Bathurst disappeared on or about 25 November 1809, sparking much debate and speculation about his ultimate fate, especially in science fiction stories, based on a perception (fostered by secondary sources) that his disappearance was a case of particularly sudden, perhaps supernatural, vanishing. Recent research suggests the circumstances of Bathurst’s disappearance were wildly exaggerated, and that he was almost certainly murdered.
Benjamin Bathurst entered the diplomatic service at an early age and was promoted to the post of Secretary of the British Legation at Livorno. In 1805, he married Phillida Call, daughter of Sir John Call, a Cornish landowner and baronet.
In 1809, he was dispatched to Vienna as an envoy by his relative Henry Bathurst, pro tempore Secretary for Foreign Affairs. His mission was to assist in the reconstruction of Britain and Austria’s alliance and to try to encourage Emperor Francis II to declare war on France, which the Emperor did in April.
However, the Austrians were forced to abandon Vienna to the French forces and eventually sued for peace after they were badly defeated by the French at the Battle of Wagram in July 1809. Bathurst was promptly recalled to London and decided that the safest route was to travel north and take ship from Hamburg.
On 25 November 1809, Bathurst and his German courier, a Herr Krause, who were travelling by chaise under the aliases of “Baron de Koch” and “Fischer” respectively, stopped at the town of Perleberg, west of Berlin.
After ordering fresh horses at the post house, Bathurst and his companion walked to a nearby inn, the White Swan. After ordering an early dinner, Bathurst is said to have spent several hours writing in a small room set aside for him at the inn. The travellers’ departure was delayed, and it was not until 9 P.M. that they were told that the horses were about to be harnessed to their carriage. Bathurst immediately left his room, followed shortly afterwards by Krause, who was surprised to find Bathurst was not in the chaise when he reached it and indeed was nowhere to be found.
The disappearance did not create much excitement at the time, since the country was infested with bandits, stragglers from the French army, and German revolutionaries. Additionally, murders and robberies were so common that the loss of one commercial traveller (which Bathurst was travelling as) was barely noticed, especially since at the time there were hardly any legal authorities in Prussia.
News of Bathurst’s disappearance did not reach England for some weeks, until Krause managed to reach Hamburg and take ship for England. In December, Bathurst’s father, the Bishop of Norwich, received a summons from the Foreign Secretary, Richard Wellesley, to attend him at Apsley House, where Wellesley informed the Bishop of his son’s disappearance.
Bathurst’s wife Phillida immediately left for Germany to search for her husband, accompanied by the explorer Heinrich Röntgen. They arrived at Perleberg to find that the authorities had been looking into the affair and that a Captain von Klitzing had been put in charge of the investigation. After Captain Klitzing was notified of Bathurst’s disappearance, he took immediate steps to mobilise his troops and conducted a vigorous search, apparently working on the initial assumption that the missing man had vanished of his own accord. On the 26th the river Stepenitz was dragged, and civilian officials ordered a second search of the village. On 27 November 1809 the Englishman’s valuable fur coat — worth 200 or 300 Prussian thalers — was discovered hidden in an outhouse owned by a family named Schmidt. Then, on 16 December, two old women out scavenging in the woods near Quitzow, three miles north of Perleberg, came across Bathurst’s pantaloons.
Investigation quickly revealed that one Auguste Schmidt had been working as ostler in the courtyard of the White Swan on the night Bathurst disappeared, and that his mother, who also worked at the inn, had taken the Englishman’s coat. Frau Kestern, a woman employed at the German Coffee House, testified years later that immediately after Bathurst had visited the establishment, Auguste Schmidt had come in, asked her where the visitor had gone, then hastened after him and (she supposed) taken some opportunity to destroy him.
A reward of 500 thalers was offered for any news, and money was paid to members of the local police to expedite matters. This, however, caused the waters to be muddied as many false reports and offers of information were made by people seeking a share of the reward.
In March, Mrs. Bathurst had the entire area of Perleberg searched at vast expense, which included the use of trained dogs, but to no avail. She then travelled to Berlin and then Paris to see Napoleon himself, hoping to obtain from him some account of her husband’s fate. However, when she was received by Napoleon, he declared his ignorance of the affair and offered his assistance.
