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A Murder Mystery from Georgian England



Rob Hardy


We have a classic mystery: in an English country house, the heir to the estate dies suddenly after swallowing some substance from the bottle of an apothecary. It's the story within The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England (Walker) by Elizabeth Cooke. How did it happen, and who did it, and why? The trouble is, we have no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or CSI to solve the case, and have to put up with bumbling doctors and unscientific explanations, and then a seriously defective trial of the man accused of murder. After over two centuries, the story is curious rather than outrageous, but it will never be completely solved. Cooke has examined all the evidence meticulously; there are explanations of who was where and when on the night of the death, and what was said, and what was omitted when the trial came. The attempts at solving the mystery are just one attraction of this enthralling book; it is an evocation of a time when a case like this was medically, scientifically, and legally beyond adequate resolution. 




The victim in the case was Sir Theodosius Boughton. In 1780, he was only twenty years old, about to come of age and take up his inheritance. The estate included the country seat of Lawford Hall on the river Avon in Warwickshire in central England, lands given to the Boughtons by Henry VIII when he closed an abbey there. Perhaps Theodosius would have turned into a responsible country squire if he had had the chance to live longer, but there was little to predict that this would happen. At his young age, he was dissolute and irresponsible. At Eton, he incurred debts that his mother was expected to pay (his father had died when he was twelve). He enjoyed going to the pub and brawling. He contracted syphilis. He treated himself with the mercury "cures" that were standard at the time. He fiddled with arsenic to poison fish because he was too lazy to catch them the ordinary way, and he used arsenic to poison the Lawford Hall rats. Prussic acid was around, too, for household use; if someone wanted to poison someone else, the chemicals were readily available. 




At Lawford Hall was Theodosius's mother, Anna Maria, who was in virtual control of the estate until it came to her son. Also in residence were his sister Theodosia, second in line for the family fortune. In 1775, Theodosia had made a hasty marriage to Captain John "Diamond" Donellan, so called because of the large diamond ring he sported. The marriage had turned out to be more supportive than people who knew Donellan would have predicted. He had shown courage in the army in India, but had been expelled for profiteering. He bought into a new venture in London, the Pantheon, a gathering place for the upper classes for balls, masquerades, concerts, and cards. He was handsome and charming, and he took the role of greeter there. It was a place in society, but it wasn't the place he wanted; he needed to marry into the aristocracy to continue his efforts at ascendency. He and Theodosia had eloped, but were eventually reconciled to the mother; Donellan had helped extricate Theodosius from some of his escapades. So the four main characters were in residence at Lawford Hall on 30 August 1780 when Sir Theodosius swallowed an elixir from an apothecary's bottle. 




Theodosius, like many, practiced self medication with his mercury preparations, and he took other concoctions, potentially poisonous, to counteract the side effects of them. He had been prescribed by an apothecary a gentle laxative, a draught of jalop, rhubarb, lavender, and nutmeg, and Anna Maria stood over him with maternal solicitude to make sure he took it. She didn't originally state that the medicine smelled of bitter almonds (a characteristic of the poison distilled laurel water), but later said she had noticed it. Ten minutes after swallowing the dose handed to him by his mother, Theodosius groaned, frothed at the mouth, heaved in agony, and was dead. Anna Maria was to testify that Donellan entered Theodosius's bedroom shortly thereafter and hurriedly rinsed out the bottles. He was arrested, and due to circumstances such as his having a still that could be used for distilling laurel water, he was quickly found guilty in the court of public opinion. Cooke gives in intricate detail the timing of the ins and outs of the bedroom and of the debate about whether an autopsy ought to be done. The delayed decision to autopsy the body came ten days after Theodosius had died, so he was disinterred and a group of country doctors did what they could with the putrefying remains. 




They gave their evidence in court when Donellan came to trial. The most fascinating part of the court proceedings is the participation of Judge Francis Buller, known to history as Justice Thumb. The year after Donellan's trial, he was to rule that a defendant could be permitted to beat his wife with a rod, provided the rod was no thicker than the man's thumb. This declaration became infamous in its time, but it is not the case that the phrase "rule of thumb" comes from it, because the phrase predates Buller's declaration. Buller's intemperance was on display in the trial. He was known as a judge who could be relied upon to mete out hangings readily. In Donellan's case, he had informed the lawyers a week beforehand that he thought Donellan was guilty. He accepted the sweeping assertions of the doctors called by the prosecution, but was obviously hostile to the testimony of the famous London surgeon John Hunter, who testified that there was no direct evidence that poison had been used. Buller's instructions to the jury were slanted to have the case go his way. Donellan was tried for poisoning with arsenic, but arsenic does not have the bitter almond odor that Anna Maria lately said she had smelled. Buller said, "If the indictment should state that the deceased died by any particular poison, and it should appear upon enquiry that he died of another sort of poison, the difference is immaterial with respect to the law..." Before sending the jury out, he summed up the evidence, and then claiming that he owed it to the jury and the public to convey his impressions of the evidence, he did so, cautioning the jury that "you are not to adopt any opinion because it is mine."  




Adopt or not, the jury took nine minutes to find Donellan guilty, with all the subsequent results that Buller had wanted. There had been no proper defense made on his behalf against the charges, and there was no such thing as appeal at the time. Cooke has called her own experts into the case, who clearly think there were grounds for reasonable doubt. She contrasts investigative procedures then and now, and shows how Theodosius's medical conditions would have been closely examined as the actual cause of death. She takes us nicely through the possibilities that Buller and the jury never considered. Her book is a good recreation of a forgotten case, but it is also an examination of the medical and legal practice of the times, and a recreation of Georgian attitudes and society. After all these years, the book cannot give a certainty of a solution like a whodunit does, but it raises all the right questions. Of course, there is no way to apologize to Captain Donellan for what seems at the very least to have been a trial unfairly waged against him. We can, however, take satisfaction that nowadays forensics, and especially toxicology, would prevent any such unfairness.



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