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The Kaspar Hauser Mystery

Romeo Vitelli

Skeptical Briefs Volume 24.2, Summer 2014

On May 26, 1828 (Easter Monday), two men were talking together in the Unschlittplatz near Nuremberg’s New Gate when they were approached by a teenage boy. By all accounts, he was a fresh-complexioned boy of about seventeen years of age dressed like a peasant. Although remarkably short for his age, there was nothing else notable about him besides his dusty clothing and general appearance of having walked a long way. After asking for directions to New Gate Street, he pulled a letter out of his pocket addressed to “The Captain of the Fourth Squadron of the Schmollischer Regiment, Neue Thor Strasse [New Gate Street], Nuremberg.” One of the men, a shoemaker named Weichmann, offered to take the boy there because he was heading in that direction. Along the way, they chatted briefly, and Weichmann assumed he was just a stable boy based on the Low Bavarian dialect that he spoke. After introducing the boy to a regimental corporal, Weichmann went on his way.

After being taken to Captain von Wes­senig’s house, the boy gave his name as “Kaspar Hauser” and the groom allowed him into the house to await the Captain’s return. When asked where he came from, Kaspar replied that he “must not say” and then burst into tears. He claimed that he had been forced to travel day and night. The groom, touched by his story, offered him food and a place to sleep. When the Captain came home, he opened Kaspar’s envelope, which contained two letters, both unsigned. The first letter was by a “poor day-labourer with ten children of my own,” which said that Kaspar Hauser had been brought to him as an infant on October 7, 1812, by a woman who asked him to raise the child. The letter further stated that he had raised the boy as best he could, teaching him reading and writing, and finally sending him off to become a soldier (the woman had said that he was a soldier’s son). The second letter was apparently written by the boy’s mother and simply stated that he had been baptized and given the first name of Kaspar. Except that the boy was the son of a Schmollischer trooper, there was no other information. The Captain couldn’t find out anything more from the boy and, not being particularly interested in his story, sent him to the police as a runaway. The police, without knowing what else to do with him, threw him into a prison cell.

For the next two months, the boy was relatively well treated in prison. Although he could write his name, “Kaspar Hauser,” he had difficulty responding to many of the questions asked of him due to his limited vocabulary. Although his jailors noted that Kaspar was more sharp-witted than he appeared, rumors grew about the “half-wild man” imprisoned in the local castle tower. Along with curiosity seekers who wanted to see the “wild man,” Kaspar received visits from doctors, scholars, and groups of women bringing him toys and other presents. Since Kaspar was assumed to be an idiot (as the term was used in those days), these visitors had no hesitation about discussing his case in his presence, along with all sorts of fanciful theories about his origins. Whether or not hearing these stories inspired Kaspar in his later claims is anybody’s guess.

As Kaspar became more at ease with his imprisonment and frequent visitors, he related an amazing story. He said that he had spent his entire life in a cell that was six or seven feet long, four feet wide, and five feet high. The cell was so small that he wasn’t even able to stand upright, and he lived in almost perpetual darkness since the cell’s two small windows had been boarded up. He had been in the cell as long as he could remember and had only learned to write his name by tracing the letters on paper that had been left in his cell. Eventually, the man who had first left the paper in his cell brought him a prayer book and taught him how to read a few words. He was later released and told that he would be taken to be a soldier like his father. Based on his story, he somehow learned to walk and understand what the man said to him surprisingly quickly despite having little previous exposure to language. The envelope that he later gave the Captain was placed in his hands, and he was eventually sent on his way to Nuremberg.

In November of that same year, Kaspar Hauser repeated his story before a specially appointed commission of magistrates in Nuremberg (not under oath). The fact that he was able to walk and speak despite having been kept in one cell all his life with no exposure to language or physical exercise was hardly questioned. In fairness, some of his defenders explained away the inconsistencies and suggested that Kaspar had been confused in some of the details of his story. During attempts to cross-examine him or get him to expand on his story, Kaspar would often complain of headaches or deny that he had ever said what he had been heard to say.

