May was born on Friday the 25th February 1842 at 10 PM, and baptized the
next day at the Evangelic-Lutheran Church of St.Trinity [St. Trinitatis]
in Ernstthal. The Godparents were master weaver Carl Gottlob Planer
(1792–1859), Miss Chr. Friederike Esche (dates of birth and death unknown),
and the apprentice smith Christian Friedrich Weissflog (1819–1894). He is the fifth child of the 32 years old weaver Heinrich August May and his
27 years old wife Christiane Wilhelmine, born Weise. There
was a big misery in the household of the May's family - bitter poverty,
many a time even hunger. From his four sisters born only the four-year old
Auguste Wilhelmine was still alive.
In this year there "was a very dry and hot summer. From
the sowing time on there was no rain for six to seven weeks and almost the
whole summer the weather brought no rain. General shortage of water
appeared so that much of the grain could not be ground and consequently
was only cut. ... Live stock suffered extremely and most cattle became
emaciated and weak and had to be slaughtered. ..."
of "lack of suitable cattle for slaughter [a] high price of the meat"
The situation of the "Weaver's misery"
could be compared with the state of affairs at present in the developing
countries - ideal conditions for diseases caused by lack of vitamins and
infections; this will also be Karl May's fate.
May: Karl May's sister Christiane Wilhelmine was born, the later Mrs. Schöne. In Hohenstein and Ernstthal great hunger is still
"Yes there in fact happened recently
cases here, that people, who were ashamed to beg, literally died from
hunger. Because it is not so rare, particularly in families with many
children, that often for many days there is not even a piece of bread to
consume and a few potatoes cooked in jacket and eaten with salt often
represent the only nourishment of these unfortunates. But in quite many
families the potatoes are also gone, or are running short, and then is the
full suffering from hunger and begging unavoidable ... It is indeed
heartbreaking, to observe these pityful unfortunates with pale and gaunt
faces, with troubled deep sunk eyes, from which every spark of liveliness
is extinguished, ... to drag themselves like shadows, ..."
Lack of vitamin A was the most likely cause of Karl May's
disturbed vision - (blindness in diminished light condition, hemeralopia).
From now on he was heavily visually handicapped - the beginning of
Xerophthalmia threatened his eyesight.
May's condition got worse: his eye lids are closed and swollen
(Blepharitis), an inflammatory Blepharospasm follows. He could not open
his eyes for prolonged periods of time. He is therefore blind and forgets
to see. He could not remember later his previous visual impressions. Good
doctors are out of reach financially, there was not yet any public health
insurance in existence. May complains in his autobiography Mein
Leben und Streben [My Life and
Aspirations] about the 'ruinous quackery' to which he fell a victim. Most
probably were his closed eye lids quite ineffectively treated with
ointments and eye bandages: the so far small chance to see even though for
a short time, was in this way fully undone.
I could easily feel people and objects, to
hear, also to smell; however that was not enough to imagine them in
reality and form. I could have only guessed. How a person, a dog, a table
looked, I did not know; I could have only made a picture
in the inside of them, and such picture remained in my mind. When someone
spoke I heard not his body but his soul. Not his outside but his inside
came closer to me.
Karl was in constant care of his grandmother
Johanne Christiane May, the mother of his father. She left a deep
impression on his way of thinking and the sensual world of the boy with
her fairy tales romantic. The following months became the source of May's
very rich phantasy.
Moving into the house of a weaver Carl August
On the 15th August starts a six months midwifery course for May's mother.
February: May's mother sat for examinations in midwifery at the
Surgical-Medical Academy (Kurländer Palais) in Dresden with an "excellent
pass". The eyes of her blind boy were also succesfully attended there
by Professors Haase and Grenser - Karl May learned to see.
For me there were only souls, nothing but
souls. And so it stayed, even after I learned to see, from my youth on
until the present day. This is the difference between myself and the
others. This is the key to my books. This is the explanation to all, what
is praiseworthy on me, and to all what is to blame in me. Only who was
blind and who regained his sight again, and only who possesses such a deep
founded and such a mighty inner world that he himself afterwards, when he
could see again and for the rest of his life masters his whole external
world, only he can identify with all what I planned, what I have done and
what I wrote, and only he has the ability to critise me, and noone else!
