2016: 21. The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and The Missing Corpse


“It was a dark, windy winter evening a few days before Christmas 1879.”

The Dead Duke, his Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse, Piu Marie Eatwell

Oh my lord, was there ever a title more explicitly written to catch my eye? Victorian aristocrats and missing corpses and it’s true crime? I gobbled up this book, and even though the writing is a little loose, enjoyed it immensely.  Here is the tale - in 1879 the eccentric* Fifth Duke of Portland died.  His now wealthy and noble heir was a distant cousin, because the Fifth Duke had lived the bulk of his life as a crazy hermit, never interacting with anyone but servants (and even them largely through written messages and through thick doors).  He was obsessed with secrecy, going as far as to build a giant ballroom underground, and miles of mysterious tunnels under his estate.  In other words, a spectacular example of a nattering nabob, and already interesting on his own.  

But it gets better! Twenty years after his death, a poor widow named Anna Maria Druce applied for the exhumation of her father-in-law, merchant George Druce.  Her claim was that there would be no body in the tomb - because Druce was actually the Duke of Portland, living a double life.  She explained that when he got tired of pretending to be Druce,  he faked Druce’s death, and went back to life in the Ducal palace, and that all that was in Druce’s tomb was iron to make it heavy. 

Amazingly, she got traction with this tale.  The ecclastical court was ready to agree to open the tomb (evidently they were super into reopening tombs in Victorian times, a la Gabriel Dante Rossetti), when Druce’s older son objected, claiming that the whole story was nonsense.  And off to the races the matter went, going on for like 20 years of litigation, Annie Druce eventually being replaced by one of Druce’s grandsons who lived in Australia.  The press went nuts, lawsuits were coming in faster than raindrops and in the background trying to be above it all was the 6th Duke of Portland (but secretly funding the anti-Druce causes).  The story is so bonkers - why it got any speed at all remains a mystery to this day, but the twists and turns are great.  Just 100% up my alley.

As I mentioned above the writing is not as sharp as I would like  - it’s a bit pedestrian, particularly at the end when the author makes herself a character and talks about her current research into the case.  But the story is so delightfully Victorian and batty, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes either true crime or dotty dukes.

*the rich are eccentric, the poor just crazy

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017