Kaspar Hauser’s story became widely believed and made him an object of sympathy throughout Germany and across Europe. Although some skeptics questioned the details of the case (and suggested that the two letters in his possession were written by the same person), they were discredited. Doctors who examined him concluded that he was an “animal man” who had been shut away from other people and was only now learning to live as a human being. Although other cases of “feral children” were relatively well-known, Kaspar Hauser’s case seemed to be unique. Not only were his eyes acutely sensitive to light, but loud noises including thunderstorms and regimental bands upset him greatly. He had an amazing sense of smell and was repelled by the scent of any flower. His head and legs were covered with old scars, which were believed to be the marks of early physical abuse. He preferred to drink only water and he never learned to enjoy drinking wine or beer.

In the meantime, police scoured the country trying to find any trace of Kaspar’s origins. Nobody matching his description was ever found, and no missing person’s re­ports that might have established his true identity ever turned up. By July 1828, Kas­par Hauser was formally adopted by the city of Nuremberg, and an annual pension was approved for his maintenance. Kaspar Hauser was formally placed into the care of George Friedrich Daumer, a schoolmaster and philosopher who tried to educate him. Daumer had already begun educating Kaspar in his cell and had noted his amazing progress in learning to read and write. This education didn’t go smoothly, though. Daumer complained about the steady influx of visitors who were interfering with his pupil’s lessons. The visitors were stopped, but Kaspar was still free to go out and socialize, especially since he had become the darling of Nuremberg society.

The rumors of Kaspar’s true identity began to fly. The most persistent story was that he was actually a son of Grand Duchess Stephanie of Baden who had somehow been stolen away as an infant (several people commented on the resemblance). Although Kaspar didn’t actually encourage the stories, he began to act more like a prince in exile and adapted quickly to his new social role. Whatever enjoyment Kaspar had in all the attention he received faded as it became apparent that people were becoming less interested in him. He stopped being such a novelty and then stories that described him as deceitful and manipulative began to spread. This was when the attempts on his life started.

Assassination Attempts

On October 17, 1829, Kaspar was found crouching in the cellar of the house where he lived. He was bleeding from a cut on his forehead that, though slight, kept him bedridden for two days. He later said that he had been attacked by a man with a black handkerchief across his face who struck him with a knife and told him that he was going to be killed. Kaspar said that he recognized the man as being the one who had first held him prisoner. Despite questions over how someone could have entered the house without anyone else noticing, a police investigation found no trace of the mystery attacker. Given the implausible nature of the story and questions about Kaspar’s credibility, skeptics accused him of making up the attack.

Kaspar was placed under police observation and was watched by two officers on a regular basis whenever he left the house. Professor Daumer asked that Kaspar be sent somewhere else to live. Not only was Daumer tired of the scrutiny, he had come to believe that Kaspar was a compulsive liar. In one letter, Daumer stated that “Kaspar Hauser’s nature had lost much of its original purity and that a highly regrettable tendency to untruthfulness and dissimulation had manifested itself.” He added that he and Kaspar had quarreled on the same day of the supposed attack because Kaspar was neglecting his studies. After leaving the Daumers, Kaspar became the official ward of Baron von Tucher and was placed in the home of a Nuremberg trader named Biberbach.

His stay with the Biberbachs didn’t last long, since they became even more disgusted by Kaspar’s lies and laziness than the Daumers were. On April 30, 1830, after a particularly nasty quarrel with the Biberbachs, police guarding the house were startled by the sound of a gunshot. Kaspar was found bleeding from a wound on the right side of his head. Although he passed it off as an accident, the circumstances seemed implausible and the Biberbachs asked for him to be removed from their house. He was returned to the von Tucher household, where he lived for another eighteen months. Increasingly disenchanted with Kaspar, von Tucher accused him of being “morally corrupted” by the attention he had received when he was first discovered.

It was also around this time that Kaspar’s case began attracting international attention. A series of pamphlets about “the remarkable Nuremberg foundling” were published, some skeptical of his claims, while others speculated about his origins. In 1831, an English nobleman, Lord Stanhope, took a formal interest in Kaspar and arranged to meet him. Despite his own skepticism about some of the inconsistencies in Kaspar’s story, Stanhope posted a reward for information on whoever had imprisoned Kaspar; it was never claimed. In 1832, legal scholar Paul Johann Feuerbach published History of a Crime against a Human Soul in which he eloquently described the tragedy of Kaspar Hauser’s story. Feuerbach became a fervent supporter and later, one of Kaspar’s guardians.

