“The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, And the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue,” by Piu Marie Eatwell. (Copyright 2015, W.W. Norton, 338 pages, $27.95)
British tabloid newspapers of yesteryear must have reveled in the family secrets divulged as a result of this Edwardian era fraud investigation involving the wealthy and titled. The tale begins in 1898 when an elderly widow named Anna Druce brings a sensational lawsuit contending that her dead father-in-law, a department store owner named T.C. Druce, led a double life and was in fact the same person as the 5th Duke of Portland who left a big estate 20 years earlier to which she would have had a monetary claim.
Mrs. Druce’s lawsuit claimed that the Duke had faked the death of his middle-class persona about 20 years earlier in order to return to life as John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, the 5th Duke, a reclusive and eccentric member of the landed gentry. The suit requested permission from the court to exhume the body of T.C. Druce in order to find out whether the burial was a ruse and if the casket in the family tomb was really filled with lead weights instead of human remains.
During his lifetime, the 5th Duke scandalized his immediate community with peculiar behavior. He suffered from several skin diseases and had a passion for building underground tunnels beneath his large house that made the local people name him “the digging Duke”. Many in the village surrounding his estate believed him to have leprosy, be infertile, or both.
The London merchant T.C. Druce, his purported alter-ego, turned out to have reputation problems of his own. He eloped with an underage girl as his first wife, fathered several children with her, and then abandoned and disowned his first family in order to start a second one. In the second family some of his offspring were legitimate and others were born out of wedlock before his first wife died and he was legally able to marry a second time.
“The Dead Duke” deals mostly with a large cast of family members, witnesses, investigators, spurious claimants and outright charlatans involved with the case. Prior to modern scientific identification techniques, the only way to prove or disprove identity was by using eyewitness testimony and by constructing intricate timelines to determine whether each person’s movements were accounted for at all times or whether their paths crossed in such a way that separate identity could be established.
The preface to the book contains a list of characters to describe the numerous people named in connection with the lawsuit. I found the narrative a little hard to follow until about halfway through when I had fixed all the minor characters in my memory. I would assume this historical true crime story was published in an attempt to capitalize on the fascination with English aristocracy and “downstairs” servant confessionals that started when “Downtown Abbey” first appeared on public television several years ago.
“The Dead Duke” was largely written based on research and pictures from the manuscripts department at Nottingham University in England. The dukedom of Portland became extinct with the death of the ninth Duke in 1990 and the family’s papers are housed there. The author is a former documentary producer for BBC-TV.
By Lisa Kobrin, Reference Librarian