Please hold your fire on my ‘typo’ in the title – its moment will come. Meanwhile, the above mentioned John Tawell provides us not only with a classic moment in the history of crime detection, but a circus of hypocrisy that takes some beating.
Here was a man who struggled for high social respectability and wealth and nearly made it against all the odds.
However, he was so flawed as an individual, so selfish, callous and dangerous that, instead, he ended his life as a notorious murderer, hanged in public outside County Hall in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England.
The tragic victim was his mistress, Sarah Hart and there was possibly another victim, his first wife, but it was never proven. The year of this tragic murder was 1845 on New Year’s Day.
He was 61, married to his second wife, with a stepdaughter and fifteen month old son living in their sumptuous Hertfordshire home – The Red House – in Berkhamstead, (now a listed building).
His mistress Sarah Hart was 40 years of age, a single mother bringing up his two children, living in a small cottage in Bath Place, Salt Hill near Slough in Buckinghamshire and trying make ends meet with little more than one pound a week from Tawell who would visit every three months to begrudgingly part with twelve pounds ten shillings for his children’s welfare.
Poor Sarah had to keep up the pretence to neighbours that her husband worked abroad, and it was her father-in-law, a Quaker, that made these occasional visits and shared a glass of stout with her.
What happens to Sarah is horrific, for on that New Year’s Day, she is to die in agony after drinking poisoned stout supplied by her lover Tawell, who leaves her writhing on the floor of her cottage, whilst he, dressed in his adopted style of a Quaker, rushes away to catch a train from Slough Station to London, Paddington.
Tawell had arrived at Sarah’s around 4.30pm and by approximately 7pm, Sarah’s neighbour, Mrs. Ashley, was startled by a blood-curling scream coming from Sarah’s cottage – the children were upstairs in bed and clearly their mother was dying. A local surgeon, living close by was called and he pronounced her dead.
To his credit, the surgeon, Mr. Champneys, soon realised that Sarah’s visitor had to be caught and told Mrs. Ashley to safeguard the bottle of stout and glasses and he set off in pursuit of Tawell. Meanwhile Tawell had sped along, his long Quaker greatcoat flying, and clutching his distinctive ‘Wideawake’ hat as he made haste towards Slough railway station, taking a diversion via an omnibus to Eton, but leaping off after a matter of yards and running back to the station and was directed by the superintendent to the correct platform for the 7.42 pm train to London, Paddington.
Fortunately, Mr. Champneys arrived at the railway station in time to see Tawell getting into a first-class carriage. He quickly explained his suspicions to the station superintendent but there was not the time to authorize stopping the train departing – so depart it did with the rogue Tawell.
Now it is at this point in the story that John Tawell enters the annals of criminal history – not as the murderer of Sarah Hart – as that had yet to be proved – but for the means by which he was apprehended for questioning by the police.
The new invention of the age was the five needle electric telegraph and very recently such a communication line had been opened up along certain railways routes and Slough to Paddington was one of those routes.
It was decided that a message should be sent to Paddington alerting the police to what had happened. The irony for Tawell was that as he sped towards London feeling more secure now he had escaped Salt Hill, crucial information that would lead to his arrest was overtaking him electronically and would reach Paddington before he did. This was the first time that the police had used such a technique in pursuit of a suspect.
Returning to my “typo title alert” at the beginning of this blog – this is its moment!
This new communication telegraph system was, as yet, unable to transmit certain letters and they happened to be the letters “Q” and “U”. So here was the message that arrived on that fateful day to the Paddington operator.
A MURDER HAS JUST BEEN COMMITTED AT SALT HILL AND THE SUSPECTED MURDERER WAS SEEN TO TAKE A FIRST CLASS TICKET TO LONDON BY THE TRAIN WHICH LEFT SLOUGH AT 7.42 PM. HE IS IN THE GARB OF A KWAKER WITH A GREAT COAT ON WHICH REACHES NEARLY DOWN TO HIS FEET. HE IS IN THE LAST COMPARTMENT OF THE SECOND FIRST CLASS COMPARTMENT.
The telegraphist at Paddington was somewhat confused by KWAKER but realised after the same message was re-transmitted twice more that he should substitute Q for K and U for W
A message was returned to Slough that the police were alerted and are following him onto an omnibus.
When eventually arrested – Tawell denied he had been anywhere other than London on New Year’s Day and when confronted with the suspected murder charge he replied with his characteristic conceit:
“You must be mistaken; my station in life must rebut any suspicions which might be attached to me”.
He denied knowing Sarah Hart and repeated his arrogant position, “Thee must be mistaken in the identity, my station in life places me beyond suspicion.”
Gradually, as the evidence of his visit to Salt Hill was proven, he created other reasons for being there to see this woman who he claimed used to be in his employ and who was begging money from him and threatening to kill herself and he, being a kindly man, travelled to give her assistance financially and morally. He claimed she pretended to take poison and lay down to bluff him, so he left unaware she had meant it after all.
His arrogance took a severe beating when the police were able to prove he had purchased prussic acid from a chemist in London on the day of the murder and the same poison was found in Sarah’s stomach. Also found in Sarah’s stomach were a large quality of apple pips and these pips were Tawell’s last hope to wriggle out of the murder charge.
At Tawell’s trial, Mr. Fitzroy Kelly, Tawell’s defence council turned to the jury and merely uttered the words, “Apple pips”.
To allay their puzzled expressions, he explained that Sarah’s gluttonous consumption of apples at New Year time – pips and all – had created a version of prussic acid as apple pips contain a concentration of such a poison. Sarah, he claimed, had died from eating apple pips and his client was innocent, merely using the prussic acid he had purchased the day of the murder as a treatment for his varicose veins. “Apple Pip Kelly” – as the media dubbed the lawyer became somewhat of a media celebrity whilst apple growers rose in anger against him as their sales slumped.
However, it took the jury only thirty minutes to find Tawell guilty and he was sentenced to death. So alongside his record book entry for the electric telegraph apprehension, he also became the last person to be publicly hanged outside Aylesbury County Hall.
The saying went that he may have been the last man to be hanged in public at Aylesbury, but he was the first man to be hanged by the electric telegraph anywhere!
There is a detailed ‘back-story’ to Tawell’s life which cannot be explored here but all his bitter entanglements and misplaced sense of grandeur seemed to stem from his teenage obsession with the Quaker movement whilst he worked for a wealthy Quaker widow in Norfolk – It was 1801 and he was 17 years of age and from that moment on saw himself as a ‘booted and suited’ grand figure of a Quaker. Moving to London in his early 20’s and working for another Quaker business, he had managed by 24 years of age, to be accepted within their movement, known as the Religious Society of Friends, but was soon thrown out for sexual misconduct. He was also tried and sentenced as a forger and transported to Australia in 1814 for fourteen years. Seventeen years later, he opened the first privately owned pharmacy in Sydney. Affairs and sexual indiscretions continued and his knowledge of poisons was thought to have let him get away with poisoning his first wife. He was never truly accepted into the Quaker’s Society of Friends, and was regarded as ‘The Counterfeit Quaker’ – an accusation that upset him deeper than any murder charge could ever do so.