1828: Joseph Hunton, forger

Add comment December 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Quaker forger Joseph Hunton was hanged at Newgate Prison.

The very model of petit bourgeois hustle, Hunton was a versatile businessman who variously engaged in slop-selling, linen-draping, sugar-baking, and warehousing, before turning his craft to that most lucrative of all trades, money-minting.

Hunton circulated bills of exchange fraudulently drawn on dead people, and easily traced back to his hand. Ever the assiduous merchant, Hunton was arrested trying to flee England — with a letter in his pocket to post for the Times correcting that paper’s inflated account of his graft to a more modest figure.

Since the reputation that preceded him was otherwise a good one, and since executions for white-collar crime suffered declining popularity, Hunton had “every reason to expect that the mercy of the Crown will be extended to the unhappy object of public commiseration.” (The London Times, Nov. 21, 1828, evidently an error-prone source on the subject of J. Hunton.) Even Nathan Mayer Rothschild, one of the founders of that family’s banking empire, signed a petition for Hunton along with other eminences of the London financial district. This sentiment, the Times observed (Dec. 6, 1828)

proves sufficiently that in the opinion of the commercial public, fraud is not an appropriate subject for capital punishment … The human heart, we say, in the 19th century, revolts at such a retribution for such a transgression … [which] flies in the face of those feelings which attest, because they go far to constitute, the advancement of mankind in civilization and humanity. The penalty of death was enacted for the sake of the monied interest,–the monied interest, by this petition, loudly proclaim that they deem the penalty unnecessary!

Little wonder the Newgate Calendar noticed “a very general belief … that a respite would most certainly arrive for him even so late as on the morning fixed for his death. His safety was considered almost certain, and many were scarcely persuaded that he would really suffer even at the moment when the fatal cord encompassed his neck.”

But it was not so.


Some things never change.

Though 1828 is many decades before England developed its exacting “drop tables” calculating the precise length of rope meant to hang a fellow of a given stature, the accounts of Hunton’s hanging are at pains to note that, because Hunton himself was so short, his rope was made longer than that of the three unconnected fellow-convicts who hanged with him. Table or no, the executioner knew his craft: Hunton died instantly, or appeared to.

(Another Quaker once an intimate of Hunton later became notable gallows fodder himself, John Tawell. Tawell was the first criminal captured with use of the telegraph.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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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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