The Damnation Of John Donellan

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

By Elizabeth Cooke

Profile Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-84668-482-1

In August 1780 Sir Theodosius Boughton, a dissolute Old Etonian twenty-year-old and heir to a Warwickshire fortune, died in painful convulsions after taking his medicine. The following year after an inquest and trial which became a cause celebre, his brother-in-law, Captain John’Diamond’Donellan, Irish soldier of fortune and man about town, was tried for his murder. The trial was a shambles. Was Donellan guilty? Based on extensive research and the engrossing trial transcripts Elizabeth Cooke’s book shows the dark and violent underside of the society of Mansfield Park.

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Excerpt: According to Powell’s later testimony, he was taken by John Donellan straight to Theodosius’s room, where he reported vaguely that ‘some servant’ was present, though he could not say who.

He inspected the body but saw ‘no distortion’ and, more astonishingly, ‘nothing in particular’. He noted that Theodosius had been dead ‘near an hour’. When asked how the young man had died, Donellan replied, ‘In convulsions.’ Powell later said the John Donellan also tried to persuade him that Theodosius had caught cold the night before, but he could not recall his exact words.

At some unspecified time later that same morning, Powell saw Lady Boughton, who told him that Theodosius ‘was convulsed soon after he took the medicine.’ But there is no mention at all by anyone else in the house, when under oath later, of Powell having been questioned about what he had put in the prescription of why Theodosius had reacted as he did. No hint of blame, confusion or anger from anyone who spoke to him that day, in the family or beyond.

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From the York Press: Anna Maria, his mother, was suspicious and rumours soon spread that her son-in-law Captain John Donellan, an Irish soldier and ex-employee of The East India Company, had poisoned Theodosius. A gruesome autopsy then took place and an inquest held. A sham trial was held with varying and conflicting accounts, which eventually changed the face of legal history. Much research has gone into this book that reveals the seedier side of wealthy Georgian society and the medical and legal practises of the day. – Click here to read the full review

From Kirkus Reviews: 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. – Click here to read the full review

From His Futile Preoccupations….: 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. – Click here to read the full review

See also

Interview with Elizabeth Cooke from the New Scientist

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