Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/The History of a Delusion

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IN the year of grace 1838, MM. d'Ennery and Anicet Bourgeois presented at the Théâtre l'Ambigu a drama entitled "Gaspard Hauser." In the same year "The Poor Idiot of the Cellar of Elberg" was played at le Gaitée, the Poor Idiot being also Gaspard or Caspar Hauser. Although he had been dead five years, impressible people still continued to be interested in the puzzle of his identity. The world had been full of his name and of the fame of his mysterious adventures, and he had been surnamed the child of Europe. To-day we French have almost forgotten him; but the Germans have not ceased to be occupied with him and to search for the solution of an enigma which has caused floods of ink to be shed, and has been the occasion of violent and abusive polemics.

In 1872, Dr. Julius Meyer published "Authentic Communications respecting Caspar Hauser." He provoked a lively response from professor Daumer, who published a new and learned study on the child of Europe, "upon his innocence, his sufferings, and his origin." He declared in it that "every good German was bound to believe in the princely origin of Caspar Hauser, and that one could not doubt it without making proof of rationalistic and satanic incredulity." In 1882 an anonymous pamphlet was published at Ratisbon which was intended to demonstrate again to the world that Caspar was the son of the Grand-duchess Stephanie, and the legitimate heir of the grand-duchy of Baden. A few years previously, the Emperor William had induced the grand-duke, his son-in-law, to shut the mouths of calumniators by publishing some documents which were preserved in the archives at Carlsruhe. The anonymous author, however, pretended to have derived his materials from important papers left by a person in a very high position, who was no other than the Grand-duchess Stephanie herself. Strong in such testimony, he had undertaken to throw light upon a long-kept secret and into the mysteries of a dark and iniquitous intrigue.

The anonymous author knew how to write and how to tell a story, and we read his book with as much interest as caution. The court of Ratisbon, trying the case, adjudicated concerning the author and his story that the famous pamphlet had been compiled from previous documents which were destitute of all authority, and that it swarmed with inexact, false, and, more than once, wild allegations. The publisher, who appealed from the judgment, was condemned to pay costs, and forced to withdraw the book from the market. A full and serious history of the pretended idiot has just been published by Herr Antonius von der Linde, in two rather overlarge octavo vulumes. Although it was hardly worth while to give so ranch labor and matter to the proving Caspar Hauser to be an impostor, Herr von der Linde's volumes[1] will interest those who would like to know how legends are started, how they spread, and how they impose themselves on gossips, to whom the wonderful is the more charming as it is less probable.

On the 26th of May, 1828, there appeared in Nuremberg a stout, short boy, sixteen or eighteen years old, of rustic appearance, having light-chestnut hair, gray eyes, and a downy beginning of beard, and wearing a large felt hat, a jacket of dark-gray cloth, with breeches of the same, blue stockings, and hob-nailed half-boots. He had a letter without signature, addressed to Herr Friedrich von Wessenig, major in the sixth light cavalry, which read: "I send you a youth who wishes to serve, like his father, in the light-horse. He was put into my charge by his mother on the 7th of October, 1812. I am a poor day's worker, with a family to take care of. I have brought the boy up in the Christian religion, and have never let him go away from my house, so that not a soul in the world knows where he has lived till now. Do not question him on this subject, for he can not tell you anything. To keep him more in the dark, I brought him as far as Neumark in the night. He has not a sou. If you don't want to keep him, kill him, or hang him up by the chimney." This letter inclosed another one, which was regarded as of sixteen years' earlier date, on paper of similar character, and apparently in the same hand. It read in substance: "The child has been baptized, and his name is Caspar. When he is seventeen years old, send him to Nuremberg, to the light cavalry regiment. He was born on the 30th of April, 1812. I am a poor girl and can not support him, and his father is dead."

Herr von Wessenig questioned the youth, but he could not tell who he was or where he had come from. Such prodigious ignorance appeared suspicious to the major, and he sent the letters to the police commissioner, asking his advice about them. The police at first regarded Caspar as a vagabond, and he was locked up. Three points seemed to be established: that he was born on the 30th of April, 1812; that he was the illegitimate son of a poor girl and a light-cavalry man; and, as his dialect indicated, that he was a native of some part of Bavaria, near the borders of Bohemia. More than this, he had something to conceal: he had probably committed some offense, which he did not care about acknowledging to the police, and was trying to cover up his tracks. When he saw that, instead of his being enrolled in the cavalry, they were taking him to prison, he made himself appear still more simple-minded and silly than before. If they had taken a sensible course in the matter, Herr von der Linde justly observes, they could soon have cleared up the mystery; "but they did not think of looking upon the ground, and gazed into the clouds."

