Tuesday, January 22, 2008


It was 'A Remarkable Wager'. A man wearing an iron mask. Pushing a pram. Full of photograph. Must find a wife along the way. Visit three towns in each county of England. Make his way around the world visiting each country and city on the list. It would take 6 years. And for the princely sum of $100,000. An astonishing tale. But was it true? A Big Retort exclusive...

Following a journey from the centre of London, after passing through Woolwich, the Iron Mask and his unnamed companion continued on to Bexleyeath. Things had gone extremely well and so they decided to stay the night at the Upton Hotel. The next morning however disaster struck... As they sold their wares at the Broadway they came under the 'unsympathetic' gaze of a police sergeant.

Seemingly the only man in England who could spot a 'con' at twenty yards, PS Martin later told the court that he saw the defendant selling photos and pamphlets. He asked if he had a certificate and the defendant said 'No, I don't go from house to house.' Witness said 'You go from town to town,' and defendant said 'Yes.' The Iron Mask was then taken into custody.

That night, the 3rd January, allowed bail the Mask and his companion stayed at the George and Bull Hotel to await his fate. The trial, which would be heard in the morning of the 4th had been brought forward a week by considerate Dartford magistrates. "To suit the convenience of the globe trotters."

The Time: 3rd January, 1908, 1pm. The Place: Dartford Police Court.

"'Henry Mason' was called, and a voice from the mask replied 'That's my name, sir,' " the court reporter wrote. He continued... "He was charged 'that on the third of January of this year, in the Parish of Bexley, you unlawfully did act as a pedlar without having a certificate authorising you to do so.' The magistrate inquired if the man was bound to keep that mask on. Mr Clinch (for the Prisoner) said he was going to ask the Court's indulgence 'by and bye'. He was going to ask the magistrates to allow the man to wear the mask during the trial. He pleaded guilty on his behalf to the charge."

"His head and chest were covered by a shiny black contrivance which seemed to be a combination of an ancient warrior's visor and breastplate, and on a kind of a signpost on top of it were the words in white letters "A £20,000 (sic) wager."---------------------------------------------------------------------------

When it became known that the Masked Man was to appear at the Dartford Police Court a large crowd had gathered. "He was," the reporter continued, "apparently a young man, judging from his brisk step and as much of his figure as could be seen, attired in a tourist suit and knickers." (The last item not carrying the same meaning 100 years later.)

A mystery inside an ancient mask. As he appeared in the main streets he was treated like the Edwardian equivalent of a superstar. The question on everyone's lips: Would he remove it.

There was general curiosity as to whether the strict rules, compelling all to remove their headgear would be enforced by the court . Amazingly, although it may seem odd in our post 9-11/7-7 world, it was not, and so the Masked Man entered the dock 'without removing his head and shoulder gear' and the police made no request. (The court reporter also claimed that on "a signpost on top of it (the helmet) were the words in white letters 'A £20,000 wager." Which differs from the postcards and other reports. An error perhaps.)

The court reporter recorded dryly... "The magistrates apparently saw the humorous side of the affair, and the strict lines of Court routine were allowed to become unusually elastic for the occasion."

"THE MASKED MAN" "HELD UP BY A BEXLEYHEATH SERGEANT" "A COMEDY IN DARTFORD POLICE COURT" ran the headlines a week later. (Bexleyheath Observer, Jan 10, 1908, p5, col c.)

'Henry Mason' stood in the dock awaiting his fate from behind the confines of an iron helmet. He was quite fortunate... Had the magistrates known who really stood before them the helmet would surely have been exchanged... for iron bars. Mason of course was not his real name. Iron Mask - quite craftily - had put forward this 'nome de convenience', if the bad French may be forgiven, in place of his own.... Harry Bensley. It was a remarkable performance of deception and revealed what a master manipulator he was.

"He had given a certain name but he was sure it would not influence the Court one way or the other," Bensley's lawyer said. (In other words the name given was not really his.) The court transcripts published in the same paper reveals the astonishing depths of Bensley's chutzpah.

The Chairman: As far as the name is concerned, we are not anxious to know the (his real) name.

Mr Mitchell: Wearing a mask is part of getting his living is it?

Mr Clinch said it was not part a question of a 'living' but it would take too long to explain. Clinch elaborated on the conditions of the wager and explained why he was selling the postcards at Bexleyheath. He started from London and went through the Strand and other thoroughfares in London and was not bothered by police. The police too took interest in his venture and purchased some postcards.

Mr Mitchell: Have they (the police) anything to do with the wager? (laughter)

Mr Clinch: I believe not, but they were interested. Clinch referred to 'No 10' of the conditions. This stipulated that the mask should be worn in public places. The court room was such a place and it was 'imperative' to the masked man to preserve this restriction.

The Chairman: If we told him to take off the mask it would be an end of the whole business?

Mr Clinch: I'm afraid it would. [Certainly true... Harry Bensley had been released from prison a month previous.]

The Chairman: We will allow the mask to remain under the circumstances.

Mr Clinch: Thank you, sir. Another condition is No.12. which somewhat puzzles me. It provides that he shall find a wife on the road (laughter). [Bensley was already married, to two women. One bigamously. The latter part led to his term in prison.]

The Chairman said that the mask would not help him much.

Mr Mitchell: Wouldn't he have a better chance at Gravesend (laughter).

Mr Clinch: I should be nearer home. I might be able to find him one there (laughter). Whether or not the wager commended itself to the Bench, it was clear that the man had not the slightest intention on infringing the law. He started in a busy place like London and was not interfered with. He asked the Bench to deal leniently with him, and suggested that considering the special circumstances justice would be met by ordering the man to pay the costs. He expressed his thanks to each magistrate for coming there and holding a special court to suit his convenience. He would not like them to go away without assuring them that he fully appreciated their consideration. If they would like to see photos he had some there.

Mr Mitchell: We've got the genuine article (laughter).

Mr Clinch: That's something better.

The Chairman asked about these photos. The gentleman there who was going with the defendant seemed to have a certificate, while the other had not. Did the goods offered for sale belong to the masked gentleman?

Mr Clinch (cautiously) : I never like to dive into these things too closely (laughter). I should not be surprised if this was not a joint speculation.

Mr Mitchell: Is the perambulator to put his wife in when he finds her (laughter).

The Chairman said that this was a somewhat different case from the ordinary. As a rule when a pedlar came there he had been locked up all night, and they took that into account and let him go. This defendant had no punishment at all. It was not a serious matter, and they would only inflict a small fine of a half-a-crown including costs, or four days. Of course, if he continued acting as a pedlar without a license he would be again dealt with, and a record of that case would be handed in against him. If he continued to act as a pedlar he must get a license. [END.]

Coming soon from TheBigRetort... how Harry Bensley came up with the idea of the Iron Mask Wager, from his prison cell.

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