Verdict: The Damnation of John Donellan

The damnation of john donellan image

Cooke, Elizabeth. The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England. New York: Walker and Company, 2011.

The saying goes that “only the good die young, ” but on the day that he died, 20 year-old Sir Theodosius Boughton was not exactly a good man. Left fatherless at twelve when Sir Edward Boughton, 6th Baronet, dropped dead, and apparently neglected by Sir William Wheler, the man tapped to serve as his guardian, Theodosius spent his brief time at Eton brawling, overspending, and enjoying all of the charms of female companionship. By the time his mother, Anna Maria, decided to bring him home, he had made one poor decision too many, and contracted syphilis.

Until penicillin came on the scene in the mid-1940s, the only treatments available to the syphilitic patient were completely ineffectual and typically involved repeated doses of mercury; both the disease and its treatment caused horrific symptoms, and given the nature of mercury poisoning, one or the other would eventually prove fatal. Sometime during the summer of 1780, Sir Theodosius either contracted a new syphilitic infection, or experienced a resurgence of his first. Whichever the case, Lady Boughton obtained medication for her son from apothecary Thomas Powell. Theodosius found the liquid foul-tasting and balked at taking it, so on the morning of Wednesday,  August 30, his mother made sure that he swallowed his daily dose as prescribed. She could not have imagined, as she urged him to finish it, that within minutes her son would be in convulsions, and within an hour, he would be dead.

Or did she?

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In The Damnation of John Donellan,  Elizabeth Cooke tackles a case which for decades was held up as an example of the dangers of circumstantial evidence. The unexpected, dramatic death of a young aristocrat who was (as far as the public knew) in good health caused a  virulent rash of rumors to spread across the county; with a week, the question was not why Sir Theodosius had died, but who had poisoned him. Although, as Cooke points out, there were several viable suspects, the finger of Justice quickly moved to point at Theodosius’ brother-in-law. Captain John Donellan was a disgraced soldier who had also served as doorman at a notorious London social club before eloping with Theodosia Boughton three years before. Despite this scandal, Donellan had, by 1780, become a trusted member of the family, living with his wife and their two children at Lawford Hall and taking charge of much of the household business, including looking after the young heir after he left Eton and getting him out of various scrapes, boyish and otherwise. Although he did not give Sir Theodosius his medicine, and wasn’t even in the room when the young man was first taken ill, Donellan, according to witnesses, did and said several odd things after being summoned by Lady Boughton. He washed out the medication bottles stored on the dead man’s mantel  (possibly pouring their contents into a waste basin) and had them removed from the bedroom. He insisted to others that his brother-in-law had taken cold, and allegedly told coachman William Frost that “you are my evidence” after confirming with him that he had been nowhere near Theodosius’ room that morning* Most damning, however, was Lady Boughton’s testimony that her son’s tonic smelled of “bitter almonds,” and the fact that Donellan possessed a still, ostensibly for distilling lavender and rose-water, but which, it was whispered, he also used for concocting laurel-water, a source of prussic acid.**

PrunusLaurocerasus
There are many species of laurel, but Prunus laurocerasus, the cherry laurel, is a source of prussic acid, or cyanide.

If wagging tongues conspired to have John Donellan suspected, and ultimately arrested, for the poisoning of his brother-in-law, the English justice system of the late 18th century seemed designed to work against him as well. Modern readers used to the notion of “innocent until proven guilty,” and the right to a competent defense will wonder at Cooke’s description of a trial that was highly criticized even in its own time for bias and inadequacy–and which, in our century, would be farcical were man’s life not  at stake. Witnesses were coached and intimidated (or not called at all), questions went unasked by both sides, and potential exculpatory evidence was ignored or missed entirely. The most useful testimony of all, that of famed surgeon Sir John Hunter, was criticized by the magistrate, Sir Justice Francis Buller, and buried under the weaker evidence presented by several less able colleagues. Still, Captan Donellan maintained his innocence and, on the eve of his trial, was looking forward to being back in London once his ordeal was finished.

Devotees of Dateline-style television mysteries are familiar with true crime documentaries that lead viewers to favor  one side, only to flip their opinions like pancakes with a new set of information. Cooke begins her story with an in depth description of Theodosius Boughtons’ last hours, taken from his mother’s depositions and testimony. I have read this book twice, and even the second time, I have to say that there appear to have been very good reasons to fear poisoning, and to suspect John Donellan. As the  book progresses, however, the weight of reasonable doubt becomes greater and greater, to the point that one wonders if there had never been a crime at all–only gossip which drove weak men, and one weak woman, to the point of sacrificing an outsider on the altar of public opinion.

