Peter Haining: The Man Who Was Frankenstein
Frederick Muller 1979
A review I read nearly forty years ago of Peter Dickinson’s The Flight of Dragons mentioned how the author used scholasticism, biology and chemistry “to prove how dragons could have physically existed, breathed fire, and flown.” This put me in mind of a discussion of dragon legends in the Quantock Hills of Somerset where, of at least nine dragons mentioned, only one breathed fire: the dragon of Kingston St Mary. Peter Haining’s The Man Who Was Frankenstein suggested to me why this might be so.
A couple of miles north of Kingston, near the highest point on the Quantocks, once stood Fyne Court in the village of Broomfield. The best known of the owners of Fyne Court was Andrew Crosse (1784-1855) whose epitaph in St Mary’s church reads
The Electrician … He was Humble Towards God and Kind to His Fellow Creatures.
Other names were more colourful: the Wizard of the Quantocks, the Thunder & Lightning Man. What Crosse did was to convey atmospheric electricity along one-and-a-quarter miles of insulated copper wires strung from trees and poles to his laboratory. When the electricity was discharged from his batteries the reports could be “as loud as those of a cannon” and “the stream of fire … too vivid to look on for any length of time”. Might not the memory of this early experimenter in electricity have added the description “fire-breathing” to the dragon legend closest to Broomfield?¹
Hesiod’s Theogony told various legends of the Titan Prometheus who created man from clay, stole fire from Hephaestus’ forge and stored it in a rod (a fire-drill perhaps), and was bound to a rock and tortured for his pains. Millennia later Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of Prometheus Unbound, and Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) were present in 1814 at Andrew Crosse’s only London lecture. Haining believes that Mary’s impressions of the lecturer contributed significantly to her chief claim to literary fame, Frankenstein, which was subtitled The Modern Prometheus: hence the title of Haining’s book.
And then, in an almost incredible episode of nature imitating art, Andrew Cross appeared, like Victor Frankenstein, to create life itself, in 1837, twenty years after Mary Shelley’s book first appeared. Crosse was trying to form artificial minerals by the action of electricity on fluids but during the course of repeated experiments produced six- and eight-legged ‘insects’ of the genus acarus, reputedly confirmed in independent parallel experiments by no less a person than Faraday (though there is no evidence to support this).
Like a real-life Frankenstein, Crosse was vilified as a blasphemer and atheist, which distressed him greatly, but the mystery has not really been satisfactorily explained.²
¹ It’s probable, however, that the fire-breathing dragon legend predated Andrew Crosse’s lifetime, as a dragon is carved on one of the medieval bench ends of nearby Crowcombe church. However, all the accounts of the Kingston St Mary dragon appear to date from the 20th century: Vince Russett, ‘The Dragons of Quantock’ in Picwinnard, the magazine of Wessex leys and folklore 8, February 1979
² It’s argued that cheese-mites or dust-mites had contaminated Crosse’s experiments
This review, now slightly revised, first appeared in The Journal of the Pendragon Society Vol XIII No 3, Summer 1980. It forms part of a short series celebrating the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published on March 11th 1818.