The perplexing and tragic case of Kaspar Hauser
26 May 1828 was a holiday and market day in the German market town of Nuremberg. As farmers and merchants were getting ready to buy, sell and make merry, local cobbler George Weichmann noticed a strange, sturdy, yet frightened looking youth with a bad limp heading towards the city’s New Gate. Weichmann offered to help the boy, but he was startled and seemed unable to speak. All he could do was hand over a letter addressed to “Captain of the 4th squadron, 6th Calvary Regiment, Nuremberg”. Thinking the lad may be an imbecile and concerned for his wellbeing, the kindly cobbler took him the house of Captain Wessenig of the Calvary, where the servants took him in to await their master’s return.
The servants offered the boy food and drink. He hungrily devoured an entire loaf of bread but refused meat offered to him. A cup of beer given to him provoked fascination with the lustre of the cup itself, while he ignored the contents. He was startled by a pendulum clock striking, which he shied away from. A lighted candle drew his fascination, and the boy attempted to grab the flame, burning his hand. One servant threw a ball to him, which landed in his lap, but rather than throw it back, he sat and stroked it as if it were a living creature. He would not speak but to answer “Don’t know.” to every question put to him.
When Captain Wessinig returned home, he was told of the boy who was presented to him immediately. The lad eagerly handed the captain the letter, which actually consisted of two notes, with poor spelling and grammar.
The first letter was undated and stated;
I send you a lad who wished to serve his king in the Army. He was brought to me on October 7th, 1812. I am but a poor labourer with children of my own. His mother asked me to bring up the boy, and so I thought I would raise him as my own son. Since then, I have never let go one step outside the house, so no-one know where he was raised. He, himself, does not know of the place or what it is. You may question him, honoured Captain, but he will not be able to tell you where I live. I brought him out at night. He cannot find his way back. He has not a penny for I have nothing myself. If you will not keep him, then you must strike him dead or hang him up a chimney.”
The second letter, dated October 1812, stated;
“The child has been baptised. His name is Kaspar; you must give him his second name yourself. I ask you to take care of him. His father was a Calvary soldier. When he is seventeen, take him to Nuremberg, to the Sixth Calvary Regiment; his father belonged to it. I beg you to keep him until he is seventeen. He was born on April 30th, 1812. I am a poor girl; I can’t take care of him. His father is dead.”
Having ascertained the boy was named Kaspar and was 17 years old, Captain Wessenig was less than impressed however. Thinking Kaspar to be either an imbecile or a hoaxer, he had him taken to the Vestner Gate Tower, where he was delivered into the hands of Sargeant Wust. Wust handed the boy a sheet of paper and a pen, and Kaspar legibly wrote “Kaspar Hauser” on it, but continued to answer all other questions with “Don’t know.”
Sargeant Wust, with archetypal German efficiency, recorded a detailed description of Kaspar, saying he was a broad-shouldered youth of about 17 years of age, light brown hair, blue eyes, wearing “odd” clothes which did not belong to him; his trousers and shirt were worn and far too large, his shoes so small and tight that his toes had burst them, causing terrible blisters which made walking difficult. Wust also recorded that Kaspar’s hands were soft and smooth, unlike those of anyone used to heavy manual labour. All this and the letters apart, there was nothing to offer a clue as to the boy’s true identity.
Kaspar was kept in a police cell, not as punishment but rather as a means of temporary accommodation, where he was well cared for. The jailer, Andreas Hitel, noted that he appeared to be at home there and could sit still in the darkness for hours upon end, the lack of light causing him no discomfort. It was to the jailer he started to open up, showing that he had an incredible sense of hearing, as well as one of smell, being able to correctly identify people, plants and animals by scent alone. This was the first indication that Kaspar was no imbecile and further evidence was to follow.
News of Kaspar spread like wildfire through the town, and daily people would gather outside the cell to peer at him through the window. Andreas Hitel, had grown incredibly fond of the boy and moved Kaspar downstairs to his family rooms, where he continued to tutor him in speaking, reading and writing. He had a small room to himself there where he could be observed unawares by official and unofficial visitors. Although Kaspar appeared to learn quickly, Hitel stated that he had been “forcibly deprived of all education and opportunities for mental development”, thus accounting for his “childlike innocence”.
Jakob Friedrich Binder, Mayor of Nuremberg, was the first to start enquiries as to where Kaspar Hauser actually came from, and introduced the first in a long line of “experts” who would make all sorts of judgements and ultimately use and abuse poor Kaspar for their own ends. The first to examine him was State Medical Officer, Dr Preu, who gave Kaspar’s height as 4 foot 9 inches, stated he was of broad build, and probably 16-17 years old. He also noted that an unusual formation of the knees suggested some form of prolonged physical constraint. Preu was a signatory to a statement affirming “This person is neither crazy nor an idiot, but evidently has been raised like a half-wild person, had been forcibly and in the most heinous way removed from all human and societal education.” In the official public proclamation of 14 July 1828, Mayor Binder further stated that Kaspar was endowed with “enormous intellectual curiosity and an extraordinary memory”.