Latest research points to it that in Dresden
also the rickets, caused through lack of vitamin D, were treated
succesfully. In regard to this May writes in his autobiography: I
learned to see and returned, as for the rest recovered as well, home.
On the 19th March May's mother was
engaged as a midwife by the Ernstthal council.
May was torn away from the world of fairy tales of his grandmother. The
rough education methods of his father shook May's psyche as from now:
On the weaver's stool hung a three times twisted rope, which was leaving blue marks, and behind the oven was the well-known 'Johny-the birch', especially feared by us children, because father was fond of soaking it before thrashing us in a big pot with warm water, to make it more elastic and
2nd June: His sister Ernestine Pauline was born.
Karl May entered school. The classes in the Ernstthal primary school are
overcrowded; one teacher had approximately 90 pupils to teach. What Karl
did not learn there, his father hammered into him. The boy should have it
better in life. In such way Karl was forced in the following years to read
innumerable, partly scientific books, ordered by his father. The spare
free time Karl spent with his godfather, the widely travelled master smith
Christian Weißpflog, listening to his exotic tales.
May became a drummer boy with the 7th Militia company of Ernstthal, in
which his father served as lance-corporal. His father exercised and
drilled him in various war games.
9th June: May's sister Karoline Wilhelmine was born, the
"Le Coureur des Bois" [Der Waldläufer] is published, which May twenty-nine years later
reworked for young readers.
in this year: moving into the house of master weaver Selbmann:
Puppet theater in Ernstthal.
Now came the day in which a world open to me, that never let me go
loose again. The theater arrived. Even if only a quite ordinary, miserable
puppet show, but nevertheless a theater. They performed in master weaver's
house. The best places were three pennies, than two pennies, and the next
one penny, children paid half. I was allowed to attend with my
This cost us fifteen Pfennigs for both of us. They performed: "The
Miller's Rose or the Battle at Jena." My eyes burned; I was glowing
inside. Puppets, puppets, puppets! However for me they were alive. [My
Life and Aspirations, p.55.]
7th April: Birth of a brother Heinrich Wilhelm;
he died already a few months later on the 20th September. On the 30th
November died Christiane Friederike Weise, May's grandmother on mother's
side, 64 years old.
August: May's sister Anna Henriette was born; she also died much too soon,
a few weeks old, on the 4th September.
education mistake started by May's father, to hammer the "knowledge"
into his son, may have in this year reached the first high point. Karl May
writes in the so appropriately named chapter "Without Youth" in
He brought all possible so called learning material
together, without being able to make a choice or to set an orderly line to
follow. He brought everything my way what he found. I had to read this or
even to copy it, because he thought that in such way I could remember it
better. What had I to go all through! Old prayer books, arithmetic books,
biology writings, scientific treatises from which I did not understand one
word. A German geography from the year 1802, over 500 pages thick, I had
to transcribe in order to remember better the data. They of course were no
longer valid! I sat whole days and half the nights long, to cram these
useless, unnecessary stuff into my head. It was an overload and excessive
load unparalleled. [My Life and Aspirations, p.53]
May is getting privately language tutoring, which he must finance himself.
Twelve years old by now, he has to work as a skittle boy in the
neighbouring Hohenstein in a pub Engelhardt - sometimes until midnight!
There he hit upon the lending library: "Rinaldo Rinaldini, the Chief
of Robbers" - "Himlo Himlini, the Chief of Robbers in Spain
..." - "Sallo Salini, the Most Formidable Chief of Robbers
...", are the names of his heroes who became his imaginary idols.
5th May: Birth of his brother Karl Hermann, who dies already
on the 15th August.
July: May's brother Karl Heinrich was born; this child also dies after a
short time on the 30th October.
Flight from reality!
lessons were cold, strong, hard. Any trace of poetry was missing. Instead
of making one happy, to inspire, it repeled. The lessons in religion were
such that one could not have become enthusiastic about them in the least.
