Okay, I own up , not so much ‘re-tweeted’ as ‘re-booted.’ I cannot resist a quirky mystery and The Electric Man is certainly that. This was a story that appeared in The New Orleans Times for October 8th, 1874 but then re-appeared, verbatim, as pre-Christmas reading for the English late Victorians over two months later in the Illustrated Police News, Law Courts and Weekly Record, for the 19th of December 1874.
With ten years of sensational graphic presentation already behind it, George Purkess’s London penny publication was eagerly awaited by its vast Saturday readership, and they certainly got their full dose of a new kind of genre than merely crime.
Given the technologies of that time, Purkess was able to trawl around the ‘western world’ and create a marinade of “true” graphic sensationalism ranging from disasters, to murders, to mysteries and violent crimes – often with sexual undertones. He was constantly collating such stories and re-circulating them, so certainly a ‘tweeter’ and also a bit of a blogger before his time.
So back to “The Electric Man: A Strange Scene.”
The man in question is Major Edward Gottheil who settled in New Orleans in 1849, working as a master draftsman and eventually he became a renown architect within that City. I did come across a rather odd tribute to him two years before his ‘electrification’ that appeared in The Times-Picayune, Louisiana, it said: “We are pleased to note the return of Major Edward Gottheil who has just arrived from Europe after a year’s absence. The Major was accredited by the Board of Immigration to the discontented peasants of the Old World, with instructions to offer them such inducements to emigrate as the commissioners were authorized to extend.” (The Times-Picayune, May 19th 1872, p.8)
I cannot say I understand what this ’emigre inducement’ business is about or who they rudely describe as ‘discontented peasants’ but, given the next scene I am about to relate, I suppose I was looking for a reason that someone might have it in for the dear old Major.
So, it’s off to Gottheil’s bedroom, so graphically presented by George Purkess in his Illustrated Police News, a spectacle denied to the American market who had to make do with a small column of boring newspaper text.
However, the story is identical for it was not re-written by Purkess, and was referred to as “A most extraordinary case of paralysis.” Well, judging from George’s illustration it was certainly much more than that as we’ll see. Gottheil had been ill with this paralysis for some time and then…..
“One evening he was lying asleep, almost as profound and peaceful as when in health. The faithful watchers sat just within the adjoining room, ready to answer his slightest call. Suddenly he cried out in frightful screams of agony, and although paralyzed, and incapable, ordinarily, of moving without aid, he sprang up in his bed. The paroxysms of pain did not in the least affect the clear conception of his intellect; on the contrary, they were rather strengthened than otherwise. Aroused in this manner from sound slumber, his first conceit was that some one had applied to him a galvanic battery heavily charged. Becoming assured that such had not been the case, he then thought that some one had stolen into his room and done something – what, he knew not. This in turn gave way to the positive assurances of his wife and friends; but it was plain that something had happened of an extraordinary physical character, and the Major with his usual scientific turn of mind, set about its investigation.”
Now, we come to the Peter Parker moment and who’s to say it wasn’t a spider some eighty-five years before Stan Lee and Steve Ditko thought of it? Major Edward Gottheil – Architecture-Man – seems an unlikely superhero but here’s the next installment from the New Orleans Times:
“Lifting up his paralyzed arm, he discovered that it was covered with what appeared to be a phosphoric light. Holding the stricken limb still higher, electric lights dripped from the fingers like drops of liquid fire, whilst the whole arm and the corresponding sides of the face and neck were illumined in like manner. The phenomenon was wonderful to behold. It was plain the patient was mysteriously and wonderfully overcharged with electricity. Feeling a mysterious influence in his left eye, he called upon his friends to examine it. They found it to be perfectly natural in appearance, except that it emitted a bright illumination, which cast a light on the wall sufficiently strong in a darkened room to enable him to see the figures on the wall paper. In a word, the eye shone out like a lamp.”
Well after the scary time his wife and friends are having, all calmed down and a doctor was called who could find nothing other than a rapid healing process was underway for his paralysis. The New Orleans Times ends their piece by merely wishing him a speedy recovery.
This anti-climax needed a follow-up so I looked up his biographical notes which, after recording the same bizarre incident, merely said that he died penniless in 1877 in the legendary Charity Hospital in New Orleans!
Now those are the three years we really want to know about for goodness sake- the post electrification years to his penniless death – what on earth had Gottheil been up to – something shocking I suspect.
I will deny you no longer the wonderment of George Purkess’s front cover of the Illustrated Police News, Law Courts and Weekly Record that ‘re-tweeted’ this story and you’ll understand what induced so many to part with their penny every Saturday