The report soon spread through Nuremberg that the police had in prison a strange being, of queer appearance, who only answered, "I don't know," to every question that was asked him. The innocent became the object of a lively curiosity, and, in a short time, of tender compassion. The public came to see him, they examined him from head to foot, and tried to make him talk. Nuremberg had at the time as its head burgomaster a very respectable, good-hearted man, of a simplicity that was easily taken in. He put himself in relations with Caspar Hauser and obtained from the mute his story of some things which he had, he said, been peremptorily forbidden to reveal. From his most tender infancy he had lived shut up in a close cellar, having two little windows that let in only a very uncertain and dim light. He had lived there for long years, dragging himself on the hard ground, without ever getting a sight of the sky, the sun, or the moon, or hearing a human voice, the song of a bird, the cry of an animal, or the sound of a footstep. His ration of food was brought to him while he was asleep: when he awoke he would perceive near his straw mat a piece of bread and a mug of water. For companions in his captivity he had nothing but a few wooden playthings.

One morning he had seen his door open, and a middling-sized man, rather poorly dressed, told him that he should know his father some day, and that he was destined to be a cavalry man as he had been, but must first learn to read and write and cipher. The unknown man came back every five days afterward to teach him the alphabet. At last, one night the unknown took him on his back, carried him out of the cellar, dressed him, and taught him how to walk. They traveled together for several days and nights, and then "the black man" gave Caspar the two letters, with his final instructions, and disappeared like a dream.

The burgomaster took the pains to tell this wonderful history to all Germany, and all Germany was moved by it. But a few brave minds refused to put any faith in it. They argued that Caspar Hauser hardly looked like a young man who had been sequestered for many years in a close, dark cellar, and that he had neither the color nor the face nor the walk of such a person. He looked well, and had a good figure and the freedom of all his limbs. Was it probable, too, that such a prisoner, who had never used his legs, had performed a march of several days and nights without the soles of his feet bearing the mark of a blister or an abrasion?

The striking contradictions between his new ways of speaking and acting, and his attitude in the first days, should also be remarked. He had come to Nuremberg with too tight boots, but they did not prevent his going and coming with ease. Other, larger ones, were given him. On putting them on, he pretended to be as awkward about them as a monkey that has to wear boots for the first time; and to be not able to stand up or to walk. When he was presented to Herr von Wessenig he played before the major the part of a great lubber of short wits, but still more of a sly-boots than of a fool. After he had determined to tell the story about the cellar, he affected ignorance and wonder at every thing. The sun and moon were to him new acquaintance, with which it was hard to make himself familiar, and the light troubled him. He seemed to believe that flowers and leaves and trees were made by the hands of men, and would say in his dialect: "How much time that must have taken them! Why be at so much trouble about it?" He spoke of himself in the third person, and talked to the bread that he was eating. The first time he saw a candle lighted, he asked them to give him the flame, so that he could put it on his wooden horse, which he pretended bit him sometimes. All of these things appeared suspicious to well-informed and reflecting persons, but their doubts were regarded as impious by believers. It had been decided that the wonderful story was true, and all Nuremberg believed in it. There are moral epidemics and times when nothing is less common than common sense.

Caspar Hauser, having become the adopted son of the whole city did not stay long in prison. He was first admitted into the family of the jailer, Hiltel; then he was entertained by Professor Daumer, who regarded him as a prodigy; and then in the house of municipal Councilor Biberbach. His fame went everywhere. Members of courts and cabinets occupied themselves with his adventures. Conjecture was exhausted in the effort to discover his parents, and to pierce the mystery of his long sequestration. He was made to relate his dreams, in the hope that some light might be extracted from them. Grand personages went out of their way to visit Nuremberg in order to see and question him. Count Stanhope conceived so lively an affection for him that he wanted to take upon himself the future care of him. Masters were introduced to him who tried to take the rudeness out of him and polish him, and even to teach him Latin. Indolent, and stupid as a marmot, he complained that they were drying up his mind with the study of such trash. The only marked taste he showed was for horseback-riding, in which he excelled. He exhibited but little recognition of the cares and attentions which they put upon him. He had a low and gross mind and a hard, ungrateful heart, while his insupportable vanity, indiscreetly pampered, grew from day to day. Women doted upon him, loaded him with favors and presents, and said sweet things to him.

