Hands up all those who enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Well, you’re in for a treat with The Damnation of John Donellan, another cold case/true crime extravaganza, this time set in Georgian England. It’s August 1870 and the young heir to the estate of Lawford Hall in Warwickshire, Sir Theodosius Boughton, was soon to come of age and take up his rightful inheritance. Only he was a dissolute young man, riddled with syphilis, fond of starting brawls in pubs and too lazy even to catch fish properly (he would throw arsenic into the river to poison them). Knowing her son’s reluctance to take his medicine, his mother, Anna Maria, stood over him whilst he swallowed his latest, unpleasant-tasting physic; within the hour he was dead of painful convulsions. For several days there seemed to be no notable reaction from the family, but as rumours spread around the county that he had been poisoned, the household began to take sides.
Theodosius had a sister, Theodosia, who was second in line for the family fortune. She had made a hasty and, in the view of many, regrettable marriage to a ex-army man, Captain John ‘Diamond’ Donellan. Donellan had been thrown out of the army for profiteering in India, but had managed to reach a position of social influence by buying into a new venture in London. The Pantheon was an entertainment palace for the upper classes providing music concerts, balls and card-playing and Donellan was a sort of meet-and-greet host, a refined version of a club bouncer. He was known to be good-looking and charming, and constantly on the make. To really gain a place in society, he needed to make a good marriage, but this was bound to be problematic when he had little to offer a wife.
He met Theodosia when they coincided at an overcrowded travelling inn en route to Bath. He gallantly offered mother and daughter his rooms, and struck up an acquaintance. In a very short time, he and Theodosia eloped and were secretly married. By the time of Theodosius’s suspicious death, the couple had been living reconciled with Anna Maria at Lawford Hall for several years, and he had been helpful in extricating Thodosius from embarrassing brawls. But now, Anna Maria turned against her son-in-law, and provided an account of the morning’s events that would eventually condemn Donellan to the gallows.
It’s really the historical situation that makes this book such a good read. Georgian England was an extraordinary time to live: the practice of medicine was not yet regulated and many doctors and physicians were charlatans, their quack remedies more likely to kill you than the illness. Theodosius had been dosing himself liberally with various mercury-based preparations that had undoubtedly undermined his health. Then the law was a mess. Donellan’s trial was a shambles, the blatant contradictions between accounts ignored, the witnesses intimidated by the prosecution, and the judge ‘considered arrogant, hasty in his decisions; prejudiced, severe and even cruel in criminal trials.’ The media hasn’t changed all that much; it spread abroad unfounded accusations and gossip, relished the prospect of Donellan’s guilt in advance of the trial and then howled injustice once he had been hanged. And the society of the day was rife with tensions. The landed classes had numerous advantages, which they exercised freely, and money was as ever a point of contention. The line of the Boughton family was fraught with disagreement and dislike, one branch of the family greeting word of Theodosius’s death as ‘wonderful news’.
Elizabeth Cooke does a very good job of setting the scene for the suspicious death and teasing out the alternative scenarios. Was Theodosius actually poisoned? How likely was it that John Donellan was the guilty party? How to account for Anna Maria’s sudden change in testimony that succeeded in condemning Donellan, or for her apparent lack of emotion over her son’s death? Who else stood to gain? Alas, there can be no recompense now for the luckless Donellan, and any alternative solutions can only be speculation. But it’s an engaging read that makes you extremely grateful for forensic science and ethical legal practice.
ETA – I keep forgetting to say! Very many thanks indeed to whoever nominated me for a BBAW award. It came as a complete surprise and is a genuine honor. The very best of luck to everyone who is up for an award this year.