"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Draught of Laurel Water

The life of John Donellan reads like the plot of an 18th century novel: Protagonist uses his wits, his charm, and his capacity for shady dealing to rise from obscurity to affluence, only to take a dramatic fall that provides ample material for the moralists.

And, not incidentally, to provide crime historians with a lingering judicial enigma.

Donellan was born in Ireland in 1737. In 1753, he became a cadet in the Royal Artillery. He entered the service of the East India Company in Bengal, where he rose to the rank of Captain. He took part in the siege and eventual capture of Masulipatam from the hands of the French. The aftermath of this battle gives history its first look at Donellan's lack of scruple. He and three other officers were given the job of reuniting local merchants with their rightful property. The officers, however, opted to capitalize on their power by forcing the merchants to bribe them into turning over the goods. When their Colonel heard of this extortion, he had the four miscreants court-martialed and dismissed from the service.

When Donellan returned to England, he set out to make a place for himself in high society. His good looks and dashing manner soon won him the job of Director of Entertainments (essentially, master of ceremonies,) at the Pantheon, which was at that time the most popular gathering place for Georgian London's jet set. The mileau perfectly suited the vain, pleasure-loving, ambitious man. The Pantheon's lavish ballrooms were an excellent hunting field for an impecunious fellow in need of a rich wife.

In 1777, Donellan found his prey when a young girl named Theodosia Anna Maria Ramsay Beauchamp Boughton left Lawford Hall, her family home in Warwickshire, for a season in London. Naturally, one of the first places she visited was the Pantheon. The Boughtons were among the "old aristocracy" in their county. Their baronetcy--at that time held by Theodosia's young brother Theodosius--dated back to 1641. Theodosia was pretty, wealthy, and completely inexperienced in the ways of the world. She was the easiest of pickings for a sophisticated seducer such as Donellan. Knowing that her family would never accept him as an honorable suitor, he soon persuaded Theodosia to elope with him.

Naturally, the Boughtons were outraged, and swore to disown them both. Donellan, however, played his cards very well. Rather than try to force his new in-laws to welcome him, he gave up his playboy lifestyle and devoted himself to his bride--and her private fortune. His behavior was so irreproachable that by the following year, Theodosia's widowed mother forgave the couple and invited them to live with her at Lawford Hall.

The nominal head of the family was Theodosia's brother. However, Sir Theodosius was not prepared, either emotionally or physically, to handle his responsibilities. When he was only 15, he had contracted a serious venereal disease. His health had so deteriorated that he was forced to leave Eton. The spoiled, willful boy was capable of doing little but ailing and sulking around Lawford Hall.

Donellan again showed himself to be an expert at seizing opportunities. He, and not his brother-in-law, soon became the true master of the house. A contemporary account related how "No arrangement was made without [Donellan's] advice, nor alteration in the domestic economy admitted but with his participation. He directed every business according to his own ideas, and found obedience paid to his orders as though he had been the owner of the mansion. In short, nothing could exceed the authority which he assumed but the deference and submission with which his commands were received." We have little direct evidence about what the rightful head of the family made of this, but it seems unlikely that Sir Theodosius appreciated his brother-in-law's ascendancy. Lawford Hall could hardly have two masters forever, especially once Sir Theodosius attained his majority--an event that would take place in August 1781. Surely after that, one or other of the men would have to cede control.

As a matter of fact, by August 1780, Donellan was dropping grim hints that this would be exactly what would soon happen--and he made it clear that he would not be the one to leave. He began treating acquaintances to lurid descriptions of Sir Theodosius' illness and impending death. He confided to a local vicar that the baronet's "blood was a mass of mercury and corruption," which had left the young man sadly broken in body and mind. His brother-in-law, he sighed, was certain to die soon.

On August 29, the Boughton family's apothecary, a man named Powell, put together a "purging draught" for Sir Theodosius consisting of rhubarb, lavender, nutmeg, saffron, and other unremarkable ingredients. It was delivered to Lawford Hall later that day, where it was placed in the young baronet's bedroom. Sir Theodosius never locked his room, meaning that the contents were easily accessible to anyone in the household. The day progressed uneventfully. Sir Theodosius spent much of the day fishing, and appeared to be in reasonably good health and spirits.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, Lady Broughton came into her son's room to give him his medicine. He complained that it "smelt and tasted very nauseous." His mother agreed that the "draught" "smelt very strongly like bitter almonds," but urged him to swallow the dose anyway. Sir Theodosius obeyed.

