The Damnation of John Donellan by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke’s non-fiction book, The Damnation of John Donellan, a who-dunnit of sorts, examines the intricacies of an 18th century case involving the mysterious, sudden death of the dissolute heir of the Warwickshire Boughton family.  In 1780, future baronet Theodosius Boughton was just twenty years old when he died, most violently, after taking a dose of medicine, a “purging draught” prescribed by the local apothecary for a case of venereal disease. The draught, which supposedly contained jalop, rhubarb, and lavender mixed with syrup and nutmeg water, smelled, according to Theodosius’s mother like “bitter almonds.” Within ten minutes, Theodosius was groaning in agony, frothing at the mouth and “heaving.” A few minutes later, he was dead.

What follows, with painstakingly careful detail, is the story of what happened after Theodosius’s death, the various versions of events, and how the death of this syphilitic young heir ended in one of the most notorious murder trials to take place in Georgian England. Was he murdered by his mother–a woman described as phenomenally stupid by some of the males in her social circle, and a woman whose emotional responses to the death of her son may seem a little odd, (and then there’s the issue of her husband meeting a similar end)?  Or was Theodosius murdered by his scheming brother-in-law, John Donellan–a man who already had three strikes against him (he was Irish, a bastard, and had a shady past). Then again was it possible that Theodosius was simply a victim of his own, often secret, attempts to cure his new case of venereal disease with mercury. He contracted his first case at age 15, and at the time of his death, was attempting to overcome a fresh infection.

The Damnation of John Donellan, a book which should appeal to the fans of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, not only examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Theodosius Boughton but also gives us a unique glimpse into Georgian life and values. There were a couple of points that emphasise that the medical field is one step ahead of medieval times. No one wants to open up the corpse because it’s thought that the odours escaping from the body could be harmful (the autopsy was finally conducted outdoors), and then slaughtered pigeons were put at the feet of the “invalid” in order to “draw the bad vapours from the body.” All this amidst John Donellan claiming to use a still with lime water in order to kill fleas in his children’s bedrooms. And there are also minute, fascinating details pertaining to Georgian law:, so we see the crime placed in its complex social context:

Despite the reforming politician William Eden arguing for fewer capital crimes in his principles of Penal Punishment in 1771, no less than 240 offences carried the death penalty. This had been enforced by the Waltham Black Act of 1723, which had added fifty new capital offences; and in 1781, a man, woman or child could be hanged for offences ranging from murder and highway robbery to the seemingly absurd ‘being in the company of gypsies for more than a month’, writing a threatening letter, or, in the cases of children aged seven to fourteen, simply having ‘evidence of malice’.

Elizabeth Cooke shows that the death of Theodosius Boughton was a case that, in a sense, was too big for its time–both forensically and legally.

But in 1780 neither a surgeon nor a doctor of medicine–no matter how lurid or famous their cases–were as we would recognise them today. The practice of medicine was largely uncontrolled by any official body–it was not until the Medical Act of 1858 that a register of qualified practitioners nationally and even of those named then, only 4 percent had a medical degree from an English university.

Author Elizabeth Cooke doesn’t try to provide the definitive answer to the death of Theodosius Boughton, the heir of Lawford Hall, but instead she provides the facts behind the death, the autopsy details, the problematic legal case, and the testimony of those involved. There are even some  early day-to-day hypothetical details added which flesh out the life of the Boughton family, and these worked surprisingly well. The book bogs down in the details surrounding the various versions of events, but this is inevitable with this sort of work. After concluding the novel, I chewed over the case, and came to my own conclusion about what happened, but of course, I can’t give that away.

There were a few elements to the case that were included but not examined, and I found myself going back over some of the statements made by major players and putting this into the context of what happened. Luckily the book is well indexed so it’s easy to go back over certain aspects of the case. There are also a couple of handy family trees that help keep track of who’s who. Above all there’s a strong sense of time and place–particularly when it comes to some of the more infamous courtesans and mistresses of the day–including the mysterious Mrs. H who granted her favours to John Donellan.

Into the Boughtons’ world stepped Captain John Donellan, Master of Ceremonies at the fashionable Pantheon Assembly Rooms in Oxford Street. He was a man of the world who had returned from soldiering in India with a reputation for both bravery and fortune-hunting. He was about to use both attributes to devastating effect.

For those who enjoy reading these historic crimes, there’s a lot of rich detail relating to Georgian society, attitudes and values. We sense Donellan’s desperation as the finger points in his direction, and his Defence makes for some interesting reading. Was Donellan an adventurer who simply messed with the wrong people or was he a suitable scapegoat?

Review copy


Filed under Cooke Elizabeth, Non Fiction

8 responses to “The Damnation of John Donellan by Elizabeth Cooke

  1. Brian Joseph

    This book and this case sound very entertaining and interesting. As you allude to, these historical books that focus upon one particular event, can be very enlightening on all sorts of topics that go well beyond the event. This is one reason as to why I like these books so much.

  2. I’ve read a review of this a while ago on another blog and it sounded very interesting, the legal and medical aspects especially. It would bug me a bit that we will never know who did it.

  3. It does show how foreign the past truly was. We often imagine, and TV and film are particularly prone to encouraging this, that they are us in different clothes. They’re not though, their platforms of belief are different and while we would have much in common the medical details about the pigeons and the body’s gases show how much we would have differed on.

    • Max: This was a case for CSI or some such thing. So much was overlooked, so much was sloppy and so many aspects of investigation simply didn’t exist. Bad when your life depends on all those structures being in place.

  4. Gosh, that sounds well done, particularly with all the period detail (being hung for writing a threatening letter! What would they have done to Twitter insulters?).

    It sounds like Elizabeth Cooke has really done her homework

  5. Very interesting post and comments. Where was Hercul Poirot when Theodosius Boughton died, I wonder! 🙂

    In my GP’s office, there are pictures about discoveries in general medicine practices. Some very common ones (using a stethoscope) are rather recent.

    I hadn’t thought of Wuthering Heights and the link you make here is very interesting. Their relationship was more inappropriate than we imagine.

    Max is right in his comment about people from the past, we forget they had different beliefs or values. Perhaps it comes from TV, but for us readers, it also comes from literature. Great books of that time that reached us are based on universal feelings. We find that we have things in common with the characters and we forget the rest. The other books are probably forgotten or were never written, considering the 240 reasons why you could get hung.

    PS: For a good laugh about medicine in the dark ages, Le malade imaginaire by Molière.

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