BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Quaker forger who poisoned his mistress
, January 31, 2015
THE PECULIAR CASE OF THE ELECTRIC CONSTABLE:
A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit
by Carol Baxter
(London: Oneworld Publications, 2014)
Paperback: 416 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
A long time may lapse between the development of a new technology and its being embraced by the general public.
One such example is the telegraph. Although it commenced operation in 1838, within months of Cooke and Wheatstone patenting their telegraph in 1837, its use was initially limited to railways signalling the movement of trains.
It was not until a signal sent on January 1, 1845, from Slough to London’s Paddington Station, warning authorities of a murder suspect fleeing the locality of the crime dressed as a Quaker, that its potential for fast and effective communication was realised not only by authorities, but by the general public. Following the suspect’s apprehension, and identification as John Tawell, the telegraph was dubbed “the electric constable”.
The author of a number of works on Australian history, particularly criminal history, Carol Baxter recounts the life of John Tawell, focusing on his poisoning of his mistress, Sarah Hart.
John Tawell was, as a young man, transported to New South Wales after being found guilty for forgery in 1814. Prior to this, he had been a hard-working man, who was intimately associated with the Quakers. The Quakers at the time were still an exclusive Christian denomination: membership for those who had not been born into Quaker families was extremely difficult to attain.
Ironically, only a few months after attaining membership, which he desperately desired, Tawell married a non-Quaker and his membership was rescinded. Finding himself in financial straits, Tawell committed the crime that led to his transportation.
Knowing something about medications, he eventually acquired the job of pharmacist — the first one in the colony. This meant his life as a convict was far more congenial than, for example, those engaged in building roads. He ultimately was able to organise for his family to join him in 1823, and made a considerable fortune in various business enterprises. Ultimately, he and his wife returned to Britain; however, she died shortly afterwards.
Tawell desperately sought to be readmitted to the Quakers. Despite having taken a second wife who was a Quaker, and having made considerable financial contributions to the Quakers — including donating land for a meeting-house in Sydney — his application was rejected.
Soon after this, he poisoned his mistress, Sarah Hart. Tawell had had relations with her after his wife’s death, and had fathered her two children. Possible motives for the poisoning were his financial difficulties, and fear of his private life being exposed.
Much of The Electric Constable is devoted to recounting and analysing the coronial inquest and the trial. Forensic science was still in its infancy, but scientific methods enabled detection of death by poisoning. Moreover, Tawell confessed to his crime on the eve of his execution.
However, Baxter argues that Tawell probably should not have been found guilty based on the evidence presented to the court. While the medical experts were able to establish that Hart had died as a result of ingesting prussic acid, and the prosecution was able to establish that Tawell had procured prussic acid, the evidence was circumstantial.
Baxter argues that the prosecution failed to establish sufficiently that Tawell had, in fact, administered the poison. The judge, in summing up, was heavily biased in favour of the prosecution.
Tawell’s barrister, Fitzroy Kelly, failed to secure expert witnesses, who could have challenged the prosecution witnesses. After the trial, scientists were to write letters challenging the evidence.
This case became a press sensation. Recent technological advances making the cost of producing newspapers cheaply and more rapidly, together with rising literacy rates and a public hungry for sensationalistic stories such as this, made newspapers eager to produce any new evidence or twist in the case to sell more papers.
The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable is a fascinating study of a historical case legal case that demonstrated to the public the utility of the telegraph. It is well researched and written, with the writer drawing extensively on relevant background information and source material.