The Devil Himself: An Interview with the Author

The Devil Himself is a 2016 book from Oxford University Press that tells the story of the Dukes-Nutt Saga and explores its social context. The book was written by Andrew Porwancher, who is an Assistant Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma. Much of the research for this exhibit was sourced from The Devil Himself.

In March of 2017, Pennsylvania Room volunteer Rachel Zajac had the opportunity to interview Dr. Porwancher and gather his take on the story.

Zajac: How did you discover the Dukes-Nutt affair and what got you interested?

Dr. Porwancher: The trial transcripts of the Dukes-Nutt affair were published for mass consumption in the 1880s. I found the title of these publications in the catalog of a law library. I was instantly hooked by the story that the testimony told of political intrigue, illicit romance and revenge killing.

Zajac: What are your thoughts on what really took place?

Dr. Porwancher: I suspect, but can’t say for sure, that Dukes wanted to get out of his engagement with Lizzie because he had fallen in love with Mary Beeson. Lizzie perhaps had indeed engaged in some premarital romance with other men, which Dukes conveniently seized on as a pretext for breaking his engagement. What Dukes hadn’t imagined was that [Captain] Adam Nutt would insist on a lethal encounter or that his letters about Lizzie’s alleged alliances would ever become public.

Zajac: How much of politics were involved and were politics a big part of daily life for the people of Uniontown?

Dr. Porwancher: For a certain subset of the population of Uniontown, professional white men, politics was indeed an important part of many of their lives. Quite a few people in this small town served in elected positions. The Gilded Age generally was a time when party identification was high, which is something of a paradox because the policy differences between the parties was minimal compared to today. One striking aspect of this story is that Nutt, a Republican, was close friends with some Democratic leaders.

Zajac: Was Lizzie portrayed unfairly because she was a woman or being an affluent woman of the Victorian Age meant she would never be capable of doing the accusations brought against her?

Dr. Porwancher: In one sense, Lizzie was portrayed unfairly in that she wasn’t afforded much of a voice. As a woman in Victorian America, she was largely confined to the role of spectator as she passively watched a violent ordeal unfold in defense of honor. On the other hand, many in the press and the community lionized her as a paragon of womanly virtue, and so in that sense, she was indeed afforded a certain kind of respect that many women of that day hoped to elicit from society.

Zajac: Were duels out dated? What did people in society think about the code of honor and duals in general?
Dr. Porwancher: Formal dueling had become increasingly outdated by the Gilded Age. However, much of what I hope to illustrate in this book is that violent encounters in defense of one’s honor (or in defense of the honor of a family member) were far more common in this era than historians realize. American society generally applauded the code of honor and celebrated both Adam Nutt and his son, James, for their willingness to spill blood for honor. Lizzie, meanwhile, was seen as a deeply sympathetic figure who lost her beloved father and was wronged by her betrothed all at once. Dukes was villainized as a libidinous womanizer and a ruthless assassin.

Zajac: Do you have any additional comments you would like to share?
Dr. Porwancher: My final comment is that I have been so appreciative to the people of Uniontown for their interest in my book. The Fayette County Historical Society was hospitable and helpful in equal measure throughout the research process. I’ve had the chance to meet the descendants of many of the people whom I write about. The Dukes-Nutt saga occupies an important place in the town’s history and I would consider it a high compliment if Uniontown locals feel that I did justice to this story.