Two Hundred Year Anniversary of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

Finding Frankenstein: On the trail of a monster across Europe

By John Malathronas, for CNN  June 20, 2016

Two centuries after author Mary Shelley conceived "Frankenstein," its gothic echoes can still be found across Europe. Castle Frankenstein near Darmstadt, Germany, was the birthplace of alchemist Conrad Dippel, whose purported experiments on the human bodies may have inspired Shelley.

Castle Frankenstein – Two centuries after author Mary Shelley conceived “Frankenstein,” its gothic echoes can still be found across Europe. Castle Frankenstein near Darmstadt, Germany, was the birthplace of alchemist Conrad Dippel, whose purported experiments on the human bodies may have inspired Shelley.


(CNN)  I’m standing at the square of Plainpalais in Geneva trying to escape the clutches of Frankenstein’s monster, my expression one of horror and disgust.

The monster stands a couple of feet taller than me, its hair disheveled, its serrated chest exposed, its eyes focused creepily at the park in front where skateboarders and BMX bikers buzz around carefree.

“That’s good, hold it right there,” says Cyrille and takes a picture with my cellphone.

Historian and guide Cyrille has been taking me around the Swiss city on a Frankenstein tour and the statue of the monster at Plainpalais, the site where it committed its first murder, was too good a photo opportunity to miss.

Frankenstein is a niche but growing attraction in Geneva, fueled by the bicentenary of the monster’s creation.

It was in June 1816, 200 years ago, that a group of five young people from England gathered in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva and tried to scare each other with ghost stories.

‘Waking dream’

One of them, 18-year-old Mary Godwin, had a “waking dream” which she recounted one night and transfixed her audience, which included the English romantic poet Lord Byron.

Mary was accompanied by her future husband, the 23-year-old poet Percy Shelley, who had abandoned his first wife and children to elope with Mary.

They were all free-thinking bohemian spirits — what we would call today alternative creatives.

Byron encouraged Mary to write her scary story down; she started immediately and called it “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.”

Byron sent her manuscript to his publisher with the comment “pretty good work for a girl of eighteen.”

A copy of that first edition stares me in the face. It’s one of the six author copies Mary Shelley received herself and it’s full of annotations; most would find their way into the second edition.

Literary summer

The Geneva-based Fondation Martin Bodmer, one of the biggest libraries of rare books in the world is celebrating the bicentenary of Mary’s nightmare with an exhibition.

There are portraits, paintings, first editions and manuscripts that explain the background and recreate the setting of that literary summer.

Professor David Spurr from the University of Geneva, curator of the exhibition, fills me in.

“That was ‘the year without a summer’,” he says. “Mount Tambora had erupted in Indonesia in 1815 in the largest explosion in recorded history.

“The volcanic ash cooled down the atmosphere causing freak weather patterns for three years afterwards.”

He shows the 1816 meteorological records from Switzerland; the maximum temperature in June varied between 10-12 C (50-53 F).

A handwritten note says that even at the end of the month “there was not a single leaf on the oak trees.”

“The miserable weather forced the party to invent their own entertainment,” he adds.

“Byron took up lodgings at Villa Diodati at the top of a hill in Cologny, while the Shelleys stayed at a small house in Montalegre, 10 minutes walk away by the lakefront.”

Twitching corpse

Villa Diodati: Byron's hangout.

Villa Diodati: Byron’s hangout.

Today Villa Diodati is privately owned, but the beautifully manicured gardens are occasionally open to the public.

Birches, pines and lime trees rise over the mixed scents of rose gardens, lavender hedges and rows of citronella bushes.

Muscat vines surround the villa hills, as they did in Byron’s time; and in the distance the Jura mountains rise gently over Lake Geneva.

The gardens are a place for inspiration now as they were then.

In the villa, the young friends read an anthology of German ghost stories by candlelight. When that was completed, Byron encouraged them to invent horror stories of their own.

This is where Mary Shelley came up trumps with her contemplations of what would happen if a scientist created life using electricity.

Experiments with this new physical phenomenon were all the rage at the time and people were particularly fascinated with its ability to cause convulsions.

Ruined castle

In 1803 Giovanni Aldini, an Italian scientist, famously passed an electric current through the body of a hanged man in front of an invited audience in London; the crowd roared as his dead jaws began twitching and his lifeless limbs started moving.

