The Dead Duke by Piu Marie Eatwell

Although perhaps not explicitly true crime in that there is no murder, kidnapping, or other sensational crime, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue (Liveright, 2015) by Piu Marie Eatwell unravels the complexities of one of the most tangled legal cases of the late nineteenth century, the Druce-Portland Affair. Filled with sensational stories of eccentric British aristocrats, forgery and deception, and fortune seeking, Eatwell’s book takes the reader on a journey through history to an all but vanished time in Victorian England when exhumation of graves was a common practise and aristocratic scandals captured public attention by journalists willing to sensationalize even the barest facts to sell papers.

The Portland-Druce Affair began in the latter part of the century when Anna Maria Druce, the widowed daughter-in-law of Thomas Charles Druce (d. 1864) made the rather outlandish claim that her father-in-law had been alive into the 1870s and had led a double life. Not only did Anna Maria claim that a lead filled coffin had been placed in the Druce family vault Highgate Cemetery when Thomas Druce had faked his death, but that he was really John Bentinck, the wildly eccentric, but extremely wealthy, 5th Duke of Portland who had died in 1879 without issue. Fueling Anna Maria’s wild claim was the fact that if proven, her son, followed by other Druce family members, would be the rightful Duke of Portland, instead of the younger cousin of the fifth Duke who had inherited the estate, fortune.

Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, the family seat of the Dukes of Portland

In an effort to prove that her late father-in-law had indeed faked his death, Anna Maria petitioned for the exhumation of his supposedly empty coffin. As Eatwell so deftly details over the course of the book, the Portland-Druce Affair was complex and produced a tangled web of differing narratives, a host of claimants from around the world seeking a payout, and deception and forgery at every turn. In a manner that is highly readable, and surprisingly clear given the confusion of the whole affair, Eatwell traces the case, the investigation, and the decades long court proceedings from start to finish, ultimately revealing the truth of the entire matter by the close of the work. Although more of a mystery with hints of deception, Eatwell does chronicle the various criminal activities that came out of the case, which add to the drama of what is already an almost unbelievable story.

This impressive stone monument marks the burial place of the Druce family, including Thomas Charles Druce (d.1864) in London’s Highgate Cemetery – Find a Grave 

Given that the Druce-Portland Affair had been widely reported in newspapers around the globe, Eatwell was tasked with sorting fact from fiction in order to accurately chronicle the extremely intertwined history of the case. What is perhaps the best aspect of the work is the authors attention to detail and her reliance on the archival record. Throughout the work Eatwell makes mention of the historical record that she is drawing from, but for any historian reading the work, the final pages of the book, which detail some of the authors discoveries while researching and provide a brief sketch of what must have been a tremendous research project, would be the most fascinating. 

An image from an undated periodical from the turn of the century showing Anna Maria Druce at the grave of her father-in-law in Highgate Cemetery

While the outcome of the Portland-Druce Affair has been known for over a century, Eatwell’s study offers an in-depth look at all key players, events, and behind the scenes activity that would have gone on without the knowledge of public. Indeed, Eatwell walks the reader carefully through every twist and turn of the case and peels back the layers of the mystery in a way that is both easy to follow and suspenseful, leaving one never quite sure what will happen next and constantly wanting more until the very end. Although the only actual crimes of the affair are not overly scintillating when compared to other works of true crime, the case as a whole will appeal to true crime readers looking for a fascinating historical mystery. 

Please add The Dead Duke to your Goodreads shelf.

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Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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