On the evening of Saturday 9 July 1864, the unconscious body of a banker – 69-year-old Thomas Briggs – was found on the railway line at Bow in east London. His skull had been brutally smashed. There was a diamond ring on his finger and money in his pockets, but a broken link dangling from his waistcoat pocket indicated that his gold watch and chain had been stolen.
Not long before, two clerks entering the first-class carriage of a train at Hackney station, further up the line, realised that there was blood on the seats and called the guard. His lamp revealed that blood had pooled in the buttoned indentations of the cushions. An empty black banker’s bag lolled on one seat and a blood-smeared cane was found under another. Next to it was a crushed, low-crowned hat with a cheap, striped lining.
Thomas Briggs was the victim of the first murder on a British train – an extraordinary story that is dramatised this week on BBC2.
Inspector Richard Tanner of the Metropolitan Police Detective branch, discovering that the hat had not belonged to Briggs, thought he was on the scent of the murderer and set out to find the man who had worn it.
Three decades of railway expansion had altered forever the speed of movement, broadening the horizons of every British citizen and fuelling the growth of empire. The shrieking steam engine was the most potent symbol of Victoria’s reign, but alongside confidence in industrialisation was a growing anxiety about the speed of progress and the helplessness of the individual. Pride was mixed with nervousness: wheels ran off tracks, boilers burst, trains collided, axles broke, people were killed. With no windows between carriages, no corridors to link them, nor any means of communicating with driver or guard, the fact that a railway carriage had now provided the most private forum for murder rocked society to its core.
Describing it as “this terrible drama of real life”, feverish reports of the bludgeoning of respectable Mr Briggs added tinder to a smouldering fire of public concern. Fear radiated along the length of every train: “worst of all”, noted The London Review, “is the horrid consciousness, not merely that you are uneasy, but that you are making the traveller in the opposite corner uneasy too”. Because the attack took place in a first-class carriage, it suggested – sensationally – that privilege was not inviolate: “If we can be murdered thus,” thundered The Times, “we can be slain in our church pews or at our dining room tables.”
A large reward prompted the arrival of letters in their hundreds, and at police stations across London the public queued to give statements, hoping to unlock the mystery. Newspapers gnawed at the story, stoking the idea that one’s ordinary middle-class day could also descend into chaos. The public clamour for results grew shrill.
Just as Tanner began to believe it an impossible case, two men stepped forward to throw suspicion on a single foreigner: an impoverished German tailor who had already sailed for America. With no sub-oceanic telegraph to alert the New York authorities Tanner gave chase, boarding a fast steamer that he hoped would outpace his quarry.
When Tanner arrested the German he looked for the flicker that would give away his guilt and saw nothing. What he did find, packed in his trunk, was Briggs’s gold watch and a silk top hat, cut down in size. It seemed to point to the fact that they had got the right man, but what shocked the vast crowds during later legal proceedings both in New York and in London was that the 23-year-old man who was arrested – Franz Müller – was slight, neat and mild-mannered. He didn’t look or behave like a monster.
Opinion was divided about his guilt or innocence. Then, over three tense days, an array of witnesses representing a cross-section of working life in London rarely seen outside a Dickens novel began to take the Old Bailey stand. Ticket-takers, railway guards, pawnbrokers’ assistants, cabbies, watchmakers, hatmakers, jewellers and tailors all had their say. Müller could only listen, forbidden by the law of the time from speaking in his own defence.
Bound by a chain of circumstantial evidence, it took the jury just 15 minutes to convict. Müller was sentenced to death. Pale-faced, he spoke only to protest his innocence.
So began fevered attempts to convince the home secretary to commute Müller’s sentence to life imprisonment. The public felt that they had got at the truth, but not at its entirety; it was argued that there were unresolved puzzles and awkward questions. With more time, would witnesses come forward to corroborate Müller’s alibi? Would the momentum of the movement for the abolition of capital punishment add weight to his cause, or work against it?
Once Müller was sentenced, old arguments were given new voice: shouldn’t defendants be allowed to speak at their own trial? Was execution state-sanctioned murder? Did it cauterise fear and restore order or question the very civilisation that Britain held up as an example to the world?
A rowdy crowd of 50,000 gathered to witness Müller’s execution at Newgate in November 1864. When he fell, they roared. Although it would be another century before capital punishment was abolished, the behaviour of that mob led to a change in the law such that, within four years, the death penalty was enacted in private.
In 1865 the first bill to grant defendants the right to testify was introduced, though it wasn’t passed until 1898. A proper Court of Appeal was introduced only in 1907. Astonishingly, the defence were not allowed the last word in trials until the 1960s and the duty of the Crown to disclose material that might be helpful to the defence was not made law until 1981. Had these laws existed in 1864 Müller might have lived.
People talked about it for decades and the case raised questions that continue to resonate today. The struggle between a poor German artisan and an English banker bound preconceptions about class and poverty to a fear of foreigners, and the combination proved incendiary. Further, by striking directly at the middle classes, the crime suggested that the world was spinning out of control, that one disenchanted individual could wreak havoc on the national sense of security.
It was a potent cocktail, igniting a rush to justice and, later, concerns that the police might not have got the right man (though newspapers reporting his execution spoke of a last-minute confession). It raised questions about the price to be paid for technological progress. It brought into focus the question of how best to assimilate foreign nationals drawn by the opportunities invested in the country’s advanced wealth and liberal values. Overwhelmingly, that first murder on a British train left the nation with the feeling that the price to be paid for modernity was, even for the most fortunate in society, vulnerability and death.
Murder on the Victorian Railway is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2.