Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Into thin air?

Exactly two hundred years ago today something strange is said to have happened in Perleberg, Germany.

It was the year 1809, and a young British diplomat, Benjamin Bathurst, was returning from an important diplomatic mission to Austria. On November 25th, around noon, he stopped at the small town of Perleberg, precisely half-way between Berlin and Hamburg, in Prussia.

At the Posthaus (it was exactly what it sounds like: a post house) he ordered a new set of horses and then he
went to the nearby "White Swan" inn (Zum weißen Schwan, later the Hoffmanns Hotel), to eat and rest.

Around 9 p.m that evening, Bathurst was ready to continue his journey. Standing outside the post house, he was watching his luggage being loaded onto the carriage. Then, he is said to have "walked around the horses" - and disappeared. Just like that: into thin air.

The post house, the inn and other buildings around were searched, as were the nearby woods and marshes, and the river was dragged, all to no avail. Not even the reward offered for any information leading to him helped: Bathurst was never found.

At least that is how the story goes - and it is certainly one of the better known stories about "unexplained disappearances". It has captured the imagination of thousands; and while it may not have been a time slip, at least three authors certainly thought it was - or they made it into one (one each, that is):

Avram Davidson wrote about Bathurst in Masters of the Maze.
Australian author Bertram Chandler wrote about it in his 1964 story Into the Alternate Universe: Contraband from Otherspace.
The third story featuring the elusive Mr. Bathurst, by H. Beam Piper, is conveniently available to you right now, free of charge.

An old postcard of the main square in Perleberg

It seems, however, that Bathurst's disappearance might be considerably less intriguing than the vox populi has made it to be in the past two centuries.

The purpose of the British diplomat's mission had been to convince Austria to join the war against Napoleon. (The highly sensitive and dangerous nature of his enterprise is indicated by the fact that Bathurst was travelling under an assumed name and identity: as a German merchant, by the name of Koch.)
Indeed, French agents were suspected early on to have had a hand in Bathurst's disappearance; but Napoleon swore on his honour that he had nothing to do with it.

Here's what Charles Loy Fort has to say about it:

"He walked around the horses.
Upon November 25th, 1809, Benjamin Bathurst, returning from Vienna, where, at the Court of the Emperor Francis, he had been representing the British Government, was in the small town of Perleberg, Germany. In the presence of his valet and his secretary, he was examining horses, which were to carry [198/199] his coach over more of his journey back to England. Under observation, he walked around to the other side of the horses. He vanished, For details, see the Cornhill Magazine, 55-279.

I have not told much of the disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst, because so many accounts are easily available; but the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, in Historic Oddities, tells of a circumstance that is not findable in all other accounts that I have read. It is that, upon Jan. 23rd, 1810, in a Hamburg newspaper, appeared a paragraph, telling that Bathurst was safe and well, his friends having received a letter from him. But his friends had received no such letter. Wondering as to the origin of this paragraph, and the reason for it, Baring-Gould asks: "Was it inserted to make the authorities abandon the search?" Was it an inquiry-stopper? is the way I word this. Some writers have thought that, for political reasons, at the instigation of Napoleon Bonaparte, Bathurst was abducted. Bonaparte went to the trouble to deny that this was so."

That may have been so. Nevertheless, in 1990 the investigator Mike Dash undertook a re-investigation of the case, and discovered that parts of Bathurst's clothing were found in the woods in the same year of his disappearance; and in 1852, human remains were found in the cellar of a local mason's house.
It was evident that the dead man had been murdered. Furthermore, Mr. Bathurst's sister even went to Germany, to identify the remains...
hanks to this wonderfully convenient extra you can read all about it here.

(Interestingly, even Bathurst's date of birth seems to have undergone a process of curious "disinformation" through the years: according to Dash, he was born in September; according to all the other sources freely available on the internet - AKA Wikipedia and all the others who borrow its information - he was born in March, either the 14th or the 18th.
Go figure.

Myself, I'll go with The Peerage, where his date of birth is entered as March 14th, 1784.)

Whatever the truth, Bathurst's disappearance remains a mystery.
And to honour its longevity, the town of Perleberg is going to unveil a commemorative plaque at the old Posthaus, in a special ceremony that is to take place on November 28th, followed by the opening of an exhibition to mark the occasion.

What I find most interesting of all - and somewhat, strangely, endearing - is that even 20 years after Dash's recapitulation of the real course of the search for Bathurst, the old version of the diplomat's disappearance is still making the rounds, unabated, with barely a mention of the evidence pointing to possible - even highly likely - murder.*

People simply love unsolved mysteries - and it's the unsolved part that they love most of all.

And why not?

They may not even know it themselves, but there is a nugget of ancient wisdom in such an attitude. More than wisdom: it's the obscure awareness that even the most (seemingly) explicable events contain a core of mystery that is linked to our deepest yearnings; that, in its heart of hearts, even the known and the mundane is - like ourselves, each and every one of us - still and forever an enigma.

For the human heart and mind,
the "inexplicable" is the signpost pointing towards the transcendental.

I have just found a
rather good account of this story that does mention the evidence. Clearly it was written by somebody who likes to think, rather than just copy and paste old stories, like so many other "paranormal" blog- and webmasters.


The Vanishing Point (about a famous but equally fictitious disappearance)

Vanished in Vermont (about a cluster of real disappearances, one of them possibly not entirely "paranormal")

If you want to report a perceived dimensional anomaly, please do, but read this first.

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