“Arrest the man in the Kwaker garb,” the Great Western Railway’s electric telegraph flashed out from Aylesbury railway station to the railway police in London. For some unknown reason the telegraph did not include the letter Q – but even so the fugitive was identified as a Quaker, wearing the long black coat and pointed hat of his sect. He was suspected of having committed a murder and was known to have boarded a train for London

John Tawell wasn’t a real Quaker – he just claimed to be. The murder with which he closed his colourful criminal life on the gallows in Aylesbury Prison yard on Friday, March 28th, 1845, shocked all the members of the Society of Friends with whom he liked to associate.

Tawell had an abiding interest in quack remedies and patent medicines, which early Victorians believed would keep them alive forever. He also had a penchant for pretty girls – he was forced to marry one of them when he made her pregnant. He was 30 when he was arrested for being in possession of a forged bank bond (he had actually forged it himself) and, found guilty, transported to Australia as a convict.

Even wearing leg-irons Tawell knew how to shine in a crowd. After only three years he was granted his ticket-of-leave, and a year later he got his “emancipation ticket,” which made him a free man.

He set up a drugstore business in Sydney and, because patent medicines were all the rage in Australia, he soon had a chain of drugstores. His success, though, was relayed back to Mrs. Tawell in England, who decided to take passage to Sydney to join her husband and share his wealth. The half-dozen Australian ladies who were intent on marrying him were nonplussed to discover when she arrived that their favourite man already had a wife and family.

Now enjoying vast wealth, Tawell decided to return to London with his wife and child. When they were settled in Southwark, Mrs. Tawell became ill, so he hired Sara Hart, 26, from Chatham, as her nurse. Sara was soon pregnant by her boss, and when his enfeebled wife objected about the scandal the new arrival caused, he promptly made Sara pregnant again. Before the second child was born Mrs. Tawell died.

For a few years Tawell and Sara lived together. Then, tiring of her, he bought her a cottage at Slough, and went to live with a Quaker lady at Berkhamsted. When he married his new lover, the local Quakers, who knew all about the former lover at Slough, were deeply distressed – so much so that Tawell decided that if he was ever going to be accepted by the Quakers and become one of them, he would have to do something about Sara.

Accordingly, on New Year’s Day 1845, he went down to her cottage to have a chat. In his pocket was a phial of prussic acid, a quick-killing poison. As they talked over a couple of beers, he poured the contents of the phial into her glass. Then, while she lay on the floor writhing in agony, he hot-footed it towards the station.

Sara’s screams alerted a neighbour, who called Dr. Thomas Champneys. It was he who persuaded the railway station to send the telegraph message – a message picked up by railway police, who arrested Tawell at a coffee house near London Bridge station.

Years later, in 1910, Dr. Crippen became the first murderer caught by wireless telegraphy. But John Tawell deserves to be remembered as the first murderer to be trapped by the electric telegraph. Or, as one newspaper described him at the time: “The murderer who was hanged by the wires.”