An incident which made considerable stir completed the demonstration to persons of a willing disposition on the subject that Caspar Hauser was a young man of high lineage, and that his unknown persecutors had a large interest in bringing about his disappearance. On the 17th of October, 1829, while he was lodging with Professor Daumer, he was surprised in a closet by a black man (un homme noir), who struck him in the forehead with a sharp instrument, and went away, saying, "You shall die before you go away from Nuremberg!" Caspar recognized in this man the same person who had taken him out of the cellar, and who doubtless wished to punish him for having broken silence and told his story to the gossiping burgomaster. Nobody but Caspar had seen this black man, who seemed to have vanished in the air like smoke, after having struck the youth. Search was instituted for him, and inquisitions were made to recover traces of him; but no news was had of him. From that day, however, due pains were taken to protect the child of Europe against the assassins who were watching for him; and he never went out without an escort of two guards.

These precautions were relaxed little by little, and some time after this Caspar left Nuremberg and went to reside at Anspach, under the care and at the expense of Count Stanhope. He became a boarding-pupil of schoolmaster Meyer, whom he caused much annoyance. On the 14th of December, 1833, as he was walking alone in the Public Garden, he was again accosted by a black man, who presented him with a purse; and he was at the same time struck on his left side with a dagger. The purse contained a note written in a back hand, and reading: "Hauser will be able to describe my appearance to you, and tell you where I came from. To save him the trouble, I will tell you myself: I came from the frontier of Bavaria. I will tell you my name, too: M. L. O." The second assassin was as indiscoverable as the other one. Unfortunately, the wound was graver than was thought at first, and Caspar died on the 17th of December, having exclaimed, "O God, God! must I die thus in shame and disgrace?"

There was at the time in Berlin a counselor of police named Merker, a very methodical, exact, logical man, whose sagacity it was hard to outwit. Struck with the accumulation of improbabilities in the stories of Caspar Hauser, he drew the conclusion from them that "either we must believe in miracles, or Caspar is an impostor." "It will be said some day, in some course of universal history," he wrote, "that a young man appeared one evening in a German city as if he had fallen from a star; but the sky was not his country; he had come out of an underground dungeon, and saw daylight now for the first time. A mysterious unknown had brought him out of his hole, and this unknown was at the same time his jailer, his master, his tutor, his deliverer, and the man commissioned to assassinate him. The police of the city of Nuremberg found something queer in this story, and regarded the miraculous child as a very ordinary vagabond. But the world soon became occupied with him. They wrote books and a great many articles in the journals about him. The extraordinary being became the object of profound scientific researches. His saliva, his urine, his evacuations were learnedly analyzed; his ways of acting, even his sneezings, were studied and commented upon as if they were affairs of state. If any one ventured to express a doubt, he was dishonored and despised; and a miraculous event was learnedly explained by other events still more miraculous."

A circumstance that confirmed Merker's suspicions and skepticism was the fact that everybody who had anything to do with Caspar Hauser surprised him, at some time or another, in some flagrant lie. Madame Biberbach wrote, on the 19th of February, 1832: "How many bitter hours has this child made us pass! How many griefs and vexations has he caused us by his absolute want of truthfulness! When we catch him in the act, he pretends to repent, and promises to amend, and we begin to love him again; but the demon of falsehood has so fully taken possession of him that he is always falling back into his sin, and going deeper and deeper into his vice. From the time when he saw himself detected his heart was estranged from us." Count Stanhope, who had loved him as a father, began to grow cool toward him and to mistrust him. After having dreamed of the most brilliant career for him, his illusions dispelled, he had no better thought for him than to find him employment with some large stable. Merker inferred from these facts that the miraculous child, seeing his high hopes failing and uneasy about his future, had felt the necessity of bringing back his benefactors, and of fortifying their wavering faith by a new comedy; that he had invoked the phantom of the black man, in which Count Stanhope did not more than half believe, for the second time; that the assassin of Caspar Hauser was Caspar himself; that he had struck himself with the dagger, but had struck too hard; that he was the victim of his own maladroitness, and that his death was an involuntary suicide.

