“Moore’s Law of Mad Science: Every eighteen months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point” – Eliezer Yudkowsky
In 1814, a seventeen year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin fell in love with the dashing young romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Despite her parents’ objections and Shelley’s pregnant wife, the happy couple eloped to France and began a whirlwind tour of the continent, which included a journey along the Rhine River with a stop in Gernsheim which is just ten miles away from Frankenstein Castle, overlooking the German city of Darmstadt. While there is no clear and irrefutable proof that it was there that Mary heard mutterings of the local legends about Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734), there is an uncanny resemblance between the all too real, and less threateningly named Dippel and the fictional mad scientist and archetypal re-animator Dr. Victor Frankenstein that would take center stage in her 1818 Gothic horror novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Mary may simply have borrowed the name of the castle because it sounded cool and vaguely menacing. Dr. Dippel sounds like a neighborhood pharmacist, a lab technician for Johnson & Johnson, or a spokesperson for a toilet paper manufacturer. The actual Dippel was slightly more edgy, with impressive credentials as an up and coming mad scientist, rumored to be conducting nefarious experiments into raising the dead. Sound familiar? Me-thinks royalties might be due.
Johann Conrad Dippel (who also went by the name Christianus Demócritus) was a German Pietist theologian, alchemist and physician born at Castle Frankenstein. The Pietists were a Lutheran sect not dissimilar to the Quakers and viewed with a great deal of trepidation by government authorities who observed that pietism “seemed either to generate an excess of evangelical fervor and so disturb the public tranquility or to promote a mysticism so nebulous as to obscure the imperatives of morality”. As befits your classier mad scientist, Dippel seems to have made a career of pissing people off. After graduating from the University of Giessen in 1693 (Franckensteinensis was often appended to his name in university documents), where he studied theology, philosophy, and alchemy, he engaged in a bitter theological dispute with Reformed Court Preacher Conrad Broeske in Offenbach, was at first supported and then castigated by Emanuel Swedenborg who described him as “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 arrested twice. His first arrest was for heresy due to his lectures on astrology and palmistry, and possibly grave-robbing (he served a seven year sentence), and his second was for too closely resembling Charles XII of Sweden, which may seem odd grounds for legal action, but that’s why it’s good to be king. He was also banned from several countries, including Russia and Sweden. By about 1700, largely disillusioned with the universe and increasingly disdainful of humanity, Dippel turned almost exclusively to alchemy as a route to discovering the secrets of nature. Returning to his home turf at Castle Frankenstein, he began conducting extensive alchemical and anatomical experiments. It has also been said that he was running tests with explosives and managed to blow up a tower at the castle, although the evidence for this is pretty thin.
Dippel was widely rumored to have collected cadavers, which he used in dodgy experiments involving attempts to transfer the soul of one corpse to another, which was not as gruesomely unique as one might hope, since many other alchemists at the time were curious about the possibilities of soul-transference. Many scholars have suggested that Dippel’s association with re-animating the dead are a modern invention, but his own theological speculations posited a theory consistent with such attempts.
He imagined the Divine Being to be surrounded by a matter of light and fire, in which lies the seed of the whole material world. All created spirits are parts and sparks of that light-matter, from which the surrounding airy and aethereal bodies move. What the physicists regard as the forces of nature are to him so many natural spirits, which are the effluences of the Infinite World-Spirit, to whom all again return in an eternal circle. He, as well as his predecessors, connected alchemy with this spiritual nature, as he assumed in all the three kingdoms of nature a secret gold-seed, for which the proper metallic food must be prepared in order to get gold itself from it. This art requires, if not a thoroughly new-born and holy man, at least one of understanding, penetration, and patience; and it stands under the special guidance of God (Hagenbach, 1869, p169).
As the neighbors became increasingly suspicious of Dippel’s activities, he relocated to Wittgenstein Castle in Siegen-Wittgenstein, where he was also continually under suspicion for grave robbing, experimenting on cadavers, and according to one local minister, “consorting with the devil”. Dippel’s own dissertation Maladies and Remedies of the Life of the Flesh, gives some telling hints to the practical experiments he would later attempt, suggesting he was developing a means to transfer souls between dead bodies through use of a specially designed funnel. Dippel died in 1734 from a stroke, despite his repeated claims that he had discovered the Philosophers Stone. Similarly, we have no evidence of the re-animated dead loitering about Castles Frankenstein or Wittgenstein, but hey, nobody’s perfect. It seems that one could make a solid argument that truth is rarely stranger than fiction, rather they are pretty equally odd. One just reads better. Or perhaps Mark Twain was more accurate when he said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t”.
Brumbaugh, Martin Grove, 1862-1930. A History of the German Baptist Brethren in Europe and America. Mount Morris, Ill.: Brethren Publishing House, 1899.
Hagenbach, K. R. 1801-1874. History of the Church In the Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries. New York: C. Scribner & co., 1869.
Robertson, J. M. 1856-1933. A Short History of Freethought: Ancient and Modern. 2d. ed., New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1906.
Thank you for this article. It adds a new dimension to the origin of Mary Shelly’s novel, which idea she claimed came from a dream. The dream she had was curiously appropriate, and seems possibly predestined, given the influence “Frankenstein” (as science gone tragically wrong) has had on the popular imagination. Is it only coincidence that both Faust and Frankenstein as Romantic figures were both Germanic?
You might enjoy Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters; I know I found it fascinating. (Apologies if you’ve already read and posted on it!)
There is only death for all your questions, mindless child. Whistle gravely past the graveyard.
Finally, somebody gets me 🙂