How do you go about finding someone who walks round a corner and disappears, seemingly without a trace? This is what happened in the curious case of Benjamin Bathurst…
Bathurst was born in 1784 and was the third son of the Bishop of Norwich. In 1809, at the age of 25, he was working for the British Diplomatic Service and the government appointed him as their ‘Envoy Extraordinary’, which meant he had been selected for a very special mission. He had to travel to Vienna and persuade the Austrians to attack Napoleon from their side, while the British launched an attack through the Spanish Peninsula. This had the potential to strengthen the alliance between Austria and Britain and lead to a positive outcome in the Napoleonic Wars, but the job was not without risk. If the French discovered that Bathurst was a British diplomat, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. Even without the ongoing conflict, transport across Europe in those days was slow and dangerous. It would take weeks or even months to cross entire countries using horses and carriages on roads that were often not fit for purpose, with spies and bandits lurking around every corner looking to hold up wealthy travellers and steal their goods.
Bathurst reached Austria safely without falling prey to any highway robbers along the way. He gave the court of Vienna the message he had been sent to deliver and then began the journey home. To help him pass through Europe without detection, he disguised himself as a travelling merchant and went by the name Koch. Armed with two pistols in his pockets and a few other small weapons in the back of the coach, he set off for home. His assistant, Herr Krause, who was travelling with him under the assumed name Fischer, couldn’t help but notice that Bathurst was unusually anxious. After all, he was over halfway through his mission and everything had gone smoothly so far, but something seemed to have spooked him. Some authors have stated that Bathurst was travelling with two companions; a secretary and a valet, but most sources only refer to Krause, and as they were travelling incognito, it would make sense to limit the number of people in the party.
On 25th November 1809, Bathurst and Krause stopped in the minor German town of Perleberg, halfway between Hamburg and Berlin. They changed their horses and decided to eat at the White Swan inn nearby. It was a shabby, dilapidated area offering nothing but a few run-down houses and cottages, and although it wasn’t the most salubrious place in which a travelling diplomat could hope to rest, it had the advantage of being such an unimportant backwater that Bathurst could afford to hope that the French wouldn’t stumble upon him here.
Bathurst ordered a hot meal for the two of them and asked the landlord the name of the local Police Commander and where to find him. The innkeeper pointed him towards the home of Captain Klitzing, near the town hall. The nervous diplomat went immediately to speak with him and told him he would be staying overnight at the White Swan, revealing that he felt he was in grave danger. It is unclear exactly what made him so frightened, but Klitzing agreed to loan Bathurst two bodyguards to protect him while he was in Perleburg, although Klitzing did point out that the nearest garrison of French soldiers was 80 miles away in Magdeburg, so he was sure that Bathurst’s fears were unwarranted.
Once safely back at the White Swan, Benjamin Bathurst locked himself in his room and burned some letters in the fire, seeing assassins in every shadow. Krause was deeply alarmed by this skittish behaviour. Just as they were settling down for the night, Bathurst announced that he had changed his mind and wanted to set out on the next leg of the journey straight away rather than waiting until morning, as he believed it was safer to ride under cover of darkness. He sent the two bodyguards back to Captain Klitzing and then told Krause that he was going to check on the horses. He left the White Swan inn and walked around the corner towards the stables. Krause was following him just a few strides behind, and no more than a few seconds had passed before Krause turned the corner after his employer. But as he did so, he looked around in confusion. Benjamin Bathurst was nowhere to be seen. In a matter of moments, he had disappeared off the face of the earth. This was the last anyone ever heard or saw of the young British diplomat.
Krause searched for Bathurst everywhere, but there was no sign of him in the stables, in his room, or at Captain Klitzing’s home, and he was at a loss to understand how he could have completely vanished in the space of under a minute. Klitzing was gravely concerned by the disappearance, particularly in light of Benjamin’s chillingly certain words about being in danger just a couple of hours earlier. He impounded the carriage and luggage for safekeeping and moved Krause to another inn in the town, stationing a guard at his door for their safety.
