The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England

Overview

On August 30, 1780, in Warwickshire, England, twenty-year-old Theodosius Boughton, the dissolute heir to a vast fortune and baronetcy, died suddenly and in violent convulsions after taking a medication prescribed by his doctor. Was he poisoned by his mother, who insisted that he drink the draught despite its scent of bitter almonds? His brother-in-law, John Donellan, who hurriedly rinsed and broke the bottle containing the medicine after Theodosius's death? His cousin, who desperately wanted the baronetcy? The ...

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The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England

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Overview

On August 30, 1780, in Warwickshire, England, twenty-year-old Theodosius Boughton, the dissolute heir to a vast fortune and baronetcy, died suddenly and in violent convulsions after taking a medication prescribed by his doctor. Was he poisoned by his mother, who insisted that he drink the draught despite its scent of bitter almonds? His brother-in-law, John Donellan, who hurriedly rinsed and broke the bottle containing the medicine after Theodosius's death? His cousin, who desperately wanted the baronetcy? The jealous maid with whom Theodosius frequently cavorted? Many had a score to settle or stood to benefit financially from his demise.

But perhaps he wasn't murdered at all. Could he have died from the quack medicines-including mercury-he used to treat his debilitating syphilis? Or was it a heart attack or stroke, rare in young men but the cause of the deaths of his father and grandfather? Or an epileptic fit? With the cleverness of a master detective and the literary skill of the finest crime writers, Elizabeth Cooke deconstructs the evidence, chronicles the sensational trial that ensued, and provides intriguing new proof that Donellan, who was executed for the murder, may not have been guilty after all. In the process, she opens a fascinating window on the dark and violent underbelly of Georgian society.

 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this intriguing, if minutiae-heavy, account, novelist Cooke (The Ice Child as Elizabeth McGregor) retraces the circumstances surrounding the possible 1780 poisoning of 20-year-old Sir Theodosius Boughton, heir to a baronetcy in Warwickshire, England. Theodosius lived at the family’s home, Lawthorn Hall, with his widowed mother, Anna Maria; older sister, Theodosia; and her husband, John Donellan. The late Edward Broughton’s will, leaving his estate first to Theodosius, then Theodosia, made for chilly family relations. Theodosius’s health had recently declined, due to his various self-treatments with mercury for venereal disease (most likely syphilis). On August 30, he took a draught prescribed by the local apothecary, handed to him by his mother, who said it smelled of bitter almonds. Theodosius went into convulsions and died. Donellan allegedly then rinsed out the empty bottle, which strengthened the eventual court case charging him with poisoning his brother-in-law, despite inconclusive autopsy results, shaky witness testimony, and a weak motive. Cooke makes a strong case not necessarily for Donellan’s innocence but for a shoddy trial, though her conclusions come a bit late after the unnecessarily detailed account of Donellan’s trial. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“A meticulous account of a country-house mystery…. Cooke…marshals the story in the brisk style of a whodunit and courtroom drama, with a firm grasp of her primary sources and the wider social history sketched lightly around them. Beyond the details of the death and trial, her main interest is in the dynastic drama of the Boughton family. Larger themes are gestured at in passing. With a gruesome murder mystery at this book's core and titillating glimpses of Georgian high society at its periphery, fans of Kate Summerscale's "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" and Amanda Foreman's "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" will be equally well catered for.”—Mike Jay, The Wall Street Journal
Library Journal
In August 1780, Warwickshire, England was shocked when wealthy young Theodosius Boughton died in convulsions after taking medicine given to him by his mother. The combination of big money, a violent death, and a quick burial set local tongues wagging, and suspicion fell on his brother-in-law John Donellan, a charming "adventurer" who might have had his eye on the family fortune. In covering the sensational trial that followed, novelist Cooke (The Ice Child, as Elizabeth McGregor) takes readers through the history of the Boughtons, whose dirty laundry included a rancorous family feud and a dissolute heir prone to venereal disease and quack cures. Like any good country-manor mystery, there are a number of suspects who might have wanted the young heir dead, and the possibility of accident or natural causes can't be ruled out. In the end there is no way to know the truth. VERDICT This close study of a minor historical murder will be of more interest to scholars than to true crime fans.—Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Cooke applies her considerable storytelling talent to expose the incompetent, ineffective investigation and 1781 trial of John Donellan in England. Ne'er-do-well Theodosius Boughton needed only one more year to attain his majority and become the Baronet Boughton. The young heir had been infected with venereal disease at age 15 while studying at Eton. Learning nothing from his experience, he was reinfected multiple times and relied on an apothecary to treat him. He also kept a host of self-treatments in his rooms, including mercury and arsenic. At the end of August 1780, a new mixture from the apothecary was delivered to him and set aside for morning. His mother, instead of riding with her son-in-law, Donellan, stayed to ensure her son took his medicine, noting at the time that it smelled of bitter almonds. Theodosius immediately collapsed into a seizure. Donellan was called in, and he immediately took two empty vials and rinsed them out in the basin. Within 20 minutes, Theodosius was dead. Within hours of her son's death, his mother arranged for the funeral, had breakfast and discussed her future with her son-in-law, whose wife would inherit much of the holdings. Throughout, readers will sense a distinct odor of English class-consciousness in this case, and there's no doubt that Donellan's lack of breeding played a considerable part. Why was Donellan accused of poisoning the victim when his mother administered the medicine? Why wasn't the autopsy performed immediately by competent surgeons? The rulings of the presiding judge at the trial were blatantly slanted, and "expert" witnesses proved to be completely lacking in authority. Cooke itemizes the available details, but more importantly, she notes the questions that weren't asked, the facts that were not introduced, and the logical conclusions that never arrived.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802779960
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Cooke is the author of ten novels. Little White Lies was televised by the BBC, and The Ice Child recounts the story of the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage. She lives in Dorset, England.

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