The ruby-eyed alchemist of Peacock Island

I’ve had a few reader requests for another Berlin ghost story for Halloween (that I have a few readers in the first place came as a delightful surprise). So here, for the ghost enthusiasts, is a story from the Pfaueninsel:

The Pfaueninsel, Peacock Island, is a 67-hectare nature reserve in the Havel River on the border between Berlin and Potsdam. You reach it by what may well be the world’s shortest ferry journey. The ferry is named Luise and crosses a swathe of water only about three times its own length. You cannot bring your bike on the world’s shortest ferry journey, because bicycles  – like motor vehicles, smoking, picking the plants, and stepping off the designated trails – are banned from the Pfaueninsel.

To reach the ferry dock where Luise departs you can take bus 218 from the Wannsee S-Bahn station through several kilometers of woods. The bus that plies route 218 isn’t a normal Berlin city bus, it’s the Traditionsbus, a manila-envelope-yellow refurbished 1960s double-decker with an interior upholstered like an Oma’s den. I didn’t know this at the time I visited the Pfaueninsel, and the unexpected ride through the woods on a time-warp bus added to the island’s autumnal late-afternoon eeriness.

The island belonged to Prussia’s ruling family, the Hohenzollerns, for hundreds of years, and they put it to uses that mingled aristocratic whimsy with scientific curiosity. Above is the Lustschloss, built in the style of an artificial ancient ruin for an 18th-century Hohenzollern and his mistress. “But what did it use to be?” my four-year-old asked several times when he saw it, and I struggled to explain that, as a fake ruin, it had always just pretended to used to be. The royals also kept a menagerie of peacocks, lions, llamas, monkeys, and kangaroos; peacocks still wander the island.

In 1685, long before the menagerie or fake ruins, Friedrich Wilhelm the Elector of Brandenburg gave the Pfaueninsel to his court chemist Johannes Kunckel, and this is where the ghost story comes in. Kunckel was a chemist and alchemist in an era at the blurry boundary between medieval alchemy and modern chemistry. The son of the court alchemist of Holstein, he was born around 1630  in northern Germany. After mysterious intrigue pushed Kunckel out of a job running the royal laboratory in Dresden, Friedrich Wilhelm invited him to Berlin and set him up with a laboratory on the Pfaueninsel. Friedrich and Kunckel were the only people allowed to come and go from the top-secret laboratory island. Der große Kurfürst had a quintessentially baroque love of experiments involving fire, glass and elixirs, and he visited the island frequently, sometimes joining in his court chemist’s experiments.

In his island laboratory Kunckel learned how to make artificial ruby (red glass) and discovered a process for making phosphorus. Artificial ruby was a valuable commodity in itself, but many doubted that was all he was making. The funny smells and clouds of black smoke that wafted across the Havel from the secret island set tongues wagging in Berlin. People said that Kunckel was conjuring gold for Friedrich, that a pact with the devil had given him powers of dark magic.

But the Pfaueninsel experiments were short-lived: in 1689 an explosion sparked a fire that burnt the whole laboratory to the ground. Rumors went around Berlin that the explosion had been a divine punishment for Kunckel’s dealings with dark magic. Friedrich III, Friedrich Wilhelm’s son and successor, accused the now-ruined court chemist of witchcraft, and Kunckel departed for the court of Swedish King Charles XI. Life went more smoothly for the chemist in Stockholm. The king awarded him a noble title, and Kunckel stayed comfortably enconsed there until his death in 1703. But he was — the story goes — never again able to make red glass after leaving the Pfaueninsel.

Today a memorial stone and four wooden benches mark the spot where Kunckel’s laboratory stood. But these aren’t the island’s only traces of Kunckel: according to local legend, the exiled chemist who never returned to the Pfaueninsel in life now haunts it at midnight. Those who claim to have seen Kunckel’s ghost describe a black shadowy figure with glass-red eyes, forever searching for his lost formula for artificial ruby.

It took me & J. a long time to get out to Wannsee because the train wasn’t running between Zehlendorf and Nikolassee; we had to take a replacement bus, then wait a while on the platform at Nikolassee. We were eating sandwiches while we waited. Two guys in neo-Nazi clothing with bloodshot eyes came blustering along the platform. They told me to share my sandwich with them. No, I said, and they crowded up closer, reeking of alcohol, and said, come on, we should get to know each other. No, I said again, trying to stay monosyllabic so they wouldn’t hear my accent, figuring their bothering-a-girl-they-assume-is-German mode to be less menacing than their realizing-they’re-interacting-with-a-foreigner mode, hoping J. wouldn’t say something in English. On the train J. asked what were those men? I felt daunted by the task of trying to explain to a four-year-old that around some people in Berlin it was safer if he only spoke German and I didn’t talk at all, of trying to explain these red-eyed figures that were far creepier than any ghost.

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