John Tawell (1784–1845) was a British murderer. He was the first person to be arrested as the result of telecommunications technology.
Returning to England, he married a Quaker woman as his second wife. In 1845 he was convicted of the murder of his mistress, Sarah Hart, by administering prussic acid, his apparent motive being a dread of their relationship becoming known.
Early life and criminal career
Tawell started out as a shop worker in London and for some years worked in a number of businesses owned by the strict religious society, the Quakers, which he later joined. He was later disowned by the Quakers as a result of his relationship with a non-Quaker woman, Mary Freeman, whom he ultimately married and with whom he had two children.
In 1814 Tawell was charged with possessing forged banknotes from the Uxbridge Bank, potentially a capital offence. However, the Quaker-owned Bank was opposed to the death penalty and, mindful of scandal, negotiated for Tawell to be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser offence. The result was that his sentence was commuted to fourteen years transportation to the penal colony of Sydney. After eventually obtaining his ticket of leave, Tawell prospered, opening the colony's first pharmacy and conducting numerous property and business ventures. His family rejoined him in Sydney in 1823 and Tawell set about rehabilitating his reputation, being influential in setting up the first Quaker community in Australia and engaging in various philanthropic activities.
In 1838 the Tawells returned finally to London. Mary, who had been suffering from tuberculosis, died by the end of the year. Tawell had employed a nurse, Sarah Hadler, who later changed her name to Sarah Hart, to look after Mary and began an affair with her, despite himself having remarried. This secret relationship with Sarah Hart bore two children, and Tawell installed all three in a cottage in Salt Hill, Slough where he paid £1 per week to maintain them.
By 1844 Tawell was having severe financial problems. He bought two bottles of Scheele's prussic acid, a treatment for varicose veins containing hydrogen cyanide, and on 1 January 1845 travelled to Salt Hill, where he poisoned Sarah while sharing a beer in her cottage. She was found later that evening;
Arrest by telegraph
A man in distinctive Quaker dark clothing had been observed to leave Sarah's house shortly before she died. Following his trail, the police found that a person answering his description had caught the train at Slough, heading for Paddington Station in London.
The police immediately used the newly-installed telegraph to send a message to Paddington, giving the particulars, and desiring his capture. 'He is in the garb of a Quaker,' ran the message, 'with a brown coat on, which reaches nearly to his feet.' There was no 'Q' in the alphabet of the two-needle instrument, and the clerk at Slough therefore spelt the word 'Quaker' with a 'kwa'. 'Kwaker' was eventually understood, but only after several requests to repeat.
When the train reached Paddington, the man (who was in fact Tawell) was followed from the platform by a sergeant of the railway police, William Williams, who had put on a long civilian overcoat. Williams followed him onto a New Road omnibus where Tawell mistook him for the conductor and gave him 6d for the fare. Tawell then went to a coffee tavern and later to a lodging house, all the while with Williams following. Williams came back the following morning with Inspector Wiggins of the Metropolitan Police and they eventually arrested Tawell in a nearby coffee house.
At Tawell's trial, his murky past history was revealed. His defence was handled by Sir Fitzroy Kelly, who tried to make a case that the prussic acid that killed Sarah Hart was ingested accidentally, from eating the pips of apples (a large barrel of apples was in the house). The implausibility of this argument led the distinguished barrister to be known as "Apple-pip" Kelly for the rest of his life. Tawell himself also tried to convince the jury that Sarah had poisoned herself.
Tawell was nevertheless convicted, and was hanged in public on 28 March 1845 at Aylesbury with huge crowds watching. A written confession was handed to the gaoler, but never publicly released, leading to various unconfirmed rumours as to his guilt or innocence.
The notoriety of the case brought the remarkable qualities of the telegraph to the public's attention. Its advantages as a rapid means of conveying intelligence and detecting criminals had been signally demonstrated, and it was soon adopted on a more extensive scale. Tawell's case was also significant as the first known homicide case where the criminal attempted to flee the scene of the crime by a railway train, and it was also one of the first cases in which prussic acid was used for a deliberate homicide.
- Baxter, page 86-87
- Baxter, page 100 ff
- Buckland, page 9 ff
- Wier, pages 23-26.
- Baxter, page 173 ff.
- Wier, page 27
- "John Tawell, The Man Hanged by the Electric Telegraph". University of Salford. Retrieved 11 January 2009.
- Baxter, page 206 ff.
- Baxter, page 282 ff.
- Wier, page 28
- Baxter, page 322 ff.
- Baxter, page 341
- James Dodsley (1846). Annual Register. pp. 365–378.
- Nigel Wier, The Railway Police, AuthorHouse, 2011 ISBN 1467000272
- Carol Baxter, The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable, Oneworld, London, 2013
- Jill Buckland, Mort's Cottage 1838-1988, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst NSW, 1988.
- Tawell the Quaker — Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade