When a historian writes fiction

Of what use is it to know that if you were in Durham in 1869, you could go Thomas Bainbridge in Framwellgate in the early morning and find him baking bread? It is extremely useful, if your character needs a job that starts at 4 am.

Authors of fiction sometimes talk about “world building”, especially with fantasy. A believable world has to be created, with its own history, culture, and consistency. For historical fiction, it’s a little different, because the places were really there, and in many cases still exist.

There is disagreement among authors of historical fiction of how accurate one needs to be. I’ve read quite a few historical novels that do what I’m trying to avoid, treating the locations as mere settings for stories that could take place anywhere, anytime. In fact, I began writing historical fiction out of total frustration at several novels which, although supposedly set in Victorian England, did not in any way rely on that time or place for the story. I set out to do better.

I’ve done well with London, because I’ve found old maps for the years where my stories are set, from map-sellers, on the web, and in guidebooks. Street names may change, but often the street is still there. The 1860s and 70s were times of great change, so I have to be careful.

For example, there was no Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus in 1869 — it was Regent Circus (south) and Regent Circus (north) — apparently the whole Regent development project didn’t work out quite right. Shaftesbury Avenue hadn’t been cut through yet, the Holborn Viaduct hadn’t been built — this stuff is pretty easy, and fun to research.

In my current WIP (Work in Progress), the third novel in my trilogy of cozy Victorian mysteries, quite a bit of the book takes place in Durham in 1870. Durham is one of my favorite places on the planet, so it’s important to me that it be accurate. I want my character, who is fictional, to encounter places and people who actually existed. Because I was trained in the discipline of social and economic history, when he visits a business, I want it to have been a business that was really there.

I began by searching the web to find directories of Durham, because I’d discovered that directories of London listed both businesses and street listings, with who lived on a particular street. Durham, it turns out, had the same, plus a Slater’s Commercial directory, but I couldn’t find any for 1869/70 (the story takes place in April 1870). I tried using the two I could find, for 1852 and 1879, but of course these wouldn’t be fully accurate. While I was happy to find names and areas of towns where certain types of people lived, I didn’t have the actual facts for that year.

The Durham County Records Office came to my rescue*. I cannot go there right now, or I’d just look them up for myself. They charge £50/hour for research, but the Archivist suggested I go for a quarter hour and see how much they could do. And they did a lot!

I have listings of types of businesses, and their addresses. I wanted a character to live in Neville Street, because I stayed there and know the street. He’s an engineer for the coal mines. So I was able to see whether his sort of people (class and vocation) would have lived on Neville Street, and yes!

And then there’s just the fun stuff, like the fact that I’ve walked past this place a lot:

I can make sure there’s a bath house somewhere, since one character arrives in town having spent much time traveling. I can see how there are many Hendersons, because I want a scene at their carpet mill and I suspect the family must have been a huge employer and influence (turns out John was busy representing Durham in the House of Commons at the time).

I already know how far a walk it is from place to place, because I’ve walked it, but I looked up the phases of the moon for those days (and asked a friend of mine who’s an astronomer to be sure of its location for my moonlit scene), researched which hymns might have been used for the Easter Service (and hopefully at Durham Cathedral), and who might have lived at the old mill house by the river. I’ve checked the shape of vent doors on the range in the kitchen, whether or not they would have had bottled beer (yes), and what St Cuthbert’s shrine would have looked like then rather than now.

But I can’t finish the book because I don’t have a proper railway timetable for that year, which has made some people laugh at me and shake their heads. Too bad — if it isn’t real to me, I can’t write it, and whether the readers know it’s fact or not, I get a thrill out of knowing that it really was Mrs Duncan who ran the Durham County Advertiser and that the fever ward of the workhouse was added on in summer and so must have been being built in April.

And that’s what happens when a historian writes fiction.


*George Walker, The Durham Directory and Alamanack for 1869, Durham County Record Office (subsequently ‘DRO‘), Londonderry Estate Archives, D/Lo/J 59


Do I want to know the author?

As a budding author (can you be a “bud” at my age?), I read a lot about what I’m supposed to do. Chief among the advice is to have a “social media presence” and an “email list”. I’m supposed to populate these forms of communication with tidbits and upcoming writings and fluff, designed to keep me connected to my “readers”.

Since I’m not published yet, that’s seriously on the back burner, but now I think of it when I look at my favorite authors. Anne Perry, Kate Morton, Rachel Cusk — I love their work. Am I on their mail lists? Do I keep up with their social media? It never occurred to me.

So tonight I’m hovering a finger over a button to join one of my favorite author’s email lists, and I’m thinking about it.

Many years ago, I had to deal with Rousseau. I loved his work. Then I found out that this author of one of our great books on natural education, “Emile”, and a supporter of mothers breastfeeding their own babies in a time of wet-nurses, had abandoned his own children to foundling hospitals.

It’s possible to discover horrible things about the authors (and artists and presidents and saints and celebrities) we admire. Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slave. Emily Dickinson drowned kittens. Charles Dickens was monstrous to his wife. Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein were womanizers. Andy Warhol was not only weird, he was cruel. Bernardo Bertolucci . . . well, you know.

About half the celebrities I’ve met and worked with have been rude. People are just people. I don’t think I’d enjoy an evening with George Bernard Shaw, Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, or Woody Allen. That doesn’t mean I don’t admire their work.

The big question, of course, is the extent to which we can, and should, separate someone’s life from their deeds. On the one hand, I know you can be a slaveholder and still be a good person. On the other, I might refuse to buy products from someone whose actions I find morally reprehensible. But by and large, I fall on the side of separation. People’s ideas may be universal and immortal — people themselves are fallible, and finite.

So, back to living authors. It feels callous that I’m not really interested in them, in who they are, their foibles and personal life. But I’m not — I’m interested in their creations, the products of their minds, the characters and stories they devise. I’ll follow what they publish because I want to read their work, and I’m happy to read or tune in for gems about writing if they’ve a mind to share.

But some of the things I’ve been told (don’t have a publicity photo with your chin on your hand, be sure to post pictures of your pets, talk about your hobbies) have nothing to do with my writing. Perhaps such trends are just indicative of today’s societal expectations in a time where emotion triumphs over reason and everything is personal, although I suspect it’s long been a problem — this promo by Hemingway is awkward enough that Scribner’s must have had a lot of trouble getting him to say the right things.

I think I’ll give the email list a miss.

Wells and Doyle in Southsea

In May of 1881, 15-year-old H. G. Wells was an apprentice at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in Southsea (Portsmouth). It was a large, popular shop at 9 Kings Road, a place for men to get good clothes and other necessities. Wells was miserable there, living in the basement with other indentured lads and doing duties he was completely unsuited for. His experience there was the source of his novel Kipps.

In June of the following year, a 23-year-old named Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Portsmouth, looking to set up a medical practice. He did so at No.1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, in Southsea. He had tried to make his way in Plymouth, but according to this fell out with his partner, and came to Southsea with little money and no connections.

Kings Road, where the Drapery Emporium was, turns into Elm Grove as you walk along — they are two branches of the same street. Southsea was not that large in the 1880s. As Doyle’s practice expanded, it is very likely he would have required clothing suiting his station, and thus it is entirely possible he would have met the young clerk at Hyde’s.

In the summer of the following year, Wells finally convinced his mother to let him abandon the apprenticeship and left town, while Doyle remained and became active in public life there.

There is no evidence that Wells and Doyle met in Southsea, and neither mentions having done so to my knowledge. That isn’t surprising since neither was much of anybody yet. Doyle was spending his frequently unoccupied time writing stories.

They did meet later, and even were members together on the Allahakbarries, a literary cricket team founded by J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) in 1890 that wasn’t very good but contained people like G. K. Chesterton and P. G. Wodehouse, and other authors who liked using their initials. (Wells was a member but refused to play, which is odd since his father was a famous bowler.)

On a sideline, it was reading J.M. Barrie’s book When a Man’s Single (1888) that inspired Wells to stop writing articles about science teaching and instead write fiction stories for money.