It was Mayor Binder however who took a quantum leap forward and suggested that Kaspar Hauser was of noble birth and had been locked up against his will to keep his identity a secret. Indeed, Binder carried out conversations with Kaspar, in which the boy apparently told him that all his life he had been locked in a small, narrow, low-vaulted room, where he had no visitors and had never seen the sun. The only other human being Kaspar saw, according to Binder was the “monster who handed him his only nourishment, bread and water.” (from the public proclamation).
Kaspar told that during his confinement in this room, the only things beside him were two toy horses and a toy dog. He claimed that sometimes the water would taste bitter and would cause him to sleep, upon wakening from which he would find his hair and nails cut and his straw changed. He further claimed that towards the end of his confinement a strange man who kept his face obscured visited him, taught him to walk, to write his name and to say “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was”, although he said he did not understand what the words meant.
Doubts were officially cast upon Binder’s findings and the state, sceptical of the claims, withdrew his proclamation. Not until a number of copies were out however, and rumours of just whom the mysterious boy from nowhere may be were soon rife among German and further European society. The favourite theory was that Kaspar Hauser was in fact the son of Grand Duke Karl of Baden, and Princess Stephanie de Beauharnais; thereby making him the adoptive grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte. Royal conspiracies are nothing new but were alive and well in the early 19th century.
The official investigation of Kaspar Hauser fell to Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, President of the Bavarian Court of Appeals and the most prominent lawyer of his time. Only days before the public proclamation, Feuerbach had in fact travelled to Nuremberg to interview Kaspar Hauser, and found him “enjoy(ing) from morning until night hardly less clientele than the kangaroo or tame hyena in Mr Von Aken’s celebrated menagerie.” Kaspar’s small room was now full of gifts the public has bestowed upon him, and Feuerbach and his party found him “anything but shy or timid”, stating that the boy was transfixed by the bright clothes the party were wearing and actually approached them very quickly and with obvious joy.
Feuerbach noted that Kaspar was prone to spasms, convulsions and brief periods of catalepsy, but also observed that he could now express himself in “badly tousled and jumbled syntax”. And although he had to guess most of what the boy was saying, Feuerbach stated “The curiosity, the thirst for knowledge… …were beyond all imagining and deeply moving to watch.”
Wishing to receive further observations, and apparently concerned about Kaspar Hauser’s health, Feuerbach placed him with teacher and poet Friedrich Daumer. Daumer’s mission was to tutor Kaspar, as well as record observations and report back to Feuerbach on a regular basis. Why Feuerbach should have chosen Friedrich Daumer is best known to himself, but far from putting the boy under professional medical and / or scientific care, he was instead placed in the care of a man of ill health and who belived in mesmerism, pneumonology and homeopathy.
Daumer claimed that Kaspar’s childhood to teen confinement had caused in the boy an “inner state” of a magnetic force which had heightened his abilities. He noted that all of Hauser’s senses were extremely acute. He could see better at twilight and could make out house numbers at 200 yard which he could not read in broad daylight. HIs other senses were no less acute, and Kaspar was apparently sensitive to thunderstorms, church bells and even spiders.
Having progressed Kaspar Hauser in the basics of education, Daumer felt that the tuition was having a detrimental effect on the boy’s health, leading to severe headaches and nervous tics. He therefore lessened the tutelage and allowed Kaspar to spend more time outside. At the same time, along with Doctor Preu’s successor, Doctor Osterhausen, he began to administer homeopathic ‘cures’ which had diverse responses. Diluted sulphur caused face blisters, while diluted silica caused vomiting. Most treatments were, not surprisingly, disastrous but nux vornica appeared to alleviate his symptoms.
In an attempt to discover his past, Kaspar Hauser was encouraged to keep a journal of his everyday thoughts and memories, and in these he was able to describe the room he was kept in and his treatment at the mysterious man who brought him food, and taught him to write his name. Believing that memories may surface in dreams, Daumer persuaded him to write a ‘dream diary’. The keeping of this and the daytime journal was to expose unforseen unfortunate circumstances. The first dream Kaspar recorded was that the Mayor’s wife, Frau Binder, had come to the side of his bed and asked how his headache was. However, he told Daumer, believing it to have happened, that Frau Binder had come to him in the night and taken his headache away, and nothing the teacher said could convince Kaspar otherwise. This was a serious setback for Daumer and Feuerbach. For if as Daumer observed, Kaspar Hauser took a while “to understand the true nature of dreams” and differentiate them from reality, then the same could be equally said of his memories of his supposed past incarceration.
