The electrifying story of a criminal Quaker, a poisoned mistress, and the dawn of the information age.
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 trial 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.
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.
Baxter has pieced together a fascinating history, mystery and portrait of a complex contradictory man.
Daily Mail (London)
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. ... In short, it is totally irresistible.
Meticulously researched and entertainingly told, this is a vivid picture of an electrifying age.
The Good Book Guide (UK)
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. Publishers Weekly (USA)
Baxter's latest historical title reads like a novel ... 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. ... 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.
Library Journal (USA)
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. Macleans Magazine (Canada)
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!
My Book Addiction (USA blog)
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.'
Destructive Music website
An exhilarating real-life thriller about the murder that revealed the power of the telegraph ... 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.