Friday, June 3, 2011

The Great Pretenders

originally written 11/05/2011

This is the fifth book of Jan Bondeson ’s that I’ve read, this one personally inscribed to me from the author. The historical mysteries it unravels are of the kind that have always interested me: what happened to the Dauphin? Who was Kaspar Hauser? Who was the Tichborne Claimant? If none of these are ringing any bells, then you, too, might be interested in hearing their tales, systematically and scientifically described, with medical evidence given wherever possible (most successfully so in the case of the Dauphin). If you are already a semi-expert, you may find this is one of Bondeson’s slightly more labored books, having less of his authoritarian medical exactitude and conversely less sense of fun and enjoyment, of unabashed fascination, as he dispels all the myths that have made these stories so captivating over the years.

The French Revolution is one of my favorite historical periods, though I would have been loathe to try to live through it, and the central mystery is the persistent notion that the young Dauphin, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s son, did not die in prison but was rescued/swapped with a lookalike I think the yearning for this happy ending is made all the more poignant by what facts can be gleaned about this boy’s tragic final years. His jailers tried to use him as a propaganda pawn and turn him against his mother and sister. Whoever the Temple Child was, he had a painful and lonely death. In 1801, a child’s skeleton was found near the Temple’s walls; however, this was quickly hushed up and the Dauphin’s sister never had the opportunity to discover whether it really was her brother. The Temple Child’s heart has been preserved and led to sensational DNA testing that seemed to confirm he belonged to the same bloodline as the Bourbons, but in one of Bondeson’s only leaps of fancy, he suggests that the heart could have gotten mixed up with another descendent, of the female line, of Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother. The pretenders to the throne also have rather interesting stories.

The mystery of Kaspar Hauser has fascinated Germans for centuries, and I learned about him in my college linguistics class. We were studying “feral children ” for their supposed inability to garner the ability to learn language. Later in France I saw the Werner Herzog film, and Kaspar’s story has inspired me at various times in my life. There’s something that really makes you want to believe the narrative at face-value: Kaspar kept locked in a tiny dungeon in darkness with only toy horses to play with, then taught a few words of rudimentary speech and sent out on the road, then becoming an educated and lively young man, only to be mysteriously murdered. Of course, his supporters suspected he was a lost Prince of Baden-Baden; his detractors thought he was a malicious fraud. Bondeson has a bold claim that lies somewhere between the two, but I’ll let you read the book to find that out. The medical evidence is mostly confined to some blood-stained underpants which do not match six samples of hair said to have belonged to Kaspar Hauser. The mystery continues!

Russia’s answer to this legend is that of Siberian holy man Feodor Kuzmich who was supposed to have been Alexander I who “faked” his own death. A number of people, especially penniless harridans, tried to prove that they were secret, legitimate descends of George III or his brethren throughout the 19th century. The Tichborne Claimant’s story is full of all kinds of international sensationalism based primarily on the mystery of how a slim, effeminate bounder English aristocrat, the prodigal son, could turn into an overweight Australian who didn’t know French.

Bondeson is at his best explaining the story of the Duke of Baker Street. The fifth Duke of Portland was a true eccentric who spent a lot of his time underground, in seclusion, wearing several layers of clothes as he feared catching cold, and, as far as anyone knew, died without descendents. He appears to have been a very shy man and may have had a skin disorder that caused him early rejection from potential wives. However, he was just weird enough to have possibly spent his time leading a double life as Mr. Druce who ran a bazaar in Baker Street. That’s what Mr. Druce’s daughter claimed. The case was sensational, but when Druce’s tomb was opened, the case lost all credibility. Here is some more information on the Duke.

The book goes on to briefly mention other frauds. Though the stories are all historically fascinating, the fact of little surviving or corroborating evidence makes the medical angle somewhat tenuous. However, it was certainly enjoyable.

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