Slowly, the bolts in Kaspar Hauser’s story were beginning to come loose. Far from being the genius Feuerbach and Daumer expected, Kaspar was showing every sign of being a dullard. In his History of a Crime Against a Human Soul, Feuerbach wrote “In his intelligence there stirs nothing at all of genius, not even any particular outstanding talent. What he learns he owes to persistent, tenacious diligence. As for the zeal of burning enthusiasm with which, in the beginning, he seemed to wish to storm the gates of all knowledge, that has long been muted, almost extinguished. In everything he undertakes, he gets no further than the beginning or remains only mediocre. Without a glimmer of fantasy, unable to make any kind of joke, or to understand even a metaphorical way of speaking, he has a dry but completely healthy common sense.”
Neither was it lost on Feuerbach that where Kaspar Hauser excelled it was only in himself and his personal circumstances and experiences. He noted “his judgement and sharp intellect are so right that he could shame and embarrass many a pedant.”, which is exactly Kaspar Hauser was to do, for a little while at least, a little later.
Daumer, the quack to the end, blamed Kaspar Hauser’s dullness on a meat diet, ironically which he had introduced the boy to. Feuerbach for his part tried to blame it on tutors trying to instill a classical education in Kaspar. It is not lost on me, nor I suppose the reader, that even at this point Daumer and Feuerbach were still trying to find reasons for Kaspar Hauser’s apparent dullness – embarrassing many a pedant indeed. But whatever the reason’s for Kaspar’s slow mind and narcissism, it was clear by this time that the two men had tired of both the boy and their “experiments”. Events however were about to overtake them and present them with the opportunity to pass Kaspar Hauser to yet another ‘expert’.
On 17 October 1829 Kaspar was found in Daumer’s basement with a deep wound to his forehead. Upon being revived, he told a tale of a tall man, dressed in black and with a black mask covering half his face, jumped out of the shadows and attacked him with a knife. There were those who suspected that the wound may have been self-inflicted. However, Daumer, Feuerbach and associates took it seriously, and the boy had a round the clock police guard. Friedrich Daumer saw his opportunity and grabbed it. Claiming that his failing health and frailty made him unable to guarantee Kaspar’s safety, the boy was taken under police guard to the home of one Johann Biberbach.
Kaspar Hauser stayed there only six months, during which there were quarrels with Herr and Frau Biberbach, at the end of which Kaspar had another brush with death. on 3 April 1830 a shot was heard in Kaspar’s room. When his escort rushed in, he found the boy bleeding from a head wound and a pistol lying nearby. Kaspar’s story was that he was reaching for some books, when he slipped on the chair he was standing on, made a grab to prevent falling, and accidentally set off the wall-mounted pistol. Many this time, not least Frau Biberbach, were convinced this was an attempt at suicide. He was moved to the home of Baron Tucher, who had been in touch with Kaspar since his early days in Nuremberg.
Baron Tucher appears to be the only person who took any real interest in Kaspar Hauser of recognise any human value in him. Tucher stated that while Kasper was around 18-20 years old, he had the “intellectual capacity of a boy of 13 to 14”. He also found the boy to be kind-hearted. Tucher was certainly the only one to instill any self-reliance in Kaspar, continuing his education and managing to find him gainful employment as a copyist in a legal office. Unfortunately another pedant was about to undo all the good Baron Tucher was instilling in Kaspar, and it was to have tragic consequences.
English peer Phillip Henry, Fourth Earl of Stanhope, had become obsessed with the story of Kaspar Hauser, and without even meeting the boy, had already convinced himself that Kaspar was indeed of noble birth and the lost Duke of Baden. Travelling to Nuremberg, Stanhope met Kaspar and, behaving extremely kindly to and ingratiated himself to the boy and promising to take him back home to his estate in England. Stanhope either bribed or equally ingratiated himself to the Bavarian authorities, because astonishingly he was suddenly granted full custody of Kaspar Hauser and took him under his wing. What happened next was unclear however. Either Lord Stanhope has seen through Kaspar, read Feuerbach’s reports, or simply lost interest. Whichever, in December 1831 Kaspar Hauser found himself moved yet again, this time into the charge of Johann Georg Meyer in Ansbach. Stanhope abandoned to Meyer’s care completely in February 1832.
