Is it possible for a man to walk round the world without showing his face? This was one of the those petty questions that arose when the members of London’s National Sporting Club gathered together after a good lunch one evening in 1907. John Pierpont Morgan, the American millionaire, and Lord Lonsdale, the sporting peer, were arguing over it. While Lonsdale said it could be done, Morgan strongly disagreed.
This heated argument resulted in a wager, and all that was needed was for someone to attempt the feat.
Enter Harry Bensley. A notorious 31-year-old “playboy” and womaniser with a substantial annual income of £5000, which came from private investments in Russia. Eager to get away from the monotony of the club life, Bensley offered his services to test the proposition on their behalf. The outcome of the exchange was that Lonsdale bet Morgan the then-extravagant sum of £21,000 that Bensley would complete a pedestrian circumnavigation incognito.
This is not entirely accurate according to Bensley’s great-grandson. Bensley had heavily gambled with the two men, put up all his fortune in a game and lost. Penniless, he pleaded with the others to accept some way to forfeit, and the two gentleman came up with the unlikely wager.
Bensley had to satisfy a stiff set of 15 conditions, including:
- Bensley was never to be identified.
- He was to walk around the world but first through 169 British cities and towns in a specific order; to prove his visit he would have to collect a signature from a local prominent resident. After that he would begin a tour of 18 countries and would have to visit them, also in a pre-specified order.
- He was to complete the journey wearing an iron mask weighing 2 kg (4.5 lb) from a suit of armour. Like the fictional character in the Dumas novel, Bensley would have to wear the mask at all times.
- Bensley was to finance himself, starting off with just £1 and selling picture cards about himself.
- Only a change of underwear was allowed.
- He was to push a perambulator (baby carriage) the entire journey.
- A paid escort was to accompany him to see that he fulfilled the conditions at all times.
- On the journey he was to find a wife without her seeing his face.
On the first day of 1908, wearing a 4.5 lb iron helmet and pushing a 200 lb spindly wheeled pram, he set off from Trafalgar Square, London amid cheering crowds.
Henry Bensley spent the next six and a half years on the road!
Various tales tell about his journey. He was said to be arrested in Bexleyheath, Kent, for selling postcards without a license and that the judge angrily demanded him to remove his mask. After Bensley explained the conditions of the bet, the judge charged him as “The man in the iron mask”, and fined him only 2s 6d. He was also said to have sold a postcard to Edward VII at Newmarket Races for £5. The king was fascinated and asked for his autograph, but since Bensley was fully aware that complying to do so would reveal his identity, he had to refuse. Another account of the story has Edward refusing to sign for Bensley.
Bensley pushed his pram across 12 countries. He had passed through New York, Montreal and Sydney. There is some dispute about the extent to which Bensley could have actually complied with the terms of the wager. There is no documentary evidence that he travelled far outside the British Isles but the legend claimed that he got as far as China and Japan.
He supposedly received 200 marriage offers, some from titled ladies, but he declined all of them. An unnamed newspaper was told to have promised £1000 reward to someone who would reveal his identity.
On 14 August 1914, Bensley found himself in Genoa, Italy, claiming to have completed 30,000 miles of the journey and having only seven more countries remaining on his itinerary.
But World War 1 had begun that month. As a patriotic young man, Bensley felt the need to join the forces. In order to return to fight for his country, he decided to abandon his mission. Morgan contacted him and called off the bet. Bensley was given a consolation prize of £4000, which he donated to charity. This is disputed by many because Morgan died in March 1913. Many claim that Bensley himself decided to quit the journey and fulfill his duty by enlisting in the army.
Bensley served in the British Army in the first year of the War, and was severely wounded. Consequently, he was invalided out of the army the following year. He was lucky to have survived, but not so fortunate enough two years later, when he lost his fortune in the Russian Bolshevik revolution, when his investments in Russia became worthless. Bensley was left destitute.
After the war had ended, he moved to live in Wivenhoe, Essex, with his wife Kate, who he might have been married to as early as 1898. He worked in low-status jobs like cinema doorman, a YMCA warden and was twice elected local councillor for the Labour Party. During the Second World War, he was a bomb checker at an ammunition factory.
On 21 May 1956, in Brighton, England, the man in the iron mask died in a bed-sitting room.
Featured header image source: Historic UK