When Ellen Langley died in her home on Barrack Street, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, in 1849, it was after a week-long illness that left her body haggard and emaciated. The wife of prosperous local surgeon, Charles Langley, she was 58 years old and for some years had been debilitated by various ailments, including consumption. But in the week prior to her death her condition had deteriorated rapidly, and her husband – a man some fifteen years her junior – had called in several other doctors to attend her. When Dr Quin, a distant relation, came to examine her, ‘she complained of fullness of stomach, which was soon succeeded by vomiting of green bilious matter’. He noted that ‘the bowel complaint and irritability of stomach continued from that time until death assuming quite the character of English cholera.’
English cholera (gastroenteritis) was prevalent in nineteenth-century urban environments, particularly among the poor, and killed through relentless purging, dehydration, and exhaustion. It should have been an open and shut case. Five doctors carried out the post-mortem and all agreed on the same verdict – that Ellen Langley had died of English cholera.
But in a remarkable turn of events, the coroner’s jury refused outright to concur. There were too many strange facts to account for. Why had an inquest been called for before Mrs Langley had even died? Why weren’t the jury allowed to interview the servants who had attended to Mrs Langley in the last months of her life? And who was the person that Dr Langley specifically requested should not be called to give evidence? As recounted in my book The Doctor’s Wife is Dead the persistence of the jury eventually uncovered the answers to all these questions and caused an extraordinary public sensation.
There had been much suspicion about Dr Langley’s treatment of his wife behind the closed doors of their house on Barrack Street. As everyone at the time knew, the symptoms of English cholera were remarkably similar to those produced by poison, fear of which was widespread in the 1840s due to the ease with which it could be acquired and administered. Less than a month earlier, a young Belfast servant woman had been charged with attempting to murder her employer’s family by putting arsenic in their porridge, and only four days before the Langley inquest, the Nenagh Guardian reported the sentencing of a man in Aberdeen for poisoning his wife of twenty-seven years with the same toxin.
But the suspicions about Dr Langley were based on more than idle speculation. According to the testimony of her nephew, Ellen Langley believed – either through paranoia or well-reasoned observation – that her husband was slowly poisoning her in the months prior to her death. ‘There is not a country town’, said Mr Bolton, the doctor’s solicitor at the inquest, ‘and more particularly the town of Nenagh, that does not exaggerate and give impetus to such stories…I have made no reference, neither will I now make any allusion to the scandalous rumours and stories that are afloat.’
As a man of science, Dr Langley was adamant that the medical evidence alone should prevail. ‘I suppose you are not going to find your verdict upon public rumour’, he warned the coroner’s jury.
Mr O’Brien Dillon, who led the inquiry in the coroner’s court, was the son of an apothecary and familiar with the world of chemicals, ointments and poisons. He knew that prussic acid (or cyanide, as it is now more commonly known), with its contemporary application as a treatment for tuberculosis, deadly effects in overdose, and elusiveness to detection, was an ideal murder weapon for a doctor well versed in its chemical properties. His questioning of the town’s doctors was direct and vigorous.
Other circumstances also came into play. As one of the jury put it: ‘There are several ways for a woman to come by death besides poison.’
Dr Langley’s contempt for his wife had been public knowledge. When his clerk, Gabriel Prior, arrived to work the morning of Mrs Langley’s death, his employer informed him his first task was to deal with his wife’s funeral arrangements. He was told he should buy ‘as cheap a coffin as [he] could’. When Prior protested that it would be unseemly not to carry out the funeral respectably, the doctor told him ‘his feelings would not allow him to do so, as he was an injured man.’
As the inquest revealed, since the previous year Dr Langley had confined his wife to the garret of their house. Approached up a dark narrow stair to the rear, it was a ‘most miserable’ room, according to another doctor who was called to see her in March 1849, ‘…quite unfit for Mrs Langley, from the position which she held in society’. In addition, Dr Langley had confiscated her clothes, substantially reduced her diet, and subjected her to repeated psychological abuse.
Despite the early attempts to suppress this evidence, the coroner’s jury eventually succeeded in bringing a charge of manslaughter against the doctor. However, the case did not end there. Revealing letters written by the doctor in the winter of 1848, later submitted as evidence, forced the Grand Jury to alter the charge to murder. Exhibiting ‘a frightful amount of depravity and immorality’, the scandal caused ripples of outrage about the treatment of women and their position in society that extended far beyond the boundaries of the provincial town in which Ellen Langley had lived and died.
Following every twist and turn of the inquest into Ellen Langley’s death and the trial of her husband, The Doctor’s Wife is Dead tells the story of an unhappy marriage, of a man’s confidence that he could get away with abusing his wife, and of the brave efforts of a number of ordinary citizens to hold him to account. Here is a book, a narrative nonfiction, that shines a light on the double standards of Victorian law and morality and illuminates the weave of money, sex, ambition and respectability that defined the possibilities and limitations of married life. I hope it is a gripping portrait of a marriage, a society and a shocking legal drama.
(c) Andrew Tierney
About The Doctor’s Wife is Dead
Andrew Tierney, a native of Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, is a distant descendant of Ellen Langley. Trained as an archaeologist, he is working on the inaugural Pevsner Architectural Guide to the Irish midlands. The Doctor’s Wife is Dead is his first book.
A mysterious death in respectable society: a brilliant historical true crime story.
In 1849, a woman called Ellen Langley died in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. She was the wife of a prosperous local doctor. So why was she buried in a pauper’s coffin? Why had she been confined to the grim attic of the house she shared with her husband, and then exiled to a rented dwelling-room in an impoverished part of the famine-ravaged town? And why was her husband charged with murder?
‘An astonishing book … a vivid chronicle of the unspeakable cruelty perpetrated by a husband on his spouse at a time when, in law, a wife was a man’s chattel’ Damian Corless, Irish Independent
‘Opens in gripping style and rarely falters … fascinating and well researched’ Mary Carr, Irish Mail on Sunday (5 stars)
‘Truly illuminating … [Tierney’s] forensic work on the available source material brings great clarity to a tangled tale. His incisive rendering of court records and newspaper reports into dialogue promotes a good narrative without sacrificing historical accuracy’ Jessica Traynor, Sunday Times