The Damnation of John Donellan: A mysterious case of death and scandal in Georgian England
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.
this. But they were not. Nor was the gardener cross-examined; ‘Counsel were instructed to cross-examine the gardener but did not do it,’ his solicitors remark in their footnotes. Prosecuting counsel Digby next called the Reverend Newsam, the vicar of Great Harborough. Newsam confirmed that he had seen Theodosius at Lawford Hall on the Saturday before his death and that Donellan had told him that Theodosius: … had never got rid of the disorder that he had brought with him from Eaton, but
permanently with their grandmother in Lawford Hall. Anna Maria was alone there after the trial, so alone that she asked Edward Boughton, now the Eighth Baronet, if his sister Anne would like to be her companion.2 Edward did not think much of the idea, explaining that Anne’s temper was ‘uncomfortable’ – but he may well have been protecting Anne’s tendency to depression from the gloomy atmosphere at the Hall.3 Edward, in any case, was in no mood to help Anna Maria. He had just paid part of the bill
to allow the funeral to proceed. It was also claimed that ‘during his confinement’ Donellan had dismissed Theodosius’s death, saying that ‘a greater piece of work was made about killing one man in England than about killing twenty in Ireland’. If what was said in the Three Tuns was reported correctly, then it shows Donellan in a bad light. If he did intercept a message from Bucknill to Snow, it may have been to get the funeral over with for the sake of the assembled mourners; or it may have
gentleman with them; … upon receipt of your last letter, I gave it to them to peruse and act as directed … I wish you would hear from them the state they found the body in, as it will be an additional satisfaction to me that you should hear the account from themselves. The ‘other gentleman’ may have been Wheler’s apothecary, Bernard Snow, but this was never specifically confirmed. Donellan then, for the first time, described what he thought was the cause of death: Sir Theodosius made a very
at Theo’s own difficult character, the day was not over yet. Donellan had another cause for distraction: the servants announced that yet another surgeon was at the door. This was someone that neither Wheler nor Donellan had asked for: Mr Samuel Bucknill, a local surgeon who had turned up of his own accord. ‘I have heard that Dr Rattray and Mr Wilmer have been here,’ Bucknill explained. ‘I heard that they declined opening it on account of the putrid state it was in. If it is of any satisfaction