One hundred and eighty-six years ago today, on May 26, 1828, a strange teenage boy with a disheveled appearance appeared in the town square of Nuremberg, Germany. He could speak only with difficulty, repeating two things–“I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” and the word “horse”–over and over again. He had with him a letter addressed to a local military commander, purportedly from the boy’s father who claimed he had kept him locked in a room near the Bavarian border, and suggesting that the commander either take the boy into the army or hang him. Another letter he carried identified him as Kaspar Hauser and said he was the son of a cavalryman, born April 30, 1812. With nowhere to go, a local officer took him in.

It quickly became clear that there was something very unusual about 16-year-old Kaspar Hauser. His language was very limited and he may have been developmentally disabled, but his senses were extraordinarily acute; for example he could sense magnetic fields when magnets were placed near his body. He told a story of living his entire life in a darkened cellar room, being fed anonymously and occasionally knocked out with drugs in his water for the cutting of his hair and fingernails. He was given a wooden horse as a toy and after another was given to him in Nuremberg he pretended to feed it regularly. To many observers Kaspar seemed like a feral child, raised in isolation with limited human contact, yet something didn’t ring true about his story.

As news of Kaspar spread throughout the German countryside, so did rumors about who he was. The most common one was that he was a prince of the House of Baden, who was switched shortly after birth with a dying baby whose death meant the succession went to someone else–Kaspar being sequestered to avoid anyone knowing of his existence and royal birthright. This didn’t make much sense, though, since most of the royal family would have to be in on it, and what would they have to gain? Furthermore, the letters Kaspar presented were suspicious. Supposedly written by two different people, handwriting experts concluded they were in fact written by the same person–most likely Kaspar Hauser. Whoever he was, he was not being forthcoming with all the facts.

kaspar hauser statue

This statue of Kaspar Hauser stands today in Ansbach, the last place he lived and the place where his mysterious death occurred.

Kaspar himself was maladjusted and didn’t fit in with the various families among whom he shuttled in the late 1820s and early 1830s. He also seemed to thrive on publicity and went to great lengths to obtain it. In early 1829, after news of his case had faded, Kaspar staggered out of an outhouse bleeding from the head, insisting that a man had attacked him while he was on the toilet and he felt sure it was the same man who abandoned him outside of Nuremberg the previous year. Most witnesses concluded Kaspar wounded himself and made up the story. In 1830 he tried again, shooting himself (non-seriously) in the head, though this time he didn’t claim it was an attack. The foster parents who took Kaspar found him extremely difficult to live with: he turned out to be a vain, demanding, untrustworthy young man who told outrageous lies. After being taken in–and rejected, like the others–by a British nobleman, Kaspar eventually came to live in Ansbach with a schoolteacher.

In December 1833, Kaspar appeared at his house, bleeding from a stab wound. He again claimed someone had tried to kill him and produced as proof a strange letter written backwards, in “mirror script.” This time he stabbed himself too deeply and was seriously wounded. He died on December 17, 1833, age about 21 though no one could be sure. Those who studied the letter again concluded Kaspar himself had written it, using a mirror to disguise his handwriting. His final bid for attention cost him his life.

But who was Kaspar Hauser, and where did he come from? Many people have tried since 1833 to answer that question. It does seem likely that he was not a secret prince of the House of Baden. Some hair clippings and other physical evidence of Kaspar have survived, and in 1996, and again in 2002, DNA analyses were done with genetic material from that family. The 1996 analysis ruled out that Kaspar was related to them, but there was some question as to the authenticity of the sample from Kaspar; the 2002 test was inconclusive. Given the silliness of the House of Baden theory in the first place, it’s not likely that Kaspar was of royal blood. His curious sensory capabilities do support the theory that he lived a large part of his early life in darkness and seclusion. But who kept him prisoner and why may never be known.

The mystery of Kaspar Hauser, odd as it is, continues to exert a fascination down to the modern day. German director Werner Herzog made a famous film about him in 1974 and Kaspar’s story regularly appears in books about unsolved mysteries. Though not a true “wild child” in the sense of living in the forest, his grim story is a reminder of how most of what human beings are is socially-instilled, and when deprived of contact with their fellow humans, the tragic results often make for uncommonly short and sad lives, as Kaspar’s was.