The idle populace reasoned very differently from the suspicious and sagacious police counselor. They believed more than ever in the black man, and in the noble origin of Caspar Hauser. They had made him by turns the son of a village curate, or of a canon, or bishop, or baron, or count, or Hungarian magnate. They now held it for certain that he was born in a palace, that his mother had reigned somewhere, and that faithless collaterals had seized the heritage of the child of Europe. Suspicion shortly fastened upon the house of Baden, and the bell was so well fixed to it that it tinkles even yet at the slightest breath of gossip that blows over Carlsruhe.

The Margrave Charles Frederick, who became grand-duke in 1806, was married twice. After the death of the Princess Caroline, of Hesse-Darmstadt, he concluded a morganatic union with Madame Hochberg, countess of the empire, who was born Geyer von Geyerberg. His successor was his grandson Charles, who married Stephanie Louise Adrienne de Beauharnais, a lady who had been brought up by the Emperor Napoleon, with the rank of a princess of France. She had five children, of whom two sons died, one a few days, the other a few months, after birth. The former, born on the 29th of September, 1812, died on the 16th of October of the same year; the second lived from the 1st of May, 1816, to the 8th of May, 1817. By the death of these two princes the succession passed to Louis I, uncle of the Grand-duke Charles, and after him to the descendants of the second marriage—to the morganatic line which now reigns in Carlsruhe. Those were found who could imagine and affirm that the prince born in 1812 was not dead, but that persons interested in his disappearance had caused him to be abducted, and bad substituted for him another child who had shortly died, and that the stout boy who, on the 26th of May, 1828, presented himself, letter in hand, before Major Friedrich von Wessenig, was the real grand-ducal heir of Baden, who had been shut up for sixteen years.

This legend, revamped from the history of Cyrus, Romulus, and other great heroes, was hard to digest. Substitutions of children are attended by difficulties, especially when the child in question is a royal or nearly royal scion, an heir that has been ardently expected and impatiently waited for, and whose features have been fondly looked upon. On the 4th of October, 1812, the grandmother of the little prince, the Margravine Amelia of Baden wrote in French to her daughter, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia: "The wife of Charles was brought to bed on the 29th of September, with a son of enormous size in proportion to his mother's; it cost much trouble and suffering, too, to get him into the world. The event has caused much joy here." The grandmother examined the child closely, for on the 11th of October she wrote again to her daughter: "Everything is in joy here over the birth of an heir; what gives me the most pleasure about it is, that I find in him a resemblance to his father when he was a baby." But this rejoicing was of short duration. On the 18th of October, at eleven o'clock in the morning, the margravine took up the pen again, " to announce the death of the poor little one. . . . He only lived for seventeen days, with a vigor and healthfulness which made us hope for his preservation; but he was all at once seized with suffocation and convulsions in the head. . . . Charles is very much affected by it; I never saw him so much afflicted. I am grieved, because the child was so like the house of Baden. I was obliged to announce it yesterday morning to his mother, who was not anticipating anything of the kind. No one else would take it upon himself." She added, on the 25th of October, "The death of that child, who interested me because of the resemblance I found in him to the house of Baden, and whom I saw expire, . . . and the extreme grief of Charles—all that has overthrown me."

The grandmother saw the child born and saw him die; the father was there, too, and the nurse. The corpse was examined and opened in the presence of the state minister, Berckheim, and nine doctors. No one suspected substitution. Shall we believe that everybody was in the plot, including even the grandmother? No one has ventured to maintain this. It was once pretended that the man in the iron mask was the Count of Vermandois, a natural son of Louis XIV, who died, to the knowledge of the public, in the army, of small-pox, in 1683, and that they buried a stake to personate him, over which Louis XIV had a solemn service performed. It is easier to believe in this stake than to contemn a grandmother.

