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Eccentrics - iron mask

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156180.  Tue Mar 13, 2007 11:45 am Reply with quote

Q: Who was the real man in the iron mask?

In 1908, after a large lunch in the London's National Sporting Club, Pierpoint Morgan, the American millionaire, and the sporting peer Lord Lonsdale made a $100,000 bet that nobody could travel around the world without showing his face.

There was one taker. His name was Harry Bensley, a private-income playboy with links to Russian aristocracy. A stiff set of rules was drawn up, wherein it was stipulated that the traveller must:

a) wear a 5lb Dumas-like iron mask at all times to conceal his identity;
b) only take a change of underwear;
c) push a pram at all times;
d) take only £1 in his pocket;
e) sell picture postcards to pay his way;
f) find a wife on his travels (without her seeing his face).

A 'hands-off' escort travelled with him to make sure he stuck to the rules, and he set off from Trafalgar Square on January 1st 1908, amid cheering crowds. At Newmarket Races he sold a postcard to Edward VII, but refused to sign his autograph for fear of revealing his secret identity.

In Bexleyheath, he was arrested for selling postcards without a license, and during the court appearance the judge ordered him to remove his mask. Bensley pleaded with the judge, and told him of the nature of the wager, and the judge appeared to be a sporting chap and merely set a fine of a couple of shillings against 'The Man In The Iron Mask'.

On his travels he received hundreds of marriage proposes, but turned them all down. In 1914, after passing through Australia and New York, and with only a few countries left, he was stuck in Genoa at the outbreak of World War I. The wager had to be called off, but he was given £4,000 as a consolation prize, which he gave to charity.

Bensley lost all of his fortune during the 1917 Russian Revolution, and eventually died penniless in a Brighton bedsit.

There is some controversy over the exact nature of the wager, and the manner in which the bet was 'called off', but the travels are eccentric enough to stand on their own, I think.

Today his legacy lives on in Norfolk in Thetford’s Ancient House Museum, where details of his bet and some of the original postcards he sold are on permanent display.

Dumas's story The Man In The Iron Mask has caused a great deal of speculation over the character behind the eponymous character. Wikipedia mentions the most likely originator:
The first surviving records of the masked prisoner are from July 1, 1669, when Louis XIV's minister the Marquis de Louvois sent a masked prisoner to the care of Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the prison of Pignerol, then part of France.

although it seems to have been a 'black velvet mask' originally. Probably too much history/speculation to do anything more than comment upon it.

156202.  Tue Mar 13, 2007 12:07 pm Reply with quote

Of course in those days you could travel round the world, get fined two bob, get your underwear laundered once a week, and still have change from a pound.


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