Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Castle Frankenstein and the alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel
There are several assertions about an alleged connection between Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein, the Castle Frankenstein near Frankfurt/Darmstadt in Germany and the alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel, who was born in the castle. Here are some things that have been claimed and what is true about them.
- The alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734) was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
This is very unlikely. Besides being an alchemist (as well as a theologian and a physician) there are no similarities between Dippel and Victor Frankenstein. There are no indications that Shelley knew anything about Dippel at all.
- Mary Shelley visited Dippels birthplace Castle Frankenstein near the German city of Darmstadt in 1814, two years before she started writing Frankenstein.
Mary, her later husband Percy Shelley and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont were traveling through France and Switzerland in 1814. When they ran out of money, they returned to England the fastest way they could. So they travelled down the river Rhine by boat. On this journey they stopped at the town of Gernsheim, about ten miles away from Castle Frankenstein (beeline). In her journals Mary states that she and Percy went for a three hour walk. It was claimed repeatedly that they went to Castle Frankenstein or at least approached it.
But it is impossible to get from Gernsheim to Castle Frankenstein and back by foot in just three hours, especially if you are a stranger trying to find your way through the dark. As they were short of money, renting a carriage is unlikely too (besides the fact that Mary explicitly said that they went for a walk).
Furthermore, we know from the journals of Claire Clairmont that the boat had to stop at Gernsheim because the night was too dark to travel on and the captain wanted to wait for the moon to rise. So it is even impossible that Shelley could have seen the unlighted ruin from afar on this trip.
- Maybe Shelley did not visit the castle, but she could have heard about it from a fellow passenger on the boat.
She could, but she most likely did not. In 1840, 22 years after Frankenstein was published, she returned to Germany. This time she got even closer to the castle than in 1814, travelling right along the road beneath. It is likely that she could see the castle then, but she did not mention it in her journals. Is it really plausible that she would describe the landscape (which she did) without mentioning that there is the castle that inspired her most famous work?
- The historian Radu Florescu assumed that Mary and Claire falsified their journals to protect Mary’s demand for originality, thus erasing all references to Castle Frankenstein and Dippel in their journals.
Florescu failed to deliver any evidence for this conspiracy theory and if you think about it, it is not very plausible. At first, the story itself would not be less original if you had to admit that it was partly inspired by a historic figure. Furthermore, Mary obviously had no inhibitions in revealing her inspiration, as she already admitted in the complete title of her novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, that it was partly inspired by the Greek myth of Prometheus. And finally, even if she wanted to obscure her inspirations, why should she falsify her journals? They were private, she did not publish them but travelogues based on them. There was no need in falsifying her journals.
- Dippel was called Frankensteiner and/or von Frankenstein, so Mary Shelley did not need to see or get to Castle Frankenstein, she simply could have read a book about the famous alchemist.
The widespread assertion that Dippel stylised himself as a Frankensteiner is untrue. He never did. This claim goes back to Florescu who referred to the register of the University of Gießen, where Dippel was enlisted as “Joh. Conr. Dippelius, Strataemontano-Fracostenensis”, meaning: “Johann Conrad Dippel from Frankenstein at the Bergstraße”. Also, in one of his academic works the author is said to be: “Joh. Conradus Dippelius, Franckensteina-Strataemontanus”, meaning the same as the entry in the register. It is a reference to his birthplace. Every student had such a reference. It was done for administration purpose only and had no significance for Dippel.
Dippel never used this addendum after he left the university. So if Shelley read something Dippel had written, there would have been no reference to Castle Frankenstein.
- Still she could have heard that he was born at Castle Frankenstein.
She could, but contrary to common belief Dippel barely wrote anything about alchemy. He was an alchemist only because it made him money. He saw himself as a theologian and so most of his writings are about theology and philosophy too. So if Shelley read about Dippel and was inspired by him to write Frankenstein, then why none of Dippel’s theological and philosophical believes are reflected in the character of Victor Frankenstein? If you use a real-life person as a role-model for a fictional character, wouldn’t you expect that at least parts of this person’s opinions and behaviour would be reflected in the fictional character? But in the case of Dippel and Victor Frankenstein it is not.
- There is a diary entry of Mary Shelley, where she describes a visit to Castle Frankenstein.
Walter Scheele, a journalist who also works as a guide at Castle Frankenstein, asserted that he had access to Mary Shelley’s “genuine” journals. These journals would be in possession of an anonymous Swiss banking family, who did not allow any further informations except this one diary entry which Scheele quoted in a book he published.
This entry describes a misty November night at Castle Frankenstein and the view across the valley which lies west of the Frankenstein. But a lot of things don’t seem to fit. The entry got several phrases that indicate that it was not written by a native speaker, and the entry says that it was November, but Shelley returned to England on 13 September 1814. So there is absolutely no way she could have been at Castle Frankenstein in November!
No one except of Walter Scheele ever claimed to have seen this entry. So this entry is most likely fabrication.
- There is a letter of Jacob Grimm of the Brothers Grimm which he sent to Mary Jane Clairmont. In this letter Jacob Grimm describes an otherwise unpublished legend of Castle Frankenstein which strikingly resembles parts of Shelley’s novel. Mary Jane Clairmont was Mary Shelley’s stepmother.
