Stupid Question ™
May 11, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Was there really a Man in the Iron Mask?
A: There was indeed a man who, under the French King Louis XIV, learned a secret and spent the last 34 years of his life in prison so he wouldn’t tell it.
However, if he ever wore a mask at all, it was made of black velvet, not iron.
Surprisingly, much is known about the man’s imprisonment—though it only deepens the mystery of his identity and his secret.
In July 1669, the minister of war, Marquis de Louvois, has a man secretly arrested in Calais. The man is a valet known as Eustache Dauger (or Danger), who because of his secret knowledge and background is not allowed to speak or write anything, even to his warden. On Aug. 24, he arrives at the remote Pignerol dungeon, where a special eavesdrop-proof cell has been built for him.
In 1675, Dauger is allowed to serve as valet to fellow prisoner Nicolas Fouquet, the disgraced ex-finance minister (rich enough to have prison servants).
In 1680, Fouquet dies suddenly. A mystery item made of “drugs” by Dauger is found among his effects. Dauger and La Riviere, Fouquet’s other valet, are turned into secret prisoners.
Their release is announced, but in fact, they’re in a basement cell and can hear Mass only when hidden behind a screen. Their names are never used in documents again.
In 1687, after secretly transferring with the warden to another dungeon, one of the prisoners dies (probably La Riviere). The warden transfers again to Sainte-Marguerite dungeon near Cannes, again concealing Dauger on the trip. In 1689, the warden becomes head of the Bastille, taking Dauger with him, reportedly wearing a black velvet mask, which by some accounts he is never allowed to remove again.
On Nov. 19, 1703, Dauger dies and is buried under the mystery name “Marchioly.”
The man first caught public attention during the transfer to Sainte-Marguerite, where in 1687 he was reported to be someone famous and clad in a steel mask. Such rumors may have inspired an actual black, Lone Ranger-style velvet mask to be put on him. (Another common prisoner had been sent to the Bastille in a mask in 1695 so his family wouldn’t recognize him.)
So who was Dauger really? Voltaire, the Revolutionaries and author Alexandre Dumas all suggested that he was a twin brother of Louis. Speculation since has ranged from a Moorish dwarf to Moliere.
There was a nobleman named Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, accused of murder—but he went to an asylum in 1668 and died there. A “d’Auger” also appears in court records as a supplier of poison.
Another good candidate is “Martin,” a valet to an anti-Louis conspirator, wanted for questioning in July 1669.
But even the best theory—that “Dauger” was just an unknown valet with a relatively minor secret that would embarrass Louvois, and who his warden played up as a mystery man to enhance his own prestige—fails to answer all the key questions in the mystery.