The following articles appeared in the Westphalia Times (Kansas), in 1885 and 1886.
November 12, 1885
M.F. Moore sold his drug store to Knapp & Son, and Dr. Frankenstein will conduct it.
Dec 17, 1885
Dr. Franckinstein showed us Tuesday, pieces of a frog or snake which he removed from one of his lady patients’ stomachs. The head, like that of a small snake, was lost through carelessness. The doctor thinks there are more such living creatures in the woman’s body, caused by drinking pond water some years ago, when she swallowed some eggs. She has been in poor health some years, doubtless caused by these reptiles being in her body. They can be seen at his drugstore.
December 24, 1885
The doctor informs us his patient is progressing, having discharged great quantities of the remains of dead animals, or animalcule or frogs, lizards, etc.
January 28, 1886
We have been recently attacked in our business and reputations by an old swamp who appends to his name M.D., and occupies the room below our office as a Kansas prohibition barroom – or drugstore. No reason can be assigned for his gall except that we would not smile on him and his iniquitous business. We could not pollute our columns with free advertising of his pretended “practice” that was too nauseating and vulgar to be told even among a tribe of barbarians. It is always disgusting to put the knife into a rotting and decaying carcass, and we very much dislike the talk, but there is a limit to all endurance, a point where silence ceases to be a virtue, and where the truth should be told though the heavens shall fall. Put out your tongue, Sir, and tell us at the last point from which you “skipped” before coming here, and did you not leave between two days at the very urgent request of some very reputable citizens of that locality? Is it true that tar and feathers were already purchased and that some even talked the extravagance of a rope? And did you say the only “case” you ever had here was relieving that woman’s stomach of 42 buckets full of remnants of snakes, frogs, etc. And will you further say if you did not hire certain boys here to capture those frogs, snakes, etc., and that you cut and crushed them up to make believe they came from that poor woman’s stomach? And did you tell us of what your drugstore consists? Did you answer, “Of a two gallon jug of 40 rod, tanglefoot, mean whiskey that came from Kansas City encased in a box marked ‘medicine,’ and also an old truck full of patent medicines now on shelves, the labels and wrappers yellow with age, and most of them bearing date 1857?” Do you verily believe that this is the kind of man who should practice medicine? Fold your tent and silently steal away.
April 25, 1886
Tuesday night about midnight, the citizens in the west part of town were awakened by pistol shots and finding the cause to be the deputy sheriff trying to arrest Dr. Franckenstein. He was arrested some time ago for selling liquor, but skipped out. He returned on the sly and has been selling whiskey and beer from his residence.
I saw the articles, as transcribed by Dorothy Lickteig, in the Spring 2009 newsletter of the Anderson County (Kansas) Historical Society. I am a member because my paternal great-grandparents lived most of their lives in Anderson County. Ms. Lickteig is the president.
When I read the articles, with great amusement, I didn’t know what to think. They looked like the kind of stuff you see in supermarket tabloids: Ghoulish Doctor Collects Animal Body Parts!, or Frankenstein Terrorizes Kansas Town! Maybe it wasn’t true, and someone had a grudge against him and wanted to run him out of town. I also wondered if the doctor’s name had anything to do with it. After all, Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, had been wildly popular for most of the 19th century. I can imagine the rumors that might pop up if a doctor by that name set up shop in the neighborhood. According to the 1880 census, there was no one living in Kansas with that name, so it might have drawn some attention. But I could not dismiss the articles as simply hysterical nonsense. So I decided to search for information about the doctor, hoping to either confirm his slimy reputation or clear his name.
Tracking down Dr. Frankenstein
In only a few minutes, I found him in the 1885 Kansas census, listed as Friedre Franckenstein, a doctor living in the town of Pittsburg, which is about 90 miles south of Westphalia. He was born in Germany about 1837, and had a family: wife Bertha (21 years younger), born in Wisconsin about 1858, and three children. The date the information was recorded was March 1, 1885, giving him plenty of time to pack up and move to Westphalia by November. According to Wisconsin records, Friedrich Von Frankenstein married Bertha Johanna Frick in Milwaukee County on December 28, 1874.
Back in the 1880 census, I found them living in Benton, Missouri, his occupation listed as a minister. He is also listed, as simply Fred Frankenstein, in New York Passenger Lists, 1829-1957. He sailed from Germany on a ship called the Guy Mannering and landed in New York on December 6, 1861. There is no 1890 census – it was destroyed in a fire – but in 1900, he is living in St. James, Missouri, and he and Bertha now have six children. His occupations are listed as doctor and farmer.