The book, which I read, had the title 'The Robber's Den in
Sierra Morena or the Angel of All the Outcasts'. When father came home and
then went to sleep, I got out of bed, sneaked away from the room and got
dressed. Then I wrote a note: 'You don't have to work out your hands until
they bleed; I am going to Spain, I bring help!' I put this note on the
table, stuck a piece of dry bread into my pocket with a few pennies from
my skittle job, went down the steps, opened the door, took once more a
deep and sobbed breath, but quietly, quietly, so that noone could hear,
and went then with subdued steps down the market place and the Niedergasse
out, the Lungwitzer way, which led over Lichtenstein to Zwickau, towards
Spain, into Spain, the land of noble robbers, who helped those in need. -
- - [My Life and Aspirations, p.79]
Karl did not go far, his worried father brought him home.
I have never felt more clearly as then, how he really loved me. [p.93]
Palm Sunday, the 16th March: Karl May was confirmed.
Michaelis. 29th September: He became a Proseminarist at the
Teacher's Institute in Waldenburg.
On the 22nd November Emma Lina Pollmer was born, May's first
wife, in Hohenstein; her mother died on the 4th December because of
May fell in love with the fifteen year old Anna Preßler from Ernstthal.
He composed words and wrote music for a love song, which he played for her
on a guitar:
I am with you
And wherever you are,
You are with me.
let go off you,
this I can not do,
'cause you are my everything,
you are the light of my life!
May's sister Maria Lina was born; she died on the 13th December.
July the sixteen year old Anna Preßler marries a shopkeeper Carl Hermann
Zacharias, by whom she expects a child. The grief stays deep in Karl May,
he will never get over it.
May writes his first Indian story and sends it to the
"Gartenlaube" magazine. Ernst Keil, the editor, rejects the -
today lost - early work.
November May is on duty responsible for lightings at the Teacher's
Institute in Waldenburg. At this opportunity he embezzles six candles,
which he intends to use for a X-mas tree in the wretched parent's house.
On the 21st and 22nd December this affair is investigated by the director
of the Institute, Schütze.
Expelled from the Teacher's Institute.
4th March: May's sister Emma Maria is born;she died on the 5th August.
6th March: Supported by Ernstthal parish priest Schmidt, May submits a
plea for mercy to the Saxonian Ministry of Education. The director of the
Institute Schuetze, who in the meantime regrets his harshness, supplies a
4th June: May is allowed to continue with his education at the Teacher's
Institute in Plauen. There he suffers, as many of his school mates do,
from the spying system of the school directors; they are interested in the
intimate sexual life of the students.
and 12th September: May completed his final examinations.
13th September: His leaving certificate had the final mark "passed".
May is active as a temporary teacher only from 7th October
until 19th October in Glauchau. It came to a jealousy scene with his room
landlord Ernst Theodor Meinhold. The businessman surprised May, as he
kissed his nineteen-year old wife Henriette, whom he was giving piano
lessons. Meinhold reported this romance to the superintendent Carl Wilhelm
Otto - Karl May was dismissed on the spot.
His next teacher's position became May's undoing. In
Altchemnitz, where he worked from 6th November as a factory teacher at the
Firma Solbrig, he had to share his living quarters, a room and a bedroom,
with their book-keeper Julius Hermann Scheunpflug.
He had until now both this to himself; and now I was to
lodge with him ... Because of that he lost his comfort ... He got from his
parents a new pocket watch. The old one, which he now no longer needed,
hung unused on a nail on the wall. It was worth at the most twenty marks.
He offered it to me to buy, because I had none; however I declined,
because if I wanted to buy sometime a watch, it would have to be a new,
better one. Of course this was far in the future, as I had to pay off
first my debts. Now he himself made a proposal to me to take his old watch,
when I go to school, as I was obliged to be punctual. I agreed and was
thankful to him for that. At the beginning I hang the watch, as soon as I
came back from school, immediately back on the nail. Later it was
postponed for a while; I kept it for hours in my pocket, because to show
all the time, that it does not belong to me, seemed to me not diligent,
but ridiculous. In the end I took it even when I went out and hung it only
in the evening, after I came home, in its place and position. A really
friendly or even cordial relation never eventuated between us. He
tolerated me because he had to and let me from time to time deliberately
notice, that he does not like sharing the flat. [Life, p.103f.]
