The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable
The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable tells the true story of John Tawell, the first "murderer" caught using the electric telegraph. The consequences of his apprehension and his sensational trial launched the Communication Revolution. It was published internationally by Britain's Oneworld in 2013.
The Times newspaper, 31 August 2013:
'In an echo of Magwitch, the convicted criminal who returned from Australia as a rich man in Great Expectations, so John Tawell, a Quaker and convicted forger transported to Sydney where he made a fortune as a retail pharmacist, returned to England where he was a social outcast. Carol Baxter’s account of his arrest and conviction for murder by poisoning is as lively and readable as a crime novel. Normally, that would be good enough; but this is a book of two halves — its unique selling point is the invention of the telegraph and its experimental use on the Great Western Railway. A message sent electrically to London was the critical element in the arrest of Tawell who boarded the 7.42 train from Slough to Paddington on New Year’s Day 1845. The combination of sin and science did justice to Tawell and did wonders for the future of electric messaging.'
Independent (UK), 13 September 2013:
'Reading this account of a real-life crime in 1845 is an experience close to time travel. Through impressive research and unshowy prose, Baxter whisks us back to the start of the modern age. By means of the world's first electric telegraph, railway police in Paddington were alerted to a murder suspect "in the garb of a Kwaker" (the early telegraph couldn't manage "Q'). Baxter's pursuit of this unlikely figure involves a long detour to her Australian homeland and other fascinating meanders concerning poisons, railways and criminality. In short, it is totally irresistible.'
London's Daily Mail, 6 September 2013:
'On New Year’s Day, 1845, John Tawell boarded the 7.42pm train from Slough to Paddington, dressed in the distinctive Quaker long brown coat and hat. What happened next made history - a telegraph message was sent from the Great Western Railway prototype telegraph office, alerting Paddington that a Kwaker (there was no Q in the telegraph system) was on the run from a murder scene. The subsequent arrest and trial of Tawell, who years earlier had been transported to Sydney for forgery but returned wealthy from building a pharmacy empire, for poisoning his mistress and mother of his children, was a sensation. Baxter has pieced together a fascinating history, mystery and portrait of a complex contradictory man, whose crime sat uneasily alongside his religion and desire for respectability.'
The Good Book Guide (Britain), December 2013:
'Meticulously researched and entertainingly told, this is a vivid picture of an electrifying age.'
Library Journal (USA), 15 October 2013:
'Baxter's latest historical title reads like a novel. It's not a strictly academic work but rather a fascinating glimpse into a point in time in England's history, when things were about to change. The "electric constable" referred to is the electric telegraph, which made it possible for the suspect in this bizarre and scandalous murder case to be apprehended—the first time in the nation's history that this method was successful in such a case. Frankly, the telegraph plays a minor role here but does allow a well-researched and well-written story to be told about a dodgy Quaker, his former servant/mistress, his wife, a few vaguely corrupt scientists, and a vial of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Baxter's research, while not footnoted, appears thorough and dogged, and she doesn't seem inclined to invent facts or conjecture about the case if facts are unknown. If this book lacks anything, it would be explanations of the intricacies of the early 19th-century British legal system, which contains terms and players unfamiliar to modern American audiences. This title is easily readable, interesting, and enjoyable, especially when one compares the techniques of the 1840s chemists and doctors with today's television and real-life forensic scientists. VERDICT Recommended for true crime and historical crime buffs, those interested in early forensic science, and general readers.'
Maclean's Magazine (Canada), 5 November 2013:
The information age dawned on New Year’s Day, 1845, when, for the first time, the telegraph was used to catch a murder suspect. Before, the telegraph was an eight-year-old experimental technology struggling to find a commercial application. Yet, as Baxter successfully argues in her deftly woven tale of crime, religion and science, after that day it was the “electric constable” that could do no wrong.
The hunted man was John Tawell, a Quaker wearing the sect’s old-fashioned, distinctive outfit. And unluckily for him, he took a train 29 km from Slough to Paddington railway station in London, the only two destinations in the world connected by telegraph lines. The operator sent a quick missive to his counterpart in London that authorities should be on the lookout for the as-yet-unidentified man: “The suspected murderer was seen to take a first-class ticket for London by the train which left Slough at 7h. 42m. p.m. He is in the garb of a kwaker [sic] with a brown great coat which reaches nearly down to his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.”
