The Collector
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The Collector


The $20,000 Vowel Mistake

And the first death by telegraph — events from the early days of the electric telegraph

Telegraph — Image by Ray Shrewsberry from Pixabay

The year was 1845. John Tawell, a gentleman in his 60s, bought a first-class ticket for the evening train that was leaving Slough for London. Slough is an English town about 20 miles west of London. John Tawell had settled in the town after returning from Australia in 1831, where he was sent as a convict in 1814, on account of forgery and possessing counterfeit money. Upon return, Tawell had resumed his profession as a pharmacist — or ‘quack’, as they were commonly called then.

Tawell’s wife had been ill for a while and he sought the services of a 30-year-old nurse, Sarah Hart. The nurse, however, proved to be more than an attendant to his wife, as was evident by the two children she bore, whose father was Mr. Tawell. His wife died but Miss Hart continued to be a mistress to John Tawell and entirely dependent on him for sustenance.

This responsibility eventually became a burden for Tawell with restrained financial resources and especially when he married a respectable Quaker woman. So he poisoned Hart and hopped on the evening train for London. He, however, was unaware of the fact that a neighbor had seen him leaving the crime scene, who found the victim while she was breathing her last. By the time the neighbor reported the incident, the train had already left Slough.

A messenger faster than the train

Unfortunately for Tawell, the train station at Slough was one of the few in England which were recently equipped with the newly invented telegraph. The superintendent of the electric telegraph was given information on the murder, with Tawell as the possible suspect. He telegraphed a message to Paddington, London, which described Tawell as a man “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 the letter ‘Q’ at the time and the phonetic alternative ‘K’ was used instead.

When Tawell unboarded the train at Paddington, a policeman was already waiting for him at the station. A trial ensued and Mr. Tawell was found guilty of murder by poisoning his mistress with prussic acid. This cyanogenic poison is also present in minuscule quantities in apple seeds. Fitzroy Kelly, the lawyer of John Tawell, argued that the death of Sarah Hart might have occurred due to eating too many apple seeds. While the argument failed to win over the jury, it earned Mr. Kelly the moniker of ‘Apple-pip Kelly’. Tawell was executed a few days later.

Shrinking space and time

In the first half of the 19th century, several models of the electric telegraph were developed, two of which gained widespread popularity. They were the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph popular in the UK, and the Morse and Vail telegraph in the United States. The basic idea of a telegraph was simple. At the one end a person, the sender, ‘typed’ a message by sending pulses of current across an un-insulated wire in a specific pattern. Another person at the other end interpreted the pattern letter by letter to decode the message. Simple as it was, the telegraph proved to be a revolutionary instrument and a scientific marvel. The ability to communicate over hundreds of miles within seconds was unprecedented in history and people were understandably excited by this virtual shrinking of space and time. The first commercial telegraph lines were installed in 1838 between Paddington station and West Drayton. This line was extended five years later to Slough, using which John Tawell was arrested and brought to justice. Tawell went down in history as the first person convicted with the help of the telegraph.

The price of words

Sending a message via the telegraph wasn’t cheap. The method was tedious and required manned labor. The telegraph machine developed by Morse and Vail, and popular in the United States, used a code of dots and dashes — later known as the Morse code — to transmit messages. Each letter in the English alphabet was represented by a set of dots and dashes. The letter ‘a’, for example, was coded by a combination of one dot and one dash ‘ .- ’. The most commonly used letter in English, ‘e’, was assigned the shortest code: a single dot ‘.’. The person at the sending end would punch in pins to type patterns of dots and dashes which were carried as interruptions or pauses in the passage of electric current across the wire. A ‘dot’ was a short interruption while a ‘dash’ was a long pause. The receiver would convert the changes in current back to dots and dashes which would be then interpreted as letters and words. Sending a message was charged per letter. “ The phrase ‘May I ask you to do me the favour’ cost 6 pence,” wrote Andrew Wynter, an American Physician and author in the 1860s. This meant frugality with words was the way to cut costs. Soon, people turned to shorthand, anagrams, and number codes to shorten their messages further. Shorthand and codes served a dual purpose: In addition to being economical, they added a layer of security to the message. Using a code language agreed upon by the sender and the receiver a message could be reasonably concealed from prying eyes. Inevitably, problems started to emerge. Trading verbosity for succinctness meant that the messages sent were more error-prone — as Frank Primrose, a Philadelphia wool dealer, found the hard way.

Mind your vowels

On June 16, 1887, Frank Primrose sent a telegram to his agent in Kansas. The message to be conveyed was that he has bought 500, 000 pounds of wool. The shorthand they had agreed upon for bought was BAY. When the message reached Kansas, however, it read BUY instead of BAY. His agent earnestly proceeded to buy wool and by the time the mistake was realized he has burned through $20,000. Primrose filed a lawsuit against the Western Union Telegraph company, which dragged on for six years. Eventually, the finely printed terms and conditions on the back of the telegraph blank came to the rescue of the company. These terms required the sender to request a REPEAT of the message back to the originating office for comparison. In the case of UNREPEATED messages, the company was not liable for mistakes.

In favor of Primrose, the court found the amount of $1.15 — the price of sending the telegram.

The Information
by James Gleick (2011)
Buckinghamshire: A History of Aylesbury with Its Borough and Hundreds, the Hamlet of Walton, and the Electoral Division by Robert Gibbs (1885)



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Fayyaz H Zafar

Physician by profession and nerd by choice. I read & write about science, medicine, technology & programming.