The stupendously wealthy 5th Duke of Portland had a very weird obsession: building underground. At his order, tunnels, a ballroom, a church and a vast network of chambers were constructed underneath his estate at Welbeck Abbey in England. It might also be said he lived an underground life, avoiding human contact whenever possible. He communicated with his servants by written message and traveled mostly at night, with a lantern attached to his belt.
So when a middle-aged widow named Anna Maria Druce claimed in court in 1898 that her late father-in-law T.C. Druce, a successful London retail merchant, had, in fact, been the late 5th Duke in disguise, it seemed improbable, but perhaps not impossible. So began one of the stranger legal cases in British history. It was a public sensation for the next decade.
Author Piu Marie Eatwell brings this bizarre story to a modern audience in The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse, and it’s as entertaining now as ever. In vivid, cinematic scenes, she lays out the battles between Anna Maria and her allies against the 6th Duke and her own Druce relatives, who thought she was nuts. The case got even more outlandish as secrets emerged about T.C. Druce that brought a whole new cast of colorful Australian relatives into the picture. To top it off, the legendary Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard played a pivotal role in the inquiry.
Wonderful as that all is, the best part of the book is the last third, where Eatwell describes her own investigation. The outcome of the Druce case in 1907 is a matter of record, but there was much those Edwardian lawyers either didn’t know or didn’t reveal. Eatwell finds letters, documents and pictures that provide a completely different perspective on the odd 5th Duke—and expose anew the extraordinary hypocrisy of which some 19th century patriarchs were capable.