Was There Actually a Real Dr. Frankenstein?

His name was Johann Konrad Dippel and there are those who say that he was the model and inspiration for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, although this claim is ‘controversial’ to say the least.

(Johann Konrad Dippel, b. 1673 –  d. 1734)

Johann Konrad Dippel was born on August 10, 1673, in Castle Frankenstein [1] - a hilltop castle about 5 km south of Darmstadt, Germany, that was built some time before 1650.

After studying theology, philosophy and alchemy at the University of Giessen [2], Dippel engaged in bitter disputes with an influential Reformed Court Preacher, Conrad Broeske of Offenbach.

Dippel’s reputation as a controversial theologian earned him both defenders and enemies throughout all of Europe.

One of Dippel’s former disciples, Emanual Swedenborg, later became a harsh critic and eventually dismissed him as a “most vile devil … who attempted wicked things” and “bound to no principles, but was in general opposed to all, whoever they may be, of whatever principle or faith … becoming angry with any one for contradicting him.” Dippel was convicted of heresy and spent seven years in prison.

Dippel created an oil made of bones, blood and various other animal products, known as Dippel’s Oil, which was supposed to be the equivalent to the alchemists’ dream of the Elixir of Life. He attempted to purchase Castle Frankenstein using the formula to his elixir as the purchase price. His offer was rejected.

(The ruins of Castle Frankenstein as seen from within the outer walls)

There were claims made that during his stay at Castle Frankenstein, Dippel practiced alchemy and anatomy. It was rumoured that Dippel performed gruesome experiments with cadavers in which he attempted to transfer the soul of one cadaver into another. [3] However, while it possible that Dippel pursued similar objectives, there is no direct evidence to link him to these specific acts. Dippel did, however, experiment quite frequently with dead animals, to which he was an “avid dissector.”

In his dissertation Maladies and Remedies of the Life of the Flesh, Dippel claims to have discovered both the Elixir of Life and the means to exorcize demons through potions he concocted from boiled animal bones and flesh. This is the same essay in which Dippel claimed to believe that souls could be transferred from one corpse to another by using a funnel.

(Colin Clive as Doctor Henry Frankenstein)

Dippel became disillusioned with Christianity and eventually abandoned it completely, shifting all of his energy exclusively on his alchemical experiments. He set up a lab near Wittgenstein and it is at this point in his life that historical records are vague on his activities and thus grew folkloric in nature. During this time, at least one local minister apparently accused Dippel of grave robbing, experimenting on cadavers, and keeping company with the Devil.

Dipped died, most likely of a stroke, on April 25, 1734, at the age of 61.

(Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s creation, known simply as The Creature)

While there are many theories suggesting that Mary Shelley had access to the stories of Johann Konrad Dippel [4], none is conclusive.

Regardless, however, of the historical validity of the connection, Dippel’s status as Frankenstein’s prototype seems assured in current popular culture - similar to Count Dracula’s equally controversial interchangeability with the historical Vlad the Impaler.

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This article is my 200th Vampyre Fangs piece for WordPress. Thanks to my many readers, supporters and friends.

[1] No, I’m not kidding. There’s actually a 17th century castle (or rather the ruins thereof) called Castle Frankenstein about 5 km south of Darmstadt, Germany.

[2] He obtained a master’s degree in theology in 1693.

[3] Soul-transference with cadavers was actually a common experiment among alchemists at the time and was a theory that Dippel supported in his writings.

[4] Speculations that she visited Castle Frankenstein during her travels with her husband Percy Shelley, that while in the Rhine district they heard local stories regarding Dippel, that she encountered students from the University of Strasbourg where Dippel was once a student and they may have told her about the infamous alumnus. One of the many other theories – this one by a local historian named Walter Scheele – is that Mary Shelley’s step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont who was a translator of the works of legendary story-teller Jacob Grimm recounted to young Mary the story of the mad scientist Dippel of Castle Frankenstein as transmitted to her in a letter by Grimm himself. Other historians, whether their field of research is Grimm, Shelley, or the Castle Frankenstein, do not see any evidence for this. Scheele’s claimed letter of Grimm is nowhere to be found. And no evidence can be found that Clairmont was considered as the translator for Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

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3 comments on “Was There Actually a Real Dr. Frankenstein?

  1. Night-Gaunt says:

    There are also two other candidates that could have influenced Ms Shelly. One that got into the news was a Dr. Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834) who was related to Galvani and studied in the same medical fields. He was fascinated by electricity and what it did to dead things. He had the idea that with sufficient voltage he could bring the dead back to life. In 1791 Aldini edited the notes of Galvani’s experiments in muscular motion activated by electricity. 1802 Aldini came to London and demonstrated how Galvanic pulses can make dead things move. However what Aldini wanted is to experiment on a fresh human corpse to see if he can shock them back to life. He was given one chance. So in 1803 he got his way. The condemned signed the paper allowing Aldini to use his dead body soon after he is executed. Aldini using a series of batteries and electrodes touched parts of the body and got it to twitch. However when he inserted a larger electrode into the man’s rectum he got the best results. Still the man stayed dead but it seemed that he was almost alive for that brief time. Aldini got no more chances.

    The other candidate (it could have been all three) was British born Andrew Crosse (1774-1855) who studied electricity and chemistry in relation to crystal growth. In 1834 one day by accident—initially it was an experiment to grow crystals in silica. He made glass from ground flint and potassium carbonate then dissolved it in hydrochloric acid.His idea was to allow this fluid to drip slowly unto a porous stone (red colored iron oxide from Mt. Vesuvius) that had been electrified by a battery to see whether it would facilitate crystal formation. It did. Small white lumps appeared on the stone, then they began to grow “hairs” or filaments, the bud at the end began to sprout legs, then they began to move on the 28th day! Under the microscope they most resembled mites of the Acarus type. But like no other known mites, the smaller ones had only six legs. The long filaments on the bodies were also striking. They were all white not red. He took great precautions to protect from contamination. Without food they died. When he added a chlorine atmosphere to the experiment they formed but died upon reaching the mite stage. In later Michael Farady repeated the experiment and it worked! So did the head of the London Electrical Society W. H. Weeks also showed that following what was done would work again and again. Yet who does that experiment today in labs in HS? Scientific treatises on it, what it signifies in relation from transmutation form the non-living to the living? Not a word except to condemn it without reproducing it.

    Both men didn’t do their experiments till after Ms Shelly’s book came out in 1818 so they weren’t significant in her story formulations. She may have just used the experiments in electricity as the springboard for her idea of bodily reanimation.

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