1845: John Tawell, the man in the Kwaker garb

2 comments March 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1845, John Tawell was publicly hanged in Aylesbury (while broadsheets were hawked beneath the scaffold to the crowd of thousands) for the murder of his mistress — making history as the first criminal apprehended with the use of the telegraph.

Tawell had had an interesting 60-plus years on the planet. He did well as a young banker on the make to avoid the halter for the capital crime of forging banknotes.*

In those sanguinary days of our penal code, this crime, if brought home, would have led to his certain condemntion and ignominious execution as a felon. The particulars of the affair were, however, suppressed as far as possible, on account of the insuperable disinclination of the bankers to be in any way instrumental in taking away human life.**

Clapped in irons and sent to Australia, he waxed wealthy — “by his fortunate, and, it is to be presumed, honest trading,” our wry biography remarks. (As a pharmacist. That’s what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”)

Tawell returned to England in 1831, got Sarah Hart as a bit on the side (she’d initially been hired to nurse Tawell’s dying wife), and then married a respectable Quaker woman. To conceal the affair — or perhaps because the payola Tawell was obliged to send for the maintenance of his mistress and the kids he begat with her was chewing into his straitened finances — Tawell poisoned Hart on New Year’s Day 1845.

Unfortunately for him, he was noticed leaving the scene of the crime by a neighbor, who found the victim before she had even expired.

Tawell had hopped a slow train for London ahead of apprehension, but it transpired that the station had installed the newfangled telecommunications device, the telegraph, which was requisitioned to dispatch to Paddington station a famous missive.

A murder had just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.

(The telegraph didn’t have a “Q”, so they had to improvise a phonetic spelling. k l8r.)


Dot dot. Dash dash.

(This landmark police event is not to be confused with the first use of wireless telegraphy to apprehend a criminal — the next century’s very similar philandering-apothecary-on-the-lam case of Dr. Crippen.)

Caught, convicted,† condemned. (And confessed, secretly, to the prison chaplain.) The usual. Botched strangulation hanging. Hardly unusual. Love triangle murder? Downright trite.

But still: Tawell’s strange and variegated life left a strange and variegated legacy. (pdf)

In Australia, the memory of Tawell lingered for many years after his death because considerable legal argument took place about the validity of the Crown’s hndling of his property there. The Governor, Sir William Denison, affixed the Great Seal of the colony to the grant documents on his own initiative, which creted a serious difference between him and his chief minister. Known as the “Great Seal case”, it dragged on for some 16 years before it was resolved. It provided a dramatic epilogue to Tawell’s activities.

John Tawell had pharmacy qualifications of a sort, and he was no better or worse than many of the doctors around Sydney at the time who had received no regular professional instruction. When Tawell ventured into competition with the medical establishment in the colony it was a huge gamble because until 1820 many government doctors saw private patients and had clerks to do their dispensing, usually from hospital stores. He showed that independent pharmacy could thrive away from the medical shadow, but the commercial nature of his success also showed that the founding of independent pharmacy in Australia occurred as a retailing activity rather than as a needed profession.

* As a teen, Tawell was friends with a Quaker linen-draper who was himself ultimately executed for forgery, Joseph Hunton.

** This claim for bankers’ gentility is advanced in the context of the story of a banker who in fact went on to commit murder. Aside from that obvious paradox, it will come as no surprise to any denizen of the post-bailout neoliberal era that bankers proved more than ready to involve themselves in human misery, sufficiently remunerative. If Tawell’s sweetheart plea bargain reveals anything about the financier class, it’s that bankers aren’t keen on precedents for taking away bankers’ lives.

† John Tawell’s trial lawyer, the eminent jurist and politician Sir Fitzroy Kelly, disputed the coroner’s poisoning conclusion by arguing that Sarah Hart might have just eaten too many apple seeds. (Prussic acid, aka hydrogen cyanide, does occur naturally in many fruits.)

This attempted Chewbacca defense earned the barrister the nickname “Apple-pip Kelly”. However, since the cutting-edge technology of the day was only telegraph and not Twitter, the case does not appear to have launched any of Apple-pip Kelly’s progeny into lucratively pointless careers as famous-for-being-famous socialites.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Sex

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1910: Hawley Harvey Crippen

7 comments November 23rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1910, the notorious wife-murdering doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at London’s Pentonville Prison.

