A man in a iron mask spent most of 1908 pushing a pram around England. Nobody knows why

This is probably the wrong type of suit of armour, but honestly, this is a really difficult story to illustrate. Image: Getty.

A man in a iron mask spent most of 1908 pushing a pram around England’s largest towns and cities. Was it a pilgrimage? A viral marketing campaign? Psychogeography?

According to postcards and pamphlets he sold as he went, this was the man’s story. One night at the National Sporting Club in Covent Garden, J.P. Morgan (yes, that one) and the Earl of Lonsdale started arguing about whether someone could circumnavigate incognito, on foot. Lonsdale said yes; Morgan said no.

Enter, somehow, roguish investor Harry Bensley, who agreed to personally put the matter to the test.  Lonsdale and Morgan wagered £21,000 on it – almost £2 million in today’s money.

The challenge’s principal rule was that, to disguise Bensley’s identity, he would wear an iron mask from a suit of armour. Another condition specified 169 cities and towns in England and Wales, and 125 others across the world, that he’d visit in order. He’d also have to push a baby’s pram (sans baby) the entire time, finance the journey by selling promotional postcards, and , er, find a wife.

The man himself. Image: Wikipedia/public domain.

According to legend, he almost made it, having walked 30,000 miles over six years, before the bet was called off because of a rather inconvenient war that kicked off in 1914. After some time in the army, Bensley returned home to find out that Russia, where he’d invested heavily, was having a slight revolution, and he was now broke.

Did any of this actually happen? All anyone can say for sure is that, for several months in 1908, for whatever reason, Harry Bensley took an extremely circuitous walk around southern England and Wales, wearing his helmet and pushing his pram. Researcher Tim Kirby has ‘tracked’ the journey through sources including contemporaneous press reports:

Image: Tim Kirby/Google Maps.


According to Kirby’s theorised route, the furthest Bensley ever made it from London was Penzance. En-route he allegedly sold a postcard to the king, received 200 proposals, and ended up in court for selling stuff without a license, where he somehow managed to get away without revealing his identity. By the autumn, though, the journey had come to a premature end, in Wolverhampton.

So what’s the truth of the story? According to Ken McNaughton, Bensley’s great-grandson, the family legend (as apparently told by Bensley to his illegitimate son) was that the walk was done as a forfeit, in order to avoid a crippling loss he’d incurred while gambling at his club. But no-one has ever actually been able to prove that J. P. Morgan or the Earl of Lonsdale had anything to do with it: Morgan had, in fact, died a year before the whole thing was called off.


Was it just a good story to help sell some postcards? Well, yes, maybe. Bensley himself wrote an article in December 1908, confessing that the whole thing had been a money-making publicity stunt he’d cooked up while in jail, which had rather backfired when it turned out wearing a 4lb helmet all day for months on end wasn’t much fun. He reported that the trek had covered 2,400 miles, and that he and his entourage – including a man who’d pretended to be an observer sent to ensure he stuck to the rules of the bet – had been solely supported through sales of postcards and other souvenirs. That said, he’s at such pains to impress this on the reader, you do wonder if he’s protesting a bit too much: for such a convoluted plan it’s hard to see what the payoff could have been.

It seems unlikely that, nearly 110 years after the scheme was concocted, we’ll get any clearer answer as to why it was concocted. Maybe we just have to simply enjoy that it was concocted, and leave it at that.

Or maybe sometimes a guy just need to put on an iron mask, load up his pram and start heading for Wolverhampton, you know? The future case for Ed Jefferson’s defense rests, your honour.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.