The Case of the Vanishing Diplomat (1809)
THE WEIRD HISTORY SERIES - Lesson #31
The Case of the Vanishing Diplomat (1809)
On the cold and snowy day of November 25th, 1809, 25 year-old diplomat Benjamin Bathurst, his secretary, and his valet stopped at an inn at midday in Perleberg, a small town in the Rhineland, to eat dinner and to rest their tired coach horses. They had been travelling at great speed from Bathurst's ambassadorial post in Vienna--a post which, for reasons which were never made clear, he seems to have deserted without permission from his superiors, in a desperate attempt to get back to England.
While his dinner was being prepared and his horses seen to, Bathurst asked for directions to the commander of the local garrison, one Captain Klitzing. In Klitzing's office, Bathurst surprised the German officer with a disjointed and not very clear tale about how Napoleon was after him, and he asked for guards to protect him against mysterious pursuers.
This was not quite as crazy as it sounded; the Napoleonic wars were in full swing and Perleberg was near enough to the border of French-occupied territory so that there had been reports of cavalry raids and other French incursions into the district. Since Prussia and England were allies and Bathurst had diplomatic credentials, Klitzing obligingly assigned a couple of soldiers to stand guard at the inn. He later commented that Bathurst seemed petrified with fear, and he got the impression there was more to the tale than he was being told.
Darkness came early in November, and most travelers would have been content to stay the night at the inn, but Bathurst insisted on pressing on to his destination, Hamburg, where he meant to catch a ship for home. Considering the state of the roads and the time of year, he must have been genuinely desperate to travel at night. At about four o'clock that afternoon, he dismissed his two sentries and impatiently demanded that his coach be provided with fresh horses, which he paid for in cash. (Horses for private coaches could be rented, kind of like today we rent a U-Haul trailer, and dropped off at one of the post inns further along the way.)
There was some delay while Bathurst searched the inn for a fur coat of his that had gone missing, but eventually he gave up on the coat despite the cold weather in his eagerness to leave. Around five o'clock at night, Bathurst went out into the now dark but public square, in the dim light of oil lamps on the houses and also, according to accounts, at least a few street lights as well, so it was by no means completely black. A light snow was falling. On being told by his coachman that everything was ready for departure, he walked around the head of the horses to inspect them.......and disappeared forever.
His party waited one minute…two…three...five minutes. From that day to this, no one has a clue what happened to Benjamin Bathurst.
His waiting valet saw nothing and neither did the coachman. Neither did the hostler who had harnessed the horses, or his secretary who was standing in the inn doorway paying the bill or the soldiers stationed at each end of the street in regular guard boxes. There were people on the square, which was in the middle of a populated town, and they were passing by all the time so much that it was useless to try and discover any tracks in the snow. No one reported seeing anything unusual. No struggling figures in the snow, no cries for help. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Sweet Fanny Adams. Just a man vanished off the face of the earth.
Captain Klitzing, embarrassed at losing his British diplomat despite being asked for protection, immediately organized a full search of the whole town and sent out the equivalent of an all points bulletin. The search went on for days. Only two clues were ever discovered. Bathurst's missing fur coat was eventually found concealed in the barn of a local ne'er-do-well named Augustus Schmidt, a young man who had a criminal record for theft, illegal gambling, and burglary. His mother worked as a charwoman at the inn, and eventually both of them got short prison sentences for stealing the coat, but they always denied having anything to do with Bathurst's disappearance.
Klitzing tried to make a case that Schmidt mugged Bathurst for his heavy purse and somehow made off with the body through the crowded streets, but he could never make it fly. The Schmidts may well have been telling the truth; the coat had been missed and the theft apparently taken place some time before Bathurst's disappearance. And even in the dark of a winter night, some guy trundling or dragging a dead body would have been noticed, as well as the crime itself witnessed.
About two weeks after the disappearance, two boys found a pair of trousers lying in a frozen puddle with some papers scattered around. The trousers were identified as Bathurst's, and the papers were inconsequential personal letters and documents, tradesman's bills from Vienna, etc. The trousers had two bullet holes in them, but the absence of bloodstains led the authorities to believe they had been fired through the garment after it had been removed from Bathurst's body. Klitzing, who had developed an almost obsessive involvement with the hunt for the missing man, was of the firm opinion that the trousers were a red herring meant to mislead the law.
And you, dear reader, now know just about all there is to know about the facts of the case. Captain Klitzing never got his answers and died a frustrated man. Benjamin Bathurst was simply--gone.
At the time, the British assumed that Napoleon had put the snatch on Bathurst and somehow managed to smuggle the young man to prison or death in French-occupied territory. This made a certain sense. Bonaparte could be pretty vindictive, and he had done similar things before, notably the armed abduction of the Royalist Duc d'Enghien who was captured by a French cavalry troop sent on a kind of commando raid into Germany for the purpose, dragged back to France, and stood in front of a firing squad.
But why? Bathurst was a diplomat attached to the embassy in Vienna, but his security clearance, as we would say today, wasn't all that high. He was part of the larger embassy staff. Bathurst had been part of a British mission that had persuaded the Austrians to declare war on France; the Austrians had gotten their asses kicked for their trouble, and had just been forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty. Napoleon had already won. Would he still be peeved at Bathurst? In any case, Bathurst was not solely responsible for the declaration of war, and there is no evidence that the French Emperor bore him any particular grudge.
Could Bathurst have been a Regency James Bond, engaged in espionage work of his own, and were those tracking him from French counterintelligence? Possibly, but no evidence of anything of the kind has ever been turned up, and the British government denied that this was the case. Napoleon himself always denied that he had anything to do with Bathurst's disappearance, repeating that denial in a letter he wrote to Bathurst's mother before he went to his final exile in St. Helena.
And if Bathurst was abducted by French agents, how had they done it in the middle of town, in a public square with people and soldiers all around, silently so as not to alarm the horses or Bathurst's own party not fifteen feet away, and gotten away with their target, either dead or alive, without anyone seeing anything?
What, exactly, was Bathurst so afraid of? Everyone who met him on that last journey remarked that he seemed nervous, agitated, preoccupied, and he admitted he was afraid of mysterious parties who were out to get him. The story about Napoleon may have been a blind. A jealous husband? Creditors? Some bizarre Masonic conspiracy? Space aliens? The young man must have been unusually level-headed to be a career diplomat at 25, not prone to histronics or neurosis. Someone was apparently after Bathurst. Who?
Well, whatever Benjamin Bathurst was afraid of in his last hours on earth--it got him.
Remember: just because you're paranoid, that don't mean they ain't out to get you.