The Damnation of John Donellan: A mysterious case of death and scandal in Georgian England

Author(s): Elizabeth Cooke
Publisher: Profile Books
Pages: 304
ISBN: 9781846684821
ASIN: 184668482X
Release Date: 4th August 2011


The flavour of the month in literary circles is the publication of books raking over the evidence of long forgotten murder cases, often hundreds of years in the past. Having enjoyed Mr Brigg's Hat from the Victorian age, I felt a return trip to the genre, a foray further into the dim and distant past, was in order with Elizabeth Cooke's The Damnation of John Donellan.

The death of 21 year old toff Sir Theodosius Boughton in 1780 in Georgian England, was immediately flagged as suspicious in the neighbourhood as a consequence of the rumours of his household's domestic staff. Theodosius was a bar-room brawling, pox infected, mercury imbibing drunkard who had been expelled from Eton and was drifting though life as a wastrel. He was due to inherit his mother's heavily mortgaged country estate of Lawford Hall upon her death, a fact that perturbed his brother-in-law John Donellan who lived under the same roof with Theodosius' mother Anna Maria and sister Theodosia (Donellan's wife) in the hall.

John Donellan could be charitably called a social climber; he was born illegitimately in Ireland (not necessarily an impediment in that era), became a discharged army Captain as a result of fraud whilst on a foreign campaign, and had subsequently held odd jobs whilst attending débutante balls in the social season in the hope of ensnaring a rich heiress. Such a candidate was Theodosia Boughton whom he seduced, impregnated, and eloped with.

Reconciled with the Boughton family in Lawton Hall, the middle aged Donellan quickly became the lynch pin of the household, assuming responsibility for the running of the estate. Theodosius resented this intervention and there became a simmering embitterment between the two men.

When Theodosius was administered some morning medicine for his ailments by his mother, he lurched into paroxysms and foamed wildly at the mouth. Thirty minutes later he was dead. The contents of the phial used to administer the drug became instrumental; did it contain poison? Donellan certainly implicated himself by washing out the drugs bottle as soon as he became aware of the situation. However, there were others with a motive. Anna Maria showed a curious detachment to her own son's demise, Theodosia would become wealthy with his untimely death. And then there was the possibility that Theodosius' death was by natural causes – his father had died early and suffered from epilepsy – could this mean that Theodosius was so predisposed?

Elizabeth Cooke maps out all the evidence thoroughly, but not before providing background information on the entire Boughton clan and their predecessors. Thankfully for usability purposes there are two family trees at the beginning of the book for reference; these become essential due to the Byzantine interwoven structure, and the reader will have a somewhat disjointed read flicking back to the front. Less helpfully is a lack of a crime timeline. There were major discrepancies in the evidence of Anna Maria and Donellan; furthermore they contradicted themselves at various points in the investigation. A schematic would have helped to untangle this mess of data. Without it there is a tendency to lose commitment with the reading process.

There is a pervasive feeling that Cooke's tome is pedantic and verbose. The level of research is awe-inspiring, but regrettably reading it all quickly becomes a chore.