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True story of medic who made wife's life a living hell

non-fiction

Review by Damian Corless

Set in the Co Tipperary town of Nenagh during the Great Famine, The Doctor's Wife is Dead is an astonishing book. The author, Andrew Tierney, is a distant relation of the victim, Ellen Langley.

Poor Ellen never really escapes from the shadows of this tale, although that's no fault of the writer. The shadows were where her husband kept her.

Tierney, on the other hand, does a magnificent job of showing up the villain of the piece, Charles Langley, for the monster he undoubtedly was.

The action opens with a scene that could have come from the movie classic Frankenstein, with a "hissing and jeering" mob laying siege to a townhouse, smashing every window and battering at the door. And while the hate figure for the mob in the classic movie was a mad doctor, in Nenagh in 1849 it was a very, very bad one.

The baying crowd finally got their way and a pauper's coffin was carried out. This cheapest of boxes contained the body of Ellen, wife of the prosperous doctor Charles. Everybody was pretty sure he'd poisoned Ellen.

Charles Langley was a hate figure for the plain people of Nenagh, partly because he opposed equal rights for Catholics, but mostly because he was a violent brute, an extortionist, and a loan shark.

As the author notes: "Desperation increasingly forced people into the hands of loan sharks and pawnbrokers, to such a degree that, having sold or pawned all their furniture to buy food, many were finally forced to part with even the clothes off their backs."

Ellen Langley should have been cosseted from the surrounding horrors.

Instead, her husband imprisoned her in a hellish famine world of his own making. He placed her on starvation rations, mainly consisting of virtually indigestible brown bread.

There was physical and mental violence, too. He would shout at his wife that she should throw herself out her attic window, and the servants put a cover on the window in an effort to prevent this.

An inquest found Charles Langley guilty of manslaughter by bringing on a bowel complaint "by unnatural and diabolical treatment".

But the civil inquest was just a prelude to a full criminal murder trial - and this was a man's world.

You can guess how this story ends.

  • The Doctor’s Wife is Dead,  by Andrew Tierney, Penguin. £14.99

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