On another sideline, A. A. Milne was also on the Allahakbarries cricket team. He was the son of J.V. Milne, who had run Henley House School and had employed H. G. Wells as science master in 1889. A. A. Milne was one of Wells’s pupils.

Building a better syllabus in Canvas

While I haven’t written a post on Canvas in awhile, I’ve been invited to co-host a workshop on creating an equity-based syllabus that can be accessed from outside the learning management system. Doing this makes sense for all sorts of reasons:

  • Students who are curious but not yet enrolled can see what the class entails
  • If there’s a lag time between enrollment and being able to log in to the LMS (at our college it can be overnight), there’s something to point new students to
  • The syllabus can be shared with colleagues
  • The syllabus can be livened up and used for other purposes: introduction, sending a friendly greeting, etc.

The original idea for the workshop was to use Google Sites to create the external syllabus. It’s easy to use and lets you embed video, plus it creates a phone-friendly page. But I’ve been creating my syllabuses (yes, it’s Greek, not Latin) for years in Google Docs, which I can then embed on the Syllabus page in Canvas. That way, whenever I make a change on the Google Doc, it shows also in Canvas.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t make doing these things easy. Google Sites cannot be embedded in Canvas. And Google Docs doesn’t let you embed video.

But the Syllabus page in Canvas itself is just a web page, and there is a way to make it visible without logging in to Canvas. It allows video to be recorded right on the toolbar, text to be formatted, links to be added, etc.

But the trick is in Canvas settings:

If you set the visibility to Course (or Institution), you can still use Customize to make the Syllabus page public. Then if you give students the Syllabus page URL, they can see the page even if they’re not logged in to Canvas.

The only caveat is that the class must be Published. But even if you set the class so that students can’t see the rest of the pages before the start date, this works: the Syllabus page is visible from outside.

A couple of hints:

  • On the Canvas Syllabus page, uncheck the “Show Course Summary” box. The course summary adds a huge list of every assignment in your class, when they already have that in the To Do list, and makes your syllabus huge, so get rid of it.
  • Use a shortening service, like tinyurl.com, to make your syllabus link smaller. Instead of https://miracosta.instructure.com/courses/28100/assignments/syllabus, you could share the link https://tinyurl.com/history100.

Copying and pasting syllabus text (don’t make it too long — no one will read it, and you can have a separate Information page or a FAQ instead inside the class), then adding a recorded friendly greeting, takes very little time. Making things better doesn’t have to be hard.

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part III

Recently the New York Times published an article, “For Literary Novelists, the Past is Pressing“, about the revival of historical fiction. In examining its recent popularity, Jonathan Lee mentions novels that apply today’s culture wars and public moral codes to the past, such as novels showing the horrors of slavery, and puts forth the idea that our own time is so unsettling that putting a story in the past avoids difficult issues from the present. We might wish to encounter historical wrongs, but it’s easier to do it from a distance. He closes with: “A new generation of writers may find in the past better ways to capture the present.”

Using history to explain the present isn’t doing history, of course, not like academic historians do. Historians use history to explain the past. We want to know how the people of the 19th century, for example, explained themselves.

But the topics that may interest us do originate in the present. They must — historians live in the present, and it is impossible not to be interested in the issues of our own time. But the curiosity of historians is about how people lived then, what they believed, how they behaved, what they wanted from life. Right?

Not exactly. The discipline of history has trends and schools, and has changed over time. Historians often have axes to grind, and become historians precisely because they have a beef. When a historian creates one interpretation (such as the idea that the American Constitution represented intellectual enlightenment), another comes along with a different interpretation (that it represents the interests of wealthy landholders). There are conservative, Marxist, and classically liberal historians, and they work within these philosophical paradigms.

Does this mean, as Henry Ford was quoted as saying, that history is bunk? That it’s all fiction anyway, because historians are biased?

Not exactly. Bias is natural, and it is the conflict of various biases that moves knowledge forward. Historians are trained to consider the evidence, all the evidence, even if they don’t like it. They are trained to analyze each other’s arguments in order to counter them. Some do this better, or more thoroughly, than others. And most do it within the context of the bias they’ve been taught.

Unfortunately, right now historians are being trained in post-modernist approaches which counter the Enlightenment-based focus on reason and evidence. This undermines the entire idea of doing history, and leads to an emphasis on emotion, intuition, and zealotry. Wrongs must be corrected, evil must be exposed and uprooted. How people might have felt is more important than what they said or did. It’s a reflection of the current post-modern societal ideas, which question whether facts are real and wants to punish people who think the “wrong” way.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

This is an unfortunate trend for history, but it’s a great trend for fiction. Historical fiction allows writers to emote all they want about the past (or about the present set in the past), and for readers to enjoy feeling empathetically horrified and morally superior. Combine this with the escapism of binge-reading series of books featuring fatally flawed emotional characters, and the ease of loading a zillion novels onto ones device, it’s no wonder historical fiction is becoming more popular.

Johnathan Lee is right: the carthartic effect of setting our polarized views in the past is selling books. It’s a shame it isn’t doing anything truly historical.

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part II

As I continue my new avocation of writing (thus far unpublished) novels, there is no avoiding history. Even my first book, a novella, was split between the present and the 1880s, and the mysteries are set in 1860s. This makes them historical fiction, or historical mysteries.

One of the reasons I began writing mysteries is because I read some novels that I believe misused the historical past, stories that could have taken place in any time, including the present. For these authors, the past just seemed to be a setting, where you could use hansom cabs and hoop skirts for effect. In some of these novels, people spoke anachronistically, but even when they didn’t the possible sounds and smells of the place simply weren’t there.

To me that’s the difference between using the past as a setting and setting a story in the past. My books are set deeply within the past. The reader should have a sense of what things were like in 19th century London. It’s not enough to have the clop-clopping of horses and the misting of fog. I want the click of door latches, the smell of tanneries, the gray light on London Bridge. The street names and omnibus routes must be correct for 1863, not 1880 or 2020. I want to show the city being torn up for sewers, the distinctions in how people of different classes might behave, the way women in skirts dealt with toileting. And it all must be based on fact, on historical research.

I recently joined the Historical Novel Society, and in the first week on the Facebook group there was an argument about how accurate a writer of historical fiction needed to be, and another about whether the show Bridgerton was worth watching. It was distressingly easy for me to take sides.

I would say “no” on Bridgerton, but that has nothing to do with the color-blind casting. In my research I keep stumbling on evidence of both women and people with various differences having more agency and being more visible than is portrayed in the movies and television shows of the last century. So it’s possible that some of the things that don’t seem “real” (a black man hob-nobbing with other upper middle-class snobs) might actually be more accurate for the time.

A great deal of what we “know” about the past comes from prescriptive documents, works designed to convince people to correct their behavior. I try to teach my students that when they read a law code punishing adultery, theft, and trespassing, there must be a great deal of adultery, theft, and trespassing going on in the society. Otherwise there’d be no need for a law.
So if you find a lot of literature telling women that their role is to be very good at managing a household, you can be damn sure that a lot of women aren’t doing that but are doing other things. We are discovering that more and more artworks and literature were created by women using the names of men, for example.

No, my problem with Bridgerton, and many contemporary historical novels, is that the historical setting is ignored as an influence on the characters, and sometimes even on the plot.

I think I first noticed this trend in the movie Elizabeth, the 1998 film with Cate Blanchett. As I was watching her being attacked by her poisoned gown, I was thinking wait, what about the motives of the assassin? How can we tell this story without the religious or political context? It seemed to be all about the emotions and reactions of the characters. We could have been in 12th century France or early 20th century China. It could have been Macbeth. The Emotions of Elizabeth was not what I came to see.

Movies and books that use the past just as a setting for telling a story are not, to me, historical fiction. They’re just fiction. In the next post, I’ll talk about the recent revival in the popularity of historical fiction, and where it might come from.

Part III

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part I

This post will be the first in a series examining the differences between history and historical fiction.

Surely that’s ridiculous, you say. History is what really happened. Historical fiction is just made-up stories. Alas, as I tell my students about historical events, “it’s more complicated than you think”.

