Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin

Seventeen-year-old Fanny Altarice Rosalba Sébastiani married nineteen-year-old Charles Laure Hugues Théobald, Duke de Choiseul-Praslin on 18 October 1824. The Duke was a French nobleman, politician, and leading figure under the reign of Louis Philippe I. The Duke and Duchess had been visiting in Praslin and had returned to Paris on the Corbeil railway on Tuesday night, 17 August 1847.

Fanny Altarice Rosalba Sébastiani. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Each had made several separate visits to friends and then returned to their home located at 55 Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It was late by the time the Duke and Duchess got their children to bed and even later when they retired to their separate apartments. The Duke’s and Duchess’s apartments were located on the ground floor and divided by an ante-chamber that opened onto a flight of stairs. To its left was a boudoir connected to the Duchess’s room and on the right a little room preceded the Duke’s bedroom. Above their apartments were those of their servants.

The Duke, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Duke. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Everything was quiet until about four or five in the morning when the Duchess rang the bell signalling that she required assistance. Madame Le Claire, the Duchess’s femme de chambre (maid) heard the bell, hastily rose, and went to assist her mistress. When she arrived, the door was locked and Le Claire could not enter. She was about to retire when she thought she heard groans and she tried to open the door again but to no avail. Le Claire then sought assistance and by the time she and the other servants returned, they heard cries and commotion inside the Duchess’s room. However, despite their best efforts, they could not enter the room.

It was then two servants tried to enter the Duchess’s room another way. As they did so, they found the boudoir door open and smelt gunpowder. They were too fearful to enter and went to gather more help. It was shortly thereafter that the Duke removed the latch and opened the door. When he did, the remaining servants discovered a “frightful sight.” The Duchess was lying in a pool of her own blood with several deep wounds bleeding from her throat. Signs of a struggle were also present and described in the following manner:

“[A] little table had been overthrown; porcelains and some objects of art were spread about; the drapery on the wall bore the traces of a bloody hand, as did also the rope of the bell [which was used to call the maid] … and finally, between the clasped fingers of the [Duchess’s] left hand there was some of the murderer’s hair, whilst a more considerable quantity of the hair, pulled out in the struggle, was scattered here and there on the floor, on which the coagulating blood had fixed it.”[1]

A work table had also been overturned behind the sofa, and the Duchess’s head was resting on the sofa saturated in blood. Her chemises was also bloody, as well as the carpet and other furniture in the room. The Duke then said, “Ah, poor woman, poor woman, which is the monster who has assassinated her,”[2] and seeing the state of the Duchess, the servants ran to get assistance.

Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin, Public Domain

Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin. Public domain.

Surgeons arrived first but quickly discovered there was nothing they could do for the injured and bleeding Duchess. She died about two hours later. During this same time, “the Procureur du Roi, the Prefect of Police, and a considerable number of the most intelligent police-officers [arrived] … and took active measures for tracing the author of the crime. Every person found in the house, and everybody who entered it afterwards, was taken into custody.”[3]

Authorities interrogated those present and searched the house for clues. They soon determined that “no robbery had been committed, or even attempted. The garden was examined with the most minute care … and found in such a state that it was evident that no one had penetrated into it either to enter or left the hotel; and nowhere could any traces of breaking in or of breaking out be found.”[4] Because of that and a variety of other reasons, authorities quickly focused on a single suspect: the Duchess’s own husband, the Duke Choiseul-Praslin.

First, the police learned that the Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin was madly in love with her husband and that she had recorded as much in her writings. They also discovered the couple had a rather volatile relationship and that numerous violent confrontations between the two had been witnessed by the household staff. Moreover, a recent confrontation had occurred. It involved the children’s governess, a woman named Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (or Henriette de Lucy, Luzy, or Luzzi, although one paper reported her real name was Laure Desportes and another Luzy Desportes).

The Duchess believed her husband was having an affair with Henriette. The Duchess also believed the two were planning to elope. Moreover, the Duchess thought her husband had hired Henriette to estrange her from her children. Because of this, the Duchess repeatedly threatened to leave her husband, which would have ruined him socially. She also became upset enough about Henriette that she fired her a few weeks earlier, although Henriette had just recently left. Moreover, the Duchess was refusing to give Henriette a letter of recommendation, which would prevent her from getting another job.

There were several physical signs that pointed to the Duke being the murderer. One sign was the obvious bloody trail that led from the Duchess’s room to the Duke’s room. Among the objects found in the Duchess’s room was “a pistol loaded with balls, and bearing a percussion cap,”[5] which belonged to the Duke. In addition, the butt of the gun had embedded in it “fragments of flesh, and on the face and skull of the victim there was found the trace of blows which retained the marks of the arabesques and hollow chisellings which had been executed by the workman.”[6] Investigators also found hidden in the Duke’s room a fresh blood-stained dagger handle that was missing its blade (and never discovered). Moreover, a handkerchief and paper were found half burned in the fireplace and several pieces of bloody cord were found in the pocket of the Duke’s dressing gown.

