Friday, 11 November 2011

The Damnation of John Donellan

The Damnation of John Donellan by Elizabeth Cooke

I first heard about this when reading the flyer for the Wimborne Literary Festival and knew the book was right up my street. Stupidly I bought it before the festival rather than waiting and getting a signed copy.

It's a kind of Georgian Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and is completely brilliant. I loved every minute of it - from the well-researched backgrounds of all the characters, to the extracts from the trial transcripts.

John Donellan married up, into the landed Boughton family. The current baronet was one Theodosius Boughton, who was 20 and syphilitic. One morning his mother stood over him while he drank a draught of medicine: within an hour he was dead, apparently of poisoning. His brother-in-law, John Donellan, got the blame and hung for it. The case was notorious at the time, and makes fascinating reading now. It was all handled so badly by so many people.

Donellan was accused of poisoning Theodosius with arsenic yet the whole case rested on his mother's testimony that the medicine smelt of almonds - which points to an entirely different poison. And no-one looked into Theodosius's history of epilepsy - the symptoms of a severe fit match the manner in which he died. The body was buried for several days in mid-summer before an autopsy was carried out, by which time it was too rotted to yield many clues as to cause of death. It's a catalogue of errors.

Did Donellan murder Theodosius? You can make up your own mind! I got the impression the author had decided he was innocent. I think - well - if he was murdered then Donellan was probably the murderer; but there's a strong possibility it was natural causes all along... or was it the mother? And what about the apothecary who was prescribing endless medicines to Theodosius?

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