Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 19, 2024

The enduring mystery of Kaspar Hauser

On the 26th of May, 1828, a strange teenage boy showed up on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany.  He was dirty and wore tattered clothing, and appeared terrified, refusing to speak to anyone when approached.  After a time he was coaxed into revealing that he carried a letter addressed to a Captain von Wessenig of the Fourth Squadron of the Sixth Bavarian Cavalry.

The heading of the letter read:

Von der Bäierischen Gränz
daß Orte ist unbenant
[From the Bavarian border
The place is unnamed

The letter, which was unsigned, said that the boy was named Kaspar Hauser, and had been given to the letter's author as an infant on 7 October 1812.  It went on to state that Kaspar was born on 30 April 1812, and that Kaspar's father was a member of the Sixth Cavalry, but had died, so the anonymous author of the letter said he had instructed the boy in reading, writing, and the Christian religion, but had "never allowed him to take a step outside the house."  Now -- for no apparent reason -- Kaspar had been set free.

"Either make him a cavalryman, as his father was," the letter read, "or else hang him."

At first, all Kaspar would say was "I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was" and "Horse, horse!"  Pressure to say more, or to give an account of himself, resulted in tears.  After several months of being shuttled from one place to another -- including a stint locked up in Luginsland Tower in Nuremberg Castle for being a vagabond -- he went to live with Friedrich Daumer, a schoolteacher, who helped him to learn to speak.  At this point, a strange story emerged.

Kaspar told Daumer he'd spent his entire life in solitary confinement in a tiny darkened cell, two meters by one meter, and one-and-a-half meters tall.  All he had was a straw mattress to sleep on and a couple of toys including a dog carved out of wood.  His food and water were provided by a man who wore a mask, never revealing his face.  Sometimes the water tasted bitter; afterward he slept soundly -- and woke up to find the straw had been changed, and his hair and nails trimmed.

This, of course, initiated a firestorm of inquiry into who could have imprisoned a child in this fashion, but none of the leads turned up anything solid.  Kaspar himself couldn't give directions for retracing his steps back to where he'd lived.  Once every avenue had been investigated, the authorities more or less gave up, and the controversy seemed to settle down.

Then, on 17 October 1829, Kaspar was attacked by a man who uttered the words, "You will have to die before you leave Nuremberg," and gashed him on the forehead with a knife.  The man's voice, he said, was identical to that of his former captor.  Oddly, though, the blood trail led first to Kaspar's bedroom -- then, instead of toward the quarters where Daumer slept, it led downstairs and through a trap door into the cellar.

When asked why he'd done that, Kaspar said he didn't know.

Concerns for his safety after the incident led the police to transfer him to the home of Johann Biberbach, a municipal authority.  But that didn't last long; on 3 April 1830, there was a gunshot in Kaspar's bedroom, and Biberbach rushed in to find him bleeding from a superficial head wound.  Kaspar explained that he'd been standing on a chair to reach for some books, lost his balance, and struck a pistol that was mounted to the wall, causing it to go off.

A painting of Kaspar Hauser by Carl Kreul, from late 1830.  Note the scar on his forehead from the knife wound the previous year.  [Image is in the Public Domain]

This far-fetched story got him transferred first to the house of a Baron von Tucher, then to another schoolteacher named Johann Georg Meyer, and finally to a printmaker named Anselm von Feuerbach.  All three men quickly found Kaspar to be a sneaky, unreliable habitual liar.  Von Feuerbach was especially blunt, writing in a letter, "Caspar [sic] Hauser is a smart scheming codger, a rogue, a good-for-nothing that ought to be killed."

It seems like someone agreed with that assessment.  On 14 December 1833, Kaspar came home after a walk with a deep stab wound in the left side of his chest.  He'd been lured to the Ansbach Court Garden, he said, and then assaulted by a man with a knife who had handed him a small cloth bag and then stabbed him.  Kaspar said he'd dropped the bag, but a policeman searching the garden the following day found it.  It contained the following note: "Hauser will be 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 [unreadable].  I come from from [unreadable] the Bavarian border [unreadable].  On the river [unreadable].  I will even tell you the name: M. L. Ö."

Kaspar Hauser died three days later without ever explaining further.

So we're left with a perplexing question: who was Kaspar Hauser?

Explanations, as you might imagine, are kind of all over the map.  The first, and simplest, is that he was lying about his entire backstory.  It's possible he'd been raised in an abusive family and had run away, but the story of solitary confinement by a masked man wasn't true.  The letters were written by Kaspar himself and the wounds, including the one that ultimately killed him, were self-inflicted.  In this case, Kaspar Hauser suffered from Munchausen syndrome -- a psychological condition in which an individual claims illness or injury, sometimes even injuring him/herself deliberately, in order to garner attention and sympathy.  This is certainly consistent with the opinion of people who knew him personally, such as von Feuerbach.

Another possibility is that the confinement story was substantially true, and he was driven mad by the neglect and abuse he'd suffered.  Proponents of this explanation differ as to how much of his later story was true.  Some believe the wounds were self-inflicted; others that his captor feared being caught, and so hunted Kaspar down and killed him.  "M. L. Ö," as you might guess, has never been identified.

The last, and wildest, possibility is that Kaspar Hauser had been hidden away because he was the hereditary prince of Baden.  His parents, Charles, Grand Duke of Baden and Stéphanie de Beauharnais, had feared for the boy's life -- the birth of a male heir would have bumped Charles's successor, his uncle Louis -- so they switched him with the dying infant of a servant, claiming their own baby had died, then spirited the boy away to be raised in safety.

Mitochondrial DNA samples from Kaspar Hauser's hair and clothing were compared to that of a female-line descendant of Stéphanie de Beauharnais, and they weren't identical -- but were close enough that the theory "could not be ruled out."

It's profoundly frustrating, but the fact is we'll probably never know the truth.  This is summed up by the inscription on his tombstone, in the city of Ansbach: "Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time.  His birth was unknown, his death mysterious."

It's an evocative story, though, and has made its way into many works of fiction (in fact, the tale of Kaspar Hauser inspired my novella Adam's Fall, which also starts out with someone finding a strange, mute, ragged teenage boy -- but the two stories diverge completely thereafter).  

But as far as the mysterious German boy goes, as good skeptics we have to leave it there.  It's unlikely that any other evidence will surface -- so we have to be content to let the enduring mystery of Kaspar Hauser remain that way, probably forever.


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