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The Scientist Who Wanted To Bring A Death Row Inmate Back From The Dead

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Dr. Robert E. Cornish is probably best known for his 1930s revivification experiments with dogs, in which he claimed to bring dogs back from clinical death. He wanted to try a similar procedure on humans — and when a death row inmate volunteered, Cornish petitioned the state of California to let him play re-animator.

Top image via Modern Mechanix.

Cornish's dog experiments would make most dog lovers cringe. Cornish would suffocate the dogs until they were clinically dead, and then he would place the bodies on a teeter board, rocking the bodies back and forth to get the blood flowing. In 1934 and 1935, Cornish reported two successful revivifications of clinically dead dogs. And in 1935, he also announced that he wanted to try to revive a death row inmate after an execution. Thomas McMonigle, an inmate at California's San Quentin State Prison, volunteered for the procedure.


McMonigle may have been a true monster, and not because he wanted to submit himself to a Dr. Frankenstein. He was sitting on death row for the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Thora Chamberlain (although the girl's body was never found), and he reportedly confessed to a second murder. In 1947, Cornish petitioned the California Department of Corrections to allow him to attempt to revive McMonigle after the condemned was executed in the gas chamber.

Clinton Duffy, who was warden of San Quentin at the time, denied Cornish's request, pointing out that after an execution, it took half an hour to vent the fumes in the gas chamber — and, just to be on the safe side, the body would have to remain in the chamber for at least an hour. Cornish was undeterred, however. He appealed Duffy's decision, at one point saying that he'd kill a sheep in a gas chamber, replicating the conditions of the San Quentin gas chamber, and then bring it back to life as a proof-of-concept. (Link via Mad Scientist Blog.) Duffy wasn't swayed and neither were the California courts. On February 20th, 1948, McMonigle stepped into the gas chamber without any hope of revivification.


But let's imagine Cornish had been there and that he had been able to revive McMonigle, what then? He would have served out his sentence — death by gas chamber — so would the state have been obligated to release him?


I've seen many people claim that the reason Cornish's request was ultimately refused was because the State of California feared it would have to let McMonigle go free if Cornish was successful. I haven't seen any primary sources that confirm that, but it does come up in some of the newspaper articles about the whole affair. According to a March 14, 1947, San Mateo Times article, Cornish claimed that McMonigle wouldn't go free because he had confessed to a second murder that he hadn't been tried for. However, just a few months later, he told the Tuscaloosa News that "lawyers told him if the convict were brought back to life he would legally be free.

Frank Swain points out in his book How to Make a Zombie that Cornish wasn't the first scientist who asked to perform revivification experiments on death row inmates. Gas chamber inventor Major Delos A. Turner petitioned the State of Nevada to allow him to attempt to revive Gee John, the first man executed in a gas chamber, in 1924. Of course, Turner's motives were very different — he wanted to publicly show that a prisoner could not be revived after dying in a gas chamber. The State of Nevada turned him down.