Liebig card showing the Man In The Iron Mask, 1900.
Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: The Man in the Iron Mask

What it’s about: Some stories are too incredible to be fiction. 127 Hours. Dog Day Afternoon. Hot Tub Time Machine. One of the oldest unbelievable-but-true stories is Alexandre Dumas’ final Three Musketeers adventure, The Man In The Iron Mask. Sure, Aramis, Porthos, and Athos’ involvement was fictional, but during the reign of Louis XIV, there was a real prisoner in the Bastille whose face was always covered by a mask, and his identity remains a mystery to this day.

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Biggest controversy: The mask probably wasn’t iron. An officer serving in the Bastille in the late 1600s mentioned a mysterious prisoner wearing a mask of, “black velvet cloth.” In 1771, Voltaire tackled the mystery in Questions Sur L’Encyclopédie, and referred to the mask as iron, a detail which was reinforced in the popular imagination 75 years later when Dumas made it the title of his version of the story.

Voltaire circa 1740.
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

Dumas also published a nonfiction account of the mysterious prisoner, making the same case his fictional story does: that the prisoner was the twin brother of Louis XIV, a threat to the crown, but also too important to simply kill. Twins ran in the French royal family, and while a queen traditionally gave birth in front of the court (ah, the glamorous life of royalty), Louis XIII apparently led a triumphant procession from the court immediately upon XIV’s birth, leaving the unlikely possibility that a second child was born when only the queen and her midwives remained behind.

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Voltaire’s theory is more salacious. Louis XIII was estranged from his queen, Anne Of Austria, and Voltaire claimed she had an affair with Cardinal Mazarin, her husband’s chief minister, and the illegitimate child was hidden away to avoid scandal.

Strangest fact: While the prisoner’s identity is shrouded in mystery, we might actually know his name and entire history. In 1669, the prison in Pignerol—a town in Northwest Italy that was then part of France—received a prisoner named Eustache Dauger. Pignerol was a small prison, and was generally reserved for men who were “considered an embarrassment to the state.” Monsier Dauger came with very specific instructions—no one was to see him except the warden, and then only once a day to provide food. If Dauger spoke of anything beyond mundane topics like his food and simple requests for his cell, he was to be killed immediately. And his cell needed to be built with multiple doors, to prevent anyone from listening in. Did Dauger know some terrible secret? Or was he himself the secret?

The bigger question is, was the prisoner actually Dauger? There was a Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, a scandalous, debt-ridden nobleman who participated in an infamous party that included a bisexual orgy, a black mass, and—most shockingly—a pig being baptized as a carp so it could be eaten on Good Friday. He may have also murdered a page boy and made money by supplying other nobles with poison. The only trouble is, when the masked “Dauger” was imprisoned at Pignerol, Dauger de Cavoye had already been in Prison Saint-Lazare for years, and while the masked man was moved to the Bastille, de Cavoye died at Saint-Lazare. So “Dauger” was either a coincidence, or a false name intended to sow confusion.

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The Bastille at Paris circa 1789.
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

Thing we were happiest to learn: The theory that makes the most sense has even more drama than Voltaire’s. At the time of XIV’s birth in 1638, Louis XIII, who would meet an untimely death only a few years later, had been estranged from his wife for 14 years and was suffering from tuberculosis and possible impotence. None of that suggests a man about to conceive his first child. (Historians also widely believe XIII to have been gay, which the “Iron Mask” page doesn’t mention, but Louis’ own does, and puts another pillar under the theory).

So, as the theory goes, Cardinal Richelieu—the king’s first minister and a famous schemer in both Dumas’ adventures and in real life—took it upon himself to make sure Queen Anne produced an heir, fixing her up with another man. There’s much speculation to this supposed man’s identity (Wikipedia suggests a bastard son or grandson of France’s Henry IV), but Richelieu certainly had motivation. If Louis XIII died without an heir, his brother Gaston, an enemy of Richelieu, would inherit the throne, likely firing and executing the cardinal. Anne would also fare considerably better as Louis XIV’s queen mother than King Gaston’s sister-in-law, so her motivations reach beyond simply that her husband had lost interest years earlier.

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Whoever Louis XIV’s natural father is, he would have been kept quiet for years (possibly shipped off to the Americas), but once XIV took the throne, had to be silenced for fear of destroying the king’s legitimacy. So XIV had his father imprisoned in comfort, but also absolute secrecy. This theory has no more evidence behind it than any other, but it’s the only major theory with no evidence against it, which makes it the front-runner.

A royal audience in King Louis XIV’s bed chamber.
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Then as now, the justice system goes far easier on the rich. Wealthy prisoners had servants even in jail—a rough gig for servants, as they would effectively be prisoners themselves. Curiously, the warden at Pignerol assigned the masked man to be a valet for an embezzler named Nicolas Fouquet, a fellow prisoner whose own manservant had fallen ill.

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Fouquet was serving a life sentence, so even if he learned the masked man’s identity, there was no one for him to tell. But it’s still significant that the masked prisoner acted as a servant—it pokes holes in some of the theories that he was secretly a royal, as even in prison, no one with such status would be reduced to servitude of any kind.

Also noteworthy: The warden took the masked prisoner with him wherever he went. Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars was in charge of Pignerol when the man in the mask was imprisoned in 1669; in 1681 he was put in charge of the Exilles Fort and took the masked man with him, using the same extraordinary security precautions. In 1698, Saint-Mars was named governor of the Bastille, still 91 years from being stormed in the French Revolution, again taking his prisoner with him. The detainee was fed only by Saint-Mars’ second-in-command, and was again noted to be wearing a black velvet mask.

The masked man lived five years in the Bastille, and upon his death, all of his furniture and clothing was destroyed and everything metal in his cell was melted down. He was buried under the name “Marchioly,” which led some to believe he was an Italian diplomat named Count Mattioli, who had betrayed the French to the Spanish and was imprisoned at Pignerol. But there’s no particular reason for Mattioli to have worn a mask, nor is there evidence he was ever at Exilles or the Bastille.

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John Malkovich and Leonardo Dicaprio star In The Man In The Iron Mask circa 1998.
Photo: Getty Images

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Whether he was the legitimate son of Louis XIII or of a masked man locked in a tower, Louis XIV is a towering figure in European history. Crowned king at the age of four, he ruled for 72 years—still the longest reign in Europe, with even Elizabeth II still five and a half years from taking the crown, no pun intended. XIV effectively created what we now know as France, turning a loosely organized feudal state split between Catholics and Protestants into a centralized Catholic country ruled from the lavish Palace Of Versailles. During his reign, France was the most powerful nation on the continent, which it proved during the Nine Years’ War, defeating an alliance of England, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, and the Holy Roman Empire, which effectively crumbled following the war.

Further down the Wormhole: The Man In The Iron Mask is part of a long, long list of unidentified people on Wikipedia. That broad category covers everyone from the nurse and sailor kissing in the famous photo from V-J Day, to “disciple whom Jesus loved,” to mysterious avant-garde band The Residents, to Guccifer 2.0. But alongside these real people we don’t know are fake people we don’t know one crucial thing about. We’ll see what we can learn about That Guy and Ol’ What’s-Her-Name when we look at “Fictional Characters Without a Name” next week.

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