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The Great Pretenders

Fascinating book for fans of weird old mysteries. I knew about Kaspar Hauser’s story in this book, but not the 5 or so other mysteries of mistaken identity, claimants to family fortunes, and plain old mystery people who no one could identify. Nowadays I think we have a hard time imagining what it must have been like to have to identify someone on the basis of descriptions alone, or perhaps one extant photograph.

This book is all full of stories of people claiming to be people they may or may not be, or having others claim so for them. Some of the stories are well known -- such as Hauser and the lost Dauphin -- while others are much more obscure. Central to all of these mysteries is that, in the absence of solid evidence such as photos, etchings or other identifying information, someone claiming to be the long lost heir to a family fortune [as in the case of the Tichborne claimant] could sue a family for a portion of their estate and essentially it would be their word against his/hers/ In many cases, these people claiming to be of royal lineage would instigate trials which could last months, or even years. Witnesses would swear on both sides of the issue that the person was or was not who they said they were, and the courts were left to muddle out a solution with precious little real evidence.

Bondeson has done a lot of primary source research for this book and tries to follow all the stories not just to their legal conclusions, but to current day events; some of these claims are still hotly disputed even if more substantial evidence has legally settled the issue. He tries to not overly preference your reading of each particular story and includes some of the pictures and other evidence that was available to witnesses at the time. With the advent of modern science, DNA typing and other accurate methods of verification [plus people’s tendency to not vanish for years at a time as a result of overseas trips or other bizarre scandals] these sort of mysteries are generally more the result of deliberate obfuscation than sheer lack of evidence. Really good read, fascinating stuff and Bondeson is a wonderful compiler of historical evidence as well as being a good storyteller.