Sunday, January 20, 2008

Harry Bensley: What You Don't Know

In Edwardian England a man accepted an incredible wager: the prize - £21,000. It was set down by two notable men, J P Morgan (the wealthy banker) and the Earl of Lonsdale. But following several sightings around various cities and towns, "Iron Man", who pushed a pram 'throughout the world', face covered in an iron helmet, surviving only on the sale of pamphlets and postcards, disappeared like a phantom. Only to return 6 years later having 'nearly' completed his remarkable odyssey around the globe.

The story of The Man in The Iron Mask captured public imagination, then and now, and today people the world over are searching old newspapers and dusty archives in an effort to trace the footsteps of this intrepid perambulator.

TheBigRetort reveals all, for the first time...

Alleged Frauds

Four years before he took up his remarkable challenge, in 1904, Harry Bensley, then described as age "29", a labourer, appeared at Willesden Magistrates Court. Charged (on remand) with obtaining various sums of money 'by false pretences', the details of his arrest were indexed in the Times for various dates from September to November. This the first time the 'full' story of Bensley's escapades have been presented to a gullible public... and it makes shocking reading.

The scam

Bensley had claimed that he was the son of one Sir Robert Burrell, and as such was heir to extensive estates in Norfolk. He also made the claim that he was heir to his godmother's estate, also at Thetford, Norfolk, the late Mrs Holland. On his thirtieth birthday Bensley let it be known that he was due to inherit an impressive property and the thousands of acres of land that came with it. But there was one problem... or so Mr Bensley confided to his victims,. If he attempted to raise money against the value of his future inheritance then 'the whole of the estate fell into the hands of the trustees'.

He showed a Mr Jordan a telegram. It came from a moneylender offering him two hundred pounds against his future inheritance. However, although Bensley badly needed money, for some unexplained reason (perhaps a caveat in the 'will'), if he accepted the offer then this would thwart his inheritance. Or so he claimed...

By curious but timely coincidence, Mr Jordan (the victim of Bensley's scam) received two telegrams from the moneylender himself. This was most curious. Mr King offered him sums of £50 and £100 if he would 'induce' Bensley 'to accept this offer and a second one of £1000'.

And then there was Bensley's sister...?

She urged her brother to borrow £200 on 'his furniture' in order that he could go on a cruise with her. Bensley told Mr Jordan and a Mr Bradley, warehouseman (and is second victim), that he could not go on the cruise without the money. But, of course, there was that inheritance...

Bensley reeled his 'marks' in like two haddock on a fishing line. Messieurs Jordan and Bradley duly lent the money... but without surety. Bensley had instructed them to destroy any IOUs as these would stop his inheritance. Eventually nothing was heard from Harry Bensley. A visit to Thetford resulted in the police being called in.

A history of bogus claims

The claims were bogus. Harry Bensley was a well-practised fraudster with no regard for his victims or their families. "Jordan and Bradley had been defrauded of their lifelong savings and their provision for their children," the Times reported. 'Mr King' the moneylender did not exist. There was no relationship between Bensley and Robert Burrell (who was indeed wealthy, very alive, but had not received a knighthood). In what must have been a classic version of a long-firm fraud, Jordan and Bradley had been scammed.

Unknown to his victims Harry Bensley, using the alias "Harry Barker", had preplanned the whole thing, as far back as 1903. By the 17th May of the following year he had set sail on a ship headed for Sydney. Bensley had purchased the tickets, one for him and the others for his wife and child, with the first tranche of money he had taken from Jordan. This remarkable and elaborate deception, which revealed a degree of prescience found in a sociopath, had taken a year to complete, involved his 'wife' who was a seamstress, and was commenced by the same man who four years later would announce to the world that he had accepted a remarkable challenge, an astounding wager, (amongst others) to walk 'through' world, always wearing an iron mask, pushing a perambulator, picking up a wife, peddling photographs and pamphlets of his 'planned' endeavours - whilst keeping his identity secret. As we shall later discover there was a very good reason for this.

Harry's Game

On completion of this mammoth six-year task Harry Bensley was set to win an astonishing $100,000... a fortune back in those days. Or at last that is what Bensley claimed, for whatever Harry claimed should always have been taken with a (huge) pinch of salt. In fact, like all good tales there was (and is more) than meets the eye to this franky modern myth. Besides being a conniving, and rather nasty fraudster, Harry Bensley, a labourer and no more, was also a wife 'deceiver'.

In August 1898 he had married Kate Green, laundress, also of Thetford. The marriage produced two issue. At his later 1904 Old Bailey trial, the Common Serjeant heard that the family lived together until two years previous in Norwood. (Anthony road then Cobden road.) However, in July 1902, one year before he commenced his elaborate fraud on Messrs Jordan and Bradley, Mr Bensley - strangely now described as 'a remarkable man' (by some at least?) - deserted Kate his wife and their two children leaving them absolutely destitute. (Perhaps' remarkable' is the word.)

The barmaid and the bigamy

Sometime at this juncture, Harry Bensley had made the acquaintance of a barmaid in Norwood called Lily Chapman. (Listed as "Clapham" in some documents.) Ironically, it was a bigamous marriage to Lily that would catch up with Bensle. But that was after he absconded with Jordan and Bradley's money. Mr Bensley had presented himself as bachelor and heir to a large estate at Thetford to unsuspecting Lily. The modus operandi of the career criminal following its traditional agenda, Harry married Lily under the bogus surname "Burrell". Of course the representations he had also made to Lily were untrue, as indeed were those he would go on to make to Messrs Jordan and Bradley much later. He compounded this deception, the false pretences, by committing bigamy. He was still after all married to Kate Green. Another false representation that was soon to catch up with him.

At the Old Bailey, an additional charge was brought for 'feloniously and unlawfully inter-marrying (sic) with Lily Chapman at Marylebone Registry Office on February 5, 1903, his lawful wife, Kate Beasley (sic), being then and now alive'. (The Times, 11 Oct, 1904, p13, clmn c.)

Having upgraded to a 1st-class cabin with his new 'wife and child', "Harry Barker" - the name he travelled under - set sail on the 17th May with his wife and their child. Having paid £10 for each ticket, "Barker" upgraded to 1st-class passages for himself and his wife and child, a difference of £64 we are told. But all did not go as planned...

The arrest

The ship arrived at the Cape on the 4th June and a reception party awaited. Harry Bensley, son of a sawmill worker at Thetford, was 'nicked'. Brought to book by Detective Sergeant Cole and Detective Inspector Pollard, the prisoner was sent by Willesden magistrates to the Old Bailey. Finally, his deceptions had caught up with him. (Presumably he had more form as 'previous good character' is not recorded in any reporting on the trail.) Harry Bensley, aka Burrell, aka Harry Barker (etc) was sentenced to 4 years penal servitude. Significantly (or so it must surely seem later) he responded to the Common Serjeant at the Old Bailey, "Thank you, my Lord. I deserve it." Perhaps the first time that Harry Bensley had issued a truthful statement.

To follow in the TheBigRetort's buried news series, something the 'experts' and national newspapers missed completely... Iron Mask: The Truth Revealed.

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