Monday, 20 August 2012

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Diplomat

What became of Benjamin Bathurst?

                     It was a question often asked in the early ninteenth century, and one to which there was not, and is not, an easy answer. Benjamin Bathurst was the third son of Henry Bathurst, Bishop of Norwich, and was born on March 14th 1784. At a young age, he entered the diplomatic service and became Secretary of the British Legation at Livorno (Leghorn), Italy. In 1809, his relative, Earl Henry Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Foreign Department, sent him to Vienna, with the intention of re-establishing the British/Austrian alliance against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French. He was largely successful, as the Austrian Emperor Francis II declared war on the French soon afterwards, in the War of the Fifth Coalition, but the Austrians were defeated at the decisive Battle of Wagram in July 1809, (the largest European battle up to that date), and were forced into retreat. 

Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram

Benjamin Bathurst was immediately recalled to London, and considered travelling to the Adriatic to take a ship home via Trieste and Malta but instead decided the easier route was to go north, through the nominally neutral German states of the Confederation of the Rhine, to the port of Hamburg. 

He disguised himself as a merchant under the name of Baron de Koch, and with his secretary, Herr Krause, pretending to be a German courier, (calling himself Fischer), they took a light coach, stopping to change horses at Perleberg, west of Berlin, at about noon on November 25th 1809. The two men walked a short distance from the post-house to a nearby inn, The White Swan, where they ordered an early dinner. Bathurst was dressed in grey trousers and a grey frogged short-coat, over which he wore a sable-fur great-coat lined with violet velvet and matching sable hat, and in his scarf was a valuable diamond pin. He spent the afternoon writing letters and burning some papers, and went to a local Coffee House where he contacted Captain Klitzing, commander of a squadron of Brandenburg cuirassiers stationed in Perleberg, saying he was a merchant fearful of his safety and requesting soldiers to guard him. Klitzing noticed that the man was agitated and could not hold a cup to his lip without trembling, and assigned two cuirassiers to guard him. Bathurst went back to the inn and he slept fitfully on a table for a few hours, after counter-manding the orders for the horses until the evening, believing it would be safer to travel at night, when Napoleon’s spies might be less watchful. At seven he dismissed the guards and asked for the horses to be ready at nine, when he went outside to oversee the re-loading of his portmanteau onto the coach, stepped round to the heads of the horses — and was never seen again. 


The secretary Krause was not at first aware that Bathurst had gone – maybe he had returned to the inn, had gone back to Klitzing to ask for guards again, or had other business, but it was over an hour before the alarm was raised. When Captain Klitzing heard, he remembered Bathurst’s earlier agitation and immediately sent soldiers to seize the coach, placed Krause under guard in another inn, and at first light ordered a search of the woods and marshes, and had the river dragged. It was Sunday, so Klitzing went to Kyritz to advise his commandant, Colonel Bismark, and returned on Monday with full authority to investigate the disappearance. Krause, under guard, was escorted to Hamburg and thence to England, when the news, although several weeks old, aroused immediate concern. 

At the end of December 1809, Bathurst’s wife Phillida, together with her brother Mr Call, as part of a party including Heinrich Röntgen, left for Prussia, and on arrival at Perleberg she was shown the sable-fur coat and a pair of trousers which had been found in the woods, and which she identified as her husband’s. Bathurst’s expensive sable-fur coat had been found in the house of the Schmidt family on November 27th 1809 – Auguste Schmidt had been an ostler at The White Swan, where his mother also worked, and years later a woman who had worked at the Coffee House where Bathurst had first consulted Captain Klitzing reported that Auguste Schmidt had come to the establishment immediately after the Englishman had left and asked where he was going next, leaving quickly to follow him. Frau Schmidt claimed to have taken the coat from the inn, but we do not know if it was before, during or after the disappearance. Frau Schmidt and her son were sentenced to eight weeks imprisonment for theft of the coat.

The trousers were ‘found’ in the woods on December 16th by two old women out collecting sticks for fuel, - I say ‘found’ as the woods had already been searched by Klitzing’s men who had found nothing. It looks like they were subsequently planted, to add fuel to the tales of a French abduction. The trousers were inside out, and had two bullet holes in one leg, although there were no bloodstains. In the pocket was a sodden letter, half finished and scrawled in pencil, written by Bathurst to his wife and expressing his suspicions that a certain D’Antraigues would be the end of him, that he doubted he would ever see her again and begging her not to re-marry should he never return home.

Comte D'Etraigues

Substantial rewards for information were posted, which was perhaps unwise, as Prussia was populated with all manner vagabonds, thieves, refugees, deserters and mercenaries of all nationalities, and rumours and reports began to flood in. An exiled French nobleman and double-agent working for Napoleon, Comte D’Etraigues, claimed that French cavalrymen had abducted the British diplomat from the inn yard, and transported him to the fortress of Magdeburg (then in French hands), in the hope of capturing Austrian state papers he was rumoured to be carrying. When Mrs Bathurst contacted the Governor of Magdeburg, she was told this was untrue and was the result of a chance remark that had been overheard and misinterpreted. Mrs Bathurst later travelled to Paris, where she had an audience with Napoleon himself, who denied all knowledge of involvement by his agents and even offered her assistance.

In 1852, the skeleton of a murdered man was found in the cellar of a house that was being demolished in Perleberg and belonging to a stonemason called Kisewetter. The skull of the dead man had been fractured by heavy blow, which was undoubtedly the cause of death, and had been deliberately stripped of all clothing before being buried under what had been the kitchen of the house. Kisewetter said he had bought the house in 1834, from a man called Christian Mertens, who in turn had inherited it from his father, who had bought the house in 1803. Mertens Senior had been a servant at The White Swan in 1809, and in spite of living on a servant’s wages had been able to settle dowries of £150 and £120 respectively on his two daughters. Locals said old Mertens was well known to be a saving, steady, God-fearing man, and highly respected but £270 was an enormous amount for a servant to earn in an inn in out-of-the-way Perleberg. And what was he doing with a body buried in his kitchen? It so happened that Bathurst’s sister, the magnificently-named Tryphena Thistlethwayte, was in Perleberg at the time of the discovery and went to see the skull, which she dismissed as not being that of her brother (although quite how she knew, after almost fifty years, we are not told). In later years, two other skeletons were found in or about Perleberg, which had also met with violent ends and were inevitably claimed to be Bathurst.

So, what became of Benjamin Bathurst?

Benjamin Bathurst

Maybe Napoleon did order him to be kidnapped for the state papers in his possession, and maybe he did not order his murder. There were undoubtedly French spies abroad in Prussia at the time, and Bathurst would certainly have come to their notice. The Bathurst family maintained that this was the reason for the disappearance, and it must have given Earl Bathurst, who was by then the Secretary of State for War and the Colonial Department, both personal and professional satisfaction to sentence Napoleon to exile on St Helena in 1815. 

Maybe D’Antraigues had a finger in more than one pie – the Russians were also interested in what was happening in Europe. Espionage is, and was, a murky business. Maybe the Governor of Magdeburg was hiding something to save his own skin.

Maybe Auguste Schmidt murdered him for his expensive coat. Or maybe the valet Mertens killed him for his money and jewels. Or maybe the pair of them acted together and split the proceeds. Captain Klitzing always maintained that Benjamin was murdered for his possessions.

Maybe Bathurst was so agitated that he went mad and committed suicide – although his pistols were found and no shot was heard.

Or maybe, as some have thought, he simply vanished into thin air. Or into another dimension.

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