An improbable story will not make its way in the world unless it is patronized by some grand personage, who has an interest in accrediting it. No one contributed more to propagate the legend of Caspar Hauser than King Louis I of Bavaria, who bore little good-will to his neighbors in the west. His father, Maximilian Joseph, had promised himself to annex the Badenese palatinate to his states, and had concluded for that purpose a secret treaty with Austria in 1815. Men always dislike those whom they have not succeeded in despoiling. King Louis would have been very ready to discredit the descendants of the second marriage, who had mounted the throne in 1830, in the person of the Grand-duke Leopold I. The occasion seemed a good one for him to question the validity of their rights, and to insinuate to Europe that they had come to power through an abominable conspiracy, and that the legitimate heir was the stout boy whom he had harbored in his good city of Nuremberg. To please him, it was necessary to swallow the story with the eyes shut and the mouth wide open. Skeptics and cavilers evidently disobliged him.

Whether by compliance or for love of the marvelous, some persons in high circles were inclined to believe in Caspar. The painter Greil painted his portrait in pastel; he represented him as he saw him—that is, as an unprepossessing rustic of low physiognomy. The portrait was engraved, and the engraver transformed the rustic into a Prince Charming. The Princess Royal of Prussia, who was only acquainted with the engraving, wrote, in 1832, to Queen Caroline of Bavaria, sister of the Grand-duke Charles: "The portrait of this young man has vividly interested me. ... I do not know whether it may not be the effect of my smitten imagination, but it seems that I find some resemblance between Hauser's features and those of your poor brother. . . . This face troubles me like a specter." But it was, above all, important to persuade the mother, the Grand-duchess Stephanie, and win her over to the good cause. Suffering greatly from the effects of a severe labor, she had seen little of her child; she had not witnessed his death; and it is very tempting to a mother to believe that her son is not dead. Caspar Hauser was frequently spoken of to her, and she was persuaded to have him brought to her, in the hope that her heart might tell her something. She shook her head, and continued incredulous. The celebrated jurist, Mittermaier, Professor of Law at Heidelberg, had a conversation with her on the subject. She declared to him that the abduction of her son and the substitution of another child was "a pure impossibility." " My mother," wrote the Duchess of Hamilton, "never believed a word of that story. That King Louis tried to persuade her to it is another matter. As to myself, I always answered that I held to the judgment of my mother, who has often said, like the old margravine, 'It is impossible.'"

But King Louis had on his side all the malcontents of the grand-duchy. Every gaming-master who complained of a denial of justice, every solicitor who had been refused, avenged his injury by saying, "Caspar Hauser became inconvenient to you, and you had him assassinated." The name of the mysterious personage who was supposed to have conducted the affair was boldly given, and Count Stanhope was accused of having been a go-between in the crime. The field was beaten for proofs of the accusations. Time and again some sharp-witted man in want of money would send word to the court of Carlsruhe that he was the possessor of secret papers in which the tragic adventure was related from point to point. He would ask for a large sum, and they would give nothing, and then he would publish his papers. Persons of keen scent and reading could recognize in his little work whole chapters from old factums, which had fallen into oblivion, and scenes extracted from a romance by Seybold, which was no longer read. Such, according to Herr von der Linde, was the history of the famous pamphlet of 1882, on which the tribunal of Ratisbon executed justice.

Merker reduced the question to these terms: We know nothing of Caspar Hauser except what it has pleased himself to tell us, and no one ever passed a week with him without surprising him more than once in a lie. What credit does a story deserve that is founded on the testimony of a downright liar? But believers would object: Is it possible to suppose that a young man of an uncultivated and very narrow mind should have a genius for invention, and that he could maintain his imposture to the end without betraying himself or departing from his assumed part? To this the doubters replied: that the public had kindly taken it in hand to facilitate his task for him, and open the way for him, which he had not even had to take the trouble to mark out. Some one has said that in France the first day is for infatuation, the second for criticism, and the third for indifference. The infatuation of the people of Nuremberg seems to have been more enduring than usual; for the days of criticism and indifference never came for Caspar Hauser.

