John Tawell was a sincere Quaker but a sinning one. Convicted of forgery, he was transported to Sydney, where he opened Australia’s first retail pharmacy and made a fortune. When he returned home to England after fifteen years, he thought he would be welcomed; instead he was shunned.
Then on New Year’s Day 1845 Tawell boarded the 7:42 pm train to London Paddington. Soon, men arrived chasing a suspected murderer – but the 7:42 had departed. The Great Western Railway was experimenting with a new-fangled device, the electric telegraph, so a message was sent: a ‘KWAKER’ man was on the run. The trail became a sensation, involving no apparent weapon, much innuendo, and a pious man desperate to save his reputation – and would usher in the modern communication age.
Told with narrative verve and rich in historical research, this is a delicious true tale of murder and scientific revolution in Victorian England.
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. There are occasional rhetorical excesses ("Still, doubt was pushing his foot through the door he had just opened"), but most of the prose is understated and precise.