The first railway murder
Thefts and crime were common as the new railway network
became popular. But the first murder did not take place until
1864, when Thomas Briggs was killed by Franz Muller.
As early railway travel became popular with the travelling
public, luggage thefts were common and violent robberies occurred
from time to time.
Many opponents of the railways painted a gloomy picture of the
prospect which faced the lone passenger in the unlit carriages.
Trains in those days were not corridor connected, and men were
robbed and women assaulted often enough to provide pessimists and
hostile sections of the press with plenty of material.
The first railway murder, however, did not occur until 1864. It
was one of the most sensational crimes of the century.
The crime scene
On Saturday, 9 July 1864, the 9.50pm train from Fenchurch Street
on the North London Railway arrived at Hackney at 10.11pm.
Two bank clerks entered an empty first class carriage and sat
down, immediately noticing blood in the carriage. They called the
guard who examined the compartment and found blood all over the
cushions and the off-side door. He also found a black beaver hat, a
stick, and a bag.
The guard locked the door, telegraphed Chalk Farm station, and
on arrival there told the stationmaster. The carriage was detached
and sent to Bow for examination and the hat and other articles were
handed to the Metropolitan Police.
Discovery of the victim
At 10.20pm, the driver of a train travelling in the opposite
direction saw something between Hackney Wick and Bow Stations. He
stopped the train and found an unconscious, severely injured
The victim was Thomas Briggs, chief clerk of a bank. He was
nearly seventy years old and died of his wounds the following
The bag and stick found in the compartment were identified as
Briggs’. The hat was not identified and provided an initial clue in
the form of the address of the maker at Crawford Street,
Marylebone. Robbery was evidently the motive for the murder because
Briggs’ gold watch and chain, and gold eye-glasses could not be
The publicity given to this unique crime caused an outcry as
railway passengers campaigned for better protection. The Government
and the bank which employed Briggs offered substantial rewards for
The first important information came from a jeweller named John
Death. He gave a description of a German man, who called at his
shop in Cheapside on 11 July and exchanged a gold chain, later
identified as Briggs’.
A week later, a cabman told police that he found a small
cardboard box bearing the name 'Death' in his home. It had been
given to one of his children by a young German named Franz Muller,
formerly engaged to his eldest daughter. Enquiries showed that
Muller had sailed for New York on 15 July.
The cabman also stated that the black beaver hat found in the train
was one purchased by him on behalf of Muller at the Marylebone
address. He gave police a photograph of Muller and Death, the
jeweller, identified him as the man who had exchanged the gold
Muller was linked with the property stolen from the murdered man
and with the hat found in the compartment. A warrant for his arrest
was granted by the chief magistrate at Bow Street and on 19 July,
Inspector Tanner and Sergeant Clarke left Euston for Liverpool.
On 20 July they sailed for New York on a steamship and reached
there on 5 August, three weeks before Muller. He was arrested and
searched and in his possession were found the missing watch and a
hat believed to be Briggs’.
Extradition proceedings began on 26 August and on 3 September the
officers left for England with their prisoner.
On 27 October 1864, Muller appeared at the Old Bailey. Evidence
for the prosecution was given by several railway witnesses
including the ticket collector who punched Briggs’ ticket at the
beginning of his fateful journey, the guard of the 9.50pm train,
and the driver who found the body.
Muller’s defence was an alibi – he tried to prove he was elsewhere
at the time of the murder. One defence witness stated he had seen
Briggs in the compartment with two other men, neither of whom he
recognised as the prisoner. Another witness, a prostitute, said
Muller was with her at the material time.
The defence also suggested that the hat left in the compartment
might have belonged to the cabman who could have been the murderer.
Muller, who had a previous conviction for larceny, asserted his
innocence to the end but was found guilty on the strongest possible
evidence. He was publicly executed amid scenes of drunkenness and
disorder which contributed to the ultimate abolition of these
Briggs’ murder was the first to take place on the British railway
and the pursuit across the Atlantic caught the imagination of the
public in much the same way as the Crippen case fifty years
As a direct result of the murder, communication cords that
allowed passengers to contact train staff were installed in all
carriages. If Briggs had been able to pull the communication cord,
he might have been able to save his life.