The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England

Written by Elizabeth Cooke
Review by Bethany Latham

Theodosius Boughton: youthful heir to a baronetcy, womanizing ne’er-do-well, a year from his inheritance … and dead.

This nonfiction work boasts the enclosed environment and finite cast of a real-life manor house mystery. There’s John Donellan, brother-in-law and bon vivant of questionable background; his wife, her loyalties split between husband and family; and Boughton’s own mother, at once vacuous and avaricious. When Theodosius dies after taking a medicinal draught, suspicion is directed at Donellan. Riddled with venereal disease and having drawn the genetic short straw, did Theodosius die of natural causes, or was he poisoned? If so, qui bono? Cooke examines the facts of the case, leaning towards vindication of Donellan (convicted on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence and executed), but at over 200 years remove, can conclusively prove nothing. There are gratuitously gory descriptions of Theodosius’s rotting corpse, and the lackadaisical, forensic-bereft court proceedings are examined at length. In the end, the reader must decide not only if murder was committed, but by whom. An interesting look at Georgian society and an absorbingly real (murder?) mystery.