The London Free Press

Sunday, October 15, 2000

INKBLOT (Geoffrey Corfield)

    There once was a walker who walked, So unusually that everyone gawked. Legs and arms out and in, Narrowly missing the chin, And a mouth that just squealed and squawked.

A man left London, England, in 1933 to walk to Constantinople. He got back in 1937 and wrote a book about it called A Time for Gifts.

The Guinness Book of Records is full of walkers.

Southern tip of South America to Alaska in 80 months. Walking on hands from Vienna to Paris. Around the world in 24,070 kilometres and four years. Around the world carrying a cross, starting in 1969, doing 53,373 kilometres and still walking.

But perhaps the strangest walk around the world was done by someone who probably didn't walk around the world at all. The story goes that in 1908, two men set off from London, England, to walk around the world. One of them was wearing an iron mask and pushing a baby buggy. There was no baby in the buggy, only postcards.

The man in the iron mask was Harry Bensley. The other man's identity is today unknown. Their trip supposedly came about as the result of a bet made in a London club in 1907 between the American millionaire J. P. Morgan and Lord Lonsdale.

Morgan supposedly bet Lonsdale the modern-day equivalent of $ 1.75 million that a man could not walk around the world wearing an iron mask, pushing a baby buggy, finding a wife without taking the mask off and financed solely by selling postcards. Harry Bensley was to be that man.

The story ends in 1914 with Bensley apparently in Genoa, Italy, having almost completed the trip, when the bet is called off due to the start of the First World War. Bensley returns to England, leads a normal life and dies in 1956.

Thereafter the Harry Bensley story keeps resurfacing and disappearing again. But the mystery remains. Did Bensley actually do this walk?

Inkblot was appointed Canadian Harry Bensley research director in 1998, not just because Inkblot also sells postcards but because Bensley's supposed itinerary had him arriving in Canada from Ireland and walking from Quebec City to Montreal and Ottawa.

Surprisingly Inkblot uncovered facts on this story that had not been uncovered before. Although there is evidence Bensley walked around in southern England in 1908 (photographs, postcards, recollections), there is no evidence yet that Bensley walked anywhere else. More importantly, there is no evidence of any connection at all between J. P. Morgan, Lord Lonsdale and Harry Bensley, nor between any two of them.

The most probable conclusion, therefore, is that Bensley was a fraud (J. P. Morgan attracted fraud) -- a colourful, patient and eccentric fraud to be sure but a fraud nonetheless. The real mystery of Harry Bensley is perhaps not, "Did he walk," but rather, "What was he up to?" We'll likely never know.

Harry Bensley will probably never be in the Guinness Book of Records. But he can certainly lay claim to being the world's most mysterious around-the-world walker who didn't walk around the world much at all.

INKBLOT is written and drawn by Geoffrey Corfield