Stanhope followed up on every lead and even took Kaspar to Hungary based on his vague memory of a few Hungarian words. Kaspar enjoyed the attention, and von Tucher wrote a letter to Stanhope complaining that his ward was becoming vainer and more conceited than ever. The burghers of Nuremberg cancelled Kaspar’s annual pension and hinted that Stanhope should take charge of him instead. They were certainly delighted when Lord Stanhope agreed to make Kaspar his ward and placed him in the care of a schoolmaster named Meyer. While Kaspar enjoyed this new status, whatever hopes he had of going to England were short-lived when Stanhope returned home alone.

The search for Kaspar’s birth family continued, and he began claiming that he was the son of a Hungarian countess. When Stanhope returned to Nuremberg, he launched a new investigation and sent agents to Hungary but, like before, no proof was found that Kaspar had ever been there. Stanhope also became exasperated by reports from Professor Meyer that Kaspar wasn’t studying properly, as well as new complaints of lying. Stanhope made arrangements to have Kaspar become a clerk, since he didn’t seem capable of any other profession. On December 9, 1833, Kaspar had a terrible argument with Meyer and openly dreaded what Stanhope would say when he arrived home a few days later.

Five days later, Kaspar rushed into the room where Meyer and his wife were sitting. He was out of breath and pointed to a wound in his chest where someone had stabbed him. He dragged Meyer to the nearby public gardens and gasped out, “went Hofgarten man had knife gave bag stabbed ran as hard as could.” Meyer took him back home to be treated. Although doctors initially believed the wound to be shallow, his condition worsened drastically. Police questioned him and he told them that he had been lured to the Hofgarten with a fake message and stabbed. Aside from an odd note found in a silk bag near where Kaspar was found, no other clues to the attack were ever found. Kaspar Hauser died on December 17, 1833.

An autopsy raised questions about Kaspar’s attack and his version of events. The medical experts who examined the evidence were split on whether Kaspar’s wound was self-inflicted or whether he had been killed by an unknown assailant. Although some supporters suggest that Kaspar had been assassinated in order to prevent him from proving his royal origins, skeptics speculated that Kaspar had actually stabbed himself to stir up public interest in his story and misjudged the depth of the knife wound. The knife was never found, but it may have been thrown into a nearby brook. A formal investigation concluded that no murder had taken place and that Kaspar had stabbed himself. Lord Stanhope later wrote that he agreed with the findings, and he stated that “I may be the only man that ever wrote a book to prove himself in the wrong.”

The controversy dragged on, and pamphlets were published denouncing Stanhope and accusing various people in Kaspar’s life of covering up the murder. Years later, Professor Daumer wrote a book in which he insisted that Stanhope had masterminded Kaspar’s assassination himself. Stanhope’s daughter, Catherine Powlett Cleveland, published a book on the case in 1893 that vindicated her father. Long after his death, Kaspar Hauser’s story continues to inspire movies, books, and plays based on his life. Questions about his origins and the strange circumstances of his death are still being raised.

But what can we say about Kaspar Hauser? Even though certain aspects of his story can be dismissed as exaggeration (he learned to talk and walk suspiciously quickly, given his claims of growing up in a cell), there is little question that he suffered from abuse and neglect in his early childhood. The scars on his body and the psychosocial dwarfism he experienced (which is still known as “Kaspar Hauser syndrome”) seems testimony enough for that. DNA studies have since ruled out his being part of the Baden royal family, although questions remain about his true identity. The continuing mystery may be a fitting legacy for a strange foundling who enjoyed attention.

For Further Reading

Candland, Douglas Keith. 1993. Feral Children and Clever Animals, Oxford, New York.

Stanhope, Philip Henry Earl. 1836. Tracts Relating to Caspar Hauser. Hodson.

(Stanhope) Powlett, Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina (Duchess of Cleveland). 1893. The True Story of Kaspar Hauser from Official Documents. Macmillan, London.

Romeo Vitelli

Romeo Vitelli received his doctorate in psychology from York University in Toronto, Ontario, in 1987. He spent fifteen years as a staff psychologist at a maximum security prison run by the Ontario government and is now in full-time private practice and has been an avid blogger since 2007. His first book, The Everything Guide to Overcoming PTSD, was released in June 2014.