On the evening of the 9th July 1864, the chief clerk of a firm of London bankers boarded a train at Fenchurch Street station, sadly he was never to reach his destination.
Thomas Briggs became the first person to be brutally murdered on Britain’s railways.
As in the case of the former Board of Trade Minister, William Husskison, who died as a result of his injuries after being struck by a locomotive at the grand opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830, fatalities on the railway were confined to straightforward accidents, or work-related incidents. However, in the summer of 1864 this would cease to be the case. Britain was about to experience a hitherto unknown breed of crime – murder on the railways!
Late in the evening of the 9th July 1864, a train approaching London made a sudden and unscheduled stop between the suburban stations of Bow and Hackney. The driver and fireman of the locomotive had spotted something strange on the line ahead. Climbing from the cab they approached what they thought to be a discarded bundle of clothing. Recoiling in horror as they began to examine the item, they realised immediately that the bundle was in fact the body of an elderly man; his clothes soaked in blood.
The police were quickly summoned to the scene and the man, who was barely alive, was taken to a nearby public house and placed in a private room. A doctor arrived and after a brief examination, revealed that the man had suffered an extremely violent assault, resulting in a number of serious head wounds, one of which was a skull fracture.
The badly beaten man died the following evening from the injuries that he had sustained.
Without delay an investigation into the horrific murder began, headed by Chief Inspector William Tanner, an experienced police officer from Scotland Yard. The identity of the victim was soon established as Thomas Briggs, the chief clerk of a firm of bankers in Lombard Street, London. Apparently he had boarded an evening train at Fenchurch Street station that was bound for Hackney. He never reached his destination.
Tanner was in no doubt that the motive for the murder was one of robbery, after receiving credible information from those who knew him that he was in the habit of wearing a black top hat, gold spectacles and a gold watch and chain in his waistcoat. A subsequent search of the railway carriage revealed three personal items – a walking stick, a black beaver hat and a leather bag, all of which were lying in sickly pools of congealed blood. The spectacles and the watch and chain were missing.
Due to the nature of the missing items, the police naturally concentrated on London’s jewellery trade, and it was some time before they came up with their first promising lead.
In an area known as Cheapside, their investigations led them to a jewellery shop owned by a Mr. John Death. Death informed Inspector Tanner that a few days previously he had purchased a gold watch chain from a customer in his shop. Giving Tanner a full description of the customer, he added that he was certain he was a foreigner, with what he believed to be a German accent. Also, something that struck the jeweller as odd was that the man was wearing an unusual style of black hat.
On the 18th July, the police had their biggest breakthrough to date in the case of the murdered Thomas Briggs. Information had been received from a cabman by the name of Matthews which would shed further light on the crime. While interviewing Matthews, Inspector Tanner learned that the man’s eldest daughter had in fact been engaged to be married to a young man known as Franz Muller. Muller it seems had given the lady in question a gift in a small box; the box was given to Matthew’s youngest daughter to play with. Proud of her little box, the girl had shown it to her father who, purely by chance, noticed the name “John Death” printed inside; although he was not aware of its significance at the time. Matthews also informed Tanner that Muller often wore a black beaver hat.
In a further stroke of luck for the police Inspector, Matthews was also able to supply a photograph of Muller that John Death confirmed was the customer with the watch chain. On the 19th July a warrant was issued for the arrest of the suspected murderer.
Until now the case had progressed smoothly. However, Tanner was about to suffer a setback. News had reached Tanner at his Scotland Yard office that the imminent arrest of Muller had been thwarted. Muller was at that very moment on board a ship bound for America. Not to be outdone at the final hurdle in his search for the miscreant, Tanner, along with Sergeant George Clarke, wasted no time in travelling to Liverpool where they boarded the steamship “City of Manchester” bound for America.
Muller would no doubt have been extremely happy with himself as he stepped ashore from the sailing ship “Victoria”, onto the safety of American soil. After all, had he not outwitted the entire London police force, and literally got away with murder? Now he could start a new life in a new country on the proceeds from the sale of the gold watch, stowed safely in his luggage. All his troubles were over!
Before Muller had taken more than a few steps along the quayside, the words he thought that he would never hear uttered reached his ears. “Franz Muller, I arrest you for the murder of Thomas Briggs…” Standing in front of Muller was Inspector Tanner and Sergeant Clarke.
What the fleeing Muller did not know was that although he had left England well ahead of the two policemen, the ship they had boarded was faster and more powerful than the sailing ship in which he had travelled, and that they had arrived in New York three weeks ahead of him. Muller’s luggage was duly searched and the gold watch was discovered along with a strange black hat. Muller, being a tailor, had cut down the height of the top hat to alter its appearance.
After being brought back to England, Muller stood trial for murder at the Old Bailey on the 27th October 1864. Although much of the evidence against him was circumstantial, and also that an alibi had been provided by a known London prostitute, the jury took a mere fifteen minutes to return a verdict of guilty as charged.
On the 14th November Franz Muller was released from his shackles and led from the condemned cell in Newgate Prison to the scaffold where, it is claimed, he confessed to his crime to the German minister, (some believe it was a priest), who was in attendance.
Muller was hanged, publicly, in front of an estimated crowd of 50,000 people who had turned out especially to witness the spectacle, many making a one-day holiday out of the whole affair. However, this was not the last time that the name of Franz Muller would be on the lips of the British public.
Unwittingly, by cutting down the height of Thomas Briggs’ top hat, he had created a fashion for shorter top hats, known as the “Muller Cut-Down”. The style survived for many years to come. One of its most ardent admirers was none other than the famous British Prime Minister – Winston Churchill!
Britain’s First Railway Murder by Charles Moorhen