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 man.
The victim was Thomas Briggs, chief clerk of a bank. He was nearly seventy years old and died of his wounds the following night.
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 found.
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 information.
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 chain.
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 exhibitions.
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 later.
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.