When John Tawell decided to start the New Year with rather more resolution than was good for him it led to a chain of events that created legal history, as an overflowing courtroom at Aylesbury Assizes in March 1845 later listened earnestly to the unprecedented and at that time amazing story of Tawell’s capture.
It was 1 January 1845 when the sixty-year-old Englishman murdered his secret mistress, Sarah Hart, at her cottage in Salt Hill, near Slough, Buckinghamshire. A bottle of porter liberally laced with prussic acid was the last drink Sarah ever shared with her somewhat mature lover.
Tawell’s entirely selfish motive was partly that he was afraid that his wife, with whom he lived an apparently respectable life in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, would dis cover his double life. But perhaps even more than that was the need to keep the knowledge of his sordid set-up from fellow Friends of the rather purist Quaker movement, of which he passed himself off as a member.
Tawell was a devious man and had a good escape and alibi planned. He had earlier deposited an overcoat in the cloakroom of the Jerusalem Coffee House in London. After the poisoning he planned to catch the train from Slough to Paddington, from where his movements would be entirely unobserved by the law. From there he would go to the coffee house, collect his coat and claim, if questions were ever asked, that he had been in London for the hours conveniently spanning the murder. No one would ever know. The burgeoning railways were certainly the criminal’s friend.
Yet circumstances entirely beyond his control led him to stand trial three months later. That an elderly gentleman in Quaker garb had been spotted leaving the murdered woman’s house by a neighbour ought not to have mattered bearing in mind his London alibi, nor that a Quaker had purchased a first-class ticket at Slough station and been seen boarding an early-evening train there, for as word got around that the Quaker might be worth watching Tawell was well on the way to Paddington. Of course it must be another Quaker, for he had been in London all the time.
But, scrupulous planner that he was, John Tawell was not up to press with the newest technology. Fully 37 years before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, many a criminal’s downfall, William Fothergill Cooke and Pro fessor Charles Wheatstone had managed to interest the Great Western Railway in their latest hi-tech electric-telegraph com munication system. GWR gave it a try on the Paddington-West Drayton line in 1839 and extended it to Slough in 1843. Tawell, rather a dinosaur in such matters, hadn’t figured on its possible uses, yet it proved to be the unlikely source of his downfall.
Even as he settled into his seat on his journey to safety, the telegraph clerk at Slough was wiring Paddington. The system worked perfectly, although the inability of the equipment to transmit the letters Q and U meant the clerk had to alert police to look out for ‘a gentleman in the garb of a KWAKER’. Three times he sent the message before the police twigged it – maybe they were looking for someone dressed as a duck. But even primitive telegraph messages travelled faster than the trains and, as Tawell stepped confidently on to Paddington station, a plainclothes police officer had no difficulty spotting his man.
He was trailed to the Jerusalem Coffee House, observed for the rest of the day and finally arrested next morning. His story and indignant denials got him nowhere, for thanks to the wires it was incontrovertible that the Slough Quaker and the London Quaker were one and the same.
After he was found guilty and condemned to be hanged he admitted all and before the fatal day many more details of Tawell’s double life emerged. Banknote forgery, transporta tion to Australia and other suspicious deaths all came to light. Tawell was well and truly discredited and a contemporary record tartly reported that ‘a respectable garb, sedate demeanour and outward benevolence have seldom concealed a more wicked and unprincipled heart’.
As the first man to be convicted with the aid of the electric telegraph, Tawell, by his unlikely demise, served to deliver a timely warning to all future criminals. If you want to get away with it don’t be a technophobe and don’t dress as a Quaker.