The Masks We Wear – Part 1: Crime and History

There are hundreds of different prisoners who could have been the Man in the Iron Mask. In the 1998 Leonardo DiCaprio movie entitled The Man in the Iron Mask, the action drama took place during the reign of King Louis XIV and portrayed an enigmatic man who spent decades confined to the worst prisons in France, including the infamous Bastille, wearing a heavy iron mask. Nowadays, the identity of the prisoner is merely a rumor, but both Louis XV and Louis XVI were rumored to say that he was an Italian nobleman. Over the years, hundreds of different men, ranging from members of the royal family to a disgraced French general; but it is known that two prisoners were jailed during that timeframe. One of the two was the Italian count, Ercole Matthiole. Matthiole was abducted and jailed after an attempt to double-cross King Louis XIV in the 1670s. With the masked man fitting the description given by Louis XV and Louis XVI, topped with the masked man’s grave being inscribed with the alias Marchioly; it is easy to conclude that these two men are the same. 

Though these stories line up, Matthiole more than likely died in 1694, which would make him several years too early to be the Man in the Iron Mask. Historians indicate the likely candidate is the other infamous prisoner at that time: Eustache Dauger. When the decree from the royal minister came down it said that Dauger would be denied all communication with the outside world and was even shuffled between several prisons. One-time Dauger was even transported via a covered chair so that passersby could not see him. In the 1998 movie, the Man in the Iron Mask is quoted as saying, “I wear the mask. It does not wear me.” And while this specific mask was used as a form of torture for the prisoner; masks themselves have been worn for thousands of years for thousands of different reasons.  

While masks could be worn for an endless list of reasons, the use of masks in rituals or ceremonies is an ancient human practice. Archeologists have found masks dating as far back as 7,000 BC and Paleolithic cave drawings 30,000 – 40,000 years old have been found depicting the use of anthropomorphic masks. The work for anthropologists is to figure out exactly why these masks, some dating back several millennia, exist. Thankfully most masks can be explained, as they have historical evidence of their use. From the Dionysus cult’s scandalous use of masks during the sexually explicit activities of the Greek bacchanalia festival to the masks worn by the Iroquois to invoke the spirit of an old hunch-backed man during a healing ritual to the Duk-Duk dance masks used to enforce justice in New Guinea; masks in all of their sundry forms have been a constant and pivotal role in human history.


The Man in the Iron Mask credited to Source, Fair Use,

L ‘Homme au Masque de Fer (The Man in the Iron Mask) attributed to an Anonymous creator; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 09:23, 30 April 2010 (UTC) – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.07185, Public Domain,

Stone Mask from the pre-ceramic neolithic neolithic period which dates to 7000 BC located at the Musee “Bible et Terre Sainte” image attributed to Gryffindor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Duk-Duk dancers in the Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain, 1913 accredited to unknown photographer –, Public Domain,

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