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.