Dr. William E. Thomas MD

Karl May – Running Away From Home

When Karl May was fourteen years and one month old, he ran away from home. This happened shortly before the March 16, 1856, the day of his confirmation.[1] The situation at home was very tense at that time. With limited means to support Karl, the only son, during his further education, a decision had to be made about his future.[2]

On the critical evening before, Karl's mother failed in her attempt to gain financial support from a local merchant, to help her son in financing his schooling.[3] The angry and easily excitable father left the house with a remark: »Karl will go to the seminary, even if I have to work my hands out until they bleed!«[4] This was more an expression of frustration and hopelessness than a moral support for his son.

Years later, in 1910, Karl May described the scene in his biography: »When father came home and then went to sleep, I got out from my 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!‹«[5]

Running away from home is classified as Conduct Disorder[6][7][8]. Only a few cases of running away from home are the result of pure impulse. Most of them are well premeditated and the reason to do so is diverse. As with other common child and adolescent psychiatric problems, child abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) is a significant factor responsible for its appearance. This pattern of behaviour predominantly affects boys and comprises the largest group of childhood emotional disturbances.

The following family factors are considered nowadays as contributing to conduct disorder during adolescence (12 to 16 years):[9]

There were at least four factors, which applied to the young Karl May’s domestic situation.

The boy did not get far, to say nothing about Spain. After five hours of walk, when he rested in a village where his relatives lived, his father caught up with him.[10] It is of interest that the father did not punish the boy. Perhaps he realized his part in the whole affair: »He, the irascible, easily excitable man, was behaving quite differently as usual. His eyes were wet. He did not say one word in anger. He embraced me and said: ›Never again do a thing like this, never!‹«[11]

Of course the father's motives could have been more selfish than altruistic. He led his fourteen years old son by hand on the way home. This may have been an expression of tender feeling. Also this body language sign might have indicated the father's guilty feeling that he caused the running away from home of his only son.

According to the present criteria the Karl May’s running away from home would not be considered as a true conduct disorder. The American Psychiatric Association classifies running away from home as follows: »has run away from home overnight at least twice while living in parental or parental surrogate home (or once without returning for a lengthy period)«.[12]

Conduct disorders are a complicated group of behavioural and emotional problems in youngsters. Research shows that the future of such youngsters is likely to be very unhappy if they and their families do not receive early, ongoing and comprehensive treatment. Many factors may lead to a child developing conduct disorder. Negative family and social experiences are among them. Treatment of children with conduct disorder is difficult as the causes are complex and each youngster is unique.

At present the management of conduct disorder consist of:[13]

Shortly after the incident of running away from home Karl May was admitted into the teachers college at Waldenburg. He started his training there at the beginning of the European school year cycle in September 1856 and became a boarder there. The educational program there was not fully remedial, as the later incident with the candles had shown.

Karl May’s running away from home when fourteen years old was an expression of stress and disturbing condition at home. In his biography Karl May wrote: »That what is described as ›Youth‹ I never experienced.«[14] What Karl May had been going through was a disturbed, stressful and traumatizing youth.


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[1] Karl May: ›Mein Leben und Streben‹, Olms Presse Hildesheim-New York 1997, p.365, note 89.

[2] In (1), p.77.

[3] In (1), p.78.

[4] In (1), p.79.

[5] In (1), p.79.

[6] Mental Health Practice Essentials. Australasian Publishing Co., Sydney 1998. p.66

[7] Pataki CS, Carlson GA: ›Affective disorders in children and adolescents‹. In: Tonge BJ, Burrows G, Werry J. editors: ›Handbook of studies on child psychiatry.‹ Amsterdam; Elsevier 1990, pp.137-160.

[8] Anderson JC: ›Conduct disorders‹. In: Tongue BJ. et alii – editors: ›Handbook of studies on child psychiatry‹, Amsterdam; Elsevier 1990, pp.283-298.

[9] In (6), p.67.

[10] In (1), p.92.

[11] In (1), p.93.

[12] ›American Psychiatric Association‹. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Fourth edition, Washington, DC.

[13] In (6), p.67.

[14] In (1), p.53.



Karl May aus medizinischer Sicht

Karl May – Forschung und Werk