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The 18th-Century Baron Who Lent His Name to Munchausen Syndrome

Smithsonian / April 2024

The medical condition is named after a fictional storyteller who in turn was based on a real-life German nobleman

In 1951, London physician Richard Asher wrote a journal article about “a common syndrome which most doctors have seen, but about which little has been written.” He described a pattern of seemingly sick patients with dramatic but plausible medical histories, who made countless visits to doctors and hospitals, quarreled with medical professionals, and discharged themselves against advice.

In short, these individuals suffered from what’s known today as Munchausen syndrome, a psychological condition in which a patient pretends that they or someone else, often a child, are seriously ill. Had the disorder’s founder embraced medical eponyms as Alois Alzheimer or Burrill Bernard Crohn did, it might have been called “Asher’s disease.” But it isn’t, because Asher wasn’t keen to attach his good name to a pseudodisease defined by the lies of people he considered “hysterics, schizophrenics, masochists or psychopaths of some kind.”

Asher instead looked to literature, finding inspiration in Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, a now-obscure 1785 novel by German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe. In the vein of Gulliver’s Travels, Raspe’s book—initially published as a series of anonymous articles and later reimagined in countless versions, editions and translations—features the first-person, fantastical stories of Baron Munchausen, a nobleman and retired soldier whose obvious tall tales delight his dinner guests. Among his many adventures, Munchausen flies across the Thames on a cannonball, fights a 40-foot-long crocodile and travels to the moon.

Accompanying the stories, naturally, were original illustrations. One such drawing, published in a 1786 edition of the novel, shows Munchausen dangling from a rope tied to a crescent moon. It’s a favorite of Sarah Tindal Kareem, a literary scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chose the scene as the cover of her 2014 book, Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder.

“The 18th century was a unique moment in time, before clear copyright and libel laws, and there wasn’t a hard and fast distinction between works of fact and works of fiction,” says Kareem. This was very much the case for Raspe’s novel, as his Munchausen was based on a still-living person with virtually the same name.

Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr (or Baron) von Münchhausen, was a retired German officer who fought with a Russian regiment in two campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. By 1760, he was living a life of leisure in the German countryside, regularly hosting nobles and aristocrats at his Hanover home. Münchhausen earned a reputation far and wide as a good-hearted, generous, lively and dramatic storyteller—though not a liar.

Both the real and faux barons started out as well-respected figures. “In Raspe’s book, there’s a frame narrative where Munchausen, who thinks his guests are talking nonsense, tells these even more nonsensical tall tales to poke fun of them and their gullibility,” says Kareem, who estimates that Raspe’s novel was reprinted 100 times over the next two centuries. Every edit and translation introduced changes to the text. “In later editions, however, there’s a shift so that he’s not in on the joke—the joke’s on him,” Kareem explains. “He becomes a buffoon, a liar and a figure of ridicule.”

Changes to the fictional character were no doubt driven at least in part by the reaction of the real-life Münchhausen. “He would have done well to roll with the joke,” says Kareem, “but he made it worse by overreacting.” Münchhausen had no sense of humor about the matter. He loathed his depiction and repeatedly threatened to sue. Beyond the murky status of libel laws at the time, an insurmountable problem stood in the way of the baron’s lawsuit: At the time, the increasingly popular book’s author was still anonymous. Münchhausen tried to sue Gottfried August Bürger, who translated the English-language novel into German and was incorrectly identified as its author, but he was unsuccessful.

To be fair to the infuriated Münchhausen, he knew that someone in his past or present—probably someone he’d invited into his own home—was mocking him and getting rich at his expense. As if to protect himself from a libel lawsuit, the author had deliberately tweaked the spelling of the main character’s name, albeit just barely. “Into this completely over-the-top fiction,” says Kareem, “Raspe inserts an actual, recognizable historical figure.”

The reason why Raspe based his protagonist on Münchhausen has eluded historians for centuries. “We don’t even know if these men met even once,” says Régis Olry, an anatomist at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières and the author of a 2002 journal article on the history of Munchausen syndrome. The most likely place where the pair might have crossed paths is Germany’s University of Göttingen, where Raspe worked as a library clerk to pay off his mounting debts in the early 1760s, around the same time that Münchhausen—whose uncle played a role in the school’s foundation—hosted lavish dinner parties at his nearby estate.

