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A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England

by Elizabeth Cooke

Pub Date: Oct. 2nd, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8027-7996-0
Publisher: Walker

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.