I like to read about old unsolved cases. We usually refer to them as historical mysteries. One of them is the story of the unknown prisoner or the man in the iron mask.
A lot has been written about him. You only have to Google “man in the iron mask” to get lists of articles, movies, and more. The story has been made into numerous movies that expanded the mystery by adding a detail here and there and of course, the characters in the movies were altered to suit Hollywood’s goals.
I was wondering where I would start if I were to research his case.
If I were to re-investigate this cold case to find out the unknown prisoner’s identity I would not start where others did or, still do. If you start with his possible identity you get tangled up in all the gossip, speculations and movie twists in which the man in the iron mask could possibly have been an African man, the younger twin or non-twin brother from Louis XIV or, he was Eustache Danger. Maybe he was Count Ercolo Antonio Matthioli or even d’Artagnan himself was once suggested. There are even theories that support women as the prisoner behind the mask. And, if you add the dispute between iron mask versus velvet mask, your head will start spinning and the chaos is complete. But you would still be at square one.
I would look beyond the unknown prisoner and start with the men in the background. To be exact, two lines need to be explored.
Line 1: who was the arresting power?
Line 2: who was in such a position that the order to secure a certain prisoner could be used for another purpose?
What do we know?
In the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal in Paris, France, you can find a diary by Etienne du Junca, King Louis XIV’s Lieutenant, second in command at the Bastille from 1690-1706 (further “du Junca.”). du Junca recorded in his prison journal that the new prison governor arrived on September 18, 1698. His name: Benigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars (further “Saint-Mars”).
Saint-Mars was accompanied by an unknown prisoner who supposedly had been with him since Pignerolo where Saint-Mars was previously stationed. This unknown prisoner was supposedly always masked and was never mentioned by name.
The problem with this journal is this: who told du Junca that Saint-Mars arrived with a top-secret unknown prisoner? The journal does not tell us whether du Junca recorded everything he observed himself or, whether he also just gave a record of the events of the day so in general, it could be hearsay.
du Junca noted that on September 18, 1698, around 3pm, the unknown prisoner was transported to the First Chamber of the Basiniere Tower and that he stayed there until around 9pm. Then du Junca and Sergeant Rosarges, who had been with Saint-Mars since Pignerolo, moved the unknown prisoner to the Third Chamber of the BertaudiereTower. After that, du Junca most likely did not have any more contact with the unknown prisoner. du Junca was a military executive officer so he had little interaction with prisoners in general.
du Junca had previously noted that famous prisoners often brought their own furniture for comfort in their cell however; this unknown prisoner who came with Saint-Mars had none and used standard issued furniture.
In his journal, du Junca’s next note about the unknown prisoner involved his death. He noted that on the death certificate the name “M de Marchiel” was given to the unknown prisoner and that it was signed by Sergeant Rosarges and the Bastille’s prison surgeon Abraham Reilhe.
And here you see the reason for my starting point and the two lines of thought.
If you give an unknown prisoner a secret life and keep their identity hidden, why suddenly make that public on a death certificate? Ask yourself, if you secretly imprison a terrorist or gang leader and hide their identity out of fear for retaliation, would that fear suddenly be less after their death? Their martyr status would only be enhanced!
So, is this a slip-up from Saint-Mars? No. This is proof to me that the identity of the unknown prisoner was getting less and less important.
Back to du Junca’s journal!
On November 20, 1703, du Junca reports: “On November 19 at around 10 pm, there died in his room the unknown prisoner who has worn a black velvet mask since his arrival here in 1698. He had not complained of nay serious illness, and the end came so suddenly that our chaplain was unable to administer the last sacrament. In the register his name was entered as M. de Marchiel, and the sum of 40 livres has been spent on the burial.”
du Junca passed away on August 6, 1706. Two year later, on September 26, 1708, Saint-Mars dies at the age of 82.
Saint-Mars had been Governor of several prisons:
1665 – 1681 Governor of Pignerolo
1681 – 1687 Governor of Exiles
1687 – 1698 Governor of Saint-Marguerite
1698 – 1708 Governor of the Bastille
The Bastille was under the control of the Ministry of Finance as opposed to other state prisons that were the concern for the Ministry of War.
Let us try to combine lines 1 and 2 to find out who was imprisoned where when Saint-Mars was Governor and who was in control of the Ministry of War.
First, consider the unknown prisoner’s transportation:
When Saint-Mars and his unknown prisoner went from Pignerolo to Exiles, they had a closed litter and an escort. From Exiles to Saint-Marguerite, they had an open sedan-chair covered with oil cloth and an escort. From Saint-Marguerite to the Bastille, they had an open litter and no escort. You see the security measures going down, right?
According to prison documents, Saint-Mars had his unknown prisoner in special high-security cells at Pignerolo, Exiles and Saint-Marguerite but in an ordinary cell at the Bastille. Saint-Mars and his unknown prisoner were clearly not top priority anymore!
So what changed? The Minister of War changed and here we see our lines materialize.
In 1691, when the unknown prisoner was at Saint-Marguerite, Francois Michel le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois died. He was succeeded by his son as Minster of War. And here we have the crucial point where any re-investigation should start.
From 1669-1691: the Minister of War was Francois Michel le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois (further “Louvois”) and the unknown prisoner was at Pignerolo and Exiles.
From 1691-1701: the Minister of War was Louis Francois Marie le Tellier, Marquis de Barbezieux (further “Barbezieux”) and the unknown prisoner was at Saint-Marguerite and the Bastille.
