It has nothing to do with Halloween, but it’s still a creepy image – a man forever locked in an iron mask, trapped without an identity until death. Of course, historians say it’s mostly fiction—while there was a famous masked prisoner, there was no real “man in the iron mask.”
Or was there? It turns out, history really does have a true tale of “the man in the iron mask,” but it takes place about 250 years after the French story made famous by Alexandre Dumas. The story most of us think of involves a prisoner held in the Bastille and other French prisons from 1669 to 1703. The French philosopher Voltaire theorized that the unknown prisoner, who was never seen without his mask, was the illegitimate older brother of King Louis XIV. Dumas took that story and elaborated it enough to create fodder for several movies, including one starring Leonardo DiCaprio. But he did some research too, or at least explored several theories about the prisoner in a series of books he co-authored about famous crimes and criminals.
And by the way, the mask was velvet, not iron. But who wore it?
It seems every few years a historian claims to have found the true identity of the man-in-the-not-really-iron mask. While they disagree on an actual identity, most believe he was the valet of an important high-ranking official and had to keep his identity secret to protect his own life. The most plausible theory is that he knew of some serious embezzlement on the part of his employer and was threatened with death if he were to reveal his identity. But because he was kept in such secrecy with extremely limited contact with others for so many years, the nameless man became quite famous soon after his imprisonment began. People theorized that he was the king’s brother or even his father, a disgraced general, the son of the deposed English king, or an Italian or French diplomat. Very likely, no one will ever know for certain and if the truth comes to light, it will not be nearly as much fun as the speculation.
But what about the real man in the iron mask? He was supposed to keep his identity secret too, but since his tenure in iron was limited, he was able to capitalize off his fame. Harry Bensley accepted a challenge that set him on a remarkable journey from 1908 to 1914. He agreed to attempt to walk around the entire world without being identified. Moreover, he had to raise money along the way to pay for the journey and find a wife during the journey, even though he could not reveal his identity. And for some reason, he had to push a baby buggy the whole way. If he completed all the terms of the bet, he would win an enormous sum of money.
Some say the whole thing was a hoax – he invented the story of the bet to make himself rich and famous. But regardless of why he started out on the journey, there is definite evidence that he did. And he sold postcards of himself along the way to earn money. On January 1, 2008 he set off wearing an iron mask from a suit of armor. Some time later in Kent, he was arrested for selling his postcards without a sales license. He appeared in court wearing the mask and was ordered to remove it. However, when he explained the bet, the judge allowed him to keep his identity secret. Thus, he was sentenced and fined as “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
He continued on his journey for six years and passed through 12 countries before the outbreak of WWI put a stop to things. After that, he ended up back in England, though accounts differ as to whether he came back as a patriot to fight for his country or simply returned because the bet was called off and his escapade had no further hope of financial remuneration. Speculations about Bensley’s life are almost as rampant as the speculation about the masked man who preceded him in France centuries earlier.
But he was, for a time, the real man in the iron mask, imprisoned not in the Bastille but in public and kept locked up for his own financial gain. And money wasn’t the only potential benefit. During his six years in a mask, he claimed to have received over 200 marriage proposals from all over the world.
Maybe Halloween isn’t the only day we should be wearing masks…
Thanks to The Official Harry Bensley website for providing some of the information and pictures for this article. If you enjoy reading about hidden identities, you might like my story Deceptive Behavior, which was inspired by Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer.” In both tales, a young lady who is mistaken for a maid decides to continue the deception to see what happens. (If you’re interested in getting a copy of the story, contact me directly because the publisher is closing down. And I can sell it for less than list price now!)