JOHN DONELLAN - POISONER ?
This is an engraved portrait of Captain John Donnellan that appeared in the European Magazine in 1781:
The caption under the portrait reads “ Published as the Act directs, 1st May 1781, by I. Walker; Paternoster Row”.
It was purchased from Grosvenor Prints, 28 Shelton Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9JE. Captain Donnellan’s story follows:
Document LE10/389 from the O’Connor Donelan Estate Papers. An abstract containing a portion that had been crossed out. The introduction to this section read:
“This James had three sons John who was member for Ardee until his death in 1742; Nehemiah who was a Colonel commanding in the 39th regt. wounded I think at Fontenoy and became insane dying in 1782 at the residence of Sir Joseph de Burgo at Killaloe.”
And here is the part crossed out:
“he was not married but he had an illegitimate son John whom he treats as an ordinary son. He got him into the East India Service where he became Captain. Returning home he murdered his brother-in-law (Sir Theodosius Boughton) at a place near Rugby. The murdered man was a Baronet poison was the method adopted and Donelan who vigorously denied the crime to the last was hanged I think about 1791.”
The evidence accumulated to support this begins with a news article dealing with the murder:
The 1850s were the era of the high-profile poisoner. A series of celebrated murder trials introduced an ever anxious public to the terrors of the slow, the sophisticated – indeed the scientific –poisoner, and to his nemesis, the intrepid poison hunter. With a fervid press watching every move, the fear of poison drove changes in both law and medicine.
Dr Burney's history of the medical expert as 'poison hunter' begins with the celebrated 1781 case of John Donellan, who was accused of poisoning his brother-in-law with an infusion of laurel leaf. The case is noteworthy because of the involvement of John Hunter, the famous Scottish anatomist, who was called – reluctantly – to give expert testimony. To the fury of the judge, and in marked contrast to the other expert witnesses, all of whom stated definitively that Donellan was guilty, Hunter was reserved, offering other explanations and pointing out that the scientific evidence did not allow certainty. Donellan was hanged, but because of the standing of Hunter, the case becomes revisited in the legal works that begin to be drawn up specifying the rules and procedures of giving evidence,” explains Dr Burney. “The courtrooms are becoming more professional and disciplined, and poisoning is the primary example used for the problems of circumstantial evidence.”
[TRIAL FOR POISONING]. The Proceedings at Large on the Trial of John Donellan, Esq. for the Wilful Murder (By Poison) of Sir The[odosius] Edward Allesley Boughton [etc.]. Printed for J. Almon and J. Debrett [etc.], London, 1781. Contemporary? marbled boards, rebacked, quite worn, serviceable. [57538 L36L49] $ 450.00
The Complete Newgate Calendar, Vol. IV
JOHN DONELLAN had been a captain in the army, and was the son of Colonel Donellan. He certainly distinguished himself as a good soldier, for not only had he been much wounded in the service, but, if his own account may be credited, he was singularly instrumental in the taking of Mazulapatam. Being appointed, however, one of the four agents for prize-money, he condescended to receive presents from some black merchants, to whom part of their effects had been ordered to be restored, for which he was tried by a court martial, and cashiered. He subsequently purchased a share in the Pantheon, where he figured for some time as master of ceremonies.
After a variety of applications he at length obtained a certificate from the War Office that he had behaved in the East Indies " like a gallant officer " ; in consequence of which he was put upon half-pay in the 39th Regiment. In June, 1777, he married Miss Boughton; and on Friday, 30th of March, 1781, he was tried at the assizes at Warwick for the wilful murder of Sir Theodosius Edward Allesley Boughton, Bart., his brother-in-law.
Mr. Powell, apothecary of Rugby, deposed that on Wednesday morning, the 27th of February, he was sent for to Lawton Hall, and on his arrival there, at a little before nine o'clock, Captain Donellan conducted him to the apartment of Sir Theodosius. On entering, he perceived that the baronet was dead; and on examining the body he concluded that it was about an hour since life had fled. He had some conversation with Captain Donellan with regard to the deceased, and he was told by him that he had " died in convulsions."
