"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Deadly Duke de Praslin

Duke de Praslin


Charles Laure Hugues Theobald, Duke de Choiseul-Praslin was one of the leading figures at the French court during the reign of Louis Philippe. In 1847, he transformed himself into its leading killer, setting off a scandal that so disgraced the king and his government, it helped lead to the Revolution of 1848.

Praslin’s murder of his Duchess, the former Fanny Sebastiani, was as stupid as it was brutal. On August 17, 1847, the couple and their nine children were at their town house in Paris. At about four-thirty the next morning, the household was jarred awake by the most dreadful din. Ominous crashes and horrifying shrieks could be heard emanating from the Duchess’ apartment. The bells in her room used to summon servants were ringing hysterically.

When the servants tried to enter her bedroom, they found that, against her usual custom, it was locked from the inside. As they frantically tried to break down her doors, they could hear her continuous screams, coupled with the sound of someone running about the room. Finally, the Duke’s valet found an unlocked door which led to an ante-room connecting the Duke and Duchess' bedrooms. When the servants came to the rescue at last, they found the room completely dark.  The smell of blood and gunpowder filled the air. The Duchess was found lying on the floor, covered in blood emanating from over forty wounds. She was unconscious, and probably died just at the moment she was discovered.

The room itself was similarly battered, showing all the signs of the prolonged, violent struggle that had taken place. Blood was everywhere, most notably in a sinister path of red that led straight to the chamber of the Duke. Praslin himself soon appeared in the room, putting on a remarkably unconvincing air of shock and sorrow. But even if he had the acting skills of an Olivier, it would not have saved him. Everyone from the maids to the police recognized immediately that he was one of the most obvious murderers on record. The chief investigator said it best: “This is not the work of a professional thief or murderer. It is a vile business clumsily done. It is the work of a gentleman.”

The Duke claimed he had been awakened by his wife’s screams, and entered the room, clutching a pistol, to find her dead. Immediately afterward, the servants arrived at the door, and he let them in, leaving the gun on the floor. The police asked him how he accounted for the partly-burned handkerchief in his fireplace. They wished him to explain the fact that he was wearing as a belt a green cord that precisely matched the missing bell-cord in the Duchess’ room. How did he come to be covered in bruises, fingernail scratches, and bite marks? Most of all, how did it happen that the dead woman’s blood, hair, and skin were all on the butt of his pistol, precisely as if it had been used to club the poor woman?

The Duke had no answers for any of this, other than a blanket denial of guilt. The king loathed the thought of the scandal that would ensue by charging a member of his court with wife-murder, but Praslin’s guilt was so manifest, he had no choice but to order his arrest. However, Praslin cheated the course of justice by swallowing a dose of arsenic which killed him a week later.  His death was ruled a suicide, but many whispered that the king and his government murdered Praslin, in order to avoid the additional unpleasantness of a trial.  (Incidentally, there are persistent rumors that the Duke faked his own death and fled to Nicaragua, where he fathered several children before his "real" demise in 1882.  Although there are today Nicaraguan "claimants" who argue that they are Praslin's descendants, this is one story that can probably safely be classified as legendary.  It is hard to picture a murderer as inept as the Duke staging a successful escape.)

The Duke's motive for his evil deed stemmed from his increasingly tormented home life.  The Duchess’ letters and diaries paint her as a frantically unhappy woman, who knew she had lost her husband’s love, and reacted in such a way as to ensure he would be driven away altogether. By the time of her death, the combination of his increasing distaste and her escalating jealousy and obsession with him had left them bitterly estranged. The Duchess was fixated on the woman who had been their children’s governess for the past six years, thirty-five year old Henriette Deluzy-Desportes. Mlle. Deluzy-Desportes was attractive, highly intelligent, and at least appeared to be the most well-behaved and respectable woman in France.

Henriette Desportes


The Duchess had become convinced that there was an “intrigue” between the Duke and the governess. She began to threaten divorce, which would have ruined Praslin socially. A month before her death the Duchess had—much against the wishes not only of her husband, but of her children, who adored their governess—engineered Mlle. Deluzy-Desportes’ removal from their household. The Duke was furious at this development, and it is usually believed that this was the “last straw,” the catalyst for murder.

The mystery of the case arises from the exact nature of the relationship between Duke and governess, as well as the personality of Mlle. Deluzy-Desportes herself. Was the Duchess merely a paranoid and unstable fantasist, or were her dark allegations justified? Was Henriette an innocent victim of slander or a scheming femme fatale? Servants in the Praslin household boldly stated that the governess was a "bad lot" who had deliberately ruined a once-happy marriage, alienated a mother from her own children, and undoubtedly instigated the Duke to commit his terrible crime.  Were these assertions merely jealous spite, or did they contain at least some element of truth?  Students of the case have yet to reach a consensus on these issues, and likely never will.

After the Duke’s death, the governess was under arrest for three months, constantly interrogated about her role in this household tragedy. While she admitted the Duchess was a very “difficult” woman, her declarations of innocence—in every respect—were so convincing that the magistrates were finally compelled to release her.

