A true tale of passion and poison

John Tawell’s trial became a sensation involving poison and sexual scandal… it is a true tale of murder and scientific revolution.

On New Year’s Day in 1845, a piece of paper with a mysterious penciled message on it was handed to an employee of Great Western Railway of England. It had been delivered by a young clock-watcher who monitored an alarm bell and reacted with appropriate responses. Police detectives for the railway were contacted.

What suspicious activity could be ensuing on the train between Slough and Paddington in London? The contents of the message may make things a little clearer: “A murder has been committed (in the area) and the suspected murderer (now on the train) is in the garb of a kwaker.”

What on earth was a kwaker? The method used to send the message to police detectives did not have a symbol for the letter “Q,” so the original sender improvised with “kw.” It was true. The man they were seeking, John Tawell, was dressed in the garb of a Quaker and wearing a long, dark brown coat. He was easy to spot and was nabbed.

A sketch of John Tawell during his trial.

This is the earliest occasion of the telegraph being used to help intercept a criminal. In small police circles the telegraph soon gained a reputation as The Electric Constable, because of its effectiveness in alerting prime parties involved in a speedy manner, almost with the speed of lightning, maybe.

John Tawell, nabbed in the first class carriage, had once been arrested in England, for some petty crimes and the larger crime of forgery. His punishment after trial was to be banished off to an Australian penal colony near Sydney. He survived the ordeal, and when released, he made something of himself there, becoming Australia’s first pharmacist. He was still shunned because although he had always been a sincere Quaker, he was also at one time a sinning Quaker and forgiveness was not coming any time soon.

When Tawell returned to England, and he did, he was a wealthy man.

Tawell had married a woman named Mary who died of tuberculosis after many years’ marriage. During her illness she had a nurse named Sarah Hadler. After Mary died of TB, Tawell remarried, but in an odd side-story he had taken Sarah Hadler as a mistress, and she had been so for years, long before Mary even died. For unknown reasons Sarah Hadler changed her name to Sarah Hart at some point, confusing the story.

It is a good guess that mistress Sarah began to make trouble for John Tawell and his second wife, so he decided she had to go. With his chemical expertise, he created a concoction to put in her beer. When she collapsed from a combination of prussic acid and cyanide, he glugged down his own beer—untainted—then fled while Sarah’s body was still warm.

I do not wish to spoil the whole mysterious scenario. Have I told you just enough to make you want to read more? I hope I have, and the perfect place find out the detailed story is with The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable—A True Tale of Passion, Poison & Pursuit by Carol Baxter. The book is available in PB, 391 pp. or on Kindle. The blurb on Amazon states in part: “John Tawell’s trial became a sensation involving poison and sexual scandal… it is a true tale of murder and scientific revolution.”

You may discover unknown tidbits about the telegraph, who did invent it and who got the first patent on it. Carol Baker is a renowned Australian historian who has written several interesting books.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious Indeed. Please click HERE to purchase your copy.

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