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  • Johnny Norton: Electric Boy! May 28, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    electric handshake

    Electriticy proved endlessly fascinating to the general public in the second half of the nineteenth century. Take the electric boy, Johnny Norton. Johnny gave off constant electricity from his body, so much so that if you went up and shook his hand you would receive a shock. Nor was this just a spark after walking on the wrong kind of carpet but a fully-blasted jolt. Johnny was typically placed in an oblong stall about seven feet long with a narrow counter along the front. If that sounds like a freak show set up that is because it was. The paying public would come up and shake electric boy’s hand and he and they would get an almighty buzz. As money is involved we can assume it was a trick, so how did they actually manage to do it?

    A long strip of cocoa matting [kept damp] served carpet for the passage way, and also a cover for a sheet of zinc, which extended beneath it, running the length of the stall. My box [this is Johnny the adult remembering] was similarly invested with zinc and matting. Attached to the sheets of metal, but hidden from view, were the two poles of galvanic battery, one under my feet and the other in the passage. Now, anyone passing over the zinc and touching behind the counter, completed the circuit and received the shock as did I.

    I hope he was paid well because this has to be the single worst job in the nineteenth century: Johnny describes shaking hands ‘from morning until night’ and had to give up ‘as the constant strain caused by the battery was too much for me’.

    It was surprising what intelligent people were duped by this trick… Many is the two dollar note I received from doctors and others for a couple of drops of my blood for analysis. One evening three or four young students came in to unmask me. One of them made a wager that he would electrify the audience the same way if he was the box. I immediately invited him in. and accepted the challenge. I then retired, but before doing so pressed a hidden button that cut off mv wire. He, of course, failed and ignominionsly retreated, after being guyed unmercifully by those present. This proved me genuine to the satisfaction of everyone in that town, and became famous.

    The electric boy’s confession in 1887 four or five years later led to international stories: yet this is barely anything on Johnny Norton. Strange History would half kill for an image, such as those that must have been put out at the time… drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com