Frankenstein. The name evokes dark, stormy nights and brooding, Gothic castles where mad scientists perform unspeakable experiments on the remains of the unhallowed dead. While those images are more the stuff of Hollywood wizardry than the actual novel that made the name “Frankenstein” famous, the image has become entrenched in popular culture to the point that it has become a cliche. Many would be surprised to find out then that there really is a Castle Frankenstein. Located in southern Germany in the Odenwald mountain range, the ruins of a once grand castle bearing the infamous name Frankenstein remains to this day.
“Stone of the Franks”
The name “Frankenstein” literally means “Stone of the Franks.” The Franks were a Germanic tribe who lived in Germany and France. It turns out that the name Frankenstein was a relatively common one given that there were so many Franks around naming castles. Frankenstein Castle was built by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg before 1250 (the earliest documentation being from 1252). After building the castle, the Lord dubbed himself “von und zu Frankenstein,” founding the Frankenstein family and the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein, which only answered to the Holy Roman Empire. The castle was built near the site of an older castle from the 11th century, which fell into disuse once the more modern fortress was built.
Over the next five hundred years or so, the castle remained in Frankenstein hands. In 1662, the head of the family, Lord John I, sold the land and lordship to the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt to settle a series of territorial, religious, and legal conflicts. The castle was used as a hospital for awhile before being abandoned and left to nature in the 18th century. What remains today are two towers–which were actually the result of restoration attempts in the 19th century–parts of the core castle, some walls, and a chapel. An inn for tourists and a restaurant complete the more modern structures built among the ancient ruins.
Inspiration for a horror icon?
The castle has long attracted the curious, mostly because its location among the dark forests of Germany has bred several legends and folktales. The most famous among these mixed bag of stories is that of Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist born in the castle in 1673. Dippel was famous in his era for creating the creatively named “Dippel Oil,” an animal extract that was supposed to be the equivalent in effect to the long sought “Elixir of Life,” which was supposed to confer eternal youth to any who partook. The fact that there aren’t many 17th century noblemen wandering around central Europe these days proves about how effective Dippel’s Oil was. Dippel once tried to trade the formula of his wondrous oil for ownership of the castle, an offer that was wisely declined by the owners.
More sinister rumors than merely being a snake oil salesman swirled around Dippel though. Some claimed that he engaged in ghoulish experiments not unlike those conducted by Dr. Victor Frankenstein during his stay at Frankenstein Castle. He was alleged to have dug up recent burials and transported them back to the castle, where he performed anatomical experiments on them. According to stories, a local priest warned his flock that Dippel had used the awesome power of lightning to reanimate a corpse he’d cobbled together from various ill-gotten body parts. Some locals even now claim this story is true, and that it was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece.
There is some evidence that the author was in the region before she wrote her novel. However, since she only spent a few hours in a town located ten miles from the castle, it’s tough to say just how much of an effect being in the area had on her. Some claim that she was told the story of Dippel by her stepmother, who had been told the macabre legend by none other than the Brothers Grimm. While many maintain the link between Mary Shelley, the story of Conrad Dippel, and Castle Frankenstein, the evidence for such a connection seems sketchy at best. For her part, Mary Shelley never mentions Dippel or the castle in her notes. And there’s the fact that Frankenstein seemed to be a fairly common name for castles in the region. It’s possible that she just pulled the name out of thin air and put it in her story simply because she liked the sound of it. Without hard evidence, it’s tough to tell.
“Frankenstein Castle.” Wikipedia.org. May 15, 2014. Wikipedia. May 17, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein_Castle
Muller, Michael. “Castle Frankenstein an der Bergstrabe.” http://www.eberstadt-frankenstein.de/content/055_Frankenstein_Faltblatt_englisch.pdf