Monday, 19 November 2012

The Fabulous Fable of the Estranged Enigma

          A mystery man of a different sort lies at the heart of the story of Kaspar Hauser, a strange boy of about sixteen years of age who appeared in Nuremberg, Germany on the afternoon of May 26th 1828. He was stoutly built, if a little short, dressed like a peasant and dusty, as if he had travelled a good distance, well fed and seemingly healthy, but seemingly confused. He approached two men standing in the Unschlittsplatz with a letter addressed to the Captain of the 4th Squadron of the Schmolischer Regiment, Neue Thor Strasse (New Bridge Street), and one of the men, a shoemaker called Weichmann, offered to show him the way. 

Kaspar Hauser

The Captain was not at home, so his servant let the boy in to wait, but when he was offered meat and beer he refused to eat them and only took black bread and water. When the Captain returned, he opened the letter and read that an unnamed peasant had taken the boy in on October 7th 1812, and although he had taught him to read and write, he had kept the boy so confined that he had no idea where he lived. The boy had said he wanted to be a soldier, ‘like his father’, and so he had been taken to Neumarkt, in the night so that he might not find his way back, and from there he had made his own way to Nuremberg. He had no money with him and the writer asked the Captain to either take him in, or ‘knock him on the head, or hang him’. 

A second letter, written in the same hand, was supposedly from the boy’s mother, who wrote that his name was Kaspar, born on April 30th 1812, and he was baptised, his father had served in the 6th Regiment but was dead. His mother was a poor girl and could not keep him. Herr von Wessenig, the Captain, was not impressed and sent the boy to a cell in the Vestner Thurm, a prison tower where rogues and vagabonds were kept. Here the boy acted like a child, crying and sobbing, playing with a toy horse and a coin, and seemed to all that he was simple minded. 

Kaspar Hauser

Hintel, the gaoler, took him under his wing, gave him toys and trinkets, let him play with his own children and invited him to the family table. Word of the strange arrival began to spread and the mayor, Herr Binder, began to visit Kaspar and gained his confidence. Slowly, he began to tell his story. He had been kept, he said, in a single, small room, about 2 metres by 1 metre and about 1 ½ metres high, where he slept on a straw mattress. When he awoke, he would find bread and water in the cell, and periodically the water would taste bitter and he would fall asleep after drinking it; when he woke up, the straw bed would have been changed and he found his hair and fingernails had been cut. One day, a man, dressed in black, opened the door, took him out and taught him to speak, his alphabet, how to read and write and how to walk. He never saw the man’s face. One night, this man had carried him away on his back, to another place, had given him two letters and told him which way to go, and then gone away again. Kaspar had followed the man’s instructions and had thus come to the town where he was now. 

A Feuerbach - Caspar Hauser - 1832 (Written whilst he was still alive)

Binder the Burgomaster told the tale to Kaspar Hauser to the rest of Germany, and his spread beyond, to the rest of Europe. Many people questioned this story, pointing out that the boy was hale and hearty, and although childish, he was seemingly well adjusted for one who had spent sixteen years in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, distinguished visitors began to arrive, presents and gifts were showered on the ‘Child of Europe’, and he moved from his cell to the home of Professor Daumer. He took no delight in anything but horses, which he rode quite well if a little clumsily, and became vain and pampered, with a bad temper and ungrateful manner. 

Rumours began to circulate that he was the hereditary Prince of Baden, stolen away and replaced by a dying baby, and the only male heir of Grand Duke Charles and Stephanie de Beauharnais, adopted daughter and cousin by marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte. The romance of the hidden aristocrat, raised in secret by peasants, appealed to many people, and his fame spread even wider. Lord Stanhope, the eccentric English nobleman, travelled to Nuremberg and became acquainted with Hauser, becoming his patron and eventually his foster father, endowing him with an allowance and spending not inconsiderable sums in attempting to discover his history. 

Duchess of Cleveland (Stanhope's daughter) - The True Story of Kaspar Hauser - 1893

On October 17th 1829, Hauser was found in Daumer’s cellar, covered in blood and with a cut to his forehead. The ‘Black Man’ who had looked after him had come, he said, had tried to stab him and had said, “You shall die before you go away from Nuremberg.” No one else had seen this man come or go, but afterwards two policemen accompanied Hauser on all his walks and he was transferred into the care of Johann Biberbach, who quickly began to regret this move. Hauser had developed into an inveterate liar, his untruthfulness increasing by the day, and his repeated pretended penitence merely added to the situation. At times, Hauser became violent when confronted with his lies and he frequently shouted defiance at Frau Biberbach. 

On one occasion, Herr Biberbach told Hauser that as a punishment for his lies, he would not be allowed to go and dine with the mayor and was to go instead to his room and remain there. Within minutes, the policemen assigned to guard Hauser heard a gunshot and rushed into the drawing room, where they found the unconscious Hauser lying on the floor with a wound to his temple. It was thought that he had attempted suicide, but when he recovered consciousness Hauser said that he had been climbing on a chair to reach a book on a high shelf when he slipped and grabbed a pistol that had been hanging on the wall. It had accidentally discharged and the ball had glanced off his head. By now it was clear to all that Hauser was lying again, and was harming himself whenever he got into trouble, either to deflect blame or to gain attention. 

Kaspar Hauser

Lord Stanhope made arrangement for Hauser to transfer to Ansbach, into the care of a schoolmaster called Meyer, who also became infuriated at Hauser’s lies, deceptions and duplicity. Word reached Stanhope, who began to realise that he had been deceived and his plans to move Hauser to England were quietly shelved. In 1832, it was decided that Hauser would become a copyist in a legal office, which came as something of a surprise to him, as he still expected to be taken to England and live the life of a gentleman. He wrote to Stanhope, decrying his situation, and things went from bad to worse as the relationship unravelled between Meyer and Hauser. On December 9th 1833, Meyer confronted Hauser and threatened to expose the extent of his ingratitude to Stanhope,
He already, as you well know, mistrusts you. Consider the predicament you place me in! Even here in the town you are discredited. People have found you out, and there are few indeed that still see in you the former upright, amiable, good-natured Kaspar Hauser. How must it all end if you go on like this?”
Kaspar listened, withdrew into himself, and refused Meyer’s hand when it was offered. On December 14th, he staggered into Meyer’s home, panting and gesturing, and dragged Meyer out into the street. He pulled him to the public gardens and gasped,
Went - Hofgarten – man - had knife – gave bag - stabbed - ran as hard as could – bag still lying there.”
Meyer got the wounded Hauser back to his house and got him to bed, calling doctors and the police, and a policeman was sent to the Hofgarten, where he found a silk bag. Inside, written in pencil and in mirror writing, was a note that read,
To be delivered.
Hauser will be able to tell you exactly how I look, and whence I come.
To save Hauser the trouble I will myself tell you where I come from.
I come from from . . .
The Bavarian frontier . . .
On the river . . .
I will even give my name as well.
M. L. OE.”

The Mirror-written Note

There was a small, slanting cut to Hauser’s left breast, which the doctor’s thought to be trifling, but he did not give statements to the police until the mornings of the 16th and 17th, when he told how a workman had come to his office and had told him to go to the fountain in the garden at three-thirty. When he had arrived, a tall, dark man had stepped forward and hand him a bag, saying, “I give you this,” before stabbing him in the chest. Hauser said he had passed out, and then struggled back to Meyer’s house. Later in the evening of the 17th, the Police Commissioners were recalled as Hauser had taken a turn for the worse, and at ten o’clock he died. 

A post mortem revealed that the doctors had been wrong to dismiss the wound as trivial, it had, in fact, pierced both the lung and the heart. A policeman had been sent back to the Hofgarten after the bag had been found, but there were no footprints in the snow near the fountain, and only one set elsewhere in the gardens. The knife was not found (although many years later, a stiletto was dug up in the garden), and in the closely-knit community of Ansbach there were no witnesses to any tall, dark strangers. It was generally thought at the time, as it is now, that Hauser had tried another of his attention-seeking, self-inflicted ‘injuries’ but had gone too far and fatally wounded himself.

The Tombstone of Kaspar Hauser

The legend of Kaspar Hauser has grown and become embellished in the intervening years and he has been used, amongst other things, as a symbol for the rustic innocent thrust into an urban environment, who fails to assimilate into it. Some of the more outlandish theories have the boy appearing from a parallel world, materialising from another terrestrial location, or being the manifestation of some sort of anthropomorphised nature spirit. Other more rational suppositions place him as the illegitimate child of a cavalryman, raised on an isolated, rural farm, maybe by grandparents keen to cover the mother’s ‘shameful’ secret, who firstly responds to attention from strangers by pretending to be more ‘innocent’ than he really is, and then becoming overwhelmed by more sophisticated interest and becoming spoiled by it. We are more familiar today with the self-harming behaviour of teenagers, either as attention-seeking or through psychological problems. The romantic tale of the foundling Baden princeling was shown to be misplaced by DNA testing in the 1990s, and later comparisons made in 2006 failed to provide conclusive proof in either direction. As with all good mysteries, it looks like we will never know the truth.

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