First, history as an academic discipline is not what really happened. We have a limited historical record for a particular era, a mix of archaeology, material culture, and written work (diaries, newspapers, letters, etc.). We have lists of events that most people agree actually occurred, because we can trace the lead-up to them and the impact afterward. What historians do is interpret the historical record, trying to create meaning that informs us about the past.

If we say something about that past (such as most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took an omnibus or cab) then we must possess the factual support for that. If we say that most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took a cab because they were too poor to pay for a cab, that’s a conclusion based on facts about wages and cab fares, but it’s an interpretation. Another historian could say that no, most workers walked because the streets were so jammed with traffic that if they hadn’t walked they would have been late for work. That historian could back up his/her thesis with facts.

London Bridge, 1890

History is a living discipline because for each historian who creates a thesis with meaning, another will come along and try to defeat or amend it by either using different sources or the same sources from a different perspective. The growth of historical knowledge through these arguments is called historiography.

So if history as a discipline isn’t what really happened, then is historical fiction just made up stories? Yes, it can be, but some writers of historical fiction prefer to create a more authentic atmosphere by engaging in research. In some cases this is the same kind of research historians do: finding 1860 guidebooks showing cab fares, articles in the Times about London traffic, Dickens novels where characters talk about their wages. But instead of participating in the academy of ideas, fiction writers are doing this research to make their plot or characters more real.

Some do deep research, on par with academic historians. Others do just enough to give their story some realistic elements, and they are happy to change things or people if the historical information doesn’t suit their purposes. The historical facts, in other words, are at the service of the story the author is trying to tell, not the quest for some sort of historical truth.

A really good non-fiction book

In non-fiction (books filed in the History section at the bookstore), the recent trend is to try to make it more exciting for readers, to read “like fiction”. Now anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction will tell you there are many talented non-fiction authors who do intensive research in their subjects even when they aren’t historians. They also try to have a lively writing style, and recently many non-fiction books contain more speculation than a historian would accept. Some even put dialogue in the mouths of historic figures, or say things like “Benjamin Franklin never had a dog, but it he had it would have been a retriever”. This approach comes so close to fiction that it blurs the borders between history and historical fiction.

So the division isn’t clear-cut. In the next post, I’ll talk about the use of the historical past as a setting for fiction.

Part II


Never on Sunday

or at least not until the 1890s at the National Gallery.

I had just completed the first draft of Murder at an Exhibition, the second book of what should eventually become the Tommy Jones Mystery trilogy. I’m working now on the editing.

Deeply embedded in the plot is the idea that the National Gallery in London was closed on Sundays. The murder victim has special permission to be there on Sundays, and is murdered there on the quiet. The action takes place in 1863.

As a fiction writer, I admit to keeping much rougher notes than I do as a historian. I had looked through a couple of guidebooks of the era, and had confirmed, to my satisfaction, that the gallery was open six days a week, with four for the public and two for students only (which two days differed by guidebook, strangely). No source mentioned Sundays, so I kept writing.

Then a wrench appeared in the works.

I love how many free lectures there have been during the pandemic, and I recently attended one about the Victorian art world. The speaker noted that in 1845, the National Gallery opened on Sundays to encourage working people, who worked six days a week. The speaker also said that the grubbiness of the working people caused problems, leading to a Select Committee meeting in 1850.

The speaker used this image:

This shows working men viewing pictures at the gallery in 1870. I know that the National Gallery offered many free days, so there’s no reason this had to be on a Sunday. But it made me uncomfortable. Her talk led me to believe that perhaps the National Gallery had been open on Sundays in 1863, ruining my story.

Members of the Facebook group for the Historical Novel Society helped me out, not just with their own information but their encouragement to contact the National Gallery, where a wonderful assistant actually sent me their record of opening hours for their whole history as they knew it. No Sundays in 1863.

But the speaker had been so sure. Could there have been a trial run? I researched through Hansard, which has the debates of the House of Commons, and found much arguing about opening both the National Gallery and the British Museum on Sundays, but no conclusion. So I posted at the Victoria listserv, a place where every Victorianist who’s anybody meets up. Several members helpfully responded with books and records. I’m now 99.9% sure the Gallery was closed.