Like Kareem, Olry doesn’t view the so-called Baron of Lies as a liar at all. “Münchhausen was a storyteller,” he says, and if those tales weren’t entirely true, it was for one of two reasons: “Either he consciously invented these stories to entertain his audience (and it worked), or these stories were ramblings he was not aware he was inventing.” Since Münchhausen retired in 1760 at age 39 or 40, it’s unlikely he suffered from delusions beyond those of grandeur.

Raspe to Münchhausen was an anonymous tormentor, but who was Münchhausen to Raspe? By 1785, more than 20 years had passed since the much-younger Raspe (potentially) crossed paths with the baron, who must have made quite an impression. But Raspe’s opinion of Münchhausen otherwise remains a mystery. Was he envious of the baron’s wealth and status given his own lowly rank? Did he idolize Münchhausen’s storytelling skills and intend the book as a compliment? Did he resent or begrudge the nobleman for his blatant lies, or did he admire the baron’s ability to get away with them?

Clues to Münchhausen’s allure can be found in Raspe’s biography. Born in Hanover in 1737, he studied law at the University of Göttingen but never became a lawyer. Instead, Raspe’s jack-of-all-trades résumé included stints as a writer, researcher, translator, journalist, librarian, geologist and custodian of coins—a position where access to wealth proved too tempting for him. Accused of stealing from a museum’s coin and gem collection, Raspe fled to England in 1775 to evade arrest.

The increasingly dubious Raspe (armed with handy knowledge of how to dodge the law) turned to money-making schemes and low-level crimes. One scam involved pretending to discover gold on a Scottish nobleman’s estate, convincing him to invest in a mining operation and then disappearing with the funds. Swindling the not-so-clever upper classes seems to have been Raspe’s particular forte.

Meanwhile, he wrote. “While in this humble condition and a desperate man, he remembered the stories he had heard at the hospitable table of Baron Münchhausen, and, thinking he could turn them to account, he published … his recollections of them,” noted author Samuel Austin Allibone in 1908. The account was “exaggerated and caricatured, no doubt, but generally bearing a sufficient resemblance to the stories the baron had invented for the amusement of his bottle companions to permit their origin to be recognized.”

Fluent in German, English, French and Latin, Raspe also penned everything from poetry to research papers to catalogs. If he sought fame and fortune through his writing, however, Baron Munchausen’s Narrative brought neither. Ironically, his name didn’t appear on his most famous and successful work during his lifetime. After all, claiming ownership of the work would mean facing the real Münchhausen in court.

Ultimately, Münchhausen outlived Raspe by three years. The former died in 1797, still clueless about his adversary’s identity, while the latter died in 1794. It wasn’t until 1824, more than a quarter-century after both men’s deaths, that a biography of Bürger, Raspe’s once-sued translator, revealed the infamous book’s actual author.

Over the next 200 years, the word “Munchausen” settled into the collective psyche. By the 1850s, it was most often used as a verb, slang for telling “extravagantly untruthful pseudo-autobiographical stories,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the 1950s, the term was ubiquitous enough that Asher deemed it the perfect moniker for his newly described syndrome. “Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always traveled widely, and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful,” the physician wrote.

To date, the condition has been called hospital addiction syndrome, thick chart syndrome and hospital hopper syndrome. Its official title in the DSM, the American Psychiatric Association’s mental health manual, is “factitious disorder imposed on self” or “factitious disorder imposed on another.” Colloquially, however, it’s the baron’s once-good name that has stuck.

Outside of very specific literary corners, Raspe’s name is as little known as Münchhausen’s is famous. But if history had unfolded differently, the two might very well be swapped. “Raspe was this colorful, flamboyant character who also engaged in deception,” says Kareem. One’s lies are beloved, the other’s illegal, but this distinction and the trajectory of their legacies are almost arbitrary. So, the next time you overembellish a story at a dinner party, consider this: Three hundred years later, people might still be talking about you, for better or worse.