T is for Tawell

John Tawell was transported to Australia in 1814 for being in possession of forged banknotes. He prospered in Australia and returned to England with his wife and children in 1838. His wife died and he remarried, but carried on an affair with the nursemaid, Sarah Hart, by whom he had two children. He installed her and the children in a cottage at Salt Hill near Slough. He poisoned her with prussic acid on January 1st, 1845.

Tawell’s mistake was to wear distinctive Quaker clothing – he had been disowned by the Quakers years before over the affair of the banknotes. He was seen by a sharp-eyed railway policeman boarding the London train. The policeman telegraphed Paddington Station where a policeman waited to follow him to the Jamaica Coffee House where he was arrested the next day by Inspector Wiggins.

Tawell was hanged at Aylesbury on 28th March, 1845. He was allowed to dress in his Quaker garb much to the indignation of his Quaker Friends who had comforted him in prison despite the forged banknotes crime. Like William Palmer, Tawell was always calm and cool and he did not confess to the murder. His wife, his family and his Quaker Friends believed in him to the end.

However, after his death, the prison governor told the newspapers that Tawell had left a letter confessing to the murder of Sarah Hart.

Calcraft was the hangman and as he had done before, he made a botch of it because the rope was too long for Tawell’s weight and height. The hanging was attended by thousands of people which prompted Dickens to write in the Daily News (the paper of which he was editor for a brief time in 1846):

‘A criminal under sentence of death … becomes immediately the town talk … the hero of the time. The demeanour, in his latter moments, of Sir Thomas More – one of the wisest and most virtuous of men – was never the theme of more engrossing interest than that of Hocker, Tawell, Greenacre or Courvoisier.’

The Tawell case was remarkable as the first case in which the electric telegraph was used in the detection of a murder. And Tawell was the first murderer convicted of using prussic acid – sparkling cyanide, eh?

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