Again, only Walter Scheele claims to have seen this letter. German Grimm experts deny its existence. There is absolutely no known correspondence between the Grimms and Mary Jane Clairmont.
Scheele’s statements about it are very dubious. For example, he stated that American writer and director Donald F. Glut had seen the letter, but when asked about it, Glut responded that he never even heard about this letter and that he is convinced that any connections between Castle Frankenstein and Shelley’s novel are made up by people with the purpose of making money out of it.
It is also wrong to think that if the Grimms decided to not include a tale in their fairy tales that this tale would be lost without a trace. The Grimms weren’t the only ones who wrote down fairy tales and legends, they are only the most famous ones. In the 19th century there were dozens of publications about local legends of the region around Castle Frankenstein. None of them mentions a tale that got the slightest resemblance to Shelley’s Frankenstein. As many of the mentioned legends are very similar, it is highly unlikely that all of the authors would not have included a legend that is so unusual for the region.
Last but not least: isn’t it striking that Walter Scheele provided us with not one but two spectacular evidences that no one except himself has seen? When asked about the whereabouts of this letter he answered that the Bodleian Library in Oxford keeps it. But when you ask the library about this letter, the answer is that they do not own and never owned it. Actually they have been asked about this letter so often that they are already quite irritated about this question as a lot of people who are making inquiries for books or TV documentaries are asking the library about this letter. Still most of them do not mention the negative response of the library in their books or documentaries, thus only creating more inquiries towards the library.
- As Shelley used the name Frankenstein, she must have known about the castle that bears that name.
There are not one but four ruins going by that name. There are two villages in Germany bearing that name too and in Shelley’s time there were two more villages who changed their names after they passed to Poland and Czechoslovakia respectively. Even today there are more than 1.000 people all over Germany whose name is Frankenstein or von Frankenstein. The German names Shelley used in Frankenstein are mostly names that can be found around the Lake Geneva where she started to write Frankenstein. So it is most likely that Shelley simply met someone with the name Frankenstein and felt that it was a fitting name for her main character without any connections to the person bearing that name.
- If all claims are so obviously wrong, then why are so many people keep insisting that they are the truth?
Because of money and – to a lesser extent – entertainment. Some examples:
Throughout the whole 19th century no one ever claimed any connection between Castle Frankenstein and Shelley’s novel. One reason is that there is no castle in the novel as part of the story. The word castle is used six times by Shelley throughout the whole novel. One of these castles is Edinburgh Castle. The other five are part of descriptions of the landscape. These castles have a slightly influence to the atmosphere of the narrative, but they do not provide anything to the story itself.
It was Hollywood who first put Frankenstein on a castle and so it is not completely surprising that the first mentioning of Castle Frankenstein having any connection to Shelley’s story is a guide prepared for families of occupying families being stationed in Germany that was published by the US Army in 1947. There it says: “Six miles south is the 700 year old Frankenstein Castle, where scenes from the American movie by the same title were filmed.”
This, of course, is wrong. No scenes of the classic Hollywood movie were shot at Castle Frankenstein.
On Halloween 1952 journalist John A. Keel staged a radio-show at Castle Frankenstein. For this show he made up a legend that allegedly a monster would appear in the castle every 100 years. Parts of this show were rerun annual throughout the next decades on several US radio stations.
In 1960 Bob Morris, an author for the advertising department of the British Overseas Airways Corporation, invented another legend that allegedly existed around Castle Frankenstein. This story resembled scenes from a Frankenstein movie, but not from Shelley’s novel. The story started with the words: “Did you know that a half-hour’s drive south of Frankfurt, one of the British Overseas Airways Corporation’s several European destinations, is the home of the real-life Frankenstein monster?”
As the story told by Bob Morris and the B.O.A.C. is completely unknown in the region around Castle Frankenstein, it is pretty obvious that it was made up for commercial reason, i.e. selling more flights to Frankfurt.
In 1975 the already mentioned Radu Florescu published “In Search of Frankenstein”. This book was a follow-up to his highly successful “In Search of Dracula”. The New York Times cited him shortly after “In Search of Frankenstein” was published with the words: “I used to write books that nobody read. When I gave my course on ‘A Survey of Balkan History.’ I would be lucky to get 30 students.” Then, after publishing “In Search of Dracula”, he went on the lecture circuit all around the country.
It seems natural to write a follow-up about the other great figure of gothic horror, although he did not find any convincing evidence for a role-model of Victor Frankenstein, just some rumours that did not fit the facts and were most likely invented sometime after World War II. The money (and fame) the once unnoticed historian made with his “In Search of…”-series (more books followed after Frankenstein) made him lose his objectivity.
Most things about the issue were provided by the also already mentioned Walter Scheele. Since 1996 he has published several books about this subject, books bristling with errors. For example, he says that Dippel blew up a tower of Castle Frankenstein using nitroglycerine. That’s ridiculous, because Dippel died more than 100 years before nitroglycerine was first synthesized. Although countless people explained to Scheele, why this story can’t be true, he still tells it until today.
Scheele not only earns money from selling his books, he also does well paid guided tours at Castle Frankenstein and is involved in organizing the annual Halloween festival at the castle, one of the commercial most successful Halloween shows in Europe.