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The Weird Mystery of William Cantelo the “Teleporting Inventor”

The 19th century British inventor William Cantelo was a rather eccentric man who set up a shop of curiosities in the early 1870s on French Street in Southampton. On display were various oddball inventions that he had come up with over the years, which always turned heads, but Cantelo himself began to spend more and more time away at a more secret location working on something he claimed to be revolutionary and a game changer. Cantelo happened to be the landlord for a pub called the Old Tower Inn, and it was here where he had a mysterious tunnel that led off into the gloom, which he would enter and not leave for sometimes days on end. No one quite knew what he was doing down in that tunnel, but it seemed that he had a workshop down there, which began to produce quite a lot of rumors. Then one day he would just vanish without a trace, and leave behind him a tale of weird inventions, doppelgangers, unexplained mysteries, and teleportation.

People in the area of the pub began telling of hearing strange noises coming from down in the gloom, such as a bizarre humming sound and occasional loud noises that sounded like gunshots, but which came in rapid succession, and there were also reports that there could sometimes be seen weird flickering lights or smoke coming from the darkness of the tunnel. This went on for some time, but Cantelo wouldn’t tell anyone what he was up to, only his two sons knowing the truth, and this further spread rumors. People knew he was designing some new invention and speculation flew about what it could be, with ideas ranging from that it was some sort of light machine or weapon, to that it was a time machine. It would not be until 1880 that he would finally announce that he had designed and perfected a revolutionary new type of portable, handheld, fully automatic machine gun. At the time this was a pretty big deal, and it generated much excitement. Cantelo packed it into a suitcase and hit the road with his new invention, supposedly to find a buyer, but he would never come back.

It was very bizarre, because Cantelo had not mentioned going on a long trip, in fact, he had only planned to be gone for a day or two at most, so when the days turned into weeks, authorities were notified and the family also hired a private investigator. It would be found that he had withdrawn a large amount of cash from his bank, but that was about it. Further muddying the waters were that there were strange rumors doing the rounds by people in the vicinity of Cantelo’s workshop, who claimed to have seen him enter the tunnel, followed by an array of flashing lights and smoke, after which he never came back out. Another rumor was that he had fled to America, something which the private investigator found some evidence of, but other than that what had happened to Cantelo was anyone’s guess. And this was where things would stand until 1881, when the case would get even stranger.

In that year, an American inventor by the name of Hiram Maxim moved to the United Kingdom with a whole bunch of amazing inventions and fantastic claims. In addition to numerous patents for all manner of odd devices from mousetraps to curling irons, he also claimed to have developed a working lightbulb and plans for powered flight, but what really stood out was his invention for a fully automatic machine gun, which he called the “Maxim gun.” It would be by chance that one day Cantelo’s sons saw a picture of this inventor and immediately recognized him as their missing father, it was very odd, as he had not been gone long enough to have made the long journey to America and back, and they could find no reason for why he would have taken up a new identity, but they were sure of it.

Hiram Maxim (left) and William Cantelo (right)

The sons and private investigator made finding out more about this Maxim guy a new mission. It turned out that the design for this Maxim gun was nearly identical to the one that their father had developed, in fact, it looked exactly the same, and the oddities did not stop there. Cantelo Had also always carried a book of maxims with him in his pocket, which led the brothers to believe that he might have taken that as his new name, and there were allegedly some witnesses who claimed Cantelo had even called his own invention the “Maxim Gun.” However, there was plenty of evidence to show that Maxim actually was born in the United States and that he had gotten 271 patents from 1866. It seemed like he couldn’t possibly be Cantelo, but his family were not convinced. In the meantime, rumors swirled that Cantelo had escaped to the States to pursue selling his invention under a new identity, and even more outlandish claims that he had actually built a teleporting machine to travel back and forth between the countries. These rumors were further fueled when Maxim refused to speak to the Cantelo family, merely sending them a letter insisting he was not from the Isle of Wight, where Cantelo had been born, which was odder still because no one but his close family even knew he was from there. On one occasion they managed to catch sight of the American inventor and were certain it was their father, but he rode off in a carriage before they could confront him. In the end, Maxim would refuse to comment on any of this, so at the time it was a curious mystery.

In more recent years the case has been looked at again, notably on the BBC program Punt PI, in which Steve Punt discovered that Maxim had apparently complained about someone impersonating him in the United States, and also came to the conclusion that Maxim and Cantelo’s guns do in fact look the same after showing the pictures to the Royal Armouries. He also had the pictures of Cantelo and Maxim compared by a facial recognition expert, who came to the conclusion that, while the two men look very similar, there are some differences, although their prominent beards make it difficult to do a full analysis. The main conclusion was that the case is just a series of remarkable coincidences, and that the two were in fact different men. Nevertheless, this still doesn’t explain where Cantelo went or what happened with him, and there are just enough odd features of the case that have managed to keep it alive as a true modern mystery.