In May 1828, the Bavarian city of Nuremberg was gripped by the sudden appearance of a young man named Kaspar Hauser. Clutching two letters of introduction, his arrival revealed a story of isolation and deprivation. The letters portrayed Kaspar as an orphan who had spent his childhood confined in solitude, only to be released into society as a teenager. However, recent research challenges the authenticity of the Kaspar Hauser legend, casting doubt on its credibility due to research into the policies of the era as related to smallpox vaccinations.
Picture of Kaspar Hauser and his appearance in Nuremberg in 1828 by Johann Georg Laminit. ( Public domain )
Why the Kaspar Hauser Legend Doesn’t Hold Up
In a study recently published in the journal Clinics in Dermatology , a team of experts—led by researcher Michael E. Habicht from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia—laid out their arguments for why the generally accepted legend of Kaspar Hauser’s life should be considered fiction.
Many details of the life of the adolescent—who became known as the “Child of Europe”—are disputed. But one thing that is known for sure is that Kaspar carried a pair of scars on his arm that showed he’d received the cowpox vaccine.
In the early 19th century, this shot was already being given as protection against the deadly scourge of smallpox. The widely-feared disease had caused a significant loss of life in the Germanic world in the late 18th century, including in Bavaria. As a result the Kingdom of Bavaria issued a decree in 1807 making inoculation against smallpox mandatory.
It is the existence of such a decree, plus Kaspar Hauser’s vaccination scars, that disprove the idea that he was brought up in total isolation and segregated from all human contact. “The inoculation modality and the laws regulating it at that time in Bavaria corroborate the view that the whole story of the ‘Child of Europe’ is relatively weak,” the study authors wrote.
The reason for why the Kaspar Hauser legend doesn’t hold up, according to the study, lies in the claim that Hauser had been kept as a virtual prisoner by his guardian. This doesn’t line up with the vaccination procedures in Bavaria at the time, since a permanent vaccination room had been set up in the town hall in 1809, under the direct orders and supervision of King Maximillian I. Anyone coming there for a vaccination would have had to have some proof of identity. Any child would also have had to be accompanied by an adult.
Since it is alleged that Hauser was born in 1812, give or take a year, he could have only been inoculated against smallpox if he’d been taken to the vaccination room. On top of this, no physician would have given him his shots if there was anything suspicious about his situation.
To be eligible for a vaccine, the young boy’s proper name would have been registered, and if he had been identified as Kaspar Hauser there would have been a record of his vaccination. The study authors therefore dismissed the possibility that the youth could have been vaccinated in secret, since record-keeping at that time was stringent enough to prevent the possibility.
The 1809 state decree on smallpox vaccination in Bavaria. This was used to debunk the famed Kaspar Hauser legend. (Habicht, M. E. et. al. / Clinics in Dermatology )
From the Binder Decree the Kaspar Hauser Legend Was Born
A story about a supposedly-orphaned youth appearing on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828 wouldn’t have garnered much attention had it not been for the contributions of Nuremberg mayor Jakob Friedrich Binder. But, on July 7, 1828, the mayor issued a decree introducing Kaspar Hauser to the world.
The so-called Binder Decree disclosed everything that was known about young Hauser and his history. It informed the citizens of Nuremberg that the young man had suddenly and mysteriously appeared at the home of a cavalry captain, Friedrich von Wessenig, carrying letters from the mother who had given him up and from the person to whom she’d given the child.
In the guardian’s letter it was explained that the adolescent identified as Kaspar Hauser had been kept in what was essentially a prison, and had been raised without interacting with any other human being besides that individual. The guardian requested that von Wessenig arrange to have the young man trained as a cavalryman, so he could follow in the footsteps of his long-deceased father. The alleged mother’s short letter confirmed the boy’s father had been a cavalryman.
The Binder Decree reported all this, but also added fuel to the fire by speculating that Kaspar’s real parents may actually have been the deceased Grand Duke Karl Ludwig Friedrich von Baden and his wife Stephanie Beauharnais. It was known that the Grand Duke and his spouse had lost a child around the time Kaspar Hauser was born. Binder’s conspiracy theory suggested that this boy hadn’t actually died but had been taken and sent into hiding, to avoid the boy taking over as Grand Duke when his father died.
This the incredible Kaspar Hauser legend became well-known and was widely believed. After the boy died tragically from suicide in 1833, the myth of the young prince who’d been deprived of his birthright grew even bigger. So much so, that it is remembered to this day.
One conspiracy theory linked to the Kaspar Hauser legend claims that he was the son of Stéphanie de Beauharnais, seen in this painting dating back to 1806. ( Public domain )
DNA Research Attempts to Provide Answers in the Kaspar Hauser Cold Case
Interestingly, as a part of this new study the researchers examined the records of DNA tests that have been done on the descendants of Bavarian royalty living today. While no strong genetic link has been established, the researchers note that there was a close resemblance between genetic samples linked to Kaspar Hauser (taken from hair samples found in a hat known to have belonged to the adolescent) and a descendant of the early 19th century Duchess of Baden, Stephanie de Beauharnais (Kaspar’s alleged mother).
The resemblance is not a perfect match and therefore is unable to definitively prove (or disprove) a relationship. But it is close enough to say that Hauser could have come from a royal line, as the Binder Decree suggested. Could the mayor have been in possession of information kept hidden from the general population?
Whatever the truth about the youth’s origins and upbringing, the authors of the new study have effectively debunked the Kaspar Hauser legend. The fact that he was fully vaccinated for smallpox, as mandated by the laws of the time, suggests that he must have been raised under more favorable conditions than those stated in the guardian’s letter.
This naturally begs the question: why would someone invent the story that gave birth to the Kaspar Hauser legend ? Was the fanciful story crafted to protect the identities of those who had been responsible for Kaspar’s upbringing before his release in Nuremberg? Despite attempts to get to the bottom of this ancient cold case, we’ll probably never know the truth.
Top image: Illustration depicting the Kaspar Hauser legend of his incarceration. Source: Public domain
By Nathan Falde