After Louvois’ death, the security measures declined. Clearly, Barbezieux was less worried than his father ever was about this unknown prisoner and what he might represent or know.
This open up the possibility that the security threat was less on state level but more on a personal level. Louvois had access to blank warrants neatly signed in advance by Louis XIV. He could easily have used those to settle personal scores.
One man played a huge role in Louvois’ decisions and that man was Nicolas Fouquet.
Nicolas Fouquet was former Superintendent General of Finance. He was arrested in September 1661 for embezzlement of state funds and conspiracy to rebellion. He was sentenced to life in December 1664. He died at Pignerolo, then governed by Saint-Mars, on April 6, 1680. Fouquet was buried on March 23, 1681.
And here it is that line 2 appears!
Pignerolo was a fort upgraded to state prison to keep exactly one man incarcerated: Fouquet and that made Saint-Mars a famous prison governor. Fouquet was involved in the power struggle between Louvois and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance from 1665-1683.
After Fouquet, famous prisoner #2 arrived at Pignerolo: Count Ercole Antonio Matthioli on May 2, 1679. Matthioli was a one time Secretary of State and Senator for the Duke of Mantua. He was suspected of selling state secrets to the Spanish. He was involved in negotiations between the Duke of Mantua and the Republic of Venice with France serving as intermediary between the Duke and the Republic.
Saint-Mars’ fame grew even more after famous prisoner #3 arrived at Pignerolo in November 1671: Antoine Nompar de Caumont, Marquis de Puyguilhem and Duc de Lauzun (further “de Lauzun”). de Lauzun was at Pignerolo from 1671-1681.
There are notes from Louvois to Saint-Mars in which the first demanded from the latter that another prisoner, Eustache Dauger, was not allowed to be in any room with both Fouquet and Lauzun present. Dauger was only allowed to walk outside if accompanied by Fouquet and la Riviere, a valet.
What does this tell you?
That Fouquet and la Riviere had to keep an eye on Dauger.
To avoid that a memory is triggered in de Lauzun.
Why else are these men allowed to mingle during their incarceration but when Dauger is around, they cannot. So the question is: what is it that de Lauzun witnessed at one time that involved Louvois?
In the meantime, Saint-Mars kept bragging about his important prisoners to the Ministry of War to get more funding and of course, a better salary for himself. However, the Ministry changed. Louvois was succeeded by his son, Barbezieux.
Barbezieux could not undo all that his father had done while he was Minister of War or else, the public would get the message that the prisoners were no longer a threat and would eventually tie that to Louvois himself. Barbezieux would be undermining his predecessor’s authority, credibility and with that make a statement about the Monarchy. So the best Barbezieux could do was to keep the unknown prisoner incarcerated, maybe extend some of his privileges or, grant request for renewals of clothing. Anything else would tarnish his father’s image!
Line 1: during his life, Louvois considered someone such a personal threat that he needed to be incarcerated for life.
Line 2: during his life, Saint-Mars sought fame and his status increased with each new famous prisoner.
Saint-Mars became an army cadet at the age of fourteen. His army career only progressed very slowly and he frequently complained about being skipped for promotions. At 24, he was placed in the First Company of the King’s Musketeers. At 34, he was promoted to Corporal and at age 38, promoted to Sergeant before being appointed Governor of Pignerolo.
Saint-Mars had some family assets and strove to receive letters of nobility in his obsession with prestige and fame. At age 50, he was finally promoted to Second Lieutenant in the Musketeers.
To be assigned to the run-down fortress of Exiles after having governed Pignerolo was a humiliation so when the opportunity to govern Saint-Marguerite came up, he took it. He then made the plans to renovated Saint-Marguerite in hopes that he would again be assigned famous prisoners but none ever came.
Then, tragedy hit his family. In the years between 1691 and 1693, his wife and two sons passed away. Saint-Mars fell into a deep depression. To be assigned the Bastille, would be an ego boost and a step back up on the social ladder. So Saint-Mars thought up a cunning plan.
Desperate to take his place in society, a place society owed him, he abused his powers. Alas, there were too many corrupt people around who could be used, too many uneducated people around to fool and many of them feared for their own lives.
The prestigious prison command of the Bastille would secure Saint-Mars’ status in society but he also needed to keep that status alive. And that proved to be a real problem because after Louvois, the Ministers of War were not impressed!
But the game needed to be played to the end. He could not loose face. So, Saint-Mars probably kept du Junca as far away as possible from his unknown prisoner because du Junca reported to nobody else but the King. Another concern would have been that du Junca would have found out soon enough that the unknown prisoner was not a threat to the Monarchy or the State at all. And then du Junca would probably try to find out to whom the unknown prisoner did pose a threat.
Will we ever know whether there really was an unknown prisoner who was made to wear a velvet or iron mask when in public? Not if we keep starting with Louis XIV and the obsessions with possible twin brothers.
We need to start with the Minister of War, Louvois, and his relationship with Lauzun because in the end whoever Saint-Mars used for his own fame was put there by Louvois in the first place for something Lauzun witnessed.
So, do I dismiss all the other solutions about who the unknown prisoner might have been? No, but I am tempted to dismiss them for the very simple reason that they all start from the same premise: that the prison records at Pignerolo were complete and accurate in listing who was incarcerated there. Why assume that?
Cold case re-investigations should question everything. I call it alternative puzzle piecing. A cold case is a puzzle. Maybe the bits of information that formed a single puzzle piece were never meant to be placed together. Maybe we started the puzzle with the wrong pieces or, in the wrong order. So, what would happen if we started in another order or with different pieces?
So … back to the drawing board, everyone!