On this date in 1781, John Donellan was hanged for murdering his brother-in-law to secure an inheritance.
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. … 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.
… 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. … As he was taking it he observed that it smelled and tasted very nauseous; upon which [his mother, Lady Boughton] 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. … 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 guggling …
She saw Mr Donellan less than five minutes after. … 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 washhand-basin; and on his doing so she said: “What are you at? You should not meddle with the bottles.” Upon that he snatched up the other bottle and rinsed it …
We omit the forensic testimony presented to confirm that the victim was indeed poisoned.
As well as the latter-day observer can tell, we have a guilty — and fairly clumsy — poisoner after his brother-in-law’s boodle.
We’ll never know the answer, but the Newgate author hints at other family members who might have had the same means, motive and opportunity … like Donellan’s wife:
[Lady Boughton] 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.
Lady Boughton’s just full of evidence! Don’t suppose she could have had anything to gain, hmm? Let’s ask a jailhouse snitch:
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.
Stranger things have happened, but it sounds like a weak attempt to set mom up; it sounded weak to the jury, too.
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.
Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.