The lost dauphin — or part of him, at least — has finally been laid to rest and so, perhaps, has the myth of the escaped Louis XVII. The boy prince was jailed during the Revolution by "the Shoemaker", Antoine Simon, a Communard who was eventually killed in the 9 Thermidor coup. Simon and his wife brutalized the young Louis, and his death from tuberculosis in 1795 must have been something of a surcease of pain. However, in the years after his death, more than two dozen claimants to the prince’s title appeared. Most of them were obvious frauds (although American missionary Eleazer Williams influenced Huckleberry Finn and inspired an opera), but one, Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, convinced several people who knew the real Prince Louis and managed to get the Netherlands to acknowledge him as the rightful heir to the throne of France. Royalty who die under mysterious circumstances have a knack for showing back up. Henry VII had to deal with two pretenders: Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, and Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be Edward, Earl of Warwick. The two "false Dmitris" each briefly managed to grab the throne in early 17th century Russia, the time of Boris Godunov. Anna Anderson convinced some German relatives of the House of Romanov that she was the miraculously survived Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaevna, daughter of the last Czar of imperial Russia; Anderson failed DNA tests, but did eventually marry an amateur historian. The appeal of being of royal blood — even when wholly invented — seems obvious. The winking acknowledgement that he was an utter fraud seems to have been part of the charm of Michael Alexandrovitch Romanoff (né Harry F. Gerguson), the Hollywood hanger-on, restauranteur, and supposed Russian prince of whom New Yorker writer Alva Johnston wrote, "He was repeatedly exposed, but exposure does not embarrass him greatly. He is widely admired today, not for his title but for his own sake. He has convinced a fairly large public that a good imposter is preferable to the average prince." The appeal of being vastly wealthy or linked to the vastly wealthy is self-evident as well; it was not for nothing that Cassie Chadwick began insinuating that she was Andrew Carnegie’s mistress. The names infamous but legendary must be similarly tempting; consider Brushy Bill Roberts‘ attempts to earn a pardon for the crimes he committed under the name "Bill Bonny", alias Billy the Kid, or J. Frank Dalton‘s explanation that he was really Jesse James (even if he had the wrong color eyes and didn’t know "his" brother’s full name).
Some choices, though, defy easy explanation. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell quotes the poet Edmund Blunden on a man Blunden met in the trenches at Béthune:
In the huts at Shoreham, months before, he had been wont to quote soulfully the wild-west verses of Robert Service…, cantering rhetoric about huskies and hoboes on icy trails; at length he had said, with the modest yet autoritative tone suitable to such a disclosure, "I am—Robert Service." Some believed. He never retreated from the claim; we heard it again in France; and the poor fellow was at last killed at Richebourg…in a hell more sardonic and sunnily devilish than ten thousand Robert Services could evolve, or wolves and grizzlies inhabit.
Robert Service, the author of Songs of a Sourdough, served in World War I as a war correspondent and later as an ambulence driver. In 1916’s Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, he wrote:
Just think! some night the stars will gleam
Upon a cold, grey stone,
And trace a name with silver beam,
And lo! ‘twill be your own.
Service died peacefully at his home in Lancieux, France, in 1958. Blunden did not know, or did not bother to record, "Robert Service"’s real name.