He very soon had reason to regret his compliance. Within seconds, the youth became horribly ill. He began to go into convulsions. Within ten minutes, however, he appeared calmer, and seemed about to fall asleep. Lady Broughton, rather oddly, assumed that all now was well, and calmly left the room to finish dressing for the day. (She and Donellan were riding to a nearby spa to "take the waters.") When she returned a few moments later, she was shocked to see that her son seemed near death: his eyes were rolled upwards, his teeth were clenched, and froth was running from his mouth. She instantly ran for help.

When Donellan arrived on the scene, Lady Broughton exclaimed to him, "I have been giving my son something that was wrong, instead of what the apothecary should have sent." Donellan reacted to this news by taking up the medicine bottle and carefully washing it out with water. His mother-in-law protested, "Good God! What are you about? You should not have meddled with the bottle."

Donellan ignored her. When a maid entered the room, he coolly ordered her to take away the bottle and the basin he had used to wash it. Lady Broughton told her to "let them alone." However, the minute her back was turned, he repeated his instructions to remove the items.

Donellan later told the other servants that Sir Theodosius' death was due to "a broken blood-vessel." He cheerfully told the head gardener that "I have wanted before to be master; I have got master now, and shall be master." When Powell the apothecary arrived at the Hall, Donellan informed him that Sir Theodosius died of a chill, caught as a result of his unwise fishing expedition the day before. He said nothing about the "draught." The apothecary asked no questions, and seemed content to write off the baronet's death as just one of those unhappy accidents of fate.

Sir Theodosius' guardian, Sir William Wheeler, thought otherwise. The suddenness of the baronet's death was generating a lot of unpleasant talk in the area, and Sir William believed an investigation was called for. He wrote to Powell asking that an autopsy be performed, in order to "prevent the world from blaming any of us that had anything to do with poor Sir Theodosius." Donellan, with his usual geniality, unhesitatingly agreed.

The post-mortem was scheduled for September 4. However, the body had so decomposed in the hot summer weather that the doctors believed even attempting an autopsy would be pointless. They left without even a cursory examination of the corpse.

Afterwards, Donellan wrote to Sir William giving a decidedly misleading account of the proceedings. He strongly intimated that the autopsy had indeed been performed, "and I am happy to inform you they fully satisfied us."

The funeral was scheduled for September 6. However, Sir William, who had learned the truth about the aborted autopsy, sent two surgeons named Buckhill and Snow to do a post-mortem before the burial. When Buckhill came to the Hall, Donellan told him that they could do nothing until Snow arrived. In the interim, Buckhill left to attend a patient who lived nearby. When he returned an hour later, he found that the other doctor had already came and left. Donellan assured him that "Mr. Snow had given his orders what to do, and they were proceeding according to those orders." Buckhill shrugged and left without even seeing the body. (We do not know exactly what Snow's "orders" were, but he did not examine the corpse.) Sir Theodosius was placed in the family vault without any further ado, and, as far as Donellan was concerned, the matter was closed.

Unfortunately for him, the county coroner felt otherwise, and ordered an inquest into the baronet's mysterious death. On September 9, Sir Theodosius was exhumed, and an autopsy was finally done. Regrettably, due to the advanced decomposition of the corpse, little could be learned from it.

Donellan told the coroner's jury that Sir Theodosius kept "arsenic by the pound weight" that he used to wage battle against the rats who "swarmed remarkably" around the Hall. The baronet, he said, was frighteningly careless about how he handled the arsenic, so he doubtlessly accidentally poisoned himself. (It was later proved that the Hall had neither arsenic nor rats.)

When Lady Boughton gave her inquest testimony, a juror noticed that when she began to speak about Donellan washing the medicine bottle, "I saw the Captain catch her by the gown and give her a twitch." When they returned to the Hall, Donellan rebuked her, stating "You had no occasion to mention my washing the bottles, if they did not ask the question."

He had good reason to be upset by Lady Broughton's loose lips. After the jury heard her testimony about Donellan's curious behavior in the death chamber, they had little trouble charging him with murder. He was soon apprehended at put in jail to await his trial.

Lady Broughton's description of the fatal draught's smell led doctors to suspect that it had been doctored with laurel water. It was noted that laurel grew in abundance around the Hall, and that Donellan possessed a still. The theory outlined by the prosecuting attorney was simple: "Had [Sir Theodosius] attained to the age of twenty-one years he would have had in his own power and at his own disposal a great and opulent fortune. In the event of his dying before that time, by much the greater part of that fortune descended to his sister, who is the wife of the prison, Mr. Donellan, and he in her right would have been entitled to a life estate in this considerable fortune." In regards to this fortune, it is alleged that Donellan's attorney later related an interesting anecdote. Supposedly, this legal counsel recommended that Donellan hire a very talented, but very expensive lawyer. The defendant agreed, and told the attorney to have Mrs. Donellan provide the necessary funds. She demurred, arguing that it was unnecessary to pay such a high fee. When the Captain heard of his wife's reluctance to part with her money, he snapped, "And who got it for her?" "Then, seeing he had committed himself, he suddenly stopped."

