Wednesday, January 23, 2008


In this edition of TheBigRetort we had hoped to bring you the answer to the question to which you have all been waiting: Did he or didn't he?

It began with a 'Wager', widely published in various media around the world, and possibly everyone and his dog - even those wizened moguls of Hollywood - now lay claim to the belief that Harry Bensley, the Man in the Iron Mask, walked around the world pushing a perambulator - for $100,000. The bet was placed by John Pierpoint Morgan and the Earl of Lonsdale. So it must be true, mustn't it?


Following the outset of his trek on the 1st of January 1908 various sightings took place of the Iron Mask, mainly throughout the south of England. (He was seen in our local Costcutter as late as last week. We jest, of course, and with good reason...) However, since leaving these shores, over 100 years ago, no account of his amazing exploits abroad have been unearthed, and certainly no one in Australia has come forward stating that they ran into a 'Pom' in an iron mask pushing a pram at a billabong. (If they did then it was like as not Ned kelly.)

Iron Mask simply vanished.

Until that is...
Bensley claimed that J Pierpoint Morgan called off the challenge due to the onset of the 1st World War - which started after he in fact died.

Much of our knowledge of Bensley's exploits come via a website with a family link.

The Official story [from the McNaught website.]
"Later in life he fell very ill. It was only now this his illegitimate son (Jim Beasley, my grandfather - Mother's side) found out about his father (Harry) and met him several times in Brighton hospital. (Apparently they looked almost identical.) Jim found him too late to be able to help, and Harry died in 1956, three months after their first meeting, back at home in his bedsitting room at 42 Riley Road, Brighton. Kate (his wife) was with him."

The Beasley-McNaught Connection
Harry Bensley's 'achievement' was represented by the Beasley/McNaught family, who claim their father/grandfather "Henry Claude Beasley" - not 'Bensley'? - was Harry's illegitimate son, born in 1908. This individual was referred to as "Jim" and is said to have tracked down his father (Harry Bensley) almost on his deathbed and then related details of that meeting to his own daughter. However, "Henry Claude Beasley" appears to be a totally different individual, with no known association to Harry Bensley; not even the same surname.
[The Beasley/McNaught family claim hinges on Harry providing false information and the surname being corrupted. Records do confirm that a"Henry Claude Beasley" was born on the 24th December 1908. But why should this be "Jim? In fact there is also another birth that we would submit. A "James Henry Beasley" is recorded on the 24th December (sic) 1906. (Note the day and month match.) Could Jim have targeted the wrong father? If so "Jim" made an error. James Henry Beasley died in Aug 1991 (aged 84) at Haywards Heath. If this is the same individual then he cannot be Harry Bensley's son, illegitimate or otherwise. Harry had been in prison either side of Jim's conception from 1904-1907.]
So why did Harry Bensley not complete his march around the world?
This is what the McNaught site has to say:

"... on reaching Genoa, Italy, in August 1914 and having covered 30,000 miles, with only six countries left to visit and 7,000 miles left to walk, the First World War broke out. Once again, there are conflicting reports of what happened next: (1) Being patriotic, he returned to England to fight for his country."

Harry Bensley was an asylum attendant based at Abbotts Langley in November 1915. [See Short Service Attestation (War Record) above. Kindly supplied by Was he invalided in the 'three year' service prior, which is recorded on it?]

The McNaught site continues...

"(2) Morgan, worried that his steel empire would be threatened by the outbreak of war, called off the bet. Harry was said to be devastated when Morgan's messenger (or telegram in one report) reached him with the news, and he returned to England, a devastated man. He was never to leave our shores again."

To be fair, the McNaught family acknowledge that J P Morgan died a year before the war, so he could not have 'worried' about the threat, and it seems strange to stress the claim in spite of it. To straighten the record, the (only) gentleman ever referred to in contemporaneous accounts was (initially) described as 'a well-known American millionaire...' The site's author, who expresses some doubt on the manner of the wager, says: "Choose which version you believe."

It also goes on to claim.... 'He fought in the army, but was invalided out after a year.' [In fact, according to the Short Service Attestation signed by Bensley (under oath) it records three months service only, in a depot at Aldershot with the 'Packers & Loaders Company'.

Could it be that Harry Bensley was invalided out of the Packers? The Attestation is hard to read, so it's possible. (See for the whole record.) The previous army service before he was an asylum attendant (at the Imbeciles Asylum, Leavesden) may have seen a prior injury, but none possibly gained in the trenches of the 1st World War. Like as not the injury may have been due to that heavy helmet he was wearing whilst loading munitions. ]

If we are to believe the myth, Iron Mask, having crossed through 10 countries - from the 1st January 1908 to the outbreak of war in August 1914 - after his receipt of that devastating telegram from a dead man (in Genoa, Italy) had, in 6 plus years or 80 months, with no time off for good behaviour, managed a mean average of 375 miles a month, or twelve miles a day around the planet. With a further '7000 miles left', he may have circumnavigated the globe for a journey that would take a further year and a half - if not for the War that is. Truly a remarkable man.

But that's if you believe the myth...

Even Harry Bensley's 'descendants' express doubts. "We have never seen evidence that he left Britain, and because no one knew who he was, he could have quite easily carried on living here."

Following, in TheBigRetort... the whole truth and nothing but... Or Harry's version of it.

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