Lady Boughton, the mother of the deceased, deposed that Sir Theodosius was twenty years old on the 3rd of August past. On his coming of age he would have been entitled to above two thousand pounds a year, and, in the event of his dying a minor, the greater part of his fortune was to descend to his sister, the wife of Mr. Donellan. It was known in the family on the evening of Tuesday, the 26th that Sir Theodosius was to take his physic the next morning. He used to put his physic in the dressing-room. He happened once to omit to take it; upon which Mr. Donellan said: " Why don't you set it in your outer room? -- then you would not so soon forget it." After this he several times put the medicines upon his shelf over the chimney-piece in his outer room.
On the evening of Tuesday, the 26th, about six o'clock, Sir Theodosius went out fishing attended only by one servant, Samuel Frost. Witness and Mrs. Donellan. took a walk in the garden, and were there over an hour. To the best of her recollection she had seen nothing of Mr. Donellan after dinner till about seven o'clock, when he came out of the house door in the garden, and told them that he had been to see them fishing, and that he would have persuaded Sir Theodosius to come in, lest he should take cold, but he could not.
Sir Theodosius came home a little after nine, apparently very well ; he went up into his own room soon after, and then to bed. He requested her to call him the next morning and give him his physic. She accordingly went into his room about seven in the morning, when he appeared to be very well. She asked him where the bottle was, and he said: " It stands there upon the shelf." He desired her to read the label, which she accordingly did, and found there was written upon it: was taking it he observed that it smelled and tasted very nauseous ; upon which she said: " I think it smells very strongly like bitter almonds." He then remarked that he thought he should not be able to keep the medicine upon his stomach. Here a bottle was delivered to Lady Boughton containing the genuine draught, which she was desired to smell, and inform the Court whether it smelled like the medicine Sir Theodosius took. She answered in the negative. She was then desired to smell another containing the draught, with the addition of laurel-water, which she said had a smell very much like that of the medicine she gave to Sir Theodosius. Lady Boughton then proceeded with her evidence. Two minutes after Sir Theodosius had taken the draught he struggled very much. It appeared to her as if it was to keep the draught down. He made a prodigious rattling in his stomach, and gurgling ; and these symptoms continued about ten minutes. He then seemed as if he were going to sleep, or inclined to doze; and, perceiving him a little composed, she went out of the room. She returned in about five minutes, and to her great surprise found him with his eyes fixed upwards, his teeth clenched, and foam running out of his mouth. She instantly desired a servant to take the first horse he could get and go for Mr Powell. She saw Mr. Donellan less than five minutes after. He came into the room where Sir Theodosius lay, and said to her: " What do you want? " She answered that she wanted to inform him what a terrible thing had happened ; that it was an unaccountable thing in the doctor to send such medicine, for if it had been taken by a dog it would have killed it; and she did not think her son would live. He inquired in what way Sir Theodosius then was. When told, he asked her where the physic bottle was ; on which she showed him two draughts; when he took up one of the bottles and said, "Is this it?" she answered, "Yes." He then rinsed it, and emptied it into some dirty water that was in a washstand-basin ; and on his doing so she said: " What are you at? You should not meddle with and rinsed it, and then he put his finger to it and tasted it.
