Conrad Dippel, the Mad Scientist of Castle Frankenstein

Conrad Dippel was a real 18th century alchemist who did experiments at Castle Frankenstein.

Castle Frankenstein, near Darmstadt in southwestern Germany, has loomed over the countryside for a long time. The area was first settled by Franks in the 6th century, and some of them became the family of Frankenstein. The castle was built in the 13th century and produced feisty Frankenstein knights throughout the Middle Ages, one of whom went to war against Vlad the Impaler.

But in all the castle's history its strangest resident, born there in 1673, was probably Johann Conrad Dippel, writer, preacher, theologian, and mad scientist.

Conrad was the son of a Lutheran minister who lived at Castle Frankenstein. He was the kind of son dads worry about; restless, enquiring, independent, and constantly challenging authority. Conrad's father sent him to the University of Giessen when he was sixteen, and hoped for the best. In those days the study of theology was packed with controversy, and that was just what Conrad liked. He earned a master's degree in theology and used his academic credentials to travel, preach, and write, producing over seventy works.

Conrad was a proponent of Pietism, which criticized the established Lutheran church for being too ritualistic and too inaccessible to the ordinary laymen. Pietists believed that doing good deeds was more important than attending services and going though forms of worship. They wanted reforms such as more lay participation in the church and a less harsh attitude toward non-believers.

Although they did inspire some changes, the Pietists riled the leaders of the established Lutheran Church, and Conrad was especially confrontational. His headstrong, in-your-face style brought him a lot of heat from the authorities. In 1702 he was forbidden to publish any more works on theology. He was banished from Giessen, Wittenberg, Strasbourg, Berlin, and the countries of Sweden and Russia, and in Scheswig-Holstein, he was thrown into prison for seven years.

Conrad was also constantly in debt, and the need for money combined with his restless curiosity led him to study medicine. He graduated with an M.D. from Leyden. Conrad became fascinated with alchemy, which in the 18th century was a weird combination of medieval superstition and a fair amount of modern chemistry. He studied the works of other alchemists, and was especially fascinated by Paracelsus, a 16th-century practitioner who experimented with chemicals as well as employing talismans and astrology.

Embroiled in fierce arguments not only with the established Lutheran church but also with other Pietists, Conrad finally retreated to the safety and peace of Castle Frankenstein. He threw himself into his experiments. Like all alchemists, he was interested in finding both the Philosopher's Stone that would transform lead into gold and the Elixir of Life that would make people immortal.

Conrad believed that he could extend life to at least a hundred and thirty-five years. He developed a product from distilling charred animal bones, hides, and hooves that he called Dippel's Oil, and that was similar to neat's-foot oil. It was dark, thick, and quite 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, as well as being useful as an insecticide and sheep dip. Modern scientists have analyzed it and discovered that it's a powerful muscle stimulant.

He also developed a dye that's still used today, called Prussian blue. A colleague accidentally produced it, intending to make a red dye, when he borrowed a chemical from Conrad. Conrad was a good enough chemist to work backward and figure out the formula for the new dye. Artists liked the dark blue color very much, and the Prussian army adopted it for their uniforms.

Conrad was possibly also involved in darker projects. A fellow theologian once said that he "attempted wicked things." If the stories are true, that wasn't the half of it.

It's said that the castle's mad scientist stole bodies out of the Frankenstein burial grounds and did a great deal of grisly dissection trying to discover the secrets of life. It's also said that he tried to re-animate bodies with potions and spells, and worked on transferring the soul of one cadaver to another. There are stories that he boiled and distilled human parts, seeking to create the Elixir of Life. There's even a tale that one of his experiments blew up a tower of the Frankenstein castle.

It's true that Conrad did dissections on animals, and he claimed that this lead to the discovery of potions that would exorcise the devil. Conrad's obsessive and secretive ways made it easy for his many enemies to spread the rumor that he had sold his soul to the devil in return for forbidden knowledge. Conrad in fact did nothing to discourage this notion; it helped him sell more Dippel's Oil.

There's a belief that Conrad was the inspiration for both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust. The idea is controversial, but there's much in Conrad's life that lends credence to it, and imaginative writers have been known to take liberties.

In any case, Conrad's death was as strange as his life. In 1734 he was living in Wittgenstein Castle, and continuing experiments to find the Elixir of Life. It's believed he died of a stroke. But in another version of his death, he ingested some of his Prussian blue dye, thinking it had properties that would extend life. Instead he poisoned himself, and, when found, his body had turned entirely blue.

Constantly searching for success that eluded him, his unquiet ghost is said to be seen at Castle Frankenstein to this day. He appears most often between Christmas and New Year's Day on the chapel roof.

People in all ages have sought for knowledge as best they could, and Conrad Dippel was no exception. Sometimes the search leads down unusual paths, and Conrad was no exception to that, either.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Emil, it shows an east view of Castle Frankenstein



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