Surgeon's report reopens debate on Tone

 

THE final moments of Wolfe Tone's life could be controversially rewritten after almost two centuries following the discovery of a document penned by the surgeon who treated him, in prison.

A pamphlet published in Latin by the doctor some years after Tone's "suicide" refers to an unusual neck wound suffered by an unnamed patient which indicated that "a bullet passed through his throat".

The recent translation of this document has reopened the debate about the circumstances surrounding Tone's death.

Benjamin Lentaigne, the surgeon who treated Tone just hours before he was due to be hanged was an anti republican emigre from France and, more significantly, the assistant surgeon of the 5th Dragoon Guards. He had earned his medical qualification in England, where he had joined the British army.

The potentially explosive revelation contained in the pamphlet is made in the Irish Journal of Medical Science.

Tone was captured on board the French flagship, Hoche, when the vessel surrendered to a superior British naval force off Lough Swilly on October 10th, 1798. Despite his protests that he was entitled to prisoner of war treatment, he was brought in irons to Dublin a month later.

After a court martial had been hurriedly convened, he was found guilty of treason on November 10th and condemned to hang two days later.

The generally accepted version of events is that he slit his own throat early on the morning of his execution. Lentaigne dressed his wound, but only with a view to prolonging life until the fatal hour. The military authorities refused to allow consultation with a civil surgeon.

The coded medical pamphlet by Lentaigne was discovered in 1973, but was not translated until recently. An extract from Testamen de Causis Morborum reads "It (the bullet or ball) passed through his throat and shot through the cavity by the larynx, lodging, it is feared, in a section of the lung. Just so, the militia are hostile to this frightened city. They burst in anxious and greedy for loot and invade homes and sacred places and innermost rooms.

There is no evidence at this stage to show that the patient in question was Wolfe Tone.

However, if Tone was wounded by a pistol or musket ball it would almost certainly not have been authorised by the military or Dublin Castle. In the prevailing climate, such an admission would have caused some embarrassment.

Was Lentaigne persuaded to make a knife cut across the entry wound, suggesting suicide? There is another possible scenario, according to the report.

An officer could have been ordered to shoot Tone through the bars of his cell, with Lentaigne called in to complete the cover up.