Contemporary Press Reports
By January 1810, the English and French press had become aware of the affair and had begun to discuss it. The Times published a piece in January 1810 which subsequently appeared in other English newspapers:
There is too much reason to fear that the account of the death of Mr. Bathurst, late envoy to the Emperor of Austria, inserted in a Paris journal, is correct as to the principal fact. It was stated, as an article of Berlin news, of the date of December 10, that Mr. Bathurst had evinced symptoms of insanity on his journey through the city, and that he had subsequently fallen by his own hand in the vicinity of Perleberg. Information, however, has been received within these few days, which forcibly tends to fix the guilt of Mr. Bathurst’s death, or disappearance, on the French Government. It appears that Mr. Bathurst left Berlin with passports from the Prussian Government, and in excellent health, both of mind and body. He was to proceed to Hamburg, but Hamburg he never reached. At some town near the French territories he was seized, as is supposed, by a party of French soldiers. What happened afterwards is not accurately known. His pantaloons have been found near the town where he was seized, and a letter in them to his wife; but nothing else. The Prussian Government, upon receiving the intelligence, evinced the deepest regret, and offered a large reward for the discovery of his body. No success, however, has attended the offer.
—The Times, 20 January 1810
The French government were agitated by the accusation that they had kidnapped or murdered Bathurst and replied in their official journal, Le Moniteur Universel:
England alone, among all civilised nations, has renewed the example of paying assassins and encouraging crimes. It appears by the accounts from Berlin, that Mr. Bathurst was deranged in his mind. This is the custom of the British Cabinet – to give their diplomatic missions to the most foolish and senseless persons the nation produces. The English diplomatic corps is the only one in which examples of madness are common.
On 15 April 1852, during the demolition of a house on the Hamburg road in Perleberg three hundred paces from the White Swan, a skeleton was discovered under the threshold of the stable. The back of the skull showed a fracture as though from the blow of a heavy instrument. All of the upper teeth were perfect, but one of the lower molars showed signs of having been removed by a dentist. The owner of the house, a mason named Kiesewetter, had purchased the house in 1834 from Christian Mertens, who had been a serving man at the White Swan during the period when Bathurst disappeared.
Bathurst’s sister, Mrs. Thistlethwaite, travelled to Perleberg but could not conclusively say whether the skull belonged to her brother or not.
A detailed investigation conducted by writer Mike Dash first published in Fortean Times concluded that the allegedly mysterious details of the Bathurst disappearance had been greatly exaggerated over the years, and that Bathurst was almost certainly murdered.
References in Pop Culture
Bathurst’s case is mentioned by Charles Fort in his book Lo!.
In Science Fiction
In H. Beam Piper’s 1948 science fiction story He Walked Around the Horses, Bathurst slips into a parallel universe where the American Revolution and the French Revolution were both suppressed, and there were no Napoleonic Wars. In that alternate world, Bathurst has a counterpart serving as the Lieutenant Governor of the Crown Colony of Georgia. The Bathurst from our universe is judged to be either insane or a spy and so imprisoned. He attempts escape and is fatally shot. His last testament is read by a high ranking British officer, who pronounces it a work of madness. He is especially puzzled by references to a British general named “Wellington.” The officer is revealed to be Sir Arthur Wellesley. Piper describes Bathurst in the story as “a rather stout gentleman, of past middle age,” although the real Bathurst was 25 years old at the time of his disappearance.
A short story A Toy for Juliette by Robert Bloch mentions Bathurst as being transported into the distant future where he serves to satisfy the cruel pleasures of the story’s main character, Juliette.
The short novel Time Echo by Lionel Roberts (a pseudonym of Lionel Fanthorpe) has Bathurst accidentally transported to a future time where his hatred of Napoleon makes him join with conspirators seeking to overthrow a cruel future conqueror and tyrant.
Avram Davidson’s Masters of the Maze, has Bathurst as one of a select group of humans (and other sentient beings) who had penetrated to the center of a mysterious “Maze” traversing all of space and time. There he dwells in eternal repose, in company with the Biblical Enoch, the Chinese King Wen and Lao Tze, the Greek Apollonius of Tyana, and various other sages of the past and future, some of them Martians.
In A. Bertram Chandler’s “Into the Alternate Universe” the protagonists’ spaceship accidentally falls into “a crack between the universes,” a vacuum without any matter except people (and other beings) who had fallen there earlier, and who (unless in a spaceship) suffocated instantly. Among others, they see the forever floating body of a man in 19th Century upper-class clothing, who seems to be Bathurst.
Bathurst’s disappearance is also mentioned in passing in Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “Elsewhen,” Murray Leinster’s short novel The Other World, Poul Anderson’s novel Operation Chaos, Joel Rosenberg’s “Guardians of the Flame” Series, Simon Hawke’s TimeWars series, in Jane Jensen’s novel Dante’s Equation and early in the 7 November chapter of Anthony Boucher’s 1942 “detective novel” Rocket to the Morgue.
In Kim Newman’s short story “The Gypsies in the Wood,” it is mentioned that the Diogenes Club investigated his disappearance.
Bathurst is also one of the people suspected to be “Benjamin Breeg” from the song “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” by British heavy metal group Iron Maiden.