Yes, I know, if it’s this much trouble for me to confirm, I should be comfortable just showing it was closed on Sundays. It’s a fictional work, not a research project. Except that all my fictional works are research projects. Whether it’s important to the reader or not, it is ridiculously important to me that the facts be accurate, and if they’re not accurate then I’d better have a damned good reason why, and an Author’s Note. That’s just how I roll.

H.G. Wells, Sir Edward Sassoon, and telegraphy

Shortly after attending Alban O’Brien’s excellent talk on the Great War poet Siegfried Sasson, I was reading H.G. Wells’s The Sea Lady (as one does) from 1901 and came upon this dialogue:

“And in the next there’s the Sea Lady.”
“I thought she——”

“She’s a mermaid.”
“It’s no objection. So far as I can see, she’d make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she’d be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he’ll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn’t be better. Harry could dish him easily. That’s all right. Why shouldn’t he have her?”

I had to do some research. The “Sassoon man” must have been Sir Edward, Member of Parliament for Hythe and a promoter of cable telegraphy. Here’s a speech to Parliament in May 1900 demonstrating his enthusiasm.

Sassoon was a supporter of the All Red Line, an informal name for the high-tech communications network connecting the British Empire. A map from a 1903 book about the topic gives an idea of the system:

In his humorous novel, Wells was enjoying the idea that his character could defeat Sassoon for the Hythe seat, not as the better candidate, but as a champion of mermaids against deep-sea telegraphy cables. Surely Sasson’s deep-sea cables would threaten the mermaid habitat, and to have a real mermaid for his wife could garner sympathy and score votes against the opposition!

But there are some who would say that Edward Sassoon was a visionary, even if mermaids would not have liked him. He was rich, certainly. The Sassoons were already a wealthy family, and he had married a Rothschild. But he also seems to have had some concern for the public good. In 1910, he would try to get wireless telegraphy made compulsory on passenger ships. He failed, so it was a good thing the Titanic had a Marconi on board. After the Titanic sunk, Sassoon’s idea was made into law.

But his significance goes beyond using technology to make things happen. In the Journal of the Society of Arts (1900), Sassoon laid out his argument about why the government’s involvement was necessary when it came to the telegraph. Sassoon was able to see the place of telegraph in the history of communications. He argued that in the case of the railways, and then electricity and gas, private enterprise began the venture but then public interest had to be asserted against excessive rates, so why not the telegraph? Private companies had expanded and bought up smaller companies, creating monopolies. The public interest was manifest in the expansion of the technology, so government must step in.

This should sound familiar as today’s internet communications apps, ISPs, and companies effectively create monopolies on today’s communications. Sassoon’s public interest, however, had nothing to do with today’s focus on individual freedom. He saw the government’s involvement in the telegraph as necessary for cementing the British Empire together:

The moral connection of these outlying portions of the empire with the Mother Country has been sealed by and consecrated with blood, the way has been paved for confirming the strong sentiment thus evoked by establishing still firmer the bonds of material and common interests, which, as in this work-a-day world, form the only stable foundations, on which to secure the permanence and solidity of this vast Imperial confederation.

Sassoon would not be a popular figure today because he believed in the Empire, but there is no discounting his understanding of the significance of technology to national and commercial goals.

Edward’s son Philip would succeed him as MP upon his death. Philip served in the Great War as military secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who led the British Expeditionary Force from 1915. Siegfried was, I think, their cousin (the Sassoon family tree is rather complicated). So it all wraps up nicely!

Suspicion: technology and murder on the North London Railway

In 1864, a 69-year-old bank official named Thomas Briggs was murdered on a moving train. In those days, the compartment doors opened only on to the platform, so each compartment had complete privacy.

The deed was discovered when two clerks entered the compartment and found blood, a walking stick, and a hat which had been cut down to half-height. A ways along the line the wounded Briggs was found and carried to a pub where he died of head injuries.

