The eternal enigma

There are some mysteries we may never solve: the real identity of Jack the Ripper, what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste, who actually finds Russell Brand funny.

One of the most enduring enigmas of the last 200 years is that surrounding Kaspar Hauser, who died on this day in 1833. His death was as puzzling as his origins, the theories which rushed to fill the gaps as outlandish as the gothic novels then in vogue.

The bare facts are as follows: on May 26, 1828, a teenage boy appeared on the streets of Nuremberg with two notes, both apparently written by the same person, one purporting to be from a carer addressed to a local army captain, the other supposedly from the boy’s mother. From the scraps of information in each and what could be gleaned from the clearly disturbed boy himself, a strange, horrible tale emerged. Hauser had evidently been confined to a 2 metre square room for much of his life, never catching sight of the person or persons who held him captive, a toy horse his only comfort.

The foundling became a sensation; there were rumours that he was a prince from Baden or that he was abandoned by a rich Hungarian family or that he had been a feral child, running wild in the forest. Hauser attracted attention as far away as Britain, where Lord Stanhope (brother of the extraordinary adventuress Lady Hester Stanhope) offered to adopt him, though some suggested his motives were less than wholesome.

While living with a succession of carers, Hauser suffered three unexplained wounds, the last one fatal.  In the first, he was found in his carer’s cellar, bleeding, claiming that a hooded assailant had stabbed him. Six months later he was apparently “shot” in the face; Hauser swore that he had accidentally discharged a gun, though the wound was inconsistent with such a scenario. In December 1833 he was again knifed by a stranger – or so he alleged. In any case the injury was real enough and he died a few days later.

Hauser’s tale was strange enough if you believed his side of it; it was even stranger if you suspected, as those closest to him came to do, that he had invented much of it, and had in fact attacked himself in each of those three incidents. What were his motives for lying? Why, despite all the publicity surrounding him, could no-one discover his origins? What was he so scared of that he was prepared to injure or even kill himself to avoid it?

Of the dozens of books, plays, poems and films which have grappled with the riddle of Hauser’s short life and violent death, the most compelling is Werner Herzog’s 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (originally titled Jeder für sich und Gott gegen Alle, or “Every man for himself and God against all”).

Bruno S. as Kaspar Hauser

Its star, Bruno Schleinstein (credited as Bruno S.) was no less enigmatic than Hauser himself. The illegitimate son of a prostitute, Schleinstein was institutionalised for much of his childhood, taking solace in music which he would continue to pursue all his life, even when he was obliged to take menial day jobs.

Herzog had seen Schleinstein in a documentary about street musicians and cast him, overlooking his lack of acting experience and the fact that his teenage years were clearly far behind him (he was actually 41 at time of filming).

After appearing in Herzog’s Stroszek in 1977 Schleinstein effectively disappeared, though he continued to perform and in recent years has become a painter. Being self-taught, and having a long history of mental illness and institutionalisation means that Schleinstein is perhaps inevitably regarded as an Outsider artist.

A documentary by Miron Zownir picked up the story in 2003, while a  New York Times article found him a year ago, still living in Berlin and still performing. One of his songs is Mamatschi, in which a child longs for a toy horse much like the one Kaspar Hauser claimed was his sole companion.

Here he is performing in April this year:


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