Unresolved: The Curious Case of Kaspar Hauser

Kaspar illustration

Previously: The Servant Girl Annihilator of Austin, Texas.

Once upon a time, there was little city called Nuremberg. A bustling place, especially in the early 19th century, it was one of Germany’s most prosperous southern towns; it also carried the stamp of being the most important industrial center in all of Bavaria. As such a thoroughly modern place, it was therefore seen as something of a surprise when a teenaged boy clad in rags who was incapable of saying anything other than his own name appeared one day in a public square.

The day in question was May 26, 1828, and the boy, of course, was Kaspar Hauser. Although the Boy from the Forest has since become one of the most well-known figures from the area, he was nothing short of an enigma when he arrived—and he has remained a mystery ever since.

He carried an envelope with him containing two letters. The first, sent from an unnamed location at the Bavarian border and addressed to Captain von Wessnig of the 6th regiment, was apparently from a poor laborer who had raised the boy; according to the writer, he had been given custody of him on October 7, 1812, and the lad now wished to be cavalryman like his father had been before him. The captain was invited either to take him on or hang him, as he wished. The second letter looked to be from the boy’s mother to his previous caretaker. According to it, his name was Kaspar, he was born on April 30, 1812, and his father, a former 6th regiment cavalryman, was dead.

Kaspar was taken by a shoemaker to the house of Captain von Wessenig, where attempts to learn more from the boy were met with resistance: Although Kaspar was now speaking words beyond his own name, all he would say was “I want to be cavalryman, as my father was,” and “Horse! Horse!” From there, he was taken to the police station; he could write his name—“KASPAR HAUSER,” in firm, legible letters—he was familiar with money, and he could say his prayers, but his vocabulary was severely limited. He would answer very few questions about himself, and he did not know from whence he had come.

No one knew what to do with this strange boy; as such, he was imprisoned as a vagabond in the Vestner Gate Tower. Kaspar refused meat and vegetables, consuming only bread and water, and he behaved much as a small child: Unable to grasp the concept of a mirror, he would look behind the glass to see who was hiding there; he did not realize fire can hurt until he burnt his own hand on a candle flame; he could write nothing beyond his name, nor did his reading level approach that of his apparent 16 or 17 years. His jailer, Andreas Hiltel, however, was both sympathetic and inquisitive; his eleven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter became friends with Kaspar, teaching him the alphabet, how to draw, and, in essence, how to speak.

A watercolor painted by Kaspar.
A watercolor painted by Kaspar.

Eventually, Kaspar began speaking of what he could remember of his past. As far as he knew, he had lived his entire life in a darkened cell about two meters long, one meter wide, and one and a half meters high. He slept on straw, and his only toy was a horse carved out of wood. Bread and water would appear next to his bed daily, which occasionally would taste bitter to him; on these occasions, he would sleep heavily and awaken to find his straw changed and his hair and nails trimmed. He had no contact with any other humans, and indeed, was utterly unaware of a world beyond the walls of his cell. Shortly before his release, he met his first human, a mysterious man who hid his face. The man taught him to write his name, to stand, to walk, and to speak a few words; then he was sent out into Nuremberg.

Kaspar was released into the care of a schoolmaster, Friedrich Daumer, while the president of the Bavarian court of appeals began to investigate the boy’s case. Kaspar seemed to do well under Daumer’s care; he also participated in a variety of homeopathic treatments and magnetic experiments with the schoolmaster. But when Kasper did not appear for his midday meal on October 17, 1829, the situation changed. He was found in Daumer’s cellar, bleeding from a wound on his forehead. According to Kaspar, he had been attacked by a hooded man while he was sitting on the privy. “You still have to die ere you leave the city of Nuremberg,” the strange told him—in a voice Kaspar said was the same as the one who had first brought him to town.

Kaspar was transferred into the care of Johann Biberbach, a municipal authority—only to have that situation, too, deteriorate quickly. On April 3, 1830, a pistol shot was heard from Kaspar’s room; Biberbach entered to find the boy bleeding from a wound on the right side of his head. He claimed he had fallen from a chair while trying to take some books down from the shelf, knocking the pistol hanging on the wall as he went down. Next he went to the house of Baron von Tucher—and again, the situation deteriorated. As Kaspar shuttled from home to home, each family ultimately ended up saying the same thing about him: That for all his gentle outward appearance, Kaspar Hauser was a liar.

