Johann Knopf was born in 1866 in the village of Wünschmichelbach in Odenwald as the youngest of four brothers. Being mediocre at school, he studied to become a baker. He then left home and travelled abroad. In his 20s he worked alternately in a large city as a baker and worker in a cement factory, and later in a machine factory, where he learned the trade of locksmith. According to Knopf himself, he lived with his mother and one of his brothers. He was quiet and peaceful. After his mother’s death in 1906, acquaintances persuaded him to marry, which he said he did reluctantly. He had two children.
“Everything we know about Knopf comes from his own voluminous autobiography which he wrote while in a mental hospital,” writes Prinzhorn in his book. “After marrying he changed jobs several times and also drank a lot, although he could barely tolerate alcohol. /…/ Knopf did not trust his wife or acquaintances /…/, rarely went to work and didn’t spend much time at home either. In 1902 he was fined seven times for begging, and was finally taken to a mental hospital in a miserable condition with a chest wound from an attack with a pocket knife. He was mannerist and exaggerated in speech /…/, sometimes pompously festive /…/. Knopf’s religious mania grandiosa, which had been veiled by then, was unleashed at the hospital /…/. His love for animals is remarkable; he observes them with affection and claims to understand the language of birds.”
After a short stay at Heidelberg Psychiatric Hospital, Johann Knopf was sent to Emmendingen in 1903. He died in 1910 at Wiesloch Medical and Care Centre, where he had spent the last five years.