will haunt me for all my days.

There might have been a stretch of gaol after that, but the Professor's barrister was clear on the Herculean efforts on our part to save the lady, and we were acquitted - though ruined in other ways. My mother died of a canker in her bosom during the trial, or so the neighbors said, for I never saw her pass or even the body afterwards, and so my fate seemed tied to my master. Debt was our grim spectre, and chased us from the cheapest rooms to the flophouse, and now are office were back alleys and shadowed doorsteps, where the Professor would coax unwholesome gentlemen with excessive promises of galvanic pleasures, and I squeezed discarded lemons for their juices, and ever cruder were our methods and implements.

I do not know what took Blackslate in the end, though I suspect it was cholera, consumption, or transportation. We had reached our lowest level, huddled together in rags against the quietly raging winter, a raw parody of an organgrinder and his monkey, and the product our few clients came for had less to do than the weak currents from our empty batteries than my ministrations with chapped thighs and scrawny arse. Seven years had passed, and the Professor took from his bosom a scroll - I knew not what it was then, only that it was his treasured possession through our leanest days, and now as the dawn was still-born in the coal-smoke morning, he thrust it into my hands and stalked out alone into the snow and the soot.

I opened it with half-frozen fingers, and beheld my apprentice contract, sign'd and filled. I was a journeyman galvanist now.

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