Lord Stanhope, a British aristocrat with a fondness for all things German, adopted Kaspar in late 1831 with the hopes that he could find out who Kaspar was. After failing to do so, though, he lost interest in him, turning him over to a schoolmaster in Ansbach. Johann Meyer had no love of Kaspar and bullied him—and it was under his “protection” that Kaspar eventually met his end.

A monument to Kaspar in Ansbach, Germany.
A monument to Kaspar in Ansbach, Germany.

Now in his early 20s, Kaspar was given employment as a copyist in an Ansbach law office. He remained dissatisfied with his position, however, and he and Meyer constantly locked horns. Then, on Saturday, December 14, 1833, Kaspar burst into Meyer’s house at 3:30pm bleeding from a wound in his chest. When asked if he had suffered an accident, Kaspar nodded. “Went to the Hofgarten—man had knife—gave me purse—stabbed—ran as fast as I could—purse is still there,” he gasped. When pressed as to what he was doing in the park in the dead of winter, he said that a message had been sent to him that morning at the chancery, telling him to be in the Hofgarten at 2:30 for “something to be shown to me.”

Meyer believed Kaspar had faked the attack on himself, refusing to call the doctor until more than an hour had passed. When Dr. Heidenreich finally arrived, the man—not exactly Bavaria’s most prized physician—attempted to determine how bad Kaspar’s wound was by shoving his fingers into it. Upon nearly touching the boy’s heart with his fingers, he declared that yes, Kaspar was gravely wounded. This pronouncement finally prompted Meyer to report the crime to the police, who dispatched a constable to the location of Kaspar’s stabbing. He found the purse Kaspar had spoken of, but no other clues. Several days later, Kaspar finally expired. Lord Stanhope and Meyer responded to his death by proclaiming him an imposter who had died at his own hand.

Kaspar’s story remains largely unresolved. Who was he, exactly? Was he, as many theorized, a lost Bavarian prince? Were the numerous attacks actual assassination attempts, or were they incidents of self-harm? Why did every family to give him a home all arrive at the conclusion that he was a liar?

To answer that last question is simple: Because on some level, he was a liar. Kaspar’s story is riddled with inconsistencies, beginning with the two letters with which he arrived in Nuremberg. They were both later found to have been written by the same hand—and that hand was likely Kaspar’s own. It is also unlikely that, if he had truly spent 16 or 17 years in a darkened room, he would have been as healthy as he was upon his arrival. At the very least, he would have suffered from rickets due to a lack of the Vitamin D gained through exposure to sunlight. Yet he was healthy as the proverbial horse, with none of the health problems one might expect of someone who had lived in the dark on bread and water for his entire life.

He was ultimately found not to be the Crown Prince of Baden, as well. Back in 1996, Der Spiegel magazine analyzed some mitochondrial DNA from some old clothing believed to be Kaspar’s; if he had been the Prince, his DNA would have been identical to the current descendants of the line. The DNA didn’t match, though, putting that rumor to rest—as long, that is, as we’re correct in assuming the clothing was Kaspar’s in the first place.

Was he just a con man? Possibly—but strangest of all is perhaps this: In the purse found in the Hofgarten after the fatal attack on Kaspar was a letter. The note was penciled in “Spiegelschrift,” or mirror writing, and it read as follows:

“Hauser will be

The letter found in the purse.

able to tell you quite precisely how

I look and from where I am.

To save Hauser the effort,

I want to tell you myself from where

I come _ _ .

I come from _ _ _

The Bavarian border _ _

On the river _ _

I will even

Tell you the name: M. L. Ö.”

Maybe someone really did attack Kaspar. Maybe he had been dogged for years by someone trying to bring him harm. The mystery of this last message was never satisfactorily solved, leaving us with more questions than answers. Kaspar currently lies in the Stadtfriedhof in Ansbach, with a headstone to match: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious. 1833.”

Recommended media:

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

Kaspar and Other Plays. 

Kaspar Hauser: The Original ‘Forest Boy.” 

The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. 

Kaspar Hauser – The Fortean Times.

[Photos via]

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