Got Your Cable Just Today*

TelegramsMost 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, K.B. Owen, Rex Stout

20 responses to “Got Your Cable Just Today*

  1. Oh, I remember telegrams very well (and coincidentally as I was a teletype operator in the military, handling the Navy’s equivalent of telegrams). I hope to live long enough now to read about cellphones in books and recognize them as obsolete anachronisms. Of course, if we began cataloguing all obsolete technology in fiction, we would have a lifetime career. I am reminded of a conversation the other day in which a 20-something was most puzzled about several senior citizens chatting about party lines and long distance operators. Tempus fugit!

    • Tempus fugit, indeed, Tim! I think it’s fascinating that you were a teletype operator. You’ve got first-hand experience, then, with the importance that telegrams and their equivalents had. And it really is interesting to consider the different perspectives that younger people have on such things. They certainly don’t understand about party lines or long-distance operators. For them, a call is a call. It will be interesting to see what kinds of communication come next, won’t it?

  2. mudpuddle

    the only telegram i can remember is “no fun. send mun. your son.” but i don’t think it’s in a mystery. i have a terrible memory anymore; all i can think of is the dramatic ride from aix to ghent…

    • Ah, yes, Mudpuddle, ’twas a glorious victory. I haven’t thought of that poem in a long time. Thanks for sharing that telegram message, too. I wasn’t familiar with it, but it’s great!

  3. When I think of telegrams, two characters spring to mind – Holmes, of course, and Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia Travers. You may be thinking the Jeeves books aren’t crime, but when you read some of the threats poor Berite receives, you can’t help but wonder if murder is about to be done…

    “‘Am taking legal advice to ascertain whether strangling an idiot nephew counts as murder. If it doesn’t look out for yourself. Consider your conduct frozen limit. What do you mean by planting your loathsome friends on me like this? Do you think Brinkley Court is a leper colony or what is it? Who is this Spink-Bottle? Love. Travers.”

    To which Bertie helpfully replies…

    “Not Bottle. Nottle. Regards. Bertie.”

    • Hahahahaha!! Yes, FictionFan, that is certainly a hint that murder is afoot! I just adore that exchange! Thank you for adding it in! And you’re right about Holmes, too, of course. Lots of telegrams in those stories.

  4. Margot, back in the 70s, a telegram was like a midnight knock at the door accompanied by a sense of foreboding — a theme that has been done to death in Hindi cinema. In those days you could even send a telegram over the phone. The last day of the telegram, a few years ago, saw a run on telegraph offices across India with thousands of people sending one last telegram for posterity.

    • Your post reminded me, Prashant, of something I’ve read and heard. In the US, telegrams were sent to families who had lost loved ones in World War II. So when people saw the delivery person coming up the street, everyone hoped it was a telegram for someone else. It really did carry a sense of foreboding. And how interesting that the telegram has a role in Hindi cinema, too! I’m sure a lot of people did want to be sure they had a chance to send a telegram before, well, they couldn’t any more.

  5. Christie liked her telegrams – there are a couple of books where they are used to lure people away. But sometimes the heroine and hero have a code so that can’t happen. But my favourite Christie telegram has nothing to do with the crime: Suzanne sends a telegram to her husband in Man in the Brown Suit. Thrifty Anne points out ways she could make it shorter and save money. Suzanne not only refuses, but adds the words ‘Enjoying myself hugely’ to the message – a phrase that I have been using freely ever since I first read it.

    • Oh, I absolutely love that response, too, Moira! Isn’t it fabulous? And I adore the two exchanges of cable between Suzanne and Anne Bedingfield (the protagonist) at the very end of the story. Just brilliant, I thought. You’re right, too, that Christie used telegrams in a lot of her books. Not surprising, really, since that was what people did at that time. But she used them really effectively.

  6. The best example of telegrams I have is in the real life case of Crippen who was famously arrested when a ship’s captain sent a telegram saying he was on board the ship following the discovery of remains in his cellar – this story was brilliantly reconstructed by Martin Edwards in Dancing for the Hangman.

    • I am so glad you mentioned Dancing For the Hangman, Cleo! Isn’t it a fantastic account of the Crippen story? And of course, you’re right about the importance of telegrams in that history. A great example, for which thanks.

  7. Not Quite Dead Enough is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe stories, because it is one of the few set during WWII. And I hope to get to reading Death on the Nile by Christie sometime this year. It is amazing how much communication has changed.

    • I think it’s amazing, too, Tracy. And it’s only really been about a hundred years, if you really think about it. Pretty astounding! And I agree that Not Quite Dead Enough is a good ‘un.

  8. Col

    I don’t think I can recall one in my reading, which probably reflects on the era of the books I read.

  9. Perhaps my favorite use of a telegram is in “The Case of the Journeying Boy,” by Michael Innes. Without getting into too many details, in the course of an exchange of messages and telegrams, Sir Bernard Paxton receives a telegram from someone named Cox, whom he was about to hire. The telegram says “MUCH REGRET SUDDEN DEATH RENDERS IT IMPOSSIBLE ACCEPT POST AS ARRANGED COX. As with many telegrams, there is more than one way to read that message…

    • Oh, I like that example, Les! Thank you. And one of the great things about it is that it really adds to the interest in the story. It’s an excellent use of what seems on the surface an ordinary communication…but isn’t.

  10. Thanks so much for the mention, Margot! Telegraph was a big part of that cross-country train adventure (and I certainly learned a lot about how they did it in 1898!).

    • Oh, my pleasure, Kathy! It’s a great story. And I really do like the way you used telegraph in it. You certainly did your ‘homework,’ too; it felt really authentic.

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