What if your real identity was lost to time? In our modern age of DNA analysis, this idea seems almost unfeasible. However, some John and Jane Does have slipped through the cracks, especially before such technology and records existed. One such unknown person is a mysterious prisoner kept in captivity for 34 years until his death in 1703 – the Man in the Iron Mask. He got this title from the mask he wore at all times. Some sources claim the mask was iron, others say it was made from black velvet. But regardless of the material, this mask prevented anyone from seeing the prisoner’s face. Several theories and stories have sprouted from this strange case. But what is the truth behind them? In the first installment of History Mysteries, I shall review everything we know about the Man in the Iron Mask.
Several theories have been created to determine who the man behind the mask was. Several theorists have proposed that he was a member of the French royal family, a disgraced French general, and even the playwright Moliere. However, what little evidence we have points to two possible candidates, as detailed by history site Ancient Origins. One such candidate is Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli. The count tried to double-cross Louis XIV during political negotiations, and for that, he was discreetly arrested and jailed. He was kept imprisoned for a long time, and his name is similar to “Marchioly,” the alias under which the Man was buried. To further add credence to this theory, both Louix XV and Louis XVI allegedly said that the prisoner was an Italian nobleman. However, there is one massive flaw with this theory: Count Mattioli died in 1694, which was years too early for him to be our mystery prisoner. This leaves us with one other candidate: a mysterious man known as Eustache Dauger.
Not much is known about Dauger’s life before his imprisonment. The first record of him comes from a letter from the Marquis de Louvois to Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, who would become the man’s jailer. The letter not only told of his arrival but also described several unusual accommodations. One, he was to be kept in a cell with multiple doors, one closing upon the other, to prevent anyone outside from listening in. Two, he was only allowed one visitor a day that would provide food and whatever else he needed. And perhaps most bizarrely, he was told that he would be killed if he spoke of anything other than his immediate needs. However, it was noted that he shouldn’t need much, as he would mainly serve as a valet to other, higher-ranking prisoners. This is important to note because it throws one theory into question, which we’ll get into later. Dauger spent the rest of his life moving between four different prisons, including the Bastille, under the custody of the same jailer until his death on November 19, 1703.
It’s unknown if Eustache Dauger was the prisoner’s real name or simply an alias. There did happen to be a prisoner named Euatache Dauger de Cavoye, but as with the Mattioli case, de Cavoye died too early for him to be the Iron Mask prisoner. This is where the speculation comes in. It has been suggested that the prisoner was the child of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, making him an illegitimate brother of Louis XIV. This idea was popular in Alexande Dumas’ book, “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.” However, the book described him as the identical twin of the French king. Twins were considered a threat to orderly succession, as both siblings were born at the same time and it was hard to determine who was the proper heir. Because of this, it was decided that one of the twins would be concealed from the public eye – specifically, masked and imprisoned. However, the fact that he served as a valet casts some doubt on this theory, as it likely would have been unthinkable for a royal family member to work as a manservant. Another theory is that he was General Vivien de Bulonde, a general imprisoned for abandoning his wounded troops during the siege of Cuneo in 1691. The general and his crime were referenced in a coded message, and the furious king declared that he is, “to be conducted to the fortress at Pignerol where he will be locked in a cell and under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlements during the day with a 330 309”. It has been suggested that the 330 stands for “masque/mask,” and that the 309 stands for “full stop.” However, this has yet to be verified and again, the dates don’t match up.
We may never know the true identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, or what crime he was imprisoned for. Perhaps he was simply an average citizen who angered the king, but not enough to warrant execution. But despite me knowing as much as I’ve read and summarized here, I don’t think it’s that simple. After the prisoner’s death, all of his clothes and possessions were destroyed and the walls of his cell were scraped and whitewashed. That seems a bit excessive, if not outright suspicious. I think something went on behind the scenes, but I’m not sure what. What I do know is that there is nothing more frustrating yet fascinating than an unsolved mystery. Every time I’m reminded of this case, a thousand questions fill my head? Who was this man, and what did he do to warrant such an extreme punishment? What were the French authorities hiding that they didn’t want the world to know? Without getting too much into conspiracy theory territory, there is a lot of mystery surrounding this man that draws me and fellow mystery enthusiasts like a moth to a flame. Perhaps one day, we will find out the answers we seek. For now, the first installment of History Mysteries has ended.
Julia Furman is currently in her senior year at HFU. She is studying English and Creative Writing and plans to go into Library Science.