The sensational trial, which saw the American-born homeopath convicted for dismembering his shrewish and unfaithful wife Cora in an attempt to take up with his young mistress, fitted Crippen for both a noose and a likeness at Madame Tussaud’s. (More trial background here.) It has also made his case twice a landmark in the history of crime and technology: once at the time of his arrest, and again just last month as of this writing.

The core of a case a jury found so open-and-shut as to require just 27 minutes to convict was the poorly explained disappearance of Crippen’s wife, followed by the discovery of a considerably mutilated female corpse under the Crippens’ home.

Although much of the crown’s evidence was speculative and circumstantial — to say nothing of the bodice-ripping gossip of nymphomania and infidelity — a corpse under the floorboards tends to be a compelling circumstance to a jury.

Presumably that anticipation prompted Crippen to flee the Scotland Yard investigation with his mistress Ethel le Neve under assumed names on an ocean liner bound for Canada. The case made criminological history as the first use of wireless communication to apprehend a suspect when the ship’s alert captain telegraphed Crippen’s presence to land as the ship steamed away — enabling a policeman to board a faster boat and arrest the pair as they docked in Quebec.

In the century since Crippen went to the gallows still maintaining his innocence, the case has endured in popular notoriety. The killer’s life has been novelized, meditated upon and borrowed for fiction, offering a draught of inspiration to Alfred Hitchcock along the way.

Books inspired by the Crippen case …

Given his suspicious behavior, scant had been the credence given Crippen’s protestation of innocence.

Until now.

In a meeting of Edwardian crime and cutting-edge technology, two scientists from Crippen’s home state of Michigan stunningly announced in October that DNA testing proves the body was not Cora Crippen after all.

If true, it would appear to void Crippen’s conviction in its particulars without quite exonerating the hanged man from the natural question: whose was the corpse? The manufacture of clothes on the body dated it to the Crippens’ occupancy of the house.

One of Crippen’s modern sleuths, in a wholly speculative vein, thinks it might harken to an altogether different sort of crime: a botched back-alley abortion, just the sort of thing a financially struggling physician might have been involved in.

Maybe.

But if the test invites a modern investigator to look 97 years backwards, it also suggests a posture of epistemological humility. It’s just possible that the light this test casts on our own time is as searching as that it shines on 1910.

The Prejudice of Science

The Crippen case was a classic 19th century-style detective job — the inspector who made the arrest cut his teeth as a younger man on a Jack the Ripper murder — but it took place on the brink of a revolution in forensic science.

Just a few years before, fingerprinting had been embraced by British and American law enforcement and begun its march towards total institutionalization. On the heels of fingerprinting came a multiplicity of biometric approaches to crime scenes — hair and fiber analysis, blood typology, and most recently and dramatically, DNA.

And they, in turn, have brought a rising faith in science to adjudicate the law.

While the “CSI Effect” — jurors’ expectation of case-breaking scientific evidence — conventionally plays as a hindrance for prosecutors who usually have no such thing, the excess deference given to less-than-conclusive forensic evidence can likewise cut against the defense. Evidence mishandled at crime labs, even cooked outright, factors into numerous recent post-conviction exonerations. The once ironclad credibility of fingerprint evidence has itself been undermined by subsequent forensic advances.

In short, for all its undoubted contributions to criminal justice, forensic science packs along its own set of pitfalls, caveats and blinders reflexively privileging evidence of the laboratory.

This is not a reflex to indulge uncritically. History grants the benefit of hindsight, but rarely the luxury of certitude.

A waxwork Dr. Crippen at Madame Tussaud’s. Image used with permission.

So if the prospect of Crippen’s innocence intrigues, that unexplained body — that sudden flight for Canada — that (permanent) failure of Cora Crippen to resurface — nevertheless remain. They might lead us to question our implicit faith in the finality of DNA’s verdict on history rather than the other way around.

Are we certain that an unbroken line of blood relations really connects Cora Crippen to the modern DNA donors of her “family”?

Are we certain that a reliable chain of custody has preserved the original tissue samples unsullied across a century?

And if we are certain, what do we make of that body after all?

It is humans who must ultimately interpret and contextualize even the firmest forensic science. Whatever we might believe of Dr. Crippen we retain the burden of that belief, with all its intrinsic potential for grievous wrong.

The tales Hawley Crippen has yet to unfold from the grave might or might not shed still another different light on our understanding of what happened at 39 Hilldrop Crescent a century ago.

The gentleman’s place as a continuing attraction at Madame Tussaud’s, however, seems assured.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Common Criminals,Doctors,England,Hanged,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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