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A contemporary portrait of Kaspar Hauser

The enigma of Kaspar Hauser: Secret prince, hoaxer, or victim?

A contemporary portrait of Kaspar Hauser | WIkimedia Commons

One of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries is the true identity of the young man known as Kaspar Hauser. The enigma of the wild boy gripped the imagination of Europe in the early 19th century. Was he a secret royal heir, a cunning fraudster, or simply a victim of cruelty and abuse?

Hauser ‘bout That: A Mysterious Appearance

Around four o’clock on the afternoon of 26th May 1828, a cobbler named George Weichmann was standing outside his house in Unschlitt Square in the medieval city of Nuremberg. As old George stood gazing about the still, deserted streets, he saw what appeared to be a teenage boy, limping and dressed in tattered clothes and ill-fitting boots.

Someone’s had a few too many steins, George probably thought. However, he approached the boy and asked him how he was. The youngster simply grunted at him. Still, nothing too unusual for a teenager. But then the boy handed the shoemaker two letters addressed to a local army officer named Captain Wessenig.

Horse Play - The Letters

Once in the captain’s gaff, the servants and the cobbler watched in amazement as the youngster wolfed down bread and drained a whole pitcher of water, but left the ham and beer. He burnt his fingers on the flame of a candle, not knowing what it was, and was startled by the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock. The only words he was able to say were : “Horse! Horse!”, “I want to be a knight, as my father was”, and “don’t know”. Therefore, he couldn’t tell them where he was from, who he was, and what he was doing in Nuremberg.

The letters that the boy had on him revealed that his mother had given him to a poor labourer living in the country when he was just six months old. His mother had begged the peasant to bring the tot up as his own son until he was 17 before taking him to join the army in Nuremberg. The letters also revealed that the adolescent’s name was Kaspar.

Out of the Frying Pan – Kaspar in Prison

Hauser spent the next two months housed in the Nuremberg nick, as the authorities had no other ideas about what to do with him. There, to the astonishment of the police, he was able to scrawl his name on a piece of paper.

While in the clink, Kaspar would sit as still as a statue for hours, without speaking or ever lying down to sleep. He sat in the darkest part of the cell and moved about “like a cat”.

Over time he spoke more and more, until he was able to shed extra light on his painful former existence. He said that he’d spent his entire life locked alone in a “hole” that never saw “vivid light”, consuming nothing but bread and water. His only companions were two wooden toy horses, and he never heard or saw another human being, including his jailer who only appeared when the time came to free Kaspar from his dungeon bedroom.

Kaspar the Celebrity

While locked up in Nuremberg he started to become a bit of a celebrity. Masses of locals would scramble to get to the barred window of his cell to catch a glimpse of the “Child of Nuremberg” and his peculiar ways.

News of Hauser’s case spread far and wide. Cash rewards were offered for information, and investigators combed the Bavarian countryside looking for the famous pit of despair in which Kaspar spent most of his life.

One Professor Daumer eventually took Kaspar into his care, helping him grow in confidence and ability, showing promise as a talented artist.In October 1829, Hauser was attacked outside by a mysterious masked man dressed in smart, dark clothes. He bashed him once to the head with a heavy cosh and then ran off.

The authorities believed this was part of an assassination plot. Hauser was moved to a safe house and then into the home of Herr von Feuerbach, a lawyer who had quizzed him previously.

Stranger Danger – Kaspar’s Murder

By November 1831, Kaspar had been put up in the town of Ansbach, 25 miles west of Nuremberg, at the expense of English aristocrat Lord Philip Stanhope. It was here that Hauser met his grisly end.

Kaspar came stumbling into the house one day with blood gushing from a deep stab wound to his side. He reportedly gasped to the occupants of the house, “Man, stabbed! Knife, Hofgarten, gave purse. Go look, quickly!”

Kaspar’s bodyguard, Captain Hickel, went to the park and found the purse, but only saw one set of footprints. Inside the purse he found a mysterious note claiming to be from the assailant and signed “M.L.O".

Hauser thought he was going to meet someone in the park who’d finally give him some answers about his life and who he was. The stranger asked him if he was Kaspar Hauser before handing him a silk purse, stabbing him and running away.

The knifeman was never found and even those close to Kaspar suspected that the wound might have been self-inflicted. Kaspar denied these allegations and unfortunately succumbed to his wounds on 17th December 1833.

Was he a Secret Noble?

Kaspar’s one-time guardian, von Feuerbach, certainly believed that the lad was of noble birth, and publicly stated as much. He stopped short of pointing the finger at any particular royal house or individuals, and he died of an apparent stroke in May 1833. Some believe that von Feuerbach was poisoned.

A popular story from the beginning was that Countess of Hochberg, in 1812, swapped the newly born hereditary prince of Baden, in southwest Germany, with a dying infant. She did this apparently without the child’s parents, or anyone else, noticing. This real baby prince was hidden away by Hochberg and later given the name Kaspar Hauser. Later in the 19th century this story was dismissed as baseless and just a “silly fairy tale”.

Some have speculated that Lord Stanhope knew the truth of Hauser and had some sort of vested interest.Others even suggested that Stanhope might have been up to no good and had Hauser bumped off.

In 1996 and 2002, DNA thought to be Hauser’s was analysed. These tests essentially proved inconclusive, and it would not be permissible to test the remains of anyone buried in the House of Baden’s family vault.

Was He a Fraudster?

Critics of Hauser have picked holes in his story and suggested that he was simply a clever con artist, or at best a hapless victim of unscrupulous fraudsters trading off the notoriety of the case.

His claims of having never left a dark room for 16 years and living on bread and water alone are at odds with the descriptions of him as a broad-shouldered stout lad with a healthy complexion. The apparent speed with which he was able to start talking, reading, and writing has also rung alarm bells for some.

Many in Nuremberg were reluctant to look a gift horse in the mouth and so went along with what had quickly exploded into an internationally famous case.

His account of his childhood living in a hole never checked out.He conveniently knew nothing of the location or his captors, and the place and the man who took him in were never found.

Perhaps one day the truth of Kaspar Hauser will be discovered, but for now his real identity remains a mystery.