This was all fine, but nothing yet to determine if this man was a legitimate doctor. So I kept following the trail and discovered that he died in South Dakota in 1907, according to the South Dakota Death Index. That led me to the Directory of Deceased American Physicians. There he was, F.V. Frankenstein, died in the town of Epiphany, on August 29, 1907, at the age of 70. The official cause of death was “accidental overdose of carbolic acid.”According to several sources, ingesting carbolic acid, an antiseptic, was a common method for suicide in the early 1900s. I could not locate his obituary.
In 1910, Bertha, now a widow, is living in Belle Prairie, Kansas, with a 14-year-old daughter. In 1920, she’s still in Belle Prairie, with no children at home, and she works as a telephone operator. By that time, she was about 62 years old. That is the last census in which she appears, and I could not locate any further records of her.
Besides the listing of his death in the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, I found other evidence confirming that Dr. Frankenstein was a recognized physician. In the 1889 edition of the American Medical Journal, he is listed as a current student at American Medical College in St. Louis, Missouri. In a very limited mention in a family history posting on Genealogy.com, it is noted that he graduated in 1890, and subsequently was licensed to practice in Missouri.
In the 1889 edition of the American Medical Journal (St. Louis), the doctor contributed the following: “Trypsin In Membranous Croup. – During the last week of December, 1888, I treated three bad cases of membranous croup. These little patients were aged 2 months, 5 years and 4 years. All made a rapid recovery. Other physicians may prefer a Pepsin solution as a solvent of the false membrane; but, in my hands, the Trypsin did fully the service, and henceforth I shall use it in similar cases. I used it as follows: R. Trypsin, gr. xxx,; Bicarbon. Sod., gr. xv.; Tr. Iodine, gtt. xv.; Aqua dest., 3. Mix well, and, by a large camel’s-hair brush, apply every hour. This I deem sufficiently often, as more infrequent applications are annoying. Besides, I gave small doses of Syrup of Hydriodic Acid, in water, every three hours, and a Mustard foot-bath at night.” F. Von Frankenstein.
He is listed among the roll of members of Eclectic Physicians in Kansas, in the 1896 report of the State Board of Health. He appears in an advertisement in the January – June 1905 edition of St. Louis Courier of Medicine, endorsing a drug called Germiletum, for the treatment of dyspepsia. He gave his address as Hosmer, South Dakota. In the Hosmer Centennial Book, 1887-1987, there appears the following entry:
“MEDICAL SERVICES IN HOSMER: Hosmer has been fortunate to have excellent medical services for many, many years. Dr. Frankenstein was the first doctor to come to Hosmer. We do not have the exact year, but it is thought it was about 1900.”
According to the January 1906 edition of Meyer Brothers Druggist, Dr. Frankenstein was issued a pharmaceutical license by the Kansas Board of Pharmacy on November 15, 1905, which allowed him to sell drugs to his patients. And his death in 1907 was noted in the Eclectic Medical Journal: “F.V. Frankenstein, St. Louis ’90, at Epiphany, S. Dakota, Aug 29, age 70 years.”
Unable to find any other information about Dr. Frankenstein, I turned to the task of tracking down one or more of his living descendants. Luckily, I found the death records, obituaries, and even photographs of the headstones of two of his sons. The obituaries led me to a 2008 obituary of the son of one of them, making him the grandson of the doctor. He passed away at the age of 96. From there, I was able to find the phone number and address of one of his daughters, who is the great-granddaughter of Dr. Frankenstein.
I called and talked to her son, who said she wasn’t home. I identified myself and explained that I was a historian researching the life of what would be his great-great grandfather. He expressed interest and said that his mother would probably be interested as well. He invited me to call again. I did, the very next day, and the son answered the phone. He told me that he spoke to his mother, and she said that she knew nothing about her great-grandfather, so she couldn’t help me. I replied that I had collected quite a bit of information about him, and that I would be happy to mail his mother copies of it at no charge. He declined, simply saying that neither he nor his mother was interested.
Based on the limited information I could find, it is difficult to conclude whether or not Dr. Frankenstein’s alleged transgressions in Westphalia actually happened, at least to the extent described. It is interesting to note that in the last several decades of the 1800s, the licensing of physicians in the USA, and specifically in Kansas, was sloppy and unreliable. According to Blue Skyways, a service of the Kansas State Library:
“The first medical practice act of Kansas was passed in 1870, and provided that only persons who had attended ‘two full courses of instruction in some reputable school of medicine, either in the United States or some foreign country,’ or who could produce a certificate of qualification from some state or county medical society, could legally practice medicine in the state. In 1885 the state board of health was given the power to regulate the practice of medicine and in 1889 another act was passed, by which the board was given authority to issue certificates to physicians of the proper qualifications to practice medicine in Kansas, and also provided for medical examination by the board of physicians who desired to practice in the state. A penalty was provided for persons infringing the law, but many persons totally unfit to practice medicine were doing so, and it was not until 1901 that an efficient law was passed which created a state board of medical registration and examination.”