The X-mas holiday started.On the 24th December May hurries
directly from school to the railway station and travels home; he takes the
watch with him. There he is arrested. He is supposed to have stolen the
watch, a tobacco pipe and a cigaret holder from his flat mate. May is
"I started foolishly to deny the possession of the watch;
however it was found after a search. So the lie destroyed me instead of
saving me; that she does every time; I was a - - - thief!" [p.107]
May's description is credible. Through the intrique of the
book-keeper innocent in custody - professional career ruined! This 'event
had an effect on me like a blow, like a blow on the head, under which
force one breaks down. And I collapsed!" [p.109]
was most probably - the proceedings have not survived - sentenced because
of "unlawful use of someone else's possession" according to Art.
330, Abs. 3, [German Law]. The highest punishment was imposed: six weeks
imprisonment. Clemency petition was refused.
From the 8th September till the 20th October:
Stay in prison at Chemnitz.
According to the present interpretation of law May would not have been
imprisoned. This fatal blow resulted in permanent ban on becoming a
6th December: May was called for military
service examination and found "unfit for service".
performed at "music - poetic evening entertainments" in
Ernstthal. His living he made by private tutoring. On the 12th February he
was reported because of this to the teacher's college; the school
inspection found out about this through a letter of Ernstthaler's priest
Schmidt from 20st March.
20th June: May's name was removed from the list
of the Saxonian teacher's candidates. To give private lessons was
explicitly forbidden to him. His civilian existence was destined to fail.
It was as if I had brought home from the
prison cell in which I spent six long weeks, a whole crowd of invisible
criminal characters, who made it their business to settle down with me and
make me one of them. I did not see them; I saw only the darkest, sneering
main figure from the domestic swamp and from Hohenstein's trash novels;
they talked to me, they influenced me. And when I struggled against, they
became louder to stun and wear me out, in order to loose my strength to
resist. The main idea was for me to take revenge, revenge on the owner of
the watch who reported me, only to get me out from his flat, revenge on
the Police, revenge on the judge, revenge on the Government, on
humankind,altogether on everyone! I was an exemplary person, white, pure
and innocent like a lamb. The world cheated me out of my future, my life
happiness. How? By remaining what they have made out of me, namely a
This was what the tempters inside me asked me to do ... I
resisted as much as I could, as far as my strength lasted. I gave to all,
what I wrote at that time, in particular to my village stories, an ethical,
a strongly law abiding, a faithful-to-king tendency. I did that to prop up
not only others,but also myself. But how hard, how endlessly hard it was
for me! When I did not do as the loud voices inside me asked to do, I was
overwhelmed from them by scornful laughter, by swearing and curses,
lasting not only for hours, but for half days and whole
nights long. I jumped from my bed, to escape these voices,
and ran out into the rain and
snowstorm. [Life, p.117f.]
really suffered from considerable psychological disturbances, ran out at
night in the rain, shows his from that time originating poem:
know the Night, descending on Earth,
With hollow wind and heavy deluge;
Thick Night, through which starshine is given no berth,
No eyes see through the weather's dense wall?
Even if this Night is gloom, in morning there is refuge;
O lie down in rest and sleep without fear!
know the Night, descending on Life,
When Death tracks you down in your last camp;
The call of eternity sounding close by,
And fear stops still your heart's pulsing call?
Even if this Night is gloom, in morning there is a refuge;
O lie down in rest and sleep without fear!
know the Night descending on your Mind,
Which cries in vain, Salvation!
Night's serpent slithers into memory
And a thousand demons spit in your brain?
O keep away in sleepless consternation,
Because this is The Night that has no
At first May
struggles succesfully against these "thousand devils". He writes
for the Ernstthal's choir "Lyra" a whole series of his own
is registered to stay in Nausslitz near Dresden. Nothing is known about
this time. In the second half of the year he most probably trails a
theater group through Saxony and maintains as well amorous relationship
with a ballerina from the theater - and ballet group H. Jerwitz from
Leipzig. Nearly 21 months passed since May's six-week detention in
Chemnitz. Now he lost his composure:
This night [in my
soul] was not completely dark, it had twilight. And strangely it reached
only the soul, but not the spirit. I was sick in my soul, but not in my
mind. I had the capability to reach logical conclusions, to solve every
mathematical problem. I had the most acute insight into all what was
outside myself, but as soon as this came close, to enter into a relation,
the understanding ceased. I was not in a position to look at myself, to
understand myself, to guide myself and to manage. [Life, p.111]
The "thousand devils" led Karl May on the 9th July
to Penig. There he called himself "Dr. med. Heilig", "Eye
doctor" and "previously with the military" from Rochlitz.
