Monday, October 13, 2014

1673: The Original Frankenstein?



Recently I was thumbing through early issues of Denmark's first true newspaper, Extraordinaires Maanedlige Relationer, when I stumbled upon the following report from February, 1673 (my translation):

In Frankenstein (Silesia), an ungodly body by the name Henrik Krahlen, along with his wife Eva and daughter Anna, has done a hideous and shameful thing. For 8 years they have unearthed dead people and removed their hearts and lungs in order to make a powder. This powder was mixed with poison and cumin and sold to unknowing victims, of which 5 are now known to have died. Furthermore, Henrik Krahlen has spread this powdered mixture on the streets throughout town and put it in fresh drinking wells. People were supposed to have been poisoned by this too, but god intervened, and it therefore had little effect.
Krahlen also went into a church where he held a secret feast of boiled and (prepared?) human hearts, together with his followers, who also drank from human skulls. In another church he stole from the money box and committed other injustices. With the bodies of women, he has performed in such ways that it is best kept secret, especially among Christians. Finally last year, right after the Pentecost, he and his wife and daughter were caught and thrown in jail. On the 23d of January this year [1673] he receieved his rightful punishment, when he was put on a wagon and pinched with red-hot pliers in all four corners of town. Afterwards he was taken out of town, where he witnessed the decapitation and burial of his wife and daughter. Then all of his limbs were crushed with a wheel and he was burnt alive at the stake.

The account is fairly outrageous, and sounds more like the plot of a modern horror movie. You probably couldn't sell it as a script prior to the Eli Roth generation of filmmakers, and would have to settle for an independent production similar to Nekromantik. Even with all the crazy stories in the media today, it still stands out. I have no idea if it's even partially true, though, but I think we can assume that at least something happened there. And even if it is a complete fabrication, the story is interesting from a whole other perspective.

Excerpt of the Krahlen account (in Danish)
Of course, my attention was immediately drawn to the name Frankenstein. I actually assumed that this was the story that Mary Shelley based her famous novel on, but when I tried to look it up online I could find no such reference (in fact, I can't find any info about Krahlen, period). It has often been said, however, that Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein was inspired by the life of Johann Konrad Dippel, who was born at Castle Frankenstein in 1673. The Frankenstein of the Krahlen affair was a Prussian-German town back in 1673 (today it is part of Poland and is known as Zabkowice). By contrast, Dippel's castle lies in the Odenwald mountains of Hesse, Bavaria. But even if the locations differ, there are enough shared elements to suggest that the stories about Dippel could have been inspired by the Krahlen spectacle.

Modern-day Frankenstein/Ząbkowice, maybe a nice place for a (nec)romantic holiday.

Castle Frankenstein, Bavaria
Mary Shelley drew on a lot of different sources when she wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, such as the story of, well, Prometheus, but also that of the Golem of Jewish folklore. In more recent times it has been proposed that her central influence was the tales of Johann Konrad Dippel, who she (supposedly) heard of in 1814, while traveling along the Rhine river. The more controversial stories about Dippel paint him as a something of a real-life Herbert West - a well-educated philosopher, theologian, and alchemist, whose studies into the secrets of life and death would become gradually more extreme, and eventually cause even his most ardent supporters (Emmanuel Swedenborg was one of them) to abandon him. Some have claimed that he went so far as to dig up bodies at cemetaries and perform horrible experiments on them, although scholars consider this an unfounded rumor.


Johann Konrad Dippel (1673-1734)
On the other hand, Dippel is very well known for his experiments with dead animals. His most memorable creation was a product known as Dippel's Tieröl, an oil made from animal bones and a mix of chemicals. It is now banned by treaty, but was still being produced during World War Two, where it was used, interestingly enough, to poison wells across Northern Africa. 

Even if Dippel and Krahlen did go to certain extremes, one has to take the mindset and customs of the time into consideration. In the late 17th/early 18th Century, It was illegal to perform medical experiments on human corpses, so most professionals had to stick with animals. The only other options, for those convinced that they needed human subjects to advance their research, were trading with grave robbers or literally picking up a shovel themselves. I am only mentioning this to put things into perspective, since we don't know what actually happened in either case. There needn't be a sinister motive behind it, but surely rumors about such activities could easily blow out of proportions and result in being hunted down by an angry mob of villagers with pitchforks. 

The torch-wielding mob from Frankenstein (1931)
So, was Dippel actually a reincarnated Henrik Krahlen, born the very same year in which the latter died so violently? Or were the rumors about Dippel simply based upon those of Krahlen? Did I actually stumble upon the true inspiration for the story of Frankenstein, completely by chance? These are interesting theories, and the location names, dates and other details would seem to support some kind of connection - whatever one chooses to believe. The real answers could be out there - but perhaps buried a little deeper than most people wish to look.

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