Tawell was apprehended for the murder of his ex-lover Sarah Hart. Papers on both sides of the Atlantic were obsessed with his murder trial, which included scientific experts battling over how he’d killed Hart. Some believed he used cyanide, while others argued that theory was impossible since the surgeons who examined her body didn’t detect cyanide’s telltale smell and signs. In the end, Tawell was convicted and sentenced to die. Thousands streamed to Aylesbury to witness his hanging on March 28 of the same year. Even the executioner, William Calcraft, was mobbed. (As Baxter points out in delicious detail, Calcraft got a generous stipend for his services, as well as the prisoner’s clothing and belongings, which he often sold to Madame Tussauds for a handsome profit.) A few months later, Sir Francis Bond Head, the former lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, was travelling from London to Slough in a silent, packed carriage, when one man, on seeing the telegraph wires arrayed next to the tracks, muttered, “Them’s the cords that hung John Tawell.”
Destructive Music website, 22 September 2013:
'This is an enthralling book that works on a multitude of levels. It is a vividly researched Victorian murder mystery in the vein of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. It is also a very human story ...
Not only is the story electrifying, but Carol Baxter's shows a novelist's verse at humanising its protagonists and bringing the Victorian world they inhabited to life, a masterful achievement by anyone's standards and a fine read.'
Publishers Weekly, 19 August 2013 (international trade magazine for booksellers):
'Fans of Erik Larson’s true-crime thrillers will be pleased by this gripping account that presents a tipping point in the public acceptance of the telegraph: its use in 1845 to alert the authorities in London that a murder suspect had boarded a train headed there. With a novelist’s flair for drama, using details that were painstakingly extracted from the historical record, Australian popular historian Baxter (An Irresistible Temptation) recreates the life of suspect John Tawell, a Quaker who had been transported for forgery, the events leading up to his apprehension on suspicion of having poisoned Sarah Hart, and his prosecution. Along the way, the story takes several unexpected twists, and Baxter does a stellar job of integrating details about the nascent forensic science of the time, questions about the role of expert witnesses in jury trials, and the insatiable public hunger for salacious details about the case.'
Sian Rees, author of the bestseller, The Floating Brothel, wrote that 'The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable is a masterful reconstruction of a forgotten story'.
Fiona Rule, author of The Worst Street in London, London’s Docklands and London’s Labyrinth, wrote:
'Long before Dr Crippen was apprehended using wireless communication, new technology led to the arrest of another lesser known but no less intriguing character. Carol Baxter's vivid account of a Victorian murder and its aftermath is meticulously researched and thoroughly engrossing. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the murkier side of life in the 19th century.'
My Book Addiction (USA blog) 15 October 2015:
‘What a complex and gripping tale of murder, scientific revolution, passion, innuendo, and the pursuit to find justice! The murkier side of Victorian England during the nineteenth century is truly engrossing. I would recommend this title to anyone who enjoys historical true crimes, the invention of the electric telegraph, finding justice, toxicology, Quakers, criminal psychology, history, and the long ago buried story of John Tawell. A fascinating read to say the least!’
Shelf Awareness newsletter (USA), 29 October 2013
An exhilarating real-life thriller about the murder that revealed the power of the telegraph.
Australian historian Carol Baxter melds true crime and science in the gripping The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable. The electric telegraph (or the “electric constable,” as it was known) was a newfangled, doubtful-looking invention in 1845, when a well-liked young woman was found gasping her final breaths in the small English town of Slough. Fortuitously, Slough was connected by an experimental telegraph line to Paddington Station; when a distinctively dressed gentleman was seen leaving the apparent murder scene and boarding a train, quick-thinking locals sent word along the line. The pursuit by telegraph of a criminal suspect marked a turning point, Baxter argues, and sparked the communications revolution that continues today. That the suspect, John Tawell, was a Quaker made this case still more sensational, and his personal history as a transported convict helped to transfix the public.
This peculiar case involved not only the “electric constable” but also the new fields of toxicology and forensic science. The murder trial riveted the medical and legal professions, setting new precedents; the public, already inspired by poisoning cases, was riveted by the cyanide evidence that “the Quaker murderer” provided. Baxter’s accounts of the telegraph’s technology, the prevailing cultural climate regarding murder and poisonings, contemporary forensic methods and Tawell’s personal history are all worthy of an engrossing thriller. (Her research was meticulous, though, she explains in an author’s note, and all the dialogue attributed and factual.) Expertly told, The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable is a captivating accomplishment in nonfiction.
Podcast of interview on Ireland's Newstalk programme (26 August 2013): Click here.