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.


Also published on Medium

4 comments to Suspicion: technology and murder on the North London Railway

  • Lorraine Horn

    Hi Lisa,
    Yet another interesting story which you have written. I was intrigued so I pulled our my copy of The Invention of Murder and re-read the section about this murder. A few things jumped out. I find it curious that Matthews claimed to have purchased the hat for Muller and that he was believed to have done so even with the hat maker backing his story. How could a man, in his financial situation, expend money that way? He had been imprisoned for bankruptcy previously, and was declared bankrupt after the trial. Also, did he not have a motive to point a finger at Muller as he and his daughter had broken off an engagement? Why, when the police took the government steamer to capture Muller, did they take Matthews along? This seems dodgy to me, akin to setting the scene for conviction. You mention that the defense was not well prepared to defend Muller. Have you found any documentation on what they did or how incompetent they were? Sounds as though the authorities needed a quick conviction, they readily accepted the word of Matthews, they did have a bias against foreigners, they did not have sufficient forensic capabilities at that date, and the government had to have a conviction in order to prove that the new mode of transportation was safe, efficient, and worthy of the public’s custom.
    Thanks for another slice of English Victorian life.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Hi Lorraine,

      This was the feeling I got also. When I first discovered the case, looking for a court case that one of my fictional barristers might have worked on, I thought it was just the usual obvious crime. The larger implications, and difficulties I would have had as a juror, jumped out at me. As for evidence, take a look at the transcript itself, the arguments and time they took on the defense. It does seem odd.

  • jmm

    Another reason to idolize the 19th century: sex on a train!

    • Lisa M Lane

      Indeed! It also occurs to me that with windows facing the platform, one would have to enjoy a quickie between stations.