March 25, 2014 11:27:25 AM
We take for granted not only the extensive technology that surrounds us now but also that there will be something even newer tomorrow, something that we will come to wonder how people ever did without. There was a time, though, when even sending a telegraph message was something new, and no one really knew that telegraphy would catch on or become important. When it helped to solve a sensational crime in England in 1845, though, the telegraph got a big boost. That's only a small part of the story in The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison, & Pursuit (Oneworld Publications) by Australian Carol Baxter. This is the sort of forgotten crime story that needed to be retold, for it has rich aspects not just of technology but also forensic medicine, religion, law procedure, and capital punishment. Not only that, but it is a cracking good story, with a surprise even after the gallows scene that would otherwise close the tale.
This is the story of John Tawell, a genuinely fascinating and ambiguous character. He was born in 1783 in little Aldeby, not far from the port of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, England. He was naturally baptized into the Anglican church, a belief system he was to abandon in his youth. He was smart at school, but his scrawny stature and the squint in one eye (which never left him) made him a figure of fun. He was obviously talented in his studies, and his shopkeeper father arranged for him to move up to being an apprentice shopkeeper in the larger town of Great Yarmouth. He was eager to succeed, but he shunned the trappings of the wealthy he saw in the seaside resort town. He chanced upon a small community of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. He joined them at a time when they were no longer persecuted for heresy, but they strove to remain rigidly in the past, dressing in outdated garments and using outdated language as a means to display just how much they shunned the outside world. They were conscientious and had excellent reputations as reliable businessmen or bankers.
Tawell dove into the sect with the fervor of a new convert. He adopted the uniform of the broad-brimmed hat and loose cloak that told the world he was not interested in fashion, he abjured drinking and games and reading novels, and he adopted the quaint "thee" and "thou" in the speech of a lost time. He did well in his work and made an impression on the local Quaker congregation. Quakers were extremely reluctant to take in new members ("One frustrated applicant quipped that it would be far easier to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"), but Tawell was eventually accepted. And like many new Quakers, he was quickly expelled, because he married a woman not of the faith. He continued to practice the faith, and to wear the garb, becoming known as the "Quaker Traveller" as he made his business rounds. He seemed to be prosperous, but was convicted of forgery in 1814 and was sentenced to fourteen years transportation. In Sydney, Australia, he became an exemplary convict, showing eagerness and enterprise, and eventually becoming a unaccredited apothecary. He became a member of the landed gentry, and was able to bring his wife and family to Australia. He continued to support his religion, and arranged for the first Friends Meeting House to be constructed in New South Wales.
He returned to England, renewed his prosperous bustle, and was known as a generous citizen. His wife became ill and died, even though she was nursed by a responsible woman, Sarah Hart. He met another Sarah, Sarah Cutforth, a Quaker, and they began a romance; Tawell thus had a new reason to strive to regain his membership as a Quaker, since she would lose her membership if she married out. He did many good works and fully redeemed himself, but the society would not accept him again, and the couple married out of the church. It seems to have been a good match, but Tawell had a secret life with Sarah Hart. She bore him two children, and he agreed to support them with a regular allowance, and to set up a cottage for her near Slough.
Tawell visited Sarah Hart at the cottage on 1 January 1845, ostensibly to keep up his payments to her, but after his visit, she was found dying, a victim of poison. Tawell boarded the train at Slough and returned to Paddington Station in London. Unfortunately for him, these were the only two points in the whole world connected by telegraph lines, a new and experimental commercial venture. The operator at Slough sent a message to Paddington that the authorities should be on the lookout for a suspected murderer leaving a first-class compartment, and wearing "the garb of a kwaker [sic] with a brown great coat which reaches nearly down to his feet." It was thus that Tawell was betrayed by the costume of the religion into which he had so striven to become accepted. Even so, detectives looking for him upon his debarking the train nearly lost him in the streets of London.
The apprehension and the subsequent trial were a media sensation in Britain and in America. "Suspect John Trawell soon became a household name, a morsel to be chewed over as dinner-table detectives analysed and theorised, eager to decide the merits of the case for themselves." There was a particular fascination about cases of poisoning, and much of the trial was composed of scientific experts arguing over what had killed Sarah Hart, whether those on the scene should have smelled prussic acid (cyanide), and what the chemical analyses of her stomach contents showed. There were serious disagreements among experts, and then the judge gave the jury a completely unfair summary about what they had heard, almost ensuring that they could not accept any alternative theory, such as that Sarah Hart had taken poison on her own.
The trial was a sensation with uncontrollable mobs of people trying to get in to watch it as entertainment. Tawell was found guilty, and the same mobs came for the entertainment of his hanging. He had been found a respectful, model prisoner, and authorities were so sympathetic to him that they allowed him to wear his usual Quaker attire in the prison and then on the gallows, which greatly disturbed Quaker authorities. (In the next decade the Quaker requirement for wearing the old garb was abandoned, and some said it was because of the Tawell gallows show.) Hawkers were eager to sell to those gathered to see Tawell hang broadsheets containing his confession of his crime, but these were fraudulent. Victorians loved a gallows confession, but the role confession played in the drama is a surprise you will not find in this review of this consistently exciting and meticulously researched book. The Tawell case is historically important. The telegraph we no longer call "the electric constable," the nickname the device got after his arrest; but the case of the "Quaker Murderer" ensured that the usefulness of telegraphy was demonstrated indisputably for all. A generation afterwards, telegraphy would be extended throughout Britain, and soon the world.