Horrifying History for Halloween – the first Dr. Frankenstein?

Was Johann Conrad Dippel, born Konrad Dippel von Frankenstein at Frankenstein Castle, the first Dr. Frankenstein?

In “Maladies and Remedies of the Life of the Flesh” (1736), Dippel claimed to have discovered both the Elixir of Life AND demon-exorcising potions he brewed up from boiled animal bones and flesh.

He believed that, using a specially designed funnel, souls could be transferred from one corpse to another.

A theologian, philosopher and alchemist, Dippel was always getting into trouble because of his opinions and problems with managing money. He was banned from several countries, including Russia and Sweden.

He was eventually imprisoned for heresy, where he served a seven-year sentence.

Was he, as a former acolyte said, a “most vile devil … who attempted wicked things”?

first Dr. Frankenstein – Elixir of Life

Image Source : “An Alchemist” searches for the elixir of life. [from Thomas Wych]

Dippel developed a universal medicine – the elixir vitae (elixir of life) – by distilling charred animal bones, hides, and hooves.

At one point, Dippel attempted to purchase Castle Frankenstein in exchange for his formula. The offer was turned down.

Dippel’s Oil was dark, thick, and smelly. But people happily bought it well into the 19th century, and it was said to cure a number of ailments, including fevers, colds, bad nerves, and epilepsy. It was also very useful as an insecticide and sheep dip!

Briefly, it was a chemical warfare harassing agent during the desert campaign of World War II. The oil was used to make wells undrinkable and dehydrate the enemy.

Modern scientists have analyzed it and discovered that it’s a powerful muscle stimulant.

first Dr. Frankenstein – An Avid Dissector


There’s no proof that Dippel performed gruesome experiments to transfer the soul of one corpse into another. He did however, experiment quite frequently with dead animals, of which he was an ““avid dissector”

Dippel set up a lab near Wittgenstein for alchemical experiments, and it is at this point in his life that historical records become shadowy. At least one local minister apparently accused Dippel of grave robbing, experimenting on cadavers, and keeping company with the Devil.

Dippel kept to himself and his work. It’s possible that he encouraged rumors that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for secret knowledge, to increase sales of his Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.

Mysterious Death

Dippel’s death was as mysterious as his life.

In a final flourish, Dippel published a pamphlet claiming that he had invented an elixir of life that would allow him to live until the age of 135. Ironically, he died only one year later.

Probably, he died of a stroke. But in another more bizarre version of his death, he drank some of Prussian blue dye (his accidental invention), thinking it would extend life.

Instead he poisoned himself, and, when found, his body had turned entirely blue.

first Dr. Frankenstein – The Frankenstein Connection


Image source : Richard Rothwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dippel may have been a model for Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.

This idea was probably first suggested by Radu Florescu in his book ““In Search of Frankenstein“. He surmises that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin visited the castle during her travels on the Rhine with Percy Shelley.

Here, they might have heard stories about Dippel, the notorious local legend.

The Shelleys briefly met 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 often the location for their public readings, so possibly Dippel’s legends could have come up during conversation.

Of one thing we can be certain. From this group of travelling friends – Lord Byron, John Polidari, Percy Shelly, Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont – we have two eternal monsters : “Frankenstein” and “The Vampyre”.

Enjoyed reading about the original Frankenstein?

Click here for the fascinating story of the first Mad Scientist

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