Or perhaps he did it.

Donellan standing

The Damnation of John Donellan is a deft combination of whodunit, courtroom drama, medical history, and social commentary, stuffed into a compact 254 pages. Thanks her skillful analysis of Boughton family documents and newspapers of the time, Cooke is able to portray Sir Theodosius, Donellan, Anna Maria, and even minor players as real, sympathetic human beings with strengths and foibles. By telling the story chronologically, she keeps up the suspense while providing the reader with the same evidence the jury was given. Made up of well-to-do landowners and tradesmen (though not of the aristocracy), this jury sat in a courtroom which operated quite differently than those the reader might be acquainted with; Ms. Cooke explains the workings of British justice in 1780 clearly, while at the same time pointing out how John Donellan’s attorneys frequently fell below the standard of practice for their own time, let alone our own. For all of the detail involved, The Damnation of John Donellan manages not to be dry; it does, however, lag in places, largely due to the difficulty of presenting the two very different timelines described by Lady Boughton and Donellan himself. The two accounts can be difficult to follow; a chart contrasting both would have been a welcome addition.

From "The Boscombe Valley Mystery"
From “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

And how would Sherlock Holmes have viewed this case? We know from his advice to Watson regarding Thoreau’s “trout in the milk” in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,”  that he did not discount circumstantial evidence. At the same time, however, he was well aware of its dangers. “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” he warned his friend in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”:

It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.

Given his success  in “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” we also know that Sherlock Holmes did not discount medical information in favor of more sensational interpretations.*** He may have come to see Sir Theodosius’ death as due to a coincidental seizure or other event, either completely unrelated to his purging draught, or accidentally triggered by it. Unlike nearly everyone involved in the case (except for the nervous Powell himself), Holmes would not have ignored the possibility that at least one bottle of the young man’s physick had been mislabelled, or misprepared in some way, leading to a tragically accidental poisoning. Nor would he have forgotten a phial of medication Sir Theodosius had allegedly ordered made up for himself which contained Occuli indicus berries, a known convulsant–commonly prescribed for mercury poisoning. Coming across this case as a boy or a young man–and it is likely that he did–Holmes would also have been struck with the difficulty of reconciling witness testimonies and timelines, and he may well have wondered, as does Cooke, what role John Donellan’s social status (particularly when contrasted with that of the Boughton family)  played in his arrest, and his treatment in court. As an adult, Sherlock Holmes was no respecter of persons, nor did he see women as necessarily virtuous; a thorough reading of the Donellan case and its critics would have only added another layer to this foundation of his character.

John donellan profile

In most crime stories–including the cases of Sherlock Holmes–focus tends to shift very quickly from the victim to the list of possible perpetrators. In her conclusion, Cooke brings us back to Sir Theodosius, reminding us that he was only twenty years old when he died, still quite capable of emerging from a protracted adolescence to fulfill the responsibilities which were his inheritance, every bit as much as Lawford Hall. The reader might be forgiven, however, for looking past the body on the bed to the man and woman by the fireplace, holding empty bottles, staring at each other with frightened, suspicious eyes.

The Damnation of John Donellan is available from all major booksellers, in hardback, paperback, and e-book formats. Elizabeth Cooke, who also writes fiction, can be found on both Twitter and Facebook. You can learn more about her work on her website, http://www.elizabethcookeauthor.com.  Those interested in primary sources on the trial of John Donellan can read (free of charge) The Proceedings at Large on the Trial of John Donellan, Esq., for the Willful Murder (by Poison) of Sir The[odosius]…Boughton….  at https://archive.org/details/b20443602.  Interestingly, A Defence and Substance of the Trial of John Donellan, Esq.,  the accused’s thorough answer to the evidence presented against him at trial, which was published and sold by his attorneys, is currently only available as a paid reprint.

Footnotes:

Cooke, p. 140.

**It would be revealed after his trial that Captain Donellan did, indeed, distill laurel water, which he claimed was used for foot lotion. Cooke points out that Lady Boughton is the only person who reported a bitter almond smell associated with her son’s medication, although Dr. David Rattray, one of the physicians involved in the (worthless) attempts to autopsy the body, also mentioned an acrid smell coming from the corpse. What Cooke misses, however, is the fact that not everyone can smell cyanide. Figures range from 50% to the “one in ten” mentioned in this article from the National Institutes of Health (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2043049/). It is, therefore, quite possible that Anna Maria Boughton was right, and the phial did contain laurel water. Who put it there, and with what intent, would be another matter entirely.

***Of course, in “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” the solution is both medical and  sensational.

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