Rewards for information were posted, and a cabman named John Matthews came forward claiming that a man he knew should be suspected.  Franz Müller, a frequent visitor at Matthews’ house, had given Matthews’ 10-year-old daughter a box from a jeweler named Death (a common name, apparently pronounced Deeth), and Matthews remembered this when he saw on a handbill that Death had exchanged a gold chain that might have belonged to Briggs.

Not many of the sources mention that the cabman’s other daughter had been at one time engaged to Müller, but the engagement had been broken off. Matthews claimed this was due to Müller’s temper. Reading through the sources, I found it strange that this reason for enmity was rarely discussed.

By the time police went looking for Müller he had already left, on a sailing ship to America to make his fortune. It had been a planned journey — he had told Matthews goodbye. Police, and Matthews, followed him, taking a steamship. They would thus arrive before Müller and make the arrest, extraditing him back to the UK, and that’s what happened. I could find no explanation for why so much money would be spent on such a journey, when the suspect was only a suspect.

What with the transatlantic chase, the newspapers had plenty of time to speculate and gather information (and rumors and innuendo) about the suspect. By the time he was returned to England, everyone knew who he was and most had already decided he was guilty. A fair trial was pretty much impossible.

One can read the transcript of the trial online, and the story of it in books like Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder, in the broadsheets of the time (below), and in the Notable British Trials volume of 1911. The evidence, although all circumstantial, invites examination. Was the hat left on the train really Müller’s? Why were Müller and Matthews always owing each other money? Was the evidence of the brothel keeper, who said Müller was at her place at the time of the murder, dismissed because of her profession? Could the entire attack really have happened between two stations only minutes apart?

The jury in the Müller case took only 15 minutes to convict, and the judge sentenced him to death. Although a Lutheran minister spent much time with the condemned man, Müller did not confess his crime. Then at literally the last minute he supposedly said he had done it, right before the drop was put on him in one of England’s last public hangings. There was back-patting all round.

Despite the high-powered barristers on both sides, the transcript makes it clear that Müller’s team was by no means as prepared as the prosecution. And as one reads, one begins to suspect a few things. Why did Matthews not come forward before he heard about the reward?  He knew Müller well, and had reason to dislike him — he was hardly a disinterested witness. Was the watch found on Müller the property of Briggs, as testified by experts, or a watch he’d owned for two years, as Müller claimed? Why wasn’t the alibi provided by the brothel keepers believed, with doubt being cast on the accuracy of their clock? Did Müller even have a reason to kill Briggs? None was found, but robbery was said to be the cause. However, although Briggs’ watch and chain were taken, some money was left in the man’s pocket.

And consider the social context. Müller was a foreigner, with an accent, and he was not well-liked. He apparently had a temper, although other witnesses said he was a nice, quiet man. He was a tailor, a lowly profession, and he frequented a brothel, considering one of the girls his sweetheart.

But also consider the technological context. Trains were fairly new as a mode of transport in 1864. They were louder than horse and carriage, traveled on fixed routes, and followed strict timetables. Their advent tore up the traditional landscape, necessitated stations that could be as grand as cathedrals, and hurtled people along at astonishing speeds that some thought would adversely influence physical health. Train carriages were divided by class, and this crime had taken place (as Flanders notes The Times was at pains to point out) in the First Class Carriage. If one could not be safe in a First Class Carriage on a London train, what was the world coming to? People put their daughters on trains to visit relatives. What if trains weren’t safe?

After the trial, the train companies drilled peepholes (colloquially referred to as “Müller lights”) between the compartments so that people could report suspicious activities. Not long afterward, they had to fill them in again, partly because young couples complained they had no privacy (which lets you know what else was going on in the compartments). Eventually compartments would open onto a common corridor, with glass so people could see each other.

History, I believe, is not just the facts and suppositions of the past, but rather the context of everything. The context here is deep and complex. What seems like a straightforward trial and execution brings up issues now that weren’t in the public conscience then, but may have affected how the trial was run. And yet the case is known today mostly for having been the first murder on a moving train, and one of the last executions to take place in public. Knowing how people thought about trains and foreigners may not make the verdict any more conclusive, but it does make it more understandable.


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