She repeated that he ought not to meddle with the bottles ; upon which he replied that he did it to taste it. Two servants, named Sarah Blundell and Catherine Amos, afterwards came into the room, and he desired the former to take away the basin and the bottles, and he put the bottles into her hands. The witness however, took the bottles from her and set them down, bidding her not to touch them ; and the prisoner then desired that the room might be cleaned, and the dirty clothes thrown into the inner room. This being done, the witness turned her back for a moment on which the prisoner again handed the servant the bottles, and bade her take them away, and she accordingly removed them. Witness soon afterwards went into the parlour, where she found Mr. and Mrs. Donellan; and the former told his wife that her mother had been pleased to take notice of his washing the bottles, and that he did not know what he should have done if he had not thought of saying that he had put the water into them to put his finger to it to taste. Dr Rattray, of Coventry, described the external appearances of the body, and its appearances in the dissecting. He was asked whether, as he had heard the evidence of Mr. Powell and Lady Boughton, he could, from that evidence, totally independent of the appearances he had described, form a judgment as to the cause of the death of Sir Theodosius. He answered that, exclusive of these appearances, he was of opinion,
from the symptoms that followed the taking of the draught, that it was poison, and the certain cause of his death. Being desired to smell the bottle, and asked what was the noxious medicine in it, he said it was a distillation of laurel leaves, called laurel-water. Here he entered into a detail of several experiments on animals, tending to show the instantaneous and mortal effects of the laurel-water. He knew nothing in medicine that corresponded in smell with that mixture, which was like that of bitter almonds. He further said that the quantity of laurel- water contained in the bottle shown to him was sufficient to cause the death of any human creature; and that the appearance of the body confirmed him in his opinion that the deceased was poisoned, so far as, upon viewing a body so long after the death of the subject, one could be allowed to form a judgment upon such appearances. Mr. Wilmer and Dr Parsons, professor of anatomy at Oxford, confirmed the evidence of Dr Rattray. John Darbyshire deposed that he had been a prisoner in Warwick jail for debt, and that Mr. Donellan and he had had a bed in the same room for a month or five weeks. He remembered to have had a conversation with him about Sir Theodosius being poisoned. On his asking him whether the body was poisoned or not, he said there was no doubt of it. The witness said: " For God's sake, Captain, who could do it? " He answered it was amongst themselves; he had no hand in it. The witness asked whom he meant by themselves. He said: " Sir Theodosius himself, Lady Boughton, the footman and the apothecary." The witness replied, " Sure, Sir Theodosius could not do it himself ! " He said he did not think he did -- he could not believe he would. The witness answered: " The apothecary could hardly do it -- he would lose a good patient; the footman could have no interest in it ; and it is unnatural to suppose that Lady Boughton would do it." The Captain said how covetous Lady Boughton was: she had received an anonymous letter the day after Sir Theodosius's death charging her plump? with poisoning him; that she called him and read it to him, and trembled. She desired he would not let his wife know of that letter, and asked him if he would give up his right to the personal estate, and to some estates of about two hundred pounds a year belonging to the family. The conversation was about a month after the Captain came into the jail. At other times he said that it was impossible he could do a thing that never was in his power.
This being the chief evidence, the prisoner, in his defence, pleaded a total ignorance of the fact, and several respectable characters bore testimony to his integrity. The jury, however, found him guilty, and he received sentence of death. At seven o'clock on the next day, the 2nd of April, 1781, he was carried to the place of execution at Warwick, in a mourning-coach, followed by a hearse and the sheriff officers in deep mourning. As he went on he frequently put his head out of the coach, desiring the prayers of the people around him. On his arrival at the fatal spot he alighted from the coach and, ascending a few steps of the ladder, prayed for a considerable time, and then joined in the usual service with the greatest appearance of devotion ; he next, in an audible tone of voice, addressed the spectators to this effect : that as he was then going to appear before God, to Whom all deceit was known, he solemnly declared that he was innocent of the crime for which he was to suffer; that he had drawn up a vindication of himself, which he hoped the world would believe, for it was of more consequence to him to speak truth than falsehood, and he had no doubt but that time would reveal the many mysteries that had arisen in his trial. after praying fervently some time he let his handkerchief fall -- a signal agreed upon between him and the executioner -- and was launched into eternity. When the body had hung the usual time it was put into a black coffin and conveyed to the town hall to be dissected.
It appears there was one child, a daughter, of this marriage. The LDS records show:
Theodosia King DONNELLON---Sex: F
Event(s):Christening: 25 Jul 1779
Harborough Manor, Warwick, England
Parents: Father: John DONNELLON--- Mother: Theodosia
There is an interest aftermath to this story. The Ellis Island site shows (in August 1909), the following passenger record:
Passenger # 0013
United States Citizen
25 Aug 1909
Liverpool, England, UK
*This passenger is a U.S. citizen.
