In 1818 murderer Matthew Clydesdale was executed and, as Alex F Young explains, thereby hangs a tale

When ''Loyal Peter'' Mackenzie published his three-volume Reminiscences of Glasgow and the West of Scotland in the 1860s, little did he imagine the interest one chapter, The Case of Matthew Clydesdale the Murderer - Extraordinary Scene in the College of Glasgow, would hold a century and a half later. Alas, his account of the scene is fiction.

A 35-year-old weaver and part-time coal-pit sinker, Clydesdale appeared before Lord Gillies at Glasgow Circuit Court on October 3, 1818, charged with murdering Alexander Love, an 80-year-old miner, on the Clarkston Road near Largh Drumgelloch, New Monkland, in the early hours of Thursday, August 27, 1818. Clydesdale, much the worse for drink, met Love and his grandson going to work and, after knocking the boy to the ground, assaulted the grandfather with his own coal pick. When Love died on the Sunday, Clydesdale was already in custody.

The jury's 10-minute deliberation brought in a verdict of guilty, and Lord Gillies condemned Clydesdale to be hanged on Wednesday, November 4, 1818, and his body given to James Jeffray, Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow University, for dissection.

Mackenzie writes of the profound effect the dissection part of the sentence had on Clydesdale, while the Glasgow Chronicle reports that he appeared to be indifferent as to the result. By expending more energy at his legal studies, and less at the medical faculty, Mackenzie would have come across an Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder, passed in 1753, whereby the bodies of executed murderers had to be dissected or gibbeted. The previous murderer executed in Glasgow, James Gilchrist, in July 1808, suffered this fate, as would John Buchanan the following November.

Of the three others to be hanged with Clydesdale, only one, Simon Ross, a housebreaker from Rutherglen, would partner him on the drop.

At three o'clock Clydesdale and Ross were on the scaffold in Jail Square, where, as the hangman, Thomas Young, adjusted the rope on Ross, the audacious Clydesdale put his head through his noose. At five minutes past three they were launched into eternity. An hour later, Clydesdale's body was winding up Saltmarket and High Street to the college in an open cart, where, waiting in the lecture theatre, were Professor Jeffray and Andrew Ure, Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy at Anderson's Institution. Jeffray was responsible for the dissection, while Ure would conduct the Galvanic experiments.

Let Mackenzie now take up the story:

''. . . placed in an easy armchair . . . A light air tube, connected with the galvanic battery, was placed in one of his nostrils . . . His chest immediately heaved! - he drew breath . . . his eyes opened widely - apparently in astonishment; he did positively rise . . . and stood upright . . . his neck had not been dislocated on the gibbet, and he had now actually come to life again through the extraordinary operation of that galvanic battery! . . . some students screamed out . . . a few fainted on the spot; others clapped their hands! The professor . . . pulled our his unerring lancet and plunged it into the jugular vein of the culprit, who instantly fell . . . like a slaughtered ox on the blow of the butcher!''

Enthralling. No wonder it is still believed today. But now

let us look at the account given by the man who actually conducted the experiment.

Five weeks after the dissection, Andrew Ure MD, MGS, read to the Glasgow Literary Society a paper, published in 1819 by the Royal Institute, titled ''An Account of some Experiments made on the Body of a Criminal immediately after Execution, with Physiological and Practical Observations''.

Dr Ure related the history of galvanic experiments with the limbs of dead frogs, emphasising, a circumstance of the first moment, that previously the galvanic energy had been directed at muscles and not at nerves.

The battery used consisted of 270 pairs of 4in square plates, alternately copper and zinc, connected in series, with wires leading to pointed metal rods. Ure then detailed the five experiments carried out on Clydesdale:

1. The spinal marrow in the neck and the sciatic nerve in the left hip were exposed, and a cut made in the left heel. With one rod touching the spine, and the other the sciatic nerve, every muscle was agitated, resembling a shudder from cold. On moving from the hip to the heel, the leg was thrown out with such violence that an assistant was all but overthrown.

2. The left clavicle nerve and the seventh rib were exposed and touched, as one wire from the battery was run along the last few plates

''. . . Full, nay, laborious breathing was instantly commenced. The chest heaved and fell . . .

3. Touching a forehead nerve and the heel, and one battery connection again run along the last seven plates - rage, horror, despair, anguish, and hideous smiles passed over the murderer's face . . . several spectators were forced to leave the apartment from the terror of sickness, and one gentleman fainted. (Peter Mackenzie, perhaps?)

4. One rod applied to the clenched forefinger, extended it

. . . and . . . he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought that he had come to life.

5. To determine lung volume, the trachea was cut and a brass tube, connected to an evacuated glass globe, inserted.

We are almost willing to imagine, Ure said, if, without cutting into . . . the spinal marrow . . . the pulmonary organs had been set

a-playing at first (as I proposed)

. . . life might have been restored.

Can we believe that Professor Ure, with the restoration of life in mind, would have missed . . . he made a feeble attempt . . . he did positively rise . . . he had now actually come to life?

And the press? The following day's Glasgow Chronicle reports the execution and the dissection, but makes no mention of life being restored.

Finally, what might Clydesdale have thought of the long interest in his demise? Would he have been flattered, or thought that others who ended up on the anatomists' table were lucky to have been resurrected only once?