He had pieces of clothing made to measure and disappeared without paying.
Before that he wrote a prescription in Latin for a young man with sore
16th December: In Chemnitz May emerges as "Seminary
teacher Ferdinand Lohse" and rents in a hotel "Zu goldener
Anker" two interconnected rooms. There he had delivered various
ladies furcoats. He takes them into the next room to a "sick
Director" and disappears then with the furs.
February: In Gohlis May lives at a steelworker Schule. On the 20th March
he looks up, as "Coppersmith Hermes" the Godfather of thieves
and merchants, the furrier Friedrich Erler and relieves him from a castor
fur. A day later May pawns the fur with an unsuspecting broker in
Leihhaus. During an attempt to collect the proceeds May was seized on the
26th March in Rosenthal, a park area between Gohlis and Leipzig, when a
hatchet "under his jacket was seen to glitter."
At the office room he is "quite motionless and
apparantly lifeloss and also, after the Police doctor was called in, he
did not speak." Such an apathy recorded on files makes one think!
Some time passed until May reacted to talking to and confessed all.
8th June: Karl May was sentenced by district court in Leipzig
"because of repeated frauds" to four years and one month in
penitentiary. On the 14th June he was delivered to the prison "Schloß
Osterstein". May is now a prisoner "No. 171". He was
detailed to an office, failed however such duties because of psychological
19th September: May's fairy-tales-story grandmother dies 85
is detailed to making money- and cigar wallets.
supervisor Friedrich Göhler discovers May's music talent. May advances to
trombone player and becomes a member of the prisoner's church chorus.
Presumably towards the end of the year he is named a "special clerk"
to the Inspector Kreil and transferred into an isolation block. The
voluminous prison's library changes his imprisonment time into a study
draft appears: the Repertorium C. May.
2nd November: May is, because of good behaviour, "as the result of
the very most clemency", released from jail 253 days earlier than
originally anticipated - with a certificate of trustworthiness. At home he
finds out about the death of his fairy-tales-story grandmother. This news
disturbes again his psychological equilibrium.
The previous suffering started again, the previous torture,
the previous struggle with incomprehensible forces, which were even more
dangerous as I could absolutely not discover, if they were parts of myself
or not. ... they demanded as before, that I should take revenge. Now even
with a right to revenge myself, for the lost, precious time in jail! [Life,
May tries to escape these "incomprehensible forces".
He writes for the Dresden's publisher Münchmeyer some texts which today
beginning of the year May gets to know a housemaid Auguste Gräßler from
Raschau. From this acquaintance develops a love affair.
On the 29th March May conducts a search in Wiederau as a
"Police lieutenant from Wolframsdorf at Leipzig" at shopkeeper's
Carl Reimann premises for counterfeit money. Allegedly finding some, he
takes Reiman for "Interrogation" to an inn and disappears then
without a trace.
10th April: May searches again for counterfeit money at the
house of a rope-maker Krause in Ponitz. The action fails. May gains a
standoff with an unloaded double barreled pocket pistol and resorts to
"flight across a field." He keeps always disguised and wears
false beards. In Ernstthal he gives the impression that he emigrated to
From the 3rd May to the 5th May he is in Jöhstadt; there he
visits in the evening of 3rd May the theater.
Whitsuntide, 16-17th May: In Schwarzenberg May meets for the
last time his sweetheart Ausguste Gräßler. On the 27/28th May makes the
Eisenhöhle [a cave in the forest], north from Hohenstein, his place where
he stays. With a pram (!) he transports odd objects in there, which he was
supposed to steal from his godfather Weißpflog.
31st. May: In Limbach May takes a set of billiard balls from
the restaurant of Victor Reinhard Wünschmann and departs to Chemnitz to
sell them, however this failed due to alertness of two policemen.
3./4th June: In a stable in Bräunsdorf May steals from the
owner of the inn Schreier a horse together with a snaffle, riding crop and
neck straps; then he rides off. A few hours later his attempt to sell the
horse to a slaughterman fails.
