On July 8th, 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley, English poet, drowned while swimming in the Bay of Spezia, near Lerici. That part of history is undisputed. What is disputed is where his body ended up after death. The location of his body has become a mystery unsolved to this day and is considered one of the greatest mysteries of English Literary History.
First, a little about our poet.
Despite being portrayed at the time of his death as a wispy, thin fellow, with pale smooth skin, small bones, diminutive frame, and womanish musculature, Shelley had become at his life’s end something of a rugged athlete. He had obtained this state by his favorite means of exercise: swimming in the cold saltwater nearest to where he might then be living. He swam in almost all types of weather, excepting strong storms and bone-icing cold weather. Unfortunately, having become perhaps too proficient at swimming, Shelley found the need to artificially add difficulty to his swimming. It began with swimming with added clothing, including at an early point, with heavy shoes. Soon, his physicality was such that even a light dressing of clothes was not enough to provide the needed strain to the muscles. By the time of Shelley’s drowning, it was Shelley’s habit of exercise to swim fully-clothed, including with heavy cloak, a full mourning suit made of the most absorbent cloth available, along with heavy gloves and a large hat. Further weight was obtained by storing sand, pebbles and even small stones into the pockets of his trousers, shirt, and coat. One dubious authority , Maria Gisborne, a family friend with a tendency towards exaggeration fulled by alcoholism, had Shelley going to the extreme of occasionally swimming with a large rock or two under his hat, with another large stone sometimes pressed between his thighs.
It is not known in what Shelley was attired when he drowned off the Bay of Spezia. It may have been, given the hot weather, he was doing his swimming completely nude. This would not have been an uncommon thing. Occasionally, Shelley would go "skinny-dipping" when the temperatures were extremely hot. Moreover, as he aged, he sometimes would skinny-dip just for general health, particularly when he struggled through a temporary bout of impotency brought on by age combined with a long stretch of opium smoking. As for this latter reason, he found nude swims in rough, white-capped waters, to be particularly invigorating to his droopy manhood. As a further benefit from these "bare bottom swims", as he called them in his diary, they were an excellent means to engender relationships with beautiful women during periods when he and his wife were separated. Shelley was a sensitive poet, quick to shed a tear at birdsong and fallen leaf. However, as all of his biographers ruefully concede, his main failing as a man was when dealing with the fairer sex: in short, he was a blunt and brutish womanizer. His hungry for women knew no fill. To feed his desire for frequent variety, he was not above using the crude method of nude public exercise to spark the libidinous attention of beautiful and eager virgins. Among his favorite targets for this effective casanovan tactic were the Rubenesque maidens who kneeled provocatively on the wet sands of the Spezian shore digging for claims. Of his success with these endeavors, there is no dispute. Historian DiGiovanni DeSquale opines that the fruits of Shelly’s exploits were the principle reason for the rapid repopulation of Northern Italy after the DiGenzio Plague.
As for knowing what occurred in the last days of Shelley one must be careful in evaluating the eyewitness accounts. No reputable scholar accepts every story. Such caution is necessary: Shelly’s compatriots were a collection of opium eaters, perverts, sensationalists, and fellow poets. As a result, his death drew more than its fair share of painters of lilies who decorated every plain fact with the pretty finery and delicate lace of bald faced lie. The best evidence reveals as follows.
On the morning of Shelly’s last day, he spent drinking mimosas and eating burnt bacon squashed between equally blackened toast. At the time it was his routine to breakfast alone on the terrace of his small apartment. His wife Mary was living thirty miles south. Six months before they had suffered yet another split . The cause this time was a olive-eyed, round bottomed, and buxom young Spanish maiden named Matilda who, when she was not posing nude for the local artistes, cooked and cleaned the Shellys' apartment in exchange for a small back room in which to sleep and store her few polleras. Without Mary’s immediate knowledge, within days of the maiden’s arrival, Shelly had changed the arrangement by adding terms more favorable to his libido. The new terms can be left to the darker side of our imaginations. Suffice to say, by the time of the morning of which we speak, the maiden laid face-down and bare bottoms up on what had been Mary’s side of the bed, sleeping off the effects of her new habit of opium eating. Shelley himself was in a celebratory mood: he had just completed his last work, "Weeping Jesus at the Well" his reply to Keats "Ode to a Nightingale" . He expected that the publication of this new work would finally make his reputation as the finest poet then living, Keats and Byron to be damned. His last written words were writ on a greasy napkin at this time, They were: "Matilda– I’m off to swim & so goodby." That napkin–presently stored in a locked box in the Tower of London–is considered one of Britain’s greatest literary treasures, behind only Shakespeare’s will, Keats letters to Fanny Browne and Marlowe’s disputed bar bill.
There was but one witness to Shelly’s last plunge into the pounding seltzer spray of stormy sea. It was Lady Wigmore, a visiting British lady who happened to be having a breakfast of lemongrass tea and peaches on her terrace. Unfortunate for history, she did so without the benefit of her eyeglasses corrective of her mild near sightedness. The distance was such that Shelley looked like a blurry stick figure. Thus it cannot be said whether that day he decided to test the musculature by his usual full array of clothing or whether he went down into the sea with his skin fully open to sea and sun. The witness saw the stick figure put chest forward and stomp through the incoming tide like he had suction cups for feet, and then, with a loud chest rattling shout given up towards the sky, the figure dived head first into a curling wave, submerged a moment within and then popped up on the far side. The strokes then began and he soon his already obscure figure disappeared against the blue-black and white caps.
