Piu Marie Eatwell has chosen one of the most fantastical of legal trials that spanned the late Victorian to the Edwardian period for another entry into the genre of turning well-researched historical crimes into an accessible book for non-academics.
The journey the author takes us through started in 1898 when a widow named Anna Maria Druce applied for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce. Mr Druce had been a furniture dealer, owning the Baker Street Bazaar, a forerunner of what we know as a department store, but Anna Maria believed that he had been the alter ego of the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland. Her claims meant that Tomas Druce had faked his death in 1864 and spent the next fifteen living at the ducal seat, Welbeck Abbey in Worksop, Nottinghamshire.
Welbeck Abbey 1829 – Wikipedia
This real life drama ended up spanning an entire decade after Anna Maria’s request for the grave in Highgate Cemetery being refused but with the discovery that Thomas Druce had been married before. Both men were eccentrics, Thomas Druce refused to reveal any details about his early life, he had fixed habits and moved his family frequently from property to property whereas the Duke was rarely seen in public, had an aversion to sunlight and spent his time at Welbeck Abbey constructing a series of tunnels and rooms underground. Who can deny that fact is often stranger than fiction?
The beauty of this book, and others of its ilk like The Suspicion of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale or The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins, is that they give a real feel for the time as well as providing us with well-researched historical evidence. This tale is complex, particularly as it is full of claim, counter-claim, hypothesis and, on the flip-side lies and forgeries, but the chapters are divided up to give background to the next part as well as the new revelations that kept the courts, and the media, busy. A story running for so long had the public eager to find out the latest, especially as the revelations uncovered some behaviour that was definitely against the morals of the time.
The story doesn’t end when the mystery is resolved, the police were also kept busy following up some of the claims made including Inspector Dew who became known for his apprehension of Dr Crippen which meant for me, this story had links to other true crimes committed in the same period, presumably so few were the members of the newly formed CID that his career saw a wide variety of criminals. Mentions are also made of the love of Sherlock Holmes but without it feeling like the author was trying to cram every detail into the book.
Apart from in the first chapter where the author gives us a potted history of the ownership of Welbeck Abbey, the book couldn’t read less like a history book so well thought out is the structure making it an immensely readable and enjoyable piece of what must have been months of research.
DC Walter Dew Circa 1887 – Wikipedia
I’d like to thank Midas PR or allowing me to read a copy of this book for review purposes, it will now stand next to the rest of my historical crime selection on my bookshelf. The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse was published by Head of Zeus in hardback in September 2014 and the author will be on tour in the UK during the summer of 2015.
Piu Marie Eatwell has a fascinating background – an ex-lawyer and TV producer, she used to produce a number of historical documentaries for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. She now lives in Paris with her family. Her first book They Eat Horses, Don’t They? busted common myths and misconceptions about the French and was highly acclaimed.