The doctor’s wife is dead: a peculiar marriage, a suspicious death, and a murder trial in nineteenth-century Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Penguin Ireland
ISBN 9781844883929

Reviewed by: Dean Jobb

Dean Jobb, author of Empire of deception, teaches non-fiction writing at the University of King’s College, Nova Scotia.

It was a single death among hundreds in famine-ravaged County Tipperary in the spring of 1849. Ellen Langley, wife of Dr Charles Langley of Nenagh, died after a sudden illness. A group of local doctors examined her emaciated body and attributed her death to ‘English cholera’—a viral infection that would be termed gastroenteritis today and was often fatal in the nineteenth century. Case closed. Or so Dr Langley had hoped.

The coroner’s jury that was assembled to investigate refused to sign off on the official cause of death. The town was rife with rumours that something sinister had happened behind the closed doors of the Langley home—acts that likely hastened Ellen’s death. The jurors demanded to hear more evidence.

Ellen Langley was in her late fifties, fifteen years older than her husband, and it was widely known that theirs was a troubled marriage. There were whispers of adultery and abuse, and until shortly before her death they had been living apart. Langley’s behaviour immediately after her death also raised eyebrows; Ellen was buried in a crude coffin befitting a pauper, not the wife of a prominent physician. Many suspected that she had been poisoned.

In The doctor’s wife is dead, Andrew Tierney unravels a compelling but forgotten murder mystery. It’s a dark tale of spousal abuse, illicit sex and uncertain justice, set against a backdrop of poverty and privilege, marital inequality and the deep religious divide between Catholics and Protestants. Tierney is an archaeologist and his skill in unearthing the past is on display as he digs deep into the historical record of a murder case so shocking and controversial that it was debated in parliament. Philosopher and women’s rights campaigner John Stuart Mill was among those who weighed in on its implications and the need for legal reform.

The headstrong coroner’s jury won its battle to hear more evidence. Before the doctor banished his wife from their home, witnesses confirmed, he had imprisoned her in the unheated attic with few comforts and little food. Langley called in other doctors to examine her as her health worsened, but seemed indifferent to her suffering. In a damning letter written the week before her death, and later read out in court, he callously suggested that it would be Ellen’s fault if she died—‘and to be candid with you’, he told the recipient, ‘I hope she may’.

Even more shocking revelations were to come. A former servant admitted that Langley had induced him to sleep with Ellen, giving the doctor the evidence needed to sue for divorce. He had then tried to convince a fellow doctor to certify that his wife had contracted venereal disease from the encounter. Langley’s own infidelities were exposed but, under the legal double standards of the time, proof of his adultery would not have given Ellen legal grounds to initiate her own divorce action.

Langley was an odious character. He was a heartless moneylender and landlord who charged high rates of interest and had no qualms about evicting tenants struggling to keep up with their rental payments. In June 1847, as the Famine spread hunger and disease and drove thousands into the local workhouse, he had a pauper named Jeremiah Howard imprisoned for defaulting on a debt of a mere seven shillings. ‘He was a person that was not well liked’, as one neighbour put it mildly, and ‘whose society was not appreciated’.

The coroner’s jury ruled that Langley had ignored his wife’s deteriorating health and should be prosecuted for manslaughter. As it turned out, they had not heard the whole story. A grand jury supplied with fresh evidence—including Langley’s letter wishing his wife dead—substituted the more serious charge of murder. Accused of intentionally trying to hasten Ellen’s death, the doctor now faced the gallows if convicted.

In an era when domestic affairs were considered nobody’s business and husbands could abuse their wives with impunity, a defence lawyer argued that Ellen’s mistreatment had been justified. Langley, it was alleged, had learned that she had been ‘criminally intimate’ with other men before their marriage. ‘He acted harshly,’ the lawyer declared to the all-male jury when the case came to trial in 1850, ‘but who would not have done similarly?’

The trial was a sensation. The judge conceded that he had never been presented with such ‘a frightful amount of depravity and immorality’. The Victorian public responded with a mixture of revulsion and insatiable interest. One Irish newspaper found the facts so ‘abominable’ that it dared not report them; the Nenagh Guardian, in contrast, compiled its detailed reports into a pamphlet that was sold throughout Britain and Ireland.

This is Tierney’s first book but he unfolds this complicated story, and handles his voluminous research, with the ease of a seasoned author. The book is rich in period details and historical background without losing the narrative thread. Tierney writes with passion—he’s a native of Nenagh and a distant relative of Ellen Langley—and deftly weaves a plot that’s filled with surprising twists and turns.

What was the new evidence that supported a charge of murder? Was Langley convicted and executed? And what does his case tell us about life, religion and justice in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland? This is a story too good—and too well told—for the outcome to be spoiled in a review. Readers who want to find out for themselves will not be disappointed.


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