Even though she was now a free woman, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes realized she was too notorious to remain in her country. The women of France--who were unanimously on the side of the murdered, and, in their eyes, martyred Duchess--were threatening to lynch Henriette, whom they saw as not only an instigator, but an accomplice.  The Duchess' numerous pathetic, anguished letters to her husband were published. Letters containing lines such as "You cannot be conscious of your own cruelty and the sufferings you inflict on me.  Grief, believe me, is a slow and painful death.  Ah, Theobald, how I loved you! How I loved our children!  I had nothing else in the world.  Now nothing is left me of all I had...Another woman before my very eyes enjoys all that is most precious to me, and you expect me to be content!  My God! what crime has brought upon me such a penalty?  Ah, Theobald, you had no right to deprive me of my children, to give them over to a woman without modesty, without principle, without discretion...For nearly five nights almost ever passed till three or four o'clock in the morning in tears, in convulsions of despair, when I have often pressed the pillow to my mouth to stifle my cries...I have lost my husband, my children; I am near them, yet not allowed to enjoy their society.  I know that I am a burden, and despised.  I must indeed be acting a part if I could be gay and amiable with such bitter sorrows.  The calm I show is owing to opium only, and to the violent efforts I make before the world, which I pay for when I am alone by nervous tremblings and torture unutterable...Mdlle Deluzy is entirely mistress...I every day reproach myself for my cowardice in having tolerated the position, truly scandalous, of Mdlle. D.; for in this world we can only judge from appearances, and in this case they are as shameful as it is possible for them to be."

After the Duchess enlisted her aristocratic and powerful father to order the governess' dismissal, she wrote in her diary, "It has cost me dear.  My God! what will come of it?  How enraged he [the Duke] is!"  Her final diary entry read, "He has been tired of this woman for a long time, but was afraid of her.  That is why he refused to dismiss her.  It is clearly so.  And now that he has got help his self-love revolts against it.  That is his real cause of annoyance; and in conjuring up within himself a fictitious grief he hopes to soothe it.  'You have marred my whole life by this act': these were his words, spoken with suppressed fury...He will be revenged on me!"

These letters and diary entries--hundreds of them, spread out over six years--were undoubtedly, as William Roughead wrote, "as exhausting to the writer as they were exasperating to the recipient, and contributed not a little to the consummation of the tragedy," but they gained an enduring literary fame, and inspired even greater public sympathy for the Duchess, and further inflamed indignant fury against her "rival."

The governess-turned-pariah wisely changed her name and emigrated to America.

It is at this point that this sordid and depressing case took a curious turn. Mlle. Deluzy-Desportes managed one of the most remarkable comebacks of any despised figure in a famous murder case.

She prospered in New York, becoming principal of the Female Art School at the Cooper Union. She met the Reverend Henry M. Field, who soon fell head-over-heels for her. When he proposed marriage, she had the strength of character to tell him the entire truth about her blighted past. While naturally shocked to learn of her entanglement in such an infamous crime, he had no doubt of her innocence. They wed in 1851, and lived very happily ever after.


The new Mrs. Field joined a most distinguished family. One of her brothers-in-law was instrumental in promoting the Atlantic cable, and another was a Supreme Court Justice. She did this family proud, we are told, with her integrity, vivacity, and wit making her a loved and admired figure in their entire circle. By the time she died in 1874, she was considered one of the most notable ladies in New York. She wrote a book about her native country, "Home Sketches of France," which was published posthumously.  She also achieved a more famous literary immortality: her grand-niece, Rachel Field, wrote a popular novel about the case, “All This and Heaven Too.” In 1940 it was turned into a classic film starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.  (For a far darker interpretation of the governess' character and actions, see Joseph Shearing's fictionalized version of the Praslin tragedy, "Forget-me-not.")

The disgraced governess had created quite a second act for herself. Was it a case of virtue finally rewarded? Or one of a skilled and devious actress making the most of a lucky break?

2 comments:

  1. Unlike some of the stories you've told, this one doesn't allow for any real certainty for or against the governess. But, though it permits miscarriages from time to time, the law about innocence until guilt is proven is a good one. And you'd think that, unless she changed completely, Henriette would have made some American acquaintances suspicious, if she had been as bad as her former fellow-servants professed.

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  2. In the Duchess's letters there's more than a whiff of the the kind of hyperbole and melodrama so often expressed by those suffering paranoia and schizophrenia. There's always a good dose of entitlement as well as malignant narcissism there too it seems. I can easily believe the governess was merely an easily acquired target for the drama-making which was at the very center of the Duchess's life. And the Duchess had to have been acting out her pathologies daily. Just from the letters I can well imagine the house was a living hell for everyone in it, and all because of a pathologically self-centered and terribly insecure woman. And it went on SIX YEARS...at least! You have to be at least somewhat sympathetic to the Duke, whom surely just finally reached his breaking point and killed his wife simply to get some peace.

    For all the vitriol spewed against Mlle. Deluzy-Desportes by the women in France, Hollywood was much more sympathetic to her memory. In the 1940 release,"All This And Heaven Too", Bette Davis played the governess and Charles Boyer the Duke, both of whom were initially innocent and acted correctly. It was the temperamental and demanding Duchess, played by Barbara O'Neil, who was at fault, and she made life hell for everyone around her. FWIW.

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