Mary’s book was published to great popular success, but the first edition did not bear her name; the publisher believed that sales would suffer if readers knew that it was the work of a young woman.

What about the name Frankenstein that has become synonymous with terror and revulsion?

There’s actually a village called Frankenstein that lies in Pfalz, 40 kilometers to the west of the Rhine river in Germany.

The place scores highly on atmosphere, its ruined castle overlooking an overgrown cemetery.

Less than 100 kilometers to the northeast of the village, on the other side of the river, rise the walls of Castle Frankenstein near Darmstadt, the German birthplace of Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist who later experimented with human bodies.

Clockwork robots

Could this castle have inspired Mary Shelley?

Could this castle have inspired Mary Shelley?

The Shelleys sailed on the Rhine on the way back to London.

It’s possible, but unknown whether Mary had time to visit those two sites.

Professor Spurr offers another option; he presents me with a French volume by Francois Felix Nogaret, called “The Mirror of True Events” published in 1790.

“In the book, an inventor called Frankestein, creates clockwork automata (robots) for a beautiful girl who compares him to Prometheus,” he says.

“Nogaret could well have been in Pfalz or Darmstadt or heard of Dippel; the Shelleys were in Paris in 1814, so Mary could have read the book.”

Whatever the inspiration, it’s Mary Shelley’s creation that became the object of our fascination; she can rightfully call “Frankenstein” her own.

On the Trail of Frankenstein

The Martin Bodmer Foundation in Cologny, Geneva, is open Tuesday–Sunday 2-6pm; Adults $15, concessions $10. The Frankenstein exhibition is open until 9 October 2016

Local historian and guide Cyrille Wohlschlag does a two-hour Frankenstein tour of Geneva for $140 (independently of the number of persons).

John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer and photographer. He’s written or co-written 15 books, including the “Michelin Green Guide to Switzlerland.”

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Happy International Archives Day!


June 9th is International Archives Day!

At the International Congress in Vienna in 2004, the 2000 participants adopted a resolution requesting the United Nations to create an International Archives Day. Some countries had already decided to have a national archives day, to raise awareness of the general public and the decision-makers about the importance of archives. National Archives Day in the United States is January 23, however National Archives Month is celebrated in October.

The public’s image of the archives is sometimes foggy: often confused with libraries, archives continue to be perceived as documents for internal use only, which are difficult to access and are of interest only to historians. The perception of records and archives by the public and the organizations that create them is not clear.

It is therefore important to remember that records and archives are documents, created, received and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations, or in the transaction of business. Archival records are those documents that are preserved by their creators, successors or an appropriate archive institution because of their legal value or enduring historical significance. Archives constitute a major cultural heritage and information resource and that resource  gives testimony to the development of economical, political and social humanity.

So raise a glass and celebrate International Archives Day! The history you are celebrating might just be your own!

Read more about International Archives Day

Read about National Archives Month in the United States

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Good Poems for Hard Times is the Featured Book for June

good poems 001

The poems in this volume were chosen by Garison Keillor for his readings on public radio’s The Writer’s Almanac. Here, readers will find comfort in works that are bracing and courageous, organized into such resonant headings as “Such As It Is More or Less” and “Let It Spill.” From William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman to R. S. Gwynn and Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Keiller is a much beloved American author, storyteller, humorist, radio actor, and radio personality. He is known as host of the Minnesota Public Radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor created the fictional Minnesota town Lake Wobegon, the setting of many of his books, including Lake Wobegon Days and Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories. Other creations include Guy Noir, whom Keillor voices, a detective who appears in A Prairie Home Companion comic skits.

This book is part of the Maria Mazzioti Gillan Collection. Maria Mazziotti Gillan is an accomplished author herself and a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs), the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers and the 2008 American Book Award for her book, All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions).

She is director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of poetry at Binghamton University-SUNY. She is also the founder/executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review.

She has published 20 books, including: What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 (Guernica Editions, 2010) and Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica, 2013).  In fact, there is a poem by Ms. Gillan included in this volume entitled “After School on Ordinary Days.”

To learn more about Maria Mazziotti Gillan, visit her website at

So, if you are having “one of those days,” the poems gathered in this collection may offer you solace and provide you with the healing power of good poetry.

This book can be found in Special Collections on the second floor of the Bartle Library [just off of the North Reading Room].

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University Archivist, Yvonne Deligato, receives award


Baxter congratulates University Archivist, Yvonne Deligato, on her award.

University Archivist and Local History Bibliographer, Yvonne Deligato, has been awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the Division of Student Affairs. The award acknowledges her exemplary contributions to the Binghamton University community.

Her nominator wrote: “Yvonne Deligato is a truly dedicated Bearcat. She is one of the hardest working staff members on campus. As the University Archivist, she is unfailing in her commitment to preserve the university’s history, from office records from the President’s office to oral histories of Harpur College’s origins. As University Archivist, she is always being called upon for assistance from various offices on campus, particularly the Alumni and Communications units. Ms. Deligato [is] often called upon to produce the impossible such as early photos of campus and buildings or program memoranda, and she is able to do so due to her professionalism and skill as an archivist.

Ms. Deligato is also the Local History Bibliographer and routinely teaches classes or assists faculty teaching classes using the Local History archives materials. She is often seen helping students who are interested in the history of the surrounding area, and when she is not, she is busy digitizing, processing and preserving historical records.

Ms. Deligato has single-handedly preserved and saved the history of the Binghamton University and her dedication and hard work should be rewarded.”

Congratulations Yvonne!



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Prof. Sandro Sticca presents gift to Special Collections

Pictured (left to right):  Curtis Kendrick, Dean of Libraries; Prof. Sandro Sticca; Beth Kilmarx, Curator of Rare Books.

Pictured (left to right): Curtis Kendrick, Dean of Libraries; Prof. Sandro Sticca; Beth Kilmarx, Curator of Rare Books.

Sandro Sticca, professor of French and comparative literature, presented a wonderful gift to Special Collections on May 5, 2016. Prof. Sticca is a constant supporter of Special Collections and his gifts are greatly appreciated by Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections.

Below is a brief description of the gift book: 

Responsa ad cuiuscunque penè generis casuum conscientiae quaesita quadringenta … : Apud Societatem Minimam. pars secunda / Giovanni Battista Corradi, (O.P.) 1603.  [69], 532, [2] p. ;  Venetiis : Apud Societatem Minimam.

Physical Description:  Contemporary limp vellum binding; lacks decoration or spine labels, with evidence of insect and animal damage.  Spine cover partially intact.  Evidence of leather ties on front and back covers.   Blue sprinkled top, fore, and bottom edges. Front and back free endpapers are missing. Title page is printed in black and red inks, has a printer’s device, in addition to marginalia. The text is printed in double columns, has running titles, pagination, printer’s guide words, signatures, head-pieces, tail-pieces, and decorated initials.  Index and errata.  Rounded humanist Bembo font.

Pagination:  [69], 532, [2] p.

Dimensions:  228 mm height X 155 mm length X 50 mm width (octo size).

Publisher:  Printed in Venice by the Minimalist (?) Society.

Thank you to Prof. Sticca for his continued generosity and patronage of Binghamton University Libraries and Special Collections.

Title page of

Title page of Responsa ad cuiuscunque penè generis casuum conscientiae quaesita quadringenta …

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Shakespeare lecture today at 12noon!


As part of the Libraries’ Special Collections’ Occasional Lecture Series, Richard Mackenney, Professor of History at Binghamton University, will speak on “Shakespeare: Staging the Renaissance” at noon today.

The lecture will be held in Special Collections, Bartle Library (2nd floor). After the lecture, view the Shakespeare in Special Collections: Selections from the Max Reinhart Collections and the Rare Book Collections exhibitThe exhibit and lectures mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (April 23, 1616).

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Photos from Special Collections featured in Binghamton University Photo of the Day!


“Graphic! Lurid! Sensational! Exploitation and B-Movie Posters,” guest curated by Brian Wall, associate professor of cinema and art history, features 35 vintage posters and is on view at the University Art Museum through May 21.

Binghamton University’s Photo of the Day featured in Dateline [April 22] shows visitors to the exhibit “Graphic! Lurid! Sensational! Exploitation and B-Movie Posters” currently on display in the University Art Museum. Guest curated by Brian Wall, Associate Professor of Cinema and Art History, the exhibition features 35 vintage posters drawn from a collection of over 400 posters that are part of the John McLaughlin Collection in the Special Collections of the Binghamton University Libraries.