15th June: In Mülsen St. Jacob May puts an appearence as the
"Deputy of the lawyer Dr. Schaffrath in Dresden" and entices the
baker Wappler to go to Glachau in a matter of inheritance. Meanwhile May
introduces himself to his wife who stayed home as a Policeman and
confiscates 28 Talers as "counterfeit money."
At the end of June May steals from the bowling alley of the
restaurant Engelhardt in Hohenstein a towel and a cigar pipe. On the 2nd
July, at night at 3 AM, he is discovered there sleeping and "after a
short struggle" overpowered and taken to jail in Wiederau.
5th and 15th July: Confrontations at Wiederau and Mülsen
St.Jacob. 26th July: On the way to a further confrontation at Braeunsdorf
May escapes his guard ; he should have broken his "iron handcuffs."
Despite a big search action in the forests of Hohenstein on the 6th and
7th August May stays at large.
In late summer he emerges in Siegeldorf by Halle. He
introduces himself as "Writer Heichel from Dresden", later as
the "natural son of the Prince von Waldenburg", and meets the
housekeeper Malwine Wadenbach, whom he might have known from before.
Further May's presence is known at Ellersleben, Plößnitz and Coburg.
At Niederalgersdorf (Bohemia) May is seized as a tramp in a barn. He calls
himself "Albin Wadenbach", landowner from Orby on the island of
Martinique, West Indies. A photograph had him convicted.
14th March: May is brought into jail at Mittweida. On the
13th April he is sentenced by the district court at Mittweida: "by
him deserved, because of simple and cunning thefts, frauds, and frauds
under aggravating circumstances, also for repeated unlawful theft and
falsification, in due consideration of him being a habitual offender,
sentenced to a jail term of 4 years and repayment of the investigation
As the respected legal expert Professor Dr. Claus Roxin
established, it could not be excluded, "that May suffered from
disturbances of consciousness, which would exclude his criminal
responsibility in the sense of paragrraph 51 StGB [German Law] or at least
considerably decrease his responsibility." [Karl May: Criminal Law
and Literature, Tübingen 1997, p.47.]
Following a medical study by Dr. William E. Thomas, an
Australian physician, May suffered from
Dissociative Identity Disorder and was therefore not legally
responsible for his actions.
The psychiatrist and neurologist Edgar Bayer (from a clinic in
Guenzburg) made an assumption of an “asocial personality disorder” during
the drifting period in May’s life, resulting therefore in a diminished
Whatever the emotional state of Karl May could have been, the
damage which May caused by his offences, reached altogether not even 1000
(one thousand) Marks. “May had later, when he earned money, given away to
the needy many thousands Marks, and also earnings and income from his
books was left to a Foundation for writers with no monetary means. Also
the honest content,” as Claus Roxin points out, “of his books as a basic
thought - does not correspond with the previous accusation.
3rd May: Commencement of jail term in penitentiary Waldheim.
May is now a prisoner "No. 402"and comes into isolation. At
least for 13 hours daily he works as a cigar maker. Probably at first
"No. 402" does not fulfil his work assignment, as he is
presumably because of this disciplinary punished by reduced pay.
work by May is according to the prison rules at Waldheim fully excluded!
"Writing material will be granted to the prisoners in each individual
case in the necessary quantity by the Institution on receiving of payment,
as will the envelope, in which every letter must be included. To bring
more writing material is forbidden. Every prisoner has to return back so
much paper as he was given, written on or clear, as well as ink and
pencils." [Paragraph 50]
Indications for a prison's psychosis of May in connection
with his term in isolation, as mentioned occasionaly in the secondary
literature, do not exist. Such an event would have to resemble in his
works; this however is not the case. May suffered not from the isolation,
it was to him even pleasant.
catechist Johannes Kochta became May's fatherly friend. Meeting with
Catholics left in May a lasting impression; he discovered himself.
29th April: May's 25 year old sister Ernestine Pauline dies
if a Lutheran, May plays the organ at Catholic mass-services.
May is until
the beginning of March occupied in the prison library.
2nd May: Release from prison. May is put for the next two
years under Police supervision. Reflections in his later writings point at
him working at first as a blacksmith's helper at his Godfather Weißpflog.
In summer he writes Die Rose von Ernstthal.