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Did you know you DNA analyses put to rest the rumours of Kaspar Hauser’s royal parentage?

The mysterious case of an attention-seeking pathological liar

A mysterious teenager shows up one day claiming to have spent his life in isolation. Five years later, he dies from an apparent assassination. His age matches to that of the young Prince of Baden, who was said to have died as an infant, but many speculated he was actually swapped at birth. Would you suspect that this mysterious teenager was actually the prince? Or was he just a pathological liar? DNA tests finally solve the mystery.

In 1828, Kaspar Hauser appeared as a teenager on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He carried an anonymous letter that said he was given over to his ‘captor’ as an infant with instructions to teach him reading, writing and religion, but not allow him to “take a single step out of [the] house”. The letter was addressed to Captain von Wessenig in the cavalry regiment, and requested the captain to either turn the boy into a cavalry man as his father was or to hang him.

Hauser could write his name, say a few prayers and read a little, but his vocabulary was rather limited. When brought to Captain von Wessenig, he simply kept repeating two phrases in an old Bavarian dialect; “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” and “Horse! Horse!”. Since he couldn’t identify himself, Hauser was initially imprisoned as a vagabond at Nuremberg Castle. He claimed to have spent most of his life alone in a small dark dungeon, fed just bread and water by a masked man who was his only human contact.

His tale generated much excitement, which gained Hauser international attention and frequent visits from curious callers. Around the same time, rumors arose that he may be the son of Grand Duke Carl von Baden and Stephanie de Beauharnais. Their eldest son had died shortly after birth, but there was always speculation that their true son had been exchanged for a sick child in an attempt to change the succession to another branch of the family. If the young prince had really survived, he would have been around the same age as the mysterious Hauser.

Over the next five years, Hauser was taken care of by various different people. In each home, the relationship between Hauser and his caregiver would start well, but quickly sour with Hauser’s excessive lies and vanity. Then there was the series of alleged attacks that somehow always coincided with a disagreement between Hauser and his caregivers for lying. The first “attack” took place in 1829, when Hauser was discovered with a cut on his forehead in the cellar. In Hauser’s version of the incident, he was attacked by the hooded man from the dungeon, but many speculated that the wound was self inflicted.

The final fatal “attack” happened in December 1833, when Hauser returned home with a deep stab wound in his chest. He claimed to have been lured by a stranger to the Ansbach Court Garden, where he was stabbed and given a bag. Police found this bag and an incomplete note apparently from his attacker indicating where he may be found. Hauser’s history of lying lead investigators to examine the note and they determined that it was likely written by Hauser himself, as it contained a spelling error, a grammar error, and was folded in a specific triangular form, all typical of Hauser. The investigators also believed that Hauser may have stabbed himself, in a bid to revive public interest in his story, but inadvertently stabbed himself too deeply. Hauser died three days later on 17th December 1833.

Despite the investigative findings and the inconsistencies in Hauser’s stories, many claimed that his “assassination” supported the belief that he really was the Prince of Baden. At the time, there was no way to prove or disprove this rumor, but in 1998, DNA analyses provided that opportunity.

DNA analyses require authentic material from the study subjects, ideally from human remains. However, it was unknown whether Hauser’s gravestone was still above the correct grave, due to disturbances during the war. Instead, the researchers elected to use a section of fabric from the blood soaked underpants that Hauser was wearing during his alleged assassination. This clothing had originally been seized by the court after the stabbing and was later given to the Historical Society of Ansbach.

Simplified lineage of Stephanie de Beauharnais
Simplified lineage of Stephanie de Beauharnais showing the proposed relationship between the two reference samples (great-great-great granddaughters) and Kaspar Hauser. (Figure from Weichhold GM et al. (1998) Int J Legal Med.)

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was chosen for the analyses, as there are multiple copies of the mtDNA genome per cell, increasing the likelihood of obtaining quality DNA from degraded samples. MtDNA is inherited in a strict maternal pattern (mother to child), so it is useful for tracing maternal lineages, even when the subject and available references are several generations apart. In this case, researchers acquired two reference samples from living maternal descendants of Stephanie de Beauharnais – the putative mother of Hauser if he was indeed the Prince of Baden. These two descendants will share the same mtDNA profile as Stephanie de Beauharnais and any of her children.

Two independent laboratories generated identical mtDNA profiles from the bloodstained fabric of Hauser. In both cases this mtDNA profile differed significantly from the profile of the two references, confirming that Hauser didn’t belong to the House of Baden. We still do not know that true identity of Hauser, but it is now believed that Hauser was just a pathological liar with a hysterical and attention-seeking personality.

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The DNA tests conducted in this study have defined the mtDNA profiles of Kaspar Hauser and Stephanie de Beauharnais. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your mtDNA against these individuals to see if you may have descended from the same maternal lineage as either a pathological swindler (Hauser) or German nobility (de Beauharnais).

Reference:

Weichhold GM et al. (1998) DNA analysis in the case of Kaspar Hauser. Int J Legal Med. 111(6):287-91.

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