“The suspected murderer…is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet”
To outward appearances, 61-year-old Quaker John Tawell led a respectable life but appearances can be deceptive. Tawell was born in 1784 and was the second son of Thomas Tawell, a shopkeeper in Aldely, a village in Norfolk. When he was 22 Tawell seduced a servant-girl, whilst living in Whitechapel and later married her. He began work in a druggist’s shop and attempted to forge a £10 note for which he received 14 years’ transportation.
In Australia Tawell got a job in a convict hospital and then as a clerk to Isaac Wood of the Sydney Academy, who was impressed enough to petition the governor for Tawell’s pardon, granted in 1820. Tawell opened a druggist’s shop and in three years was a success.
Back in England his wife and two sons died and he began an affair with a nurse, Sarah Lawrence, who bore him two children. In 1841 he married a Quaker widow, Mrs Cutforth, who had run a school in Clerkenwell, London. Tawell moved his lover, who had by now changed her name to Hart, to a small cottage in Salt Hill, near Slough and visited her in order to pay a weekly allowance of £1.
On 1 January 1845, after Tawell’s visit, his mistress was discovered on the floor writhing in agony and she died before help arrived. A neighbour, Mary Anne Ashley, spotted Tawell and rushed to Slough Station where the stationmaster, using the latest innovation, transmitted the following telegraph to Paddington Station: “A murder had just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.”
The misspelling of Quaker was deliberate since the telegraph at that time did not have a letter Q. Tawell was spotted by Sergeant Williams of the railway police, who followed him by bus and on foot to the Jerusalem Coffee House and then across London Bridge to a lodging house in Scott’s Yard.
Jerusalem Coffee House, City of London, England
Thursday 2 January 1845
The next day Tawell was arrested at the Jerusalem Coffee House, the first murderer caught by wireless telegraphy. At his trial it was revealed that he had bought two bottles of Scheele’s prussic acid, normally used for the treatment of varicose veins and that Sarah had died from prussic acid poisoning. Tawell was publicly hanged at Aylesbury on 28 March, and the electro-magnetic telegraph used to make the historic capture was put on show for a shilling a look