JOHN DONELLAN, ESQ
Executed for the Murder of Sir Theodosius Boughton, Bart., his Brother-in-Law, 2nd of April, 1781
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: "Purging draught for Sir Theodosius Boughton." As he 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 guggling; 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 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, 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.