Most people don’t send telegrams any more, although you certainly can if you want. With today’s wireless communication, text messaging and social media, there’s really no need. But there was a time when telegrams were the fastest way for people to communicate, especially if they lived at a distance.
From the mid-1800s until the advent of commercially available telephones, telegrams were the only way for people to communicate quickly, since letters could take days or more. And even after people got telephones, it was still easier and less expensive for a long time to send a telegram.
There are, of course, all sorts of mentions of telegrams in crime fiction. They contain information, they may serve as clues, and they prompt sleuths to take action. I’m only going to bring up a few examples. I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery begins as Dr. Watson and his wife are at the breakfast table. Watson gets a telegram from Sherlock Holmes, inviting him to join Holmes in the west of England. There’s been a murder in the Boscombe Valley, and Holmes is investigating it. Watson soon joins his friend, and the two look into the killing of Charles McCarthy. He and his son John quarreled loudly shortly before the murder, so John McCarthy is the most likely suspect. But his fiancée Alice Turner wants his name cleared. If the killer isn’t John McCarthy, though, then who is it? The only real clue is something the dying man said, but it doesn’t make sense until Holmes puts the pieces together.
A telegram plays an interesting role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Late one night, New York Homicide Bureau detective Tom Shawn is taking a walk when he sees a distraught young woman on a bridge, apparently about to jump. He manages to persuade her to come back to safety, and then takes her to an all-night diner, where she tells her story. She is Jean Reid, daughter of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid. Until recently, she’s had a reasonably good life. But everything changed after her father took a trip to San Francisco. A maid warned Jean that her father was in real danger if he took his scheduled flight back to New York, because the plane was going to crash. Jean’s not really a fanciful person, but concern for her father led her to start to send him a telegram asking him to change his travel plans. But she didn’t follow through. So when Harlan Reid returned safely, she was stunned to learn that he got a telegram. Who sent it, if not she? As Shawn soon learns, this was only the first in a strange series of incidents involving predictions made by a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, who is, as he puts it, cursed with being able to see the future. What troubles Jean especially is that Tompkins has predicted that her father will die on a certain night at midnight. Convinced that this prediction will come true, Harlan Reid has become a shell of his former self. Shawn decides to do what he can to help the family, and gets caught up in a strange case.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories make use of telegrams. For example, in Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and her new husband, Simon, are taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. One afternoon, she sees that a telegram has arrived. Mistakenly thinking it’s for her, she opens it. The telegram’s actual recipient is Italian archaeologist Guido Richetti; and, when he sees that she’s read it, he’s infuriated, far out of proportion to a simple mistake like that. And when Linnet is shot later that night, that odd telegram, and Richetti’s reaction to it, come under scrutiny…
Telegrams also feature in Rex Stout’s work. For instance, in Not Quite Dead Enough, a telegram actually serves as an interesting clue. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are investigating the supposed suicide of Captain Albert Cross. It’s a delicate matter, because there are political and security issues involved. So the Powers That Be want this case solved as quickly and as quietly as possible. The official account of Cross’ death is that he committed suicide. But as Wolfe and Goodwin trace the victim’s last days, they find out something interesting: Cross had communicated with his fiancée shortly before his death. Here’s what Wolfe says about that clue:
‘‘He sent a telegram to his fiancée in Boston that he would see her on Saturday. And then committed suicide? Pfui.’’
To Wolfe, anyway, it’s an obvious clue that this was a murder, not a suicide.
K.B. Owen’s historical series takes place at the end of the 19th Century, and features Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. During these times, telegrams are really the only way for most people to get messages quickly from one place to another. Few people have telephones, and even for those who do, they aren’t always reliable. So the majority of people use telegrams. In Unseemly Haste, for instance, Concordia is planning a train trip from Hartford to San Francisco. In part, its purpose is to ensure her safety from some unpleasant people who may have targeted her (read Unseemly Ambition for the background on that). In part it’s to give her time to make some personal decisions. It’s also got the purpose of accompanying her friend Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent with her own agenda. At first, Concordia’s mother Letitia disapproves of her daughter taking such a journey without a ‘proper chaperone.’ But then, Letitia Wells receives a telegram from her sister Estella, who lives in San Francisco. Estella’s husband Karl has gone missing, and she’s frantic. Concordia agrees to do her best to help her aunt, and with that, her mother sees her off. The train journey turns out to be much more dangerous than Concordia thinks, and it turns out to be connected with the disappearance of Concordia’s uncle.
Most people don’t send telegrams any more. But as you can see, they’ve certainly played their role, both in real life an in crime fiction. And there’s still something about a telegram…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five Americans’ Western Union.