Investigators also found other incriminating evidence. The Duke had some scratches and bites, and “it was also established that the hair found between the fingers of the duchess and in the pool of blood … was precisely of the same colour and same length as that of her husband.”[7] One of the servants also claimed to have seen someone who he thought was the Duke in the Duchess’s room at the time of the murder. According to the servant, during the commotion he ran around to the gardens at the back of the house hoping to enter the Duchess’s room from a back window. It was at that time that he reported he “perceived a man of the height and appearance of the duke, who, hearing the noise of his [footsteps], withdrew suddenly into the interior of the bed-rooms, abruptly quitting one of the windows which he had just opened, in order, without doubt, to make it be believed that it was by that [window] … that the murderer had obtained entrance.”[8]

With all the evidence seemingly pointing to the Duke, police interrogated him with great interest. The Duke claimed that he was suddenly awoken by a commotion and sprang out of bed. He then went toward his wife’s chambers but heard a cry and now unsure whether there was danger or not, he returned to his chambers and loaded his pistol. With the pistol in hand he entered his wife’s dressing room and called her by name, but there was no answer.

He then left the dressing room, lit a candle, and entered his wife’s bedroom, where he claimed he unsuccessfully attempted to defended his wife from some unknown assassin. Their fight created the noise and commotion, and it was shortly after the scuffle the Duke claimed he found his wife severely injured and threw “himself on the bleeding body of his wife, which he embraced.”[9] Moreover, according to the Duke, as he was fighting off the attacker, the servants appeared at the Duchess’s door and he heard the cries of the servants to open the door.

Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin,. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shortly after the servants entered, the Duke left to wash up. He was covered in blood from supposedly having embraced his wife, and he later claimed he washed up and attempted to remove the blood from his clothes so as not to upset his children. In addition, the maid Le Claire reported that after the Duke’s wife was pronounced dead, he was thoroughly distraught. According to Le Claire:

“[I saw the Duke throw] himself on the bed, and afterwards in a corner near the door of the saloon, he appeared desperate, and tore his hair saying, ‘Poor children, who will apprise them of this; they have no longer a mother … This scene lasted for a time which I cannot describe, but several persons successively arrived … who interrogated me upon this event. I then retired to my apartment, and saw no more.”[10]

With all the overwhelming evidence, things did not bode well for the Duke, and “urged by the magistrates to account for his actions during the night, his answers were so improbable, that they nearly amounted to confessing [to] the crime.”[11] He was soon placed under house arrest and closely watched. On Saturday he was transferred to the Luxembourg Palace pending a trial by the Court of Peers, which was to be presided over by Étienne-Denis Pasquier.

That same day, the Duke attempted suicide by taking arsenic. According to one report issued about his suicide attempt:

“[T]hree phials have been found in his chamber, one which was still filled with nitric acid, another contained a white powder, which has been ordered to be analysed, and the third … contained laudanum.”[12]

Doctors immediately administered a strong emetic to counteract the arsenic and it seemed as if his suicide had been averted. However, the poison the Duke took killed him, and he died on Tuesday, 24 August 1847, at five o’clock in the afternoon.

Although some people believed the Duke’s suicide pointed to his guilt, not everyone was of the same opinion. Le Clare claimed that “in viewing this great crime, my opinion was that it had been committed by that horrible woman who had been governess to the children. I believed her to have been yet even in some cabinet, and that she was about to appear.”[13]

The police may have initially thought Henriette guilty too. At the time of the murder, police arrested her. She was held for three months, interrogated, and released for lack of evidence. Her friends then advised her to “cross the seas and begin life anew.”[14] She arrived in New York in the autumn of 1848, and supported herself by teaching till May, 1851. At that time “she … married … the Rev. Henry M. Field … pastor of a church at Springfield, Mass. In 1855 he bought an interest in the Evangelist newspaper, and from that Mrs. Field became, according to the Herald, ‘one of the most distinguished women of New York.'”[15]

References:

  • [1] “Murder of the Dutchess de Choiseul Praslin,” in Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, Thursday 26 August 1847, p. 1
  • [2] “Murder of the Duchess de Praslin,” in The Morning Post, 4 September 1847,  p. 4.
  • [3] “Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin,” in Royal Cornwall Gazette, 27 August 1847, p. 4.
  • [4] “The Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul Praslin,” in The Examiner, 28 August 1847, p. 7.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Horrible Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 26 August 1847, p. 4.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] “The Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul Praslin,” in The Examiner, 28 August 1847, p. 7.
  • [9] “Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin,” in Royal Cornwall Gazette, p. 4.
  • [10] “Murder of the Duchess de Praslin,” in The Morning Post, 4 September 1847,  p. 4.
  • [11] “Murder of the Duchess of Praslin, Arrest of the Duke,” in The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 27 August 1847, p 7.
  • [12] “Murder of the Duchess Praslin in Paris,” in Stirling Observer, 24 September 1847, p. 4
  • [13] “The Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul Praslin,” in The Examiner, p. 7.
  • [14] “The Praslin Tragedy,” in Western Times, 24 March 1875, p. 4.
  • [15] Ibid.

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3 Comments

  1. Sue Bursztynski on August 20, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    Sounds a bit like an Agatha Christie murder – at least, a mixture of The Mysterious Affair At Styles and Murder On The Links, only no Poirot to solve it. Oh, well… 🙂

    • Geri Walton on August 24, 2016 at 8:45 am

      One good mystery that has never been solved. It does make you wonder who really killed the duchess.

  2. Elena Maria Vidal on August 21, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    Great article. There is a fabulous movie based upon the tragic case called “All This and Heaven Too” http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2008/06/all-this-and-heaven-too-1940.html

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