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
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
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 Schmidt’s 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 histrionics or neurosis. Someone was apparently after Bathurst.
Well, whatever Benjamin Bathurst was afraid of in his last hours on earth—it got
Remember: just because you're paranoid, that don't mean they ain't out to get you.