Donellan confided to a fellow-prisoner that the real murderer of Sir Theodosius was none other than the boy's mother, who had been anxious to gain control of the family fortune before it was frittered away by her irresponsible son. "He spoke of my Lady's covetousness, how covetous she was." Donellan even wrote his wife a letter repeating the charge against Lady Broughton, advising her to leave her mother's house, "where you are likely to undergo the fate of those that have gone already by sudden means." For good measure, he hinted that Lady Broughton had poisoned her husband, Sir Edward, as well.

Donellan's trial took place on March 30, 1781. Lady Broughton and the other witnesses gave essentially the same testimony they had delivered at the inquest, laying great emphasis on Donellan's decidedly squirrely behavior with the medicine bottles. Lady Broughton added that her son and son-in-law "used to have words, to be angry with each other; they did not in general live in friendship or intimacy." Doctors gave their reasons for presuming that Sir Theodosius had been poisoned with laurel water, although they admitted that they were handicapped in their diagnosis by the inability to do a thorough post-mortem. They did not believe that the baronet had died from any recognizable natural causes.

When the time came for the defense to present their case, Donellan submitted a written statement that was notable for what it did not say. The matter of the medicine bottle was ignored entirely. His assertions that he had married his wife "with the entire approbation of her friends and guardians," that he and Sir Theodosius lived "in perfect friendship and cordiality" and that he had signed a marriage settlement renouncing any claims to his wife's money, were all demonstrably false. All in all, the defendant might have been better off simply keeping his mouth shut.

The defense's most notable witness was John Hunter, a famous and highly regarded surgeon of his day. Dr. Hunter gave his belief that Sir Theodosius had died of apoplexy. From the testimony given by the other doctors, he saw no reason to assume the baronet had been poisoned. However, under cross-examination, he was forced to admit that "If I knew the draught was poison I should say, most probably, that the symptoms arose from that." He also conceded that laurel water could produce the symptoms observed in Sir Theodosius' death. He closed by admitting that he really could not say how the baronet had died.

After deliberating for ten minutes, the jury gave a unanimous verdict of "Guilty." The judge heartily concurred with this decision, telling the prisoner that "I think it is impossible to find any, even of the meanest capacity, amongst the numerous auditory standing around you, that can doubt about your guilt."

Donellan's execution was scheduled for April 2. While awaiting his doom, the condemned man occupied himself by writing a lengthy document asserting his innocence, and repeating his charge that the real murderer was Lady Broughton. As he stood on the gallows, he told onlookers he was "a sacrifice to the malice and black devices of a mother-in-law." His last words were to calmly tell the hangman, "Pray do not let us have any bungling."

Theodosia Broughton Donellan survived her notorious spouse by nearly fifty years. She had two further marriages: to Sir Egerton Leigh, a well-known Nonconformist, and Barry O'Meara, Napoleon's surgeon-in-exile and author of the book "A Voice from St. Helena." Her three very different husbands were nicknamed, "The Pendant, the Independent, and the Dependent."

The unsatisfactory investigation into Sir Theodosius' death and the essentially circumstantial evidence against the accused have led a surprising number of authors to assert that Donellan was innocent. The famed 19th century novelist G.P.R. James even wrote a three-volume novel ("Sir Theodore Broughton") portraying Donellan as a guiltless victim of popular prejudice. Over the years, it has been theorized that perhaps, after all, Sir Theodosius died from natural causes. Or Lady Broughton really did poison her son and then frame her son-in-law for the deed. Or, perhaps, Theodosia Donellan, desiring sole possession of the family estate, was responsible for her brother's death. Or were the young baronet's mother, sister, and brother-in-law all plotting together against him,?

It is fair to say that we will never be completely certain about the exact circumstances surrounding the death of Theodosius Broughton. However, I don't believe they hanged a guiltless man.


  1. Interesting. This is an example of a blackguard who, however unpleasant his character, may actually have been innocent of the crime for which he was hanged. But probably not.

    1. I feel as certain as I can be under the circumstances that Donellan was at least implicated in Theodosius' death. What I find really interesting is the possibility that the young man's mother and/or sister were guilty as well. There have been some surprisingly convincing arguments made that one or both of those women were in on the murder, and set up Donellan as the scapegoat. It's a pity we'll never know for sure.


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