Meyer was a strict and pedantic teacher, some have even gone so far as to call him a bully, with whom relations with Kaspar Hauser were apparently strained, with the teacher losing patience with his apparent lies and excuses. Kaspar had never been told that Lord Stanhope had abandoned the case altogether and the trusting boy still spoke of hope upon hope of the English nobleman coming to take him away to England. Although Feuerbach had long since stopped believing in the boy, he still visited him. Then in May 1833 Feuerbach died suddenly, which was a deep and grievous loss for Kaspar. Moreover Kaspar Hauser was now friendless, as well as in the sole charge of Meyer, with whom his relationship soured further daily.
On Saturday 14 December, 1833, Kaspar Hauser attended religious lessons in the morning, then he helped the church parson building a large cardboard box, which he showed some enthusiasm for. He lunched with Doktor Meyer at 12:30pm and returned to the parson’s house at 12:45pm. He only left at 2:30pm when the parson had to attend the church. As he walked with the parson, he cheerfully told him he would now call upon Miss Lillia von Stichaner, whom he had met at one of Feuerbach’s dinner parties, to help build a fire screen for her, as he had previously promised to do. They parted with Kaspar Hauser heading in the direction of the von Stichaner home.
In later reports people stated they saw the well-known Kaspar Hauser heading towards the Hofgarten Park, in the opposite direction to the von Stichaner residence. Shortly afterwards others saw him in the Hofgarten Park. A workman, Joseph Leich, saw Kaspar there in the company of a man unfamiliar in the area. He said he remembered it clearly as Kaspar was wearing no overcoat in bitterly cold weather. The stranger was described as 6 foot tall, mid-40s, with a dark beard and moustache, wearing a blue coat and a round, black hat. Seven other witnesses later confirmed seeing a stranger of that description in the Hofgarten or around the city square.
These reports were eyewitness testimony given to the police following the final twist in the enigma of Kaspar Hauser’s short and tragic life. For at 3:30pm on the same afternoon, the bell rang at Doktor Meyer’s home, and when the door was opened, Kaspar Hauser burst in, grimacing and pointing to his chest, then attempted to pull Meyer towards the Hofgarten. When Meyer saw that Kaspar was bleeding, he asked him if anything had happened to him in the park, Kaspar blurted out “Went to Hofgarten. Man had knife. Gave me purse. Stabbed. Ran as fast as I could. Purse still there.” Meyer, as caring as ever, demanded to know what he was doing in the Hofgarten in the first place. Kaspar replied “Man came to chancery this morning. Message I should be in Hofgarten at 2:30pm for something to be shown to me.” He then collapsed and it was only at this point Doktor Meyer dragged Kaspar Hauser home and laid him on a couch.
Doktor Meyer was convinced the wound, which he did not think serious, was self-inflicted to gain pity and attention, and bluntly told Kaspar Hauser so. He threatened the boy with a birching for more than an hour as he lay bleeding and in pain on the couch, but Kaspar would not change his story one iota. A Doktor Heidenrich was called for to examine Kaspar, and equally convinced it was not a serious wound, thrust an ungloved and unwashed finger into it – only to widen the wound and find that it went so deep that his finger touched the boy’s still beating heart. Now convinced the boy’s life was in danger, Dr Heidenrich told Dr Meyer so, and it was only at this point that the latter ran off to report the stabbing to the police.
Police Constable Herrlein searched the Court Garden, and found a small violet purse, inside of which a pencilled note was found written in Spiegelschrift; mirror writing. When deciphered the note read;
“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 _ _ .
I come from from _ _ _
the Bavarian border _ _
On the river _ _ _ _ _
I will even
tell you the name: M. L. Ö.”
As the police conducted their enquiries, set about deciphering the note and taking eyewitness statements, Kaspar’s condition steadily deteriorated. On 17 December 1833 Kaspar Hauser died, in a final ironic twist not of the wound to his chest, but as the post-mortem found, of bacterial pleuritis and pericarditis; infections caused by the bungling Doktor Heidenrich thrusting his unguarded finger into the wound.
Kaspar Hauser was buried in Stadtfriedhof in Ansbach. The inscription on his headstone is in Latin, but the English translation reads, “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious. 1833.” A memorial to him was later placed in the Hofgarten Court Garden, which reads “Hic occultus occulto occisus est” (“Here a mysterious one was killed in a mysterious manner.”).
Upon the death of Kaspar Hauser being made public, Lord Stanhope and Doktor Meyer went to lengths to denounce him as a cheat and an impostor, who had ended his own life by suicide. Stanhope in particular could not have gone further to distance himself from the strange case of Kaspar Hauser, even going to the lengths of publishing tracts in which he roundly denounced the boy as a fraud.
Ever since his death, there have been a number of theories about Kaspar Hauser, who he was, where he came from, and the mysterious matter of the attacks upon him and his mysterious death. No-one is nearer to a full explanation today than they were in 1833. In the second part however, I shall address these and put my own theories forward concerning the mysterious Boy from Nowhere.
Link to Part 2: