The Enduring 200-Year-Old Mystery Of Kaspar Hauser

Published April 6, 2018
Updated March 22, 2019

The tale of Kaspar Hauser seems straight from a Dickens novel.

Kaspar Hauser Depiction

Wikimedia CommonsAn 1828 depiction of Kaspar Hauser when he made his first mysterious appearance.

No one paid much attention to Kaspar Hauser when he strolled into Nuremberg one morning in 1828. The young boy of about 16 was wearing pantaloons, a silk necktie, a waistcoat, a gray jacket, and a handkerchief with the initials “KH” embroidered onto it. His boots were so torn up that his feet were bursting through them and mangled from the road.

When police finally approached the apparent vagabond, they found that he could only speak a few words and was clutching a letter addressed to a cavalry captain. The missive claimed that its author had no blood relation to Hauser even though the author had raised him as a son. It also noted that since 1812, Hauser had not gone “a step from the house, in order that nobody might know where he was brought up.”

The mysterious note went on to claim that the boy could read, write, and wanted to become “a horseman like his father.” Although he did not have parents, said the letter, if he did “he would have been a learned man.” It ended ominously with the author stating that “it would cost me my neck” had he escorted Hauser to Nuremberg himself.

Kaspar Hauser

Wikimedia CommonsA pencil drawing done by Kaspar Hauser himself.

Police took the boy into custody, where observers reported that although he behaved as if he were a child (indeed, he walked as though he were a toddler just learning how), he was clearly not “a madman or an idiot.” He did not speak unless it was to parrot words and phrases. He had a very small vocabulary that consisted mainly of words referring to horses. Oddly, although his feet had been damaged from his journey they were “as soft as the palm of a hand,” as though he had never work shoes before he had traveled to Nuremberg.

Hauser was repulsed by all food and drink except for bread and water. When he was brought a lighted candle he stared at in amazement and tried to grab it, only to burn his hand. He was equally fascinated by his own reflection in a mirror, which he also tried to grab in vain.

Hauser was eventually made a ward of the city and went into the custody of Lord Stanhope, a British nobleman. As the “forest boy” learned to communicate effectively, he began to weave a strange tale about being brought up in a prison. He claimed to have never seen the face of the man who brought him to the outskirts of Nuremberg, saying that he had been forced to look at the ground the whole journey before being handed the letter and left alone.

Kaspar Hauser Monument

Wikmedia CommonsMemorial to Hauser that stands in Nuremberg, where he first appeared.

Hauser also described a detailed dream in which he found himself in an enormous castle in the company of an elaborately-dressed woman and a man all in black with a sword. Professor Daumer (who had been treating and observing Hauser) theorized this could have been a faint memory of his early life before the prison.

This strange tale that seems torn from a Dickens novel enthralled all of Europe; there were rumors he was a lost prince, perhaps the son of Grand Duke Carl von Baden and his wife Stephanie de Beauharnais (who had been adopted by Napoleon). Many people, however, though he was just an impostor seeking fame and fortune.

Another strange incident further fueled the rumors: in 1829 Hauser was found in Daumer’s basement bleeding profusely from a wound in his head. He claimed that he had recognized the voice of his attacker – the same man who had brought him to Nuremberg.

Murder Of Kaspar Hauser

Wikimedia Commons20th century depiction of Hauser’s murder.

Kaspar Hauser’s mysterious life concluded in an equally enigmatic manner.

One night in 1833, he burst through the door of his home in Ansbach clutching his side and babbling about how he had lured to the park by a stranger who then stabbed him in the side. His story was doubted at first, but when Hauser attempted to lead his friends back to the spot of the stabbing, he collapsed midway on the journey. He died of his wound.

The mystery of his life did not end with his death. DNA tests in 1998 using a sample from his bloodstained shirt and blood samples from two of de Beauharnais’s living descendants have shown he was not, in fact, a prince of Baden. And so true identity of Kaspar Hauser remains a mystery.

After learning about the mystery of Kaspar Hauser, read about Christine Collins, whose son went missing and was replaced by an imposter. Then, learn about the strange life and even stranger death of Edgar Allan Poe.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.