Great Pretenders

Jan Bondeson. The Great Pretenders: The True Stories Behind Famous Historical Mysteries. W. W. Norton, 2004.
Dr. Bondeson here examines some of the nineteenth century's famous cases of ambiguous identity: the various claimants to be the lost Dauphin Louis XVII; Kaspar Hauser; the claim that the hermit Feodor Kuzmich was really Tsar Alexander I; the tale of Princess Olive; the Tichborne case; and the Druce Portland case. Most of these stories involve some pretty unlikely characters, and what emerge as the two real mysteries are the motivations of the claimants, some of whom at least seem to have really believed their own claims, and the psychological processes whereby some complete and often physically and socially quite different character is identified as a lost family member.

In some ways we can sense the belief that either you or the character you have latched onto, is really some lost special person is a classical piece of fantasy proneness, and its still with us in some forms. It is perhaps indicative of social changes that whereas once Caraboo Syndrome sufferers laid claim to the identity of people of 'high degree', today they are more likely to take on the identity of victim, whether survivor of the concentration camps or of international paedophile rings. Still others who once would have imagined themselves royalty now see themselves as 'really' aliens, or relegate their fantasies to 'past lives'.

For the relatives and friends who identify the pretenders as their lost loved ones, we seem to be seeing a sort of reverse Capgrass Syndrome. In that syndrome people believe that their loved ones have been replaced by impostors, here the impostor is seen as the loved one. At times the psychological needs of the pretender (in both senses of the word) and the relatives coincide. I'm also tempted to wonder if the mechanisms which lead to the identification of often very different pretenders are the same as those which lead to the identification of some medium or their ventriloquist's dummy as the spirit of a departed loved one.

Bondeson also sees that the social and mythical factors here, ideas that the great king has faked his own death to live among the common people and will return to his rightful place to restore justice, or of the true heir deposed by the forces of evil, or the idea of the holy simpleton or miraculous peasant child. This is the stuff of fairy tales where there is also the hope that the bad things which happen are not as bad as we thought, that history might be redeemed.

We see echoes of this surely in cryptozoology, just as it might be hoped that the children of the Tsar were not really killed, that the Dauphin didn't die in squalor, equally we might hope that Tasmanian tigers and dodos and mammoths are not really extinct but live on in some remote place to return to our lives and tell us that things are all right after all.

Precisely because many of the pretenders were ordinary folks, they became the centre of popular movements both of the radical left and the radical right. They became the totems of all those dispossessed of their true heritage by the rich and powerful, or by the sinister Them.   |PR|

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