While most people have heard of the mendacious Baron Münchausen, the author of the book bearing his name is practically a forgotten man. Little is known about the family of Rudolf Erich Raspe (RAHS-puh); though working class, they provided him with funds for his study at the universities of Göttingen and Leipzig between 1756 and 1760. After graduation, Raspe spent a year tutoring the son of a nobleman. Later he became a librarian, first at Hanover, then at Göttingen. There he translated from the French a philosophic work by Gottfried Leibniz, wrote verses in Latin, studied Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and composed a long allegorical poem on a medieval theme. With Jakob Mauvillon he founded The Cassel Spectator, for which he wrote articles about his many interests and hobbies.
For his study of mammoths during the Ice Age, the Royal Society of England made Raspe an honorary fellow, and after the appearance of a volume on ancient gems and medals, he was sent to Italy to collect specimens. When he was detected stealing and selling the best of them, he was arrested, but he escaped and fled to England. The warrant for his arrest provides a description of him: “a long-faced man with small eyes, crooked nose, red hair under his stumpy periwig, and a jerky gait.”
In England, Horace Walpole and other admirers helped pay Raspe’s debts until details of his conduct arrived from the Continent; he was...
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