It was September 18, 1989, when a confused and disheveled girl approximated to be between the ages of 14 and 15-years-old walked to the front desk of William B. Jack Elementary School in Portland, Maine. The girl couldn’t speak but began frantically motioning with her hands as if she were attempting to communicate something to the school staff. A front desk worker recognized the motions as American sign language and determined that the girl was signing “Help me.”
No one at the school knew what to make of the girl. Staff would transport the young lady to a nearby school for the deaf where she would live throughout the investigation. With the help of the FBI, police learned that the girl, identifying herself as Toby Cole, had been the victim of sex trafficking. Cole explained through sign language and drawings that she had been kidnapped from a California foster home by a man in a van in 1986 and forced to live with a group of Satanists. From there, the girl was shuttled around the United States and possibly Canada, before making her escape in Maine.
Police, who were told that “Toby Cole” may have been a name given to the teen by her captors, began looking into missing persons reports. After conducting checks with multiple agencies, detectives found no reports matching the girl’s name, description, or birthday, which Cole told investigators she believed was Christmas Day 1974.
FBI Agent Paul Cavanagh said in a press release cited by the AP, “Toby has indicated that she is not sure Toby Cole is her real name but is the name given to her by her abductors, She stated she believes she is 15 years of age and possibly was born on Dec. 25, 1974. Toby seems to possess a good vocabulary and is far ahead of children in her age bracket in intelligence and communication skills.”
Cole’s story would become even more perplexing a month later when investigators determined that the girl’s story was a hoax. Toby Cole was never kidnapped and she wasn’t a teen. Identified as 27-year-old Margaret Louise Herget, Toby Cole was found to be one of a dozen aliases used by the woman. Reports indicate that Herget had been living with her parents in Sandy, Oregon up until a few months before she appeared at the front desk of William B. Jack Elementary. According to an October 28, 1989 update on the bizarre story printed in the Orlando Sentinel, Herget had recently moved from her parents’ home in Oregon to live on her own in Louisiana. Investigators later told the press that Herget would not be charged for the hoax.
To this day it is not known how the woman was able to travel to Maine within days of being spotted in Louisiana or why she had fabricated the story, but it should come to little surprise that some have drawn parallels to the mysterious case of Kaspar Hauser.
On May 26, 1828, like Herget, Hauser mysteriously appeared on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. The boy was described to be in his teens and carried along with him two letters. One, allegedly from his mother, noted that the boy’s name was Kaspar Hauser, that he had been born on April 30, 1812, and that his father, a cavalryman, had died. A second letter, alleged to have been penned by a former caretaker, also made mention of his father being a cavalryman and claimed that he had taken custody of Hauser as an infant. During his time with his caretaker, the letter alleged that Hauser had lived in complete isolation but was educated to read and write.
Unlike Herget, Hauser was imprisoned as a vagabond while German authorities attempted to verify the boy’s identity. During his imprisonment, many locals took pitty on the boy and money was raised to see that the mysterious young man received an education. Hauser would later tell many different and often conflicting stories about his life, leading some to suspect that his story was an elaborate hoax. Others, however, rejected the hoax theory and believed that the boy may have descended from royalty. To this day Kaspar Hauser’s true identity remains a mystery.
Was Margaret Louise Herget inspired by the story of Kaspar Hauser in creating this hoax or was there some other explanation behind her bizarre story? Without Herget ever coming forward to explain her motive, like the identity Kasper Hauser, we are only left to wonder.