Poison or Apoplexy? The Chirurgeon’s Verdict

On 29 August 1780, Sir Theodosius Boughton began convulsing violently after drinking a draught of medicine. He made a ‘prodigious rattling in his stomach, and gurgling’. Five minutes later, his mother found him with his ‘eyes fixed upwards, his teeth clenched, and foam running out of his mouth’. Shortly afterwards, he was pronounced dead. [1]

Initially, it was believed that Boughton’s death was the result of an error in the doctor’s prescription, but soon this notion was discarded as rumours of something much more sinister swept throughout the neighbourhood: poison. All eyes turned to Captain John Donellan, Boughton’s brother-in-law, who was set to inherit the fatherless boy’s fortune after his death.

At the trial, Boughton’s mother testified that the medicine smelled ‘strongly of bitter almonds’. Donellan, the prosecution argued, had both the equipment and knowledge to distil cyanide from laurel leaves. And, as a man well known for his expensive tastes and frivolous spending habits, he also had motive.

During the proceedings, Dr Rattray (physician) and Mr Powell (apothecary) were brought in as medical experts. They testified that the convulsions described by Boughton’s mother indicated poisoning by laurel water, and that this was confirmed by the appearance of the internal organs during autopsy. Rattray also added that several animal experiments proved that laurel water would have ‘instantaneous and mortal effects’ when consumed. [2]

But the famous surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter, had a different opinion. Hunter, who had reviewed the findings from the post-mortem, was critical of the local surgeon’s work. Firstly, he argued, the autopsy had taken place 11 days after Boughton had died and his corpse was in an advanced state of putrefaction. Moreover, the surgeon had not been thorough in his examination of the body. Hunter pointed out that in cases where poisoning was suspected, the intestines should have been dissected. He also expressed his desire that ‘the head had been opened’ in order to determine whether or not Boughton had suffered a cerebral aneurysm.

When asked whether he thought the autopsy revealed that Boughton had been poisoned, Hunter emphatically stated, ‘Certainly not.’ To the fury of the judge, Hunter added, ‘I should rather suspect it to be apoplexy [than poisoning]’. [3]

Donellan’s trial triggered a debate on a subject which had hitherto received little attention: medical jurisprudence. In 1788, Dr Samuel Farr published the first systematic book on the subject in England—a translation and abridgement to Fazelius’s Elementa Medicinae Forensis published in 1767. This led to a series of subsequent publications on medical jurisprudence culminating in George Edward Male’s Treatise on Forensic Medicine in 1816. Male’s book was the first original work by an English author on the subject, and included detailed observations and analysis of evidence which might be used in medico-legal cases. Today, he is known as the ‘Father of Medical Jurisprudence’ in England. [4]

Unfortunately for Donellan, it was too little too late. Despite Hunter’s testimony, the jury found him guilty of murder. He was hanged in Warwick on 2 April 1781. [For more on hangings, click here]. Donellan refused to confess to the crime and died on the gallows without seeking divine mercy.

The truth about his guilt will never be known.

1. ‘Minutes of the trial of John Donnellan’, GM, 1st ser., 51 (1781), pp. 209–11.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. For more on Male, see B. T. Davis, ‘George Edward Male MD – The Father of English Medical Jurisprudece’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 67 (February 1974): pp. 117-20.

By | 2011-09-29T14:04:28+00:00 September 29th, 2011|Casebooks|4 Comments


  1. Undine September 29, 2011 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    I’ve read about that case, and I still think he was guilty. As I recall, Donnellan never was able to explain why he kept a still in his room that had been used to distill laurel leaves. And his behavior immediately before and after Boughton’s death certainly didn’t indicate innocence.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice October 7, 2011 at 8:54 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment (and for reading The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice)! You are right, there is a lot more to this case than has been stated in this short article which focuses mainly on medical evidence presented in court. For a more complete overview, see the entry on Donnellan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

  2. Sarah Waldock September 29, 2011 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    Hah! you can distil cyanide from laurel leaves can you? Excellent!
    Well from the point of view of the murder mystery writer it is, I hasten to add…
    So one wonders if his mother was pressured into saying it smelled of bitter almonds [and as I recall not all the populace can readily smell bitter almonds] or was it served in Ratafia, medicines often being served in wine etc, because Ratafia is made with bitter almonds or fruit stones [eg cherry] and was occassionaly responsible for accidental poisoning….. or was it poison indeed?
    Alas that we shall never know

  3. […] of the barber pole,   about the  17th and 18th century anatomy training of surgeons and a 18th century forensic case. She also wrote a post on cutting out bladder stones at the group blog Wonders and […]

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