On May 1st, 1849, in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, Ellen Langley died in the townhouse she shared with her husband, Dr Charles Langley. Five different doctors, local colleagues of her husband, concluded that she had succumbed to gastroenteritis.
Case closed, surely? Far from it: the death of Ellen Langley and her husband’s possible role in it became the subject of a heated coroner’s inquest and, the following year, an even more sensational murder trial.
The inquest and trial established that Dr Langley had subjected Ellen to a sustained and seemingly quite calculated campaign of neglect and mistreatment, including her expulsion from the family home into slum accommodation in the cholera-ravaged back streets of Nenagh. This very public act of cruelty was a key reason for the local suspicions that led to the inquest and the trial.
What was Dr Langley thinking? This is one of the puzzles I worked to solve throughout the years I spent researching my book about the case, The Doctor’s Wife Is Dead.
One possible answer is that, having fallen in love with another woman, he wished to divorce Ellen – and under the legal constraints and cultural double standards of the time, this gave him an incentive to brand his wife an adulteress. The doctor’s mistreatment of his wife was, grotesquely, intended to be seen as evidence of her bad character.
Nenagh in 1849 was an especially harsh place and time to be cast out of house and home. The famine had brought a flood of the poor and hungry into the town, many evicted from their rural homesteads, some seeking shelter in the workhouse, others crammed into small lodgings in the poorer streets and lanes.
The town’s doctors baulked at the level of destitution they encountered and the hazards of their work: “We must go into every filthy lane and alley”, complained one, “– into every dark and dirty room – into every miserable hut and disgusting cabin.” The spread of disease was assisted by the “cess pools and dung heaps opposite the doors”.
Pound Street, on the northwest side of Nenagh, was one of the town’s poorer areas during the 1840s, and it was here that Ellen Langley lived in exile for several weeks in the last springtime of her life. It was a shocking turn of events, particularly for a woman from a prominent local family, the Poes, who grew up on the fine Donnybrook estate on the outskirts of Nenagh.
But there was little pity for women accused of adultery in 1840s Ireland, and this seems to have informed Dr Langley’s calculations. As one contemporary put it: “there are no sinners who, by the usages of the world, are so absolutely lost, so cast out of sight, so abandoned to the bitterness of their own tormented soul. A fallen woman the world counts it righteous to forsake and scorn. Even her own kindred turn their backs, and shut the door of home upon her.”
The rules were different for men. Lord Brougham, speaking in a Lords debate a few years earlier, had stated the case most clearly: “Although a want of chastity was a sin in a man,” he argued, “yet it was a greater sin in a woman. In a woman, it went to corrupt society at its very root.” If women behaved as men, he suggested, the bonds of society would “burst asunder” and “man would be driven back into a state of savage and uncivilized life”.
In private correspondence, Dr Langley spoke of a desire to end his marriage. Divorce, at that time, was a rare and expensive resort, normally sanctioned only on grounds of a wife’s adultery.
Dr Langley’s degradation of his wife – a reduced diet, the confiscation of her clothes, the expulsion into poor lodgings, and a pauper’s funeral – was a way of defaming her character in a language understood by contemporary society. Sexual profligacy, it was thought, should be the subject of punishment as a warning to others. For the same reason, unmarried mothers were routinely turned away from workhouses – or segregated within them – as a means of preventing the spread of vice.
But there was increasing discomfort at this double standard by the mid-19th century. Novels which explored the position of women in (or out of) marriage, such as Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charles Dickens’s Dombey & Son, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, all appeared between 1846 and 1850, and helped pave the way for new British divorce legislation in 1857 (though this was not extended to Ireland).
As the case of Dr Langley clearly shows, this discomfort was not confined to the progressive writers of the day.
Two days before Ellen Langley died, Dr Langley wrote to the coroner stating that, in the event of his wife’s death, he wished for an inquest to be held, in order to quiet local rumours that he was starving her, even that he was poisoning her. He assumed his fellow doctors would find nothing suspicious, and in that he was correct.
What he did not reckon on was that the members of the coroner's jury – local tradesmen and business owners – would insist on hearing evidence from the people who really knew what had been going on in the Langleys' marriage: the servants. It was their testimony that turned the coroner's inquest on its head and led to Dr Langley being charged with murder.
The Doctor's Wife Is Dead: A Peculiar Marriage, a Suspicious Death, and a Murder Trial in Nineteenth-Century Ireland by Andrew Tierney is published by Penguin Ireland