And according to Physician Licensure Laws in the United States, 1865-1915, by Samuel Baker, “…most laws were primitive in structure, requirements were lax, and enforcement was hopeless.”
So the fact that Dr. Frankenstein was recognized as a physician, as far back as 1890, is no indication that he was necessarily a good physician, or even an honorable one. Some might wonder why he practiced in numerous locations over the 27 years I tracked him. But that could be for many reasons other than having to frequently leave town under questionable circumstances. It’s all speculation at this point. It’s too bad the great-granddaughter wasn’t interested. Perhaps there is someone in her family who is interested and has some scraps of information stashed away, even old photographs of the doctor and his family.
On July 13, 2009, just several weeks after I posted the above story on this website, I received an email from a woman named Connie Davis. It said, in part:
“I am the great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Fred Frankenstein and his wife, Bertha. I have been researching my genealogy for quite a long time. I would love to have whatever information you have.”
Shorty afterward, we had a nice conversation on the phone. She told me that her great-grandfather was Kurt von Frankenstein, one of Dr. Frankenstein’s sons. I asked her how she reacted to the shocking articles about Dr. Frankenstein in the Westphalia, Kansas newspaper.
“I wondered if people were just making light of his name,” she replied. “My maternal grandmother was a Frankenstein. Even to this day, if you mention to someone that your grandmother was named Frankenstein, you get these reactions and comments. And if you mention that your great-great grandfather was not just a Frankenstein, but Dr. Frankenstein, it sparks all kinds of jokes. Even my own father tells us that my brothers and I are the ‘Frankenstein monsters’ – in jest, of course.”
It was inevitable that I would bring up the famous book, Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. She told me that her ancestors from way back lived in a castle in Germany, called the Frankenstein Castle.
“There is a story in the family that’s been handed down for a long time. According to the story, Mary Shelley had attended a dinner party at the castle, and her book somehow evolved from that visit. The castle is still there, and they have Halloween parties in it every year.”
Right after she contacted me, she found a grandson of Tusnelda Frankenstein, who was Dr. Frankenstein’s youngest daughter. The grandson sent her a handwritten account, by Tusnelda, of the history of her parents and their immediate ancestors.
The following is a summary of it. Some of the information differs from data I found in my research, which appears in the first part of this article, and some of the information is new.
Friedrich von Frankenstein was born in Prussia on March 31, 1838. His parents were August and Johanne von Frankenstein, or Franckenstein, as it was spelled then. Friedrich had two older brothers, August and Rudolph. He arrived in the US on July 15, 1870, at the age of 32. At that time, his father had already passed away, and his brothers lived in the province of Brandenburg.
When Friedrich’s father died, his entire estate went to his oldest son, according to German law. However, there was no limit as to how much of that money August could spend for the education of his siblings. Consequently, Friedrich studied in Berlin. His mother wanted him to be a Lutheran minister. He did not want to go against his mother’s wishes, so that is what he became. Later, he changed his mind and became a doctor, but being a spiritual man, remained faithful to his religion.
Friedrich married Bertha Johanne Caroline Frick on December 28, 1874, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Bertha was born on May 26, 1858, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to August and Johanne Frick, both natives of Holland, making her 20 years younger than Friedrich. Bertha and Friedrich had eight children, the youngest being Tusnelda, the author of this family history account. Bertha became a registered pharmacist in Kansas. Dr. Friedrich von Frankenstein died in Epiphany, South Dakota on August 27, 1907, at the age of 70; and Bertha died in Wichita, Kansas, on August 10, 1931. At the time, she was living with Tusnelda.
Connie Davis sent me a copy of Dr. Frankenstein’s death certificate. It confirms that his death from ingestion of carbolic acid was accidental, according to the decision of coroner’s jury.
There is one more item of interest that Ms. Davis sent me. It’s a letter to the editor of a newspaper. It was written many years ago by Stella E. Thompson, one of Dr. Frankenstein’s daughters. It says:
“I would like to write a few lines in regard to how cancer was cured in the horse and buggy days. My dad was a doctor, Dr. Fredrick Von Frankenstein, who was also a surgeon. Dad would never use a knife unless it was absolutely necessary.”
“Dad cured cancer with medicine. He said if cancer was cut out or burned out, it would reoccur. Dad cured cancer with snake root. It is a herb. He would give some of this medicine to pass through the blood stream and kill the cancer germs. Then he would follow it up with a green medicine to control the snake root. I can’t recall the name of the green medicine.”
“I don’t think it is necessary for people to die by the thousands each year when there is a cure for cancer – snake root. This herb cured cancer in the old days, why not now? People are the same physically now as they were in the 1880s.”
Perhaps this is finally the conclusion of the story. But who knows? Tomorrow may bring an email, letter or phone call with more intriguing nuggets of information. This type of story never really ends.