So in solving one mystery (How John is connected to the extended family), we have discovered another. Who is this Theodosia? The passenger record indicates she would have been born about 1860 - some 80 years after the death of John. Did he also have a son? The research continues----
University of Tasmania
The Law Library Rare Book Collection
Monographs published from: 1800 to 1809 and 1810 to 1819
79.The theory of presumptive proof, or An inquiry into the nature of circumstantial evidence, including an examination of the evidence on the trial of Captain Donnellan.
London : Clarke, 1815
Provenance : Arthur Montagu, J. Hone.
Law Rare KM 602.3 .T45 1815
The Warwickshire Family History Society
The friendly society!
Newsletter no. 4
This newsletter was initially published on-line on 15th September 2001.
The following was found by chance at SoG library, strangely enough, two days after Billie’s letter arrived.
**Theodosius Edward Allesley Boughton, born 3rd August 1760 died 29th August 1780, age 21, at Lawford Hall. His sister Theodosia Anna Maria Ramsey Beauchamp Boughton, born 35th May 1757, died 1830 age 73, buried at Newbold on Avon. Married John Donellan who was executed for the murder of his brother in law:-
The sudden death of Sir Theodosius Boughton at Lawford Hall created such strong suspicions, and such as were pointed to Mr. Donellan, by various odd and questionable circumstances in his behaviour, that the body was taken up for examination, and in pursuance of the verdict of the coroner’s inquest, Mr. Donellan was committed to prison at Warwick, where he was, on 29th March following indicted for the supposed murder before Mr. Justice Buller, at the joint persecution of Sir Theodosius’s mother, Lady Boughton, and his successor, Sir Edward Boughton, and being found guilty after a trial which lasted twelve hours, was executed at Warwick, 2nd April 1781.
The poison by which the horrid act was perpetrated was declared to be laurel water, and although to the last, Donellan made protestations of his innocence, little doubt could be entertained of his actual guilt.
The body when exhumed was placed on the high tomb, on the south side of Newbold Church, and the inquest held there. It was watched by a Rugby Schoolboy, who was later to become the renowned Sir Henry Holford, President of the College of Physicians.
At the time of the trial, domestic staff at Lawford Hall were – Catherine Amos the cook, Sarah Blundell the maid (she had died by the time of the trial, after concealing an illegitimate pregnancy, she is said to have been sent away in a cart by Lady Boughton), William Frost the coachman, Samuel Frost a servant, Mary Lynes maid to Mrs Donellan (replaced by Susannah Sparrow), and Francis Amos the gardener. Also mentioned were Crooke a plumber from Rugby, who soldiered up the coffin, Reverend Piers Newsam and Andrew Miller the postmaster at Rugby and mine host of the Bear Inn.
Poisoned with Essence of Laurel Water
18. Gurney, Joseph [1744-1815], Reporter. The Trial of John Donellan, Esq. For the Wilful Murder of Sir. Theodosius Edward Allesley Boughton, Bart. at the Assize of Warwick On Friday, March 30th, 1781. Before the Honorable Francis Buller, esq. One of the Justices of the King’s Bench. Taken in Short-Hand. London: Sold by George Kearsley and Martha Gurney, 1781. 58 pp. Large quarto (9" x 14"). Original gray paper wraps, worn with some loss to extremities, hand-written label to front cover. Text clean and secure. $450.
* Third edition. “Coveting the estates of Sir Theodosius Boughton, who lived at resplendent Lawford Hall in Warwickshire, England, Captain John Donellan poisoned his host with with essence of laurel water in 1780. This was later uncovered at a probing inquest which led to Donellan’s conviction and execution; he was hanged at Warwickshire in 1781.” Nash, Encyclopedia of World Crime II: 999. Catalogue of the Library of the Harvard Law School II: 1064 (citing second edition).