In the novel of Frankenstein, the protagonist Victor Frankenstein, while a student at Ingolstadt University brings a “creature” to life. But how did he do it? What is the secret to life and death he discovered? In telling his tragic story in the book, says he made meticulous notes on his path to reanimating a dead of assembled parts to life, but he says his notes were taken by his monster, he will not reveal the secret as he now believes it would bring horror upon society.
What was the secret of life Mary Shelley imagined in now her 200 year old novel that has inspired the imagination ever since. In the bringing to life scene, she only refers to the application of “some powerful force”. But there are other clues. The role of electricity has been assumed, creating images in movies of bolts in the neck and rising operating tables in watch tower laboratories, to lighting rods. Victor Frankenstein did describe viewing a lighting storm over Lake Geneva which excited his thoughts, but he does not suggest any building of massive architecture apparatus for gathering lightning, though it makes a very good visual image.
In the novel Victor Frankenstein, before going to University, speaks of self-learning through a fascination with the writings of Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. All associated with the theories of Alchemy, that early precursor to science, principally associated with the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, the primal element to change base metal to gold or silver, and the Elixir Vitae, a potion which would bring eternal life. When Victor applies to Ingolstadt University, the dons there dismiss his learning in this writings, by the 19th Century mostly discredited. But he returns to these earlier theories in his quest for life after spending hours in charnel houses and graveyards.
Mary Shelley had been amply exposed to the experiments of Luigi Galvani, shocking worms and frogs legs into action by the application of electricity, but this alone did not restore life. An electrical charge would be part of the secret, but what else. She had been introduced to the chemistry of life through the writings and lectures of Sir Humphrey Davy, the President of the Royal Society, and early theorist of electrochemistry, the power of electricity to interact in metals and separate elements. Davy was also a figure in the development of the Voltaic battery.
Mary Shelley had been introduced to the magical powers of the battery through her later husband Percy Shelley, who had told her tales of his own fascination with electricity. While a student at Oxford University, bullied by others, Shelley had devised a revenge by attaching wires from a hand cranked battery to the doorknob of his room and when pranksters would try to enter, he would give them a shock. Shelley was so enamored of the power of batteries, he imagined a future utopian world where fields of batteries would provide the power to replace the dirty steam engine, and man would be freed from labor by machines, with the freedom to contemplate the arts and philosophy in the clear air. We’re still working on that one.
Percy Shelley also introduced Mary Godwin to the ideas of the alchemists. One of Shelley’s early poetic novels was “St Irvyne, or The Rosicrucian”, the story of a wandering outcast who encounters an alchemist seeking the secret of immortality. The ideas of the Rosicrucians (The Rosy Cross) had originated apocryphally with the Egyptians and the secrets of the pyramids and the afterlife of mummification, passed to the Greek philosophers to the Arabians and to Europe with the Knights Templars, whose symbol was the Red Cross, and the Knights Hospitalier.
While in Switzerland, Mary Shelley would be immersed in the ideas of Paracelsus (Philippus Theophrastus von Hohenheim), the Swiss alchemist whose remedies with plants led to modern Pharmacology. His mystical alchemy ideas were dismissed but his medical remedies were recognized by the Royal College of Physicians in 1618. Paracelsus was a part of the Rosicrucian mythos, and one of his ideas was that each part of the body was subject to its own needs and cures, leading to more interest in anatomy, which would have been prime in Victor Frankenstein’s process.
The practice of Alchemy in Victor’s extracurricular studies was chiefly directed to the effort to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, (Lapis Philosophorum) the substance which would be the key in turning base metals into gold and also the active ingredient of the Elixir Vitae for rejuvenation and immortality.
The name Frankenstein itself may be a clue to the secret of life and death. Mary Shelley never revealed in her lifetime where the name came from. It is an odd choice, since the family was from French speaking Switzerland and Victor himself was born in Italy. In the 1814 elopement trip to Switzerland and then up the Rhine River, a visit to the castle of Frankenstein at Darmstadt may have suggested the idea of retuning the dead to life. The castle at Darmstadt was once the abode of Johann Dippel a physician, traveling lecturer, crackpot theologian and alchemist.
Dippel was like many alchemy practitioners trying to discover the “Elixer Vitae” potion of eternal life. He was making his from the blood and body fluids of animals, though rumors were spread by locals he was using dead human bodies from the castle’s days as a prison. The story told that he gained the rights to the then abandoned castle by convincing the Landgrave of Hesse that he would create the eternal life giving elixir.
What Dippel created instead was a foul-smelling explosive concoction called “Dippel’s Oil” made from animal bones, used in cloth dyes, but also reputedly a local home remedy for the sicknesses of pregnancy. Mary was likely in the early stage of her first pregnancy at the time and Percy Shelley made an offhand remark to her on their return to England that she might add to her common remedy of spermaceti, “9 drops of human blood, 7 grains of gunpowder, 1/2 ounce of putrefied brain and 13 mashed grave worms”.
Mary Shelley wrote in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein the story of envisioning the rousing to life the creature of horror to Frankenstein in a waking dream. But the formula for that reanimation was a complex association of references and studies. The precise formula for the return life of the dead she imagined she didn’t reveal, but might be surmised from the clues.
The events of creation did not happen in an elaborate laboratory of flashing movie studio devices, but in his rooms at Ingolstadt. His lab would have to fit within the confines of a residential house in Ingolstadt. The available technology of the voltaic battery and visions of lightning suggest Victor Frankenstein might have stored energy in some collection of batteries from the use of a lightning rod, which could be applied at the necessary moment. Where alchemists before him had failed in the Elixir of Life, Victor’s application of electricity would have lent it a power unknown before. His studies of Paracelsian treatments of individual body organs may have provided the clues to a connecting mechanism for a being assembled from different dead bodies preserved and applied in a solution of whale oil, gunpowder, human blood, ground worms, electrostatic chemicals to provide the bonding, and his own discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone in a mixture of proprietary proportions.
Victor Frankenstein’s technique for the resurrection of the dead may never be found, with his notes spirited away by the monster of his creation, and as elusive as the recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone, but perhaps someday a clever rebellious student fascinated with forgotten lore and mythology may replicate his discoveries.