Friday, December 31, 2010

January 1, 1845 - The Salt Hill Murder

From the Great Western Railway Station at Slough - where the new "telegraph" had just been installed - a wire is sent to the stationmaster at London Paddington: "A suspected murderer was seen to take a first-class ticket for London ... He is in the garb of a Quaker, with a brown great coat on, which reaches nearly down to his feet; he is in the last carriage compartment of the second first-class carriage."

John (sometimes James) Tawell is soon in the hands of the London police. While this remarkable new technology excites comment, the details of the murder are not without interest. Tawell is accused of poisoning Sarah Hart.  He had been seen running from her cottage in the Buckinghamshire village of Salt Hill; a neighbor said the elderly man "seemed greatly confused and trembled much." His story is singular.  As a young man, Tawell had been transported to Australia for forgery. When freed, he stayed in Sydney and became a successful druggist. He returned to England a rich man, generous with charities. Still, his former Quaker brethren shunned him. In 1842, he married a prominent Quaker schoolmistress and, at age 60, began a family. Yet, he already had a family; two children by his London servant.  Sarah Hart and the bairns lived upon a most generous allowance of a pound per week.

Although an autopsy determined that Sarah Hart had died of prussic acid poisoning, the prosecution conceded it had only circumstantial evidence. Tawell had been seen leaving the cottage and had recently purchased prussic acid.  The Crown painted Tawell as a man desperate to rid himself of an embarrassing connection.  The defense, however, insisted that Tawell regularly purchased the drug for himself to treat his varicose veins.  No trace of poison was found in the dead woman's cottage and the poison in her stomach likely came from apple pips, her favorite fruit.  Undeniably there had been an argument.  She fainted in a fit - so Tawell's lawyer claimed - and he left her there - alive.  The jury was begged to remember that guilt beyond reasonable doubt was a "blessed principle of English law."  The jury nevertheless brought in a guilty verdict and Tawell would hang. 

When he asked to be allowed to wear his Quaker clothes to the gallows, the Brethren objected.  The Spectator, a weekly, observed: "They have betrayed more sympathy for the outward trappings than for the man who stuffed them out."  In the end, he wore what he wished.  Chanting "Sweet Jesus, receive my spirit," Tawell was hanged before 3000 people.  Innkeepers got London prices for the rooms on the square; quoth one, "Such things don't always happen in Aylesbury."