There are two kinds of cunning. One, which sometimes has genius in it, composes in advance a grand plan, conforms all its conduct to it, and prepares afar off, for its adversaries, traps which shall be sprung suddenly and surely. That is the cunning of Ulysses and the politicians. Caspar Hauser had nothing but the passive cunning of the chameleon, which changes color to agree with the objects around it. He accommodated himself to circumstances; he lent himself with unlimited compliance to the desires and prejudices of his benefactors, and he worked upon their prepossessions and their open credulity. Schoolmaster Meyer represented him as a man of robust body, ready with his hands, and of a more pliant mind than was generally thought, divining quickly enough with whom he was dealing, and governing his face and language accordingly. He came to Nuremberg without any other intention than to become a light cavalry man. He found people disposed to believe that he was a hero of romance and the victim of a dark conspiracy. He entered into their idea, and invented the childish story of the dungeon. People regarded him as simple-minded, and spoke freely before him. He took advantage of all that he heard, and was what they wanted him to be. The relative facility with which he played his part may be explained still more easily if we suppose, with Merker, that he had escaped from a traveling circus, where he had gained some knowledge of the art of riding horseback, and had learned to compose his face for the diversion of the idlers in the interludes. It is said that in the last months of his life he had conceived a project of making the tour of Europe, going from city to city, and making a show of himself. Such a way of getting a living suited him much better than the employment which Count Stanhope proposed. The natural man appeared again, and prevailed over the studied part.

The honest people who allowed themselves to be taken in by the story of the dungeon were never willing to give it up. To them it was as the last word of the gospel. It is hard to recant, and acknowledge that one has been duped. "We have seen in Paris a mathematician of eminent merit holding as authentic letters in which Pascal taught attraction previous to Newton, and continuing to believe in those letters when no one else believed in them. We have seen in Prussia an illustrious Egyptologist recommending to the Academy of Sciences, as a work of incalculable value, a Greek manuscript fabricated by a forger, in which he found confirmation of some of his boldest conjectures; and it cost much trouble to make him acknowledge his error. The eminent criminalist, Anselm Feuerbach, who joined to a warm spirit and vivid imagination a taste for subtile ratiocinations and the art of deciphering the secrets of hearts, could not decipher Caspar Hauser. From the first day he regarded him as a miracle, and, having said it once, it was of no use to try to make him unsay it. "This dear foundling," he wrote to a friend in 1830, "has been for years the principal object of my studies, researches, and cares. An inhabitant of Saturn, falling during the night into the imperial city of Nuremberg, would not be enveloped in more mystery." He finally decided that Caspar Hauser was a Badenese prince, and till his death he was, with King Louis, the most zealous champion of the legend.

On the other side, physiologists and moralists, convinced that a young man who had passed sixteen years in the solitude of a dungeon might furnish valuable lessons respecting the primordial laws of human nature, studied him with devoted attention. Some thought that they could discover in him all the signs of the "animal man," and noted them down carefully. Others, persuaded, with Rousseau, that we are born good and pure, and that it is society that perverts us, went into ecstasies "before the miraculous innocence of this paradisiacal youth, the image of Adam before the fall." A homœopathic physician, Dr. Preu, discovered that infinitesimal dilutions had prodigious effects on this primitive being. He only had to open his medicine-case or uncork one of his vials to make the compliant Caspar fall into a swoon; and Hahnemann, hearing of the phenomenon, declared that the child of Europe was the living demonstration of Homœopathy and the confusion of its enemies. The same Dr. Preu, laying it down as an axiom that "in a man who had passed his youth in a cellar the telluric principle ought to prevail over the solar principle," employed days and weeks in studying the action of metals and minerals on the nervous system of Caspar. He declared that jasper chilled his arm to the elbow, and chalcedony to the shoulder. Caspar lent himself obligingly to these varied experiments. He was told: "You should feel this; you should feel that." His answer would be, "I feel it." And Dr. Preu carefully registered his observations and analyses, as documents worthy of passing down to the most distant posterity. If the impostor had been unmasked, homoeopathists, moralists, philosophers, theologians, and jurists would have been covered with ineffaceable ridicule. When they kept guard over the legend, it was to protect their self-respect against scoffers.

Herr von der Linde has more than proved that Caspar Hauser was not a grand-duke. It appears further from his book that of all the adventurers who have at any time imposed themselves on the attention of the world and forced it to hear their name; of all fraudulent heroes; of all intruders upon fame, Caspar was the least interesting and the nakedest of prestige and charm and grace. The greatest mark of wisdom that he gave was to die at twenty years of age.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.

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  1. Kaspar Hauser, eine neuegeschichtliche Legende, von Antonius von der Linde. Wiesbaden, 1887.