Our episode on him:
Johann Conrad Dippel is the man behind Frankenstein, Prussian Blue, and an energy drink.
Johann Conrad Dippel (August 10, 1673 – April 25, 1734) was a German pietist theologian, alchemist and physician.
This guy is basically the real-life Dr. Frankenstein, so hold onto your seats.
but was he really? was Dr. Frankenstein a real person? Let’s take a look at Dippel and see.
Dippel was born at Castle Frankenstein which is near Mühltal and Darmstadt,
For those that aren’t aware: Castle Frankenstein is a real place about 5km south of Darmstadt. It was built around 1250.
Being born there was enough for him to get the addnendum at school: Franckensteinensis
and at his university: Franckensteina-Strataemontanus.
..so “Frankenstein was (sorta) part of him name.
Okay, so the name is one thing.. what about the “trying to bring people back from the dead” thing? and townsfolk with torches and pitchforks chasing him out of town? Does Dippel meet the critearia?
In fact he was banned from a few countries, for instance Sweden and Russian. But more because of his theology.
Dippel studied theology, philosophy and alchemy at the University of Giessen, obtaining a master’s degree in theology in 1693. He published many theological works under the name Christianus Democritus, and most of them are still preserved.
Circa 1700 he turned to Hermetic studies and alchemy as a key to nature.
His views often didn’t jive with more mainstream theologians. And this is what actually got him banned from whole countries, not anything to do with creating monsters in a lab.. but still. Some thinkers did compare him to the devil, or say he was in league with the devil.
In fact he started to get quite a reputation. And him being pretty secretive, he either encouraged it, or didn’t exactly fight against it.
He was eventually imprisoned for heresy, serving a 7 year sentence.
…okay so he had some weird ideas.
Let’s take a look at his connection to alchemy, because that’s what we do.
Dippel created something called “Dippel’s Oil”, which he claimed was basically the Elixir of Life.
He tried to buy Castle Frankenstein for the formula.
..the offer was turned down.
Dippel’s Oil is basically just a snake oil. Some concoction he threw together from animal parts.
…we’ll get back to “animal parts” in a second.
He did help discover Prussian Blue, a famous pigment, with his oil and potassium carbonate. So it wasn’t totally useless.
And some even claimed that his oil gave an energy boost.. so that’s something.
Okay. Animal Parts.
In addition to alchemy, he was also into anatomy. And here’s where we may get the strongest Frankenstein connection.
Although some myths about him are pretty modern, like blowing up one of the towers of Frankenstein Castle (didn’t happen) and attempting to transfer the soul of one cadaver into another.. which was actually a pretty common experiment at the time.
..So that one is at least possible.
Again, he didn’t dispel any of these rumors and was a recluse. But he wasn’t driven out of town by the townfolk.
But he did disect animals. Avidly.
He made claims of potions for exorcisms.
And that it was possible to transfer the soul from one body to another with a funel.
..so there’s something to the madness.
Later in life he became more and more withdrawn as he became more engrossed and secretive in his experiments, and switched most of his attention to alchemy. Money always being a problem for him.
Which just fed the rumors.
Which he may have wanted because:
rumors that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for secret knowledge, ..since relying on his reputation as a dark sorcerer better enabled him to find audiences with those willing to pay for his knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.
He died at Wittgenstein Castle near Bad Laasphe, probably from a stroke, though some contemporaries suspected poisoning.Ironically, a year before his death, he wrote a pamphlet in which he claimed to have discovered an elixir that would keep him alive until the age 135.
Okay, so how could this have entered Mary Shelley’s mind as she wrote Frankenstein?
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin visited the castle during her travels on the Rhine with Percy Shelley, where they might have heard local stories about Dippel, which by then would have grown legendary and notorious.
Shelley references a brief interaction while touring the countryside around Castle Frankenstein with students of the University of Strasbourg, of which Dippel was once a student; these students could have told them stories about the infamous alumnus.
In addition, the Shelleys knew several members of the so-called “”Kreis der Empfindsamen,” a literary circle that met in Darmstadt from 1769 to 1773; Castle Frankenstein was frequently used as a location for their public readings, thus making it possible that Dippel’s legends could have come up during conversations between those in the circle and the Shelleys.
Miranda Seymour finds it curious that Mary speaks of “gods [making entirely] new men” in her journal so soon after her travels through the regions surrounding Castle Frankenstein; if rumors indeed existed throughout the area that Dippel experimented on cadavers in an attempt to create life, Seymour argues, Mary’s phrasing could be more than merely coincidental. For now, however, the connection remains a subject of an ongoing debate.
There are other arguments for and against Dippel being the source for Frankenstein. I think there’s too much of a correlation to totally ignore it, but I think Shelley also used a mix of stories for her Dr. Frankenstein.
..so there you have it. Dr. Frankenstein was an alchemist… which kinda makes Frankensteins Monster a humonculus. And makes me happy. And that’s it.