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From the Files of the River Journal's Surrealist Research Bureau

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The Man in the Iron Mask

When I was a young college student in Santa Barbara I got my first real “scoop” when I reported in a paranormal magazine “The Gate” (you can find it online at www.saintalbanstudio.com/thegate.html ) that the identity of “The Man in the Iron Mask” had been discovered, a mystery that had puzzled historians for more than two centuries.

 Idly chatting with my History Professor, Paul Sonnino, over lunch one day I was surprised to find he spent his summer sabbaticals in France poring over dusty, long forgotten prison records trying to discover the identity of the enigmatic prisoner. The tale began, as we know, when in 1703, in the driving rain of the courtyard of France’s notorious Bastille Prison, an inmate who had died was given a secret nighttime burial under an assumed name. For 34 years he had been kept isolated, forbidden to talk to other inmates or even his jailers, under threat of instant death; his face constantly hidden by a cloth of black velvet. No records of his crime were kept, his very identity a mystery that has intrigued and haunted the likes of Voltaire, Dumas, Charles Fort and Colin Wilson. One of Alexandre Dumas’ “Three Musketeers” novels was based on the tale, though he changed the black velvet cloth for dramatic purposes, thereby giving us the enigmatic title most people know today as “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

“The Minister of War” said Prof. Sonnino, “under Louis XIV said that it was crucial that the Warden allow no opportunities to talk with anyone, that no one be privy to his information. He must have had something on the King.” Old records Prof. Sonnino discovered seemed to indicate that the masked prisoner was once Louis XIV’s personal valet, a man named Eustache Dauger, though a more exotic theory holds that Dauger was, like the name on the death certificate, a false one and that the prisoner was actually the King’s own father. “The story of Dauger” said Sonnino, “is the biggest unsolved mystery connected with Louis XIV and is a glaring hole in history.”

One theory, popular for a time, was that the prisoner was actually a man named Mattoli who was a Minister of Ferdinand Charles, the Duke of Mantua, who was really spying for France. Upon being discovered as a double agent, the furious King Louis had him kidnapped and imprisoned. A nice theory but recent findings by Sonnino and others (after poring over the voluminous records of the Bastlle Prison and France’s Public Prosecutors Office) reveal that Mattoli died in the prison of Iles Sainte-Marguerite in April of 1694, a common prisoner with no special precautions taken by his jailers.

 I learned a lot after I “broke” the story that The Man in the Iron Mask was actually Eustache Dauger, mostly about the value of slow, plodding research and common sense. It stood me well over the years. In 2005 I was wrapped up in the story of a mystery beast called the “shunka warak’in” that once haunted Idaho in the early 1900s. A stuffed specimen was reported lost soon thereafter, disappearing from sight. I reasoned (rightly as it turned out) that the lost specimen was more than likely unrecognized, hidden away in a forgotten corner of one of Idaho’s Historical Societies or Museums and took a couple weeks off in 2005 to search for the beast. The one museum I did not search in that summer (it was closed for cleaning) was in Pocatello and it was there that the stuffed specimen was finally located the following year. Someone else broke the story (though I did do a follow up here in TRJ).

Still, Professor Sonnino remains hopeful and every year quietly spends his summer sabbaticals searching through old prison and judicial records in France, the most logical place to find the answers. “I now know who he was, and am only a document away from discovering his mysterious crime.”

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Jody Forest Jody Forest When he's not hidden behind the palatial gates of his Dover estate, Casa de Bozo, Jody is out using outdated and corny pickup lines on various gullible women.

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