As soon as the sun rose the next day, the police searched Perleburg thoroughly and questioned two merchants who had also been staying at the White Swan the night before, but it was obvious they had nothing to do with the incident. The River Stepenitz was dragged and bloodhounds sniffed their way up and down every street, but no trace of the missing British diplomat was found until Bathurst’s fur coat was located during a house-to-house search, in the home of a man named Augustus Schmidt. Schmidt’s mother worked at the White Swan and claimed to have found it at the inn and thought it had been left there by one of the merchants, so she had kept it in case a reward was offered for its return. Augustus was known locally as a petty thief, so it seemed that while they may have been opportunists of questionable character, the Schmidts probably had nothing to do with the missing man.
It was a perplexing case; the young Envoy had apparently evaporated into thin air. When news of his disappearance reached England, Benjamin’s wife Phillida immediately travelled to Germany (which was then Prussia) and hired an explorer named Heinrich Rontgen to search for him, but their efforts were in vain. Phillida even visited French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and begged him to reveal her husband’s fate, but he denied all knowledge of Benjamin Bathurst and even offered his assistance in finding him.
Sometime later, a pair of trousers was found in the forest by two women gathering firewood, and they were confirmed to belong to Benjamin Bathurst. Oddly, they had bullet holes in them but no bloodstains, and from the position of the holes, it looked as though the trousers had been hung on a tree branch for someone to use as target practice. This was inexplicable, as clothes of such good quality fabric would have been valuable, and the poor townsfolk would have been much more likely to keep or sell them than take potshots at them. Inside the trouser pocket was a note in Bathurst’s handwriting, saying that if anything happened to him, a French secret agent called D’Entraigues would be responsible. D’Entraigues denied having anything to do with Bathurst’s disappearance and was murdered himself shortly afterwards.
The German government were convinced the French were responsible and the British agreed, accusing Napoleon’s agents of killing the young diplomat for revenge. The French, on the other hand, believed that Bathurst was a typical foolish aristocrat and a young jackanapes with an inflated opinion of himself, and that he must have committed suicide without realising what he was doing. Captain Klitzing, on the other hand, thought it more logical that a local Perleburg criminal had done away with Bathurst and stolen his money.
Despite the British government’s offer of a £1,000 reward (worth more than £100,000 in 2023), there was no progress and Bathurst remained missing, presumed dead. More than 40 years later on 15th April 1852, an unsettling discovery was made amongst the rubble of a house in Hamburg Road which was being demolished, just 300 yards from the White Swan Inn. It was the skeleton of a man in his mid-twenties, which matched the age of the diplomat when he went missing. After so many years, there were no distinguishing features remaining, but it was evident that the skull had been fractured.
The obvious question was, who owned the house? It now belonged to a stonemason named Kieswetter who bought it in 1834 from a Christian Mertens Junior. Interestingly, Christian had inherited the house from his father, who had been a servant at the White Swan Inn. The house hadn’t been searched by Captain Klitzing’s officers at the time because Mertens had a spotless reputation. But looking back with the benefit of hindsight, sometime after Bathurst’s disappearance Christian Mertens Senior had given his two daughters a considerable dowry when they married, which amounted to more than he could ever have saved from his meagre wages at the inn.
This leaves us with the question – what really happened to Benjamin Bathurst? If he was killed by a French agent, how did his body end up in the Mertens home? If he was killed by the Mertens (either alone or in collusion with the Schmidts), how did his trousers end up in the forest being used for target practice? There were no signs of gunshot wounds on the skeleton, and the victim had met his end with a blow to the head with a blunt object. Could Bathurst even have faked his own death after taking great care to tell everyone he was in danger, then planted his trousers knowing full well the conclusion that would be drawn? If so, it brings into question the identity of the skeleton found in 1852; in those days, forensics didn’t exist, so it couldn’t be definitively proven.
It is tempting to wonder about the colourful possibilities that could explain the disappearance of the troubled diplomat, but it is perhaps more likely that it was a simple case of robbery and murder by local Perleberg crooks. As with many unsolved mysteries, we will never know.
The World’s Greatest Unsolved Mysteries by Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe, 1997