John Tawell “The Man Hanged by the Electric Telegraph”.
was born in 1784, the second son of Thomas Tawell who was a shopkeeper in Aldeby in
Tawell moved to
In 1814 he was convicted of forging a £10 bank note
for which he was sentenced to death but had his sentence commuted to 14 years
In 1841 Tawell remarried to a Quaker widow but still continued the relationship with Sarah Hart. Tawell still practised the Quaker faith and regularly attended their meetings.
In the early 1840’s Tawell was suffering from varicose veins and took a remedy called Scheele's Prussic Acid. Prussic acid is better known as hydrogen cyanide and is extremely toxic. (In gaseous form it was used in gas chamber executions.) Here is a drawing of John Tawell in his characteristic Quaker jacket probably done by a court artist.
Around 6 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday the 1st
of January 1845, Sarah Hart’s neighbour, Mary Ann Ashley heard a scream from Sarah’s
house She sensibly summoned a constable and they went to investigate. She observed a man dressed as a Quaker
emerging from her home who appeared to be confused and
trembling. She had seen this man earlier
that afternoon and he now made off at a brisk pace towards
The vicar of Upton, the Rev. Edward Champneys accompanied his cousin, the surgeon, to Sarah’s
house and then went to
The Great Western Railway had experimentally
introduced a two needle Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph for communication between
A MURDER HAS GUST BEEN COMMITTED AT SALT HILL AND THE SUSPECTED
MURDERER WAS SEEN TO TAKE A FIRST CLASS TICKET TO
TRAIN WHICH LEFT
WITH A GREAT COAT ON WHICH REACHES NEARLY DOWN TO HIS FEET HE IS
IN THE LAST COMPARTMENT OF THE SECOND CLASS COMPARTMENT
The operator at Paddington had a problem understanding
what a KWAKER was and asked for the message to be re-sent. The police were informed and Sgt. William
Williams observed Tawell leaving the train at 8.20 pm. and followed him. In fact Tawell was not arrested until 1 pm.
the following afternoon by Williams and Inspector Wiggins. Tawell told them he had not been in
Sarah’s inquest was held at the Three Tuns public house in Salt Hill. Surgeon Champneys
detected the smell of prussic acid on her.
He autopsied her body and sent the stomach contents to Mr. John Cooper,
Analytical Chemist and Lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence, along with the bottle
of stout and the glass found at the scene. The bottle was found to contain
cyanide. The police discovered that on the day of the murder, Tawell had
purchased 2 drachms of Scheele's Prussic Acid from a chemist in
Tawell’s trial opened on Wednesday the 12th of March 1845 at Aylesbury County Hall before Baron Parke. A huge number of people thronged the Market Place trying to get a seat in the public gallery. Mr. Sergeant Byles and Mr. Prenergast prosecuted with Mr. Fitzroy Kelly, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Gunning defending. Tawell, by now aged 61, pleaded not guilty.
Ashley recounted the events surrounding Sarah’s death. She was cross examined by Mr. Kelly as was
Mary Barrett. Henry Gratten
told the court that he had sold Tawell a ticket to Slough at Padington Station for the 4 pm. train to
Mr. John Cooper gave evidence on his tests of the stomach contents, bottle and glass and his finding of at least one grain of prussic acid in Sarah’s stomach. He was cross examined by Mr. Kelly as to the effects of that quantity of prussic acid. Henry Smythe of bankers Barnet & Hoare testified that on January the 1st, Tawell’s bank account was overdrawn as it had been on previous occasions recently.
Mr. Fitzroy Kelly opened for the defence, the main plank of which was that the case against his client was purely circumstantial and that there was no evidence to prove that Tawell had actually administered the poison. He explained away the purchase of Scheele's Prussic Acid as simply being a remedy for varicose veins. He also called witnesses to attest Tawell’s good character.
Baron Parke began his summing up on the third day of the trial,
Friday the 14th of March. He re-affirmed
the cause of death but told the jury that it was for them to decide whether the
prisoner had administered the poison or whether Sarah had taken it
herself. He also pointed out the fact
that Tawell had lied to the police about not having gone to
John Tawell, wearing his distinctive Quaker coat, was hanged by William Calcraft at 8 am. on the 28th of March 1845 on the “New drop” gallows erected in front of County Hall in Market Square, Aylesbury. The Buckinghamshire County Gaol was immediately behind the County Hall. Some 10,000 people were estimated to have watched the event. Tawell was brought out by Calcraft and a warder around 7.45 and was seen to tremble violently as he climbed the steps to the platform. Once on the trap door Calcraft drew the white hood over his head and allowed Tawell to kneel in prayer for a minute or so before assisting him to his feet and placing the noose around his neck. It was reported that there was no chain to attach the other end of the rope to so there was a delay while Calcraft lashed it to the beam. At length the drop fell and Tawell was seen to be greatly convulsed, taking several minutes to become still. After hanging for the regulation hour the body was taken down and immediately buried in a pre-dug grave in the Gaol.
At least five broadsides were published about this case. Click here to see one.
Tawell made a full confession to the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Cox and its contents communicated to the press by the Governor of Aylesbury Goal. He stated that he had murdered Sarah to prevent his wife finding out about his affair and not for monetary reasons. He also wrote to the Governor thanking him for his kindness to him during his time in the prison.
The two telegraph instruments from Slough and
Paddington were presented by their maker, Reid Brothers, to the