Read more about the exhibition here

Read “Monsters, aliens and 50-foot women to invade the University Art Museum” in Inside Binghamton University

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Binghamton University Civil War Collections added to New York Heritage Research Portal


Detail from envelope depicting soldier with rifle from the Joseph H. Treyz Collection of Civil War Patriotic Envelopes located in Special Collections at Binghamton University.

Five of Binghamton University’s Civil War Collections have added to New York Heritage, a research portal for students, educators, historians, genealogists, and anyone else who is interested in learning more about the people, places and institutions of New York State. The site provides free access to more than 170 distinct digital collections, totalling hundreds of thousands of items including photographs, maps and letters.

The five Binghamton University Civil War Collections that have been added are the Anna E. Wilcox Collection,  the Francis M. and Henry H. Stone Collection, the Joseph H. Treyz Collection of Civil War Patriotic Envelopes, the Lewis H. Brown Collection, and the Patrick Casey Collection. Included in these collections are letters, patriotic envelopes and diaries. Each collection offers insight into life during the Civil War which raged from 1861 to 1865 to determine the survival of the Union or independence for the Confederacy.

In total  the Binghamton University Libraries Civil War Collections consist of seventeen individual collections of materials. Together the collections contain over 1700 letters, diaries, photographs, account books, postcards, and other ephemera which date from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, but are centered on the Civil War years 1861-1865.

Letters are by far the largest component of Binghamton’s collections and many of the letters were written by soldiers at the front, or in Army hospitals, to their family and friends back home. At its core the Civil War Collections are a local history resource with emphasis on collections pertaining to the counties in the immediate Binghamton, New York area, that is Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Tioga, and Tompkins Counties.

Collections of particular interest from outside those counties have also been included, such as a collection from Montgomery County which consists of letters written by Ten Eyck Fonda, the grandfather of the actor Henry Fonda.

The collections are located in Special Collections located on the second floor of the Bartle Library. For more information on Binghamton University’s Civil War Collections and other local history collections, contact Local History Bibliographer, Yvonne Deligato, at 607- 777-6459 or by email:

Visit the Binghamton University Collections in New York Heritage here

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‘Alas poor Yorick” A lecture by Professor Mackenney, April 19, in Special Collections

Reinhardt postcard

We are celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare at Binghamton University!

  Join us tomorrow, Tuesday, April 19

 for a presentation by Richard Mackenney, Professor of History, on:

  ‘Alas poor Yorick”: Shakespeare’s Infinite Jester


Huppe Reading Room

Special Collections, Bartle Library

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Saving Timbuktu’s Cultural Treasures From al Qaeda

The Librarian Who Saved Timbuktu’s Cultural Treasures From al Qaeda: A middle-aged book collector in Mali helped keep the fabled city’s libraries, books and manuscripts safe from occupying jihadists                  Abdel Kader Haidara with ancient family-owned manuscripts, Timbuktu, Mali, 2007.

Abdel Kader Haidara with ancient family-owned manuscripts, Timbuktu, Mali, 2007.    Photo: AMI VITALE/PANOS
Joshua Hammer
The Wall Street Journal

April 15, 2016 10:19 a.m. ET

For custodians of the ancient heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, the recent rise of Islamist extremist groups has posed a dire challenge. Since its seizure of the historic Iraqi city of Mosul in early 2014, Islamic State has pillaged and demolished mosques, shrines, churches and other sacred sites across the region. The group continues to launch “cultural cleansing” operations from Tikrit to Tripoli.

In this grim procession, there have been occasional victories for culture over extremism, like the recapture last month of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which may now be restored to something of its previous glory. A less familiar case of cultural rescue features an unlikely hero: a 51-year-old book collector and librarian named Abdel Kader Haidara in the fabled city of Timbuktu, in the West African country of Mali.

The story begins in April 2012, when Mr. Haidara returned home from a business trip to learn that the weak Malian army had collapsed and that nearly 1,000 Islamist fighters from one of al Qaeda’s African affiliates, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had occupied his city. He encountered looters, gunfire and black flags flying from government buildings, and he feared that the city’s dozens of libraries and repositories—home to hundreds of thousands of rare Arabic manuscripts—would be pillaged.

Read more here

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