Frankenstein: The facts behind the fiction


Photo: Whaleoil
The graveyard at Frankenstein

You may think you know the story of Frankenstein. But do you really?

Most people have read the book. Even if they have not, they have a general idea of what it was about. Many people know who wrote it and where. A number of people even know what inspired the writer. But do you know why the book was called Frankenstein? Try Googling it. The answer is not there. Today I will tell you the back story.

First, let’s start with what we all know:

The story Frankenstein was written in 1816 by Mary Shelley, an 18-year-old English woman. She wrote it in Switzerland while staying as a guest of Lord Byron near Lake Geneva.


While staying near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Mary, Byron, and (two others) found themselves cooped up inside, thanks to bad weather. Byron suggested that they have a friendly competition to see who could write the best horror story

End of quote:

Mary Shelley’s effort was the book we know as Frankenstein. But what of the others in the group?


One was a Doctor. Polidori […] He had trained in medicine in Edinburgh, and had dissected bodies supplied by grave-robbers

(After Geneva) Polidori later elaborated on an idea of Byron’s, and wrote his novel The Vampyre, thought to be first appearance of the vampire story in English fiction, 80 years ahead of Dracula

End of quote:

While Polidori’s book Vampyre was written after the Geneva meeting. Mary Shelley actually wrote her story during that stay. So, what inspired her?

It could have been Doctor Polidori relating his personal experience of bodies being supplied by Grave Robbers or…


Mary Shelley grew up during the era of the body snatchers. At that time, the only legal source of bodies for dissection was the gallows – dissection played an essential part in medical training, helping students to learn about the human anatomy. For centuries, government had used dismemberment as an extra punishment meted out to murderers, mainly to differentiate murder from the many lesser crimes punishable with death. But there were not enough murderers’ bodies to supply the needs of all the medical students of London. Especially during the Napoleonic Wars, when more doctors were needed for the battlefields, there was strong pressure to obtain more. Anatomists offered cash to gangs of bodysnatchers, who would go out at night to dig up the freshly buried dead.

When Mary and (her future husband) had been courting, they often met up in the churchyard at Old St Pancras, which served a large parish, and many dead were buried there

End of quote:

Photo: Whaleoil
The graveyard at Frankenstein

Nice and romantic.

All of the above is well known and documented. There have even been films about it.

Which brings us on to the key question of this post: Why did Mary Shelley name her story Frankenstein? It can’t have been by chance. This has bugged me for a while. Why would an 18-year-old English woman, writing a horror story in Switzerland, give her monster the name of Frankenstein, a German town more than 1,200km away?

Google does not have the answer, but I think I have found it. It must be that in 1816 the name Frankenstein was already synonymous with horror. If you wrote a story about grave robbing and body dismemberment, then it just had to be called Frankenstein because of the 1606 Frankenstein Witch Trials, the details of which were so shocking that they made news across all of Europe and would still have been well known 200 years later.

In 1606 the German settlement of Frankenstein was afflicted by the plague. Eight grave diggers were subject to a witch trial and charged with:

  • making a poisonous powder from the ground-up corpses of plague victims
  • scattering this powder around various houses and leaving it on door knobs and door knockers
  • digging up and cutting open the bellies of dead pregnant women, extracting the foetus and eating its heart raw and
  • digging up and committing necrophilia with young girls.

All eight grave diggers were found guilty and sentenced to death by mutilation and by being burned alive. The grave diggers had confessed. While a bit of torture was certainly used, that does not mean it was not true.

So, there you have it – the actual reason (in my opinion) that Mary Shelley named her story Frankenstein. No Scholars have yet come up with a better (or any) reason why she would name her story after a German town so far away.

I can not find any English language information about the 1606 Frankenstein witch trials. However, this link is a Wiki page in Polish.

As part of the research for this post, I recently visited the graveyard at Frankenstein.

Photo: Whaleoil
The graveyard at Frankenstein

Photo: Whaleoil
The graveyard at Frankenstein

Photo: Whaleoil
The graveyard at Frankenstein

Frankenstein currently goes by the name of Zabkowice Slaskie. The local council is doing its best to ignore its history. In fact, if you ask where the graveyard is, the answer is, “Why?  There is nothing to see there!”


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A guest post submitted to Whaleoil and edited by Whaleoil staff.

Guest Post content does not necessarily reflect the views of the site or its editor. Guest Post content is offered for discussion and for alternative points of view.

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