The next time Shelley was seen was when he washed up on the shore of a private beach known as Selio DeLico, three days dead. He was found by a eight year old child, Mario Feilcianco. Shelley was naked, perhaps due to his entry into the waves in that condition, or due to his unclothing by three days and nights tossed in ripping and twisting storm-driven waves. His once tanned cinnamon skin was now a shiny green blue like the sea which had offered him up, and he was bloated, and swollen with gaseous rot. It took five witnesses conferring for three hours to confirm his identity sufficient for the authorities to release the body. Mary refused to look at his body, fearing the shock would burn in a memory not preferable to better days.
A grave plot in the crowded city cemetery found. Due to the rot of the body, and Shelley’s atheism, services were short and limited to friends giving their best memories of him. The body was rushed into the earth in a casket of cheap plank wood.
The mystery of Shelley’s body begins when the casket was lowered into the grave. At the time, attending the burial of the wooden casket was Lord Byron. Drunk, as was his usual state, the short, black-haired muscular bully of romantic poetry had come to the funeral with mixed motives. He had thought Shelley a weak, wilted flower of a poet, and had created numerous verses mocking Shelley’s supposed effeminacy. However, Byron secretly admired Shelley’s abilities as a lyric poet. Byron has tried the lyric poetry himself hoping to best him, but failed in his collection entitled "Lovers in Love With Love." Some reviewers thinking he authored a mock of the genre called it a success. Once they knew Byron meant to be taken seriously, they laughed so hard that Byron was driven to shame-faced exile in Greece.
For whatever reason, once the casket was lowered into the narrow grave, Byron leapt like Laertes into the narrow pit. His intentions are unknown; perhaps he wished to make some romantic gesture to spark renewed interest in his poor selling poetry. In any event, he landed on the top of the casket, lost his balance due to his club foot, slipped off, and landed in the narrow lane surrounding the cheap casket. The landing jarred the top (it had been poorly nailed, as the odor caused the job to be hastily done). The top was knocked ajar sufficient enough such that Byron, who was standing now beside the casket, could peer in. And the Lord Byron, not one to allow basic politeness and decency to keep his curiosity in check, peered closer and closer within, until his sizable head was nearly completely inside the death box. And the Lord Byron, with his famous sharp black eyes, saw what was hidden therein. The casket was stuffed with canvas bags filled with rocks, dead fish, and sand.
Shelley’s body was gone.
And despite the intervening centuries the body has never been located.
Of course, the discovery lead to all sorts of investigations, including by the local village constabulary, the national Italian authorities, and the British consulate. Due to a nearby medical college, there was thought that Shelley’s body might have been snatched as a excellent teaching tool for an anatomy class. However, the body’s deterioration excluded that possibility. Another thought was that the body was stolen to create mementoes of the poet off of his long, curly locks, his teeth, even his bones. There was precedent for this in the numerous saints whose body parts were scattered far and wide across Christian Europe to furnish its churches and chapels with a piece of saintly dried kidney or lung, or even a beached hip bone, to engender greater fervor in the presence of the divine. However, a search of local houses lead no where. Even the famous caves which lined the southern shores were searched and found empty but for scandalized bats and copious amounts of guano. One rumor was that Mary, out of spite, had the body burned on the beach the night before his scheduled burial, just beneath the apartment on whose balcony Shelly ate his breakfast and in which his amply-assed Matilda slept off her latest opium delirium. Per this story, the bitter widow wished the acidic smoke of the holocaust to curl and whirl up to the apartment, and there burn the tender sinuses of the husband stealing maid. While there is no doubt that Mary had a large fire on the beach the night before the interring, it was attended by numerous witnesses who attested that only wood was burned and the intent was to read Shelly’s poems in the flickering of the beach fire.
Over the years, many researchers have attempted to locate the body or at least its final resting place. Mark Twain claimed that Shelley’s body was stolen and then secretly buried in the Vatican by a vindictive Pope angry at Shelley for promoting atheism, sexual freedom, and moral degeneracy. Twain was to write a book on the theory, but delayed. When he was finally ready to write the tome, he died before he could even start it.
President Woodrow Wilson took an interest in the mystery and pursued it as a personal hobby including touring Europe on three occasions to do research. His conclusions were never formally published, but his extensive notes were fashioned into a book after his death by his nephew Arthur Wilson. The book, entitled "The Mystery of Shelley’s Missing Body–Solved!" sold poorly despite the prestige of the underlying presidential investigation. The conclusions of the book likely caused the poor sales. According to Arthur, his uncle had concluded that Shelley’s body had never actually been recovered, that the witnesses mistook a drowned Italian fisherman for their life long friend, and when Mary herself saw the body, she had at once grasped and gasped at their error. Rather than embarrass the officials, it was agreed that the body of the fisherman be given to his rightful family, whilst Shelley’s casket be filled with fish offal, rocks and bagged soil. This ruse allowed Mary the ability to search privately for the Shelley's body. When the body did wash ashore, as was inevitable given the tides in the area, Mary was able to mourn in privacy, quiet and afar from the shadow of the sexual interloper Mitalda. Mary then privately buried Shelly in a plot purchased from the Sisters of Mercy in Rome. The unmarked grave is said to be situated three plots down from the grave of Italian national poet Caesar DiGiavonni.
The latest researcher claiming an interest in the mystery was Louis Rysmeyer, a New York Times sports editor. His conclusions were subject of a 1973 best seller, entitled, "Solved! The Mystery of Shelley’s Missing Body" which lasted on the Times best seller list for six months. His conclusion: Shelley never drowned at all. Instead, his death was faked by conspiring friends and family, along with financially compensated Italian authorities. Shelley went into hiding in order to find peace to author his long planned epic on the founding of the British nation. Unfortunately in a cholera epidemic, he died while still in hiding, and his body was hastily burned by public authorities desperate to stem the plague. Mary forbade the revealing of this deception for reasons unknown.
In the end, despite the passing years, the extensive research, and endless theorizing, the ultimate location of Shelley's body remains a pure mystery waiting to be solved...