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When the 2pm train from London Bridge arrived at Preston Park Station just outside Brighton on Monday 27 June 1881, a ticket collector saw a man step unsteadily on to the platform from a first class carriage.
He was covered in blood, hatless, without a collar and tie, and very distressed. Mr Percy Lefroy told the collector he had been attacked just before the train entered Merstham Tunnel.
He gave a description of two men who had travelled in the same compartment and said that after receiving a blow on the head he remembered nothing more. The collector saw nobody else alight from the compartment but observed that a piece of watch chain was hanging from the man’s boot.
He pointed this out and the passenger remarked that he had put it there for safety. Lefroy, was sent to the local police station with the platform inspector, while the collector was sent to advise the railway police.
Lefroy made an official complaint at the police station and was then taken to the county hospital for his injuries to be treated. The doctor wanted to detain him but Lefroy insisted upon returning to London where he had an important engagement, even though he had only just arrived in Brighton. However, he returned to the police station first and was interviewed by several officers, including the chief constable.
Lefroy made a statement and offered a reward for the capture of his assailant. He then went to Brighton station. Here, he aroused suspicion of local officials, and was taken into an office and searched. Two counterfeit coins were found in his possession. He denied all knowledge of these.
Meanwhile, the carriage where Lefroy alleged the assault took place was examined. Three bullet marks were found and there was blood everywhere – on the footboard, mat, door handle, and also on a handkerchief and newspaper left in the compartment. There was every sign of a fierce struggle.
In spite of obvious inconsistencies in his story and of the highly suspicious circumstances, neither the Brighton Police, nor the railway police considered it necessary to detain Lefroy. But they were uneasy and although Lefroy was permitted to join a London train, arrangements were made for him to be accompanied by a detective named George Holmes.
While Lefroy and Holmes were travelling back to London, the line was searched. In Balcombe Tunnel, railway staff found the body of an elderly man, later identified as a retired corn merchant named Gold, who lived in Brighton. Gold had been shot and stabbed. A knife smeared with blood was found near his body. He had been robbed of his watch and chain and a considerable sum of money.
News of the discovery was passed along the line and at Three Bridges the station master told Holmes what had happened. Holmes was also instructed by telegram from Brighton not to let Lefroy out of his sight.
By this time, Lefroy was complaining that he wanted to change his clothes and talked Holmes into accompanying him to an address at Wallington, Surrey where a relative kept a boarding house.
When they arrived, Holmes waited outside. He waited a long time and, with his attention otherwise engaged, Lefroy left the house and disappeared.
A countrywide search was made for Lefroy and his description was published in all the papers. The Daily Telegraph made newspaper history by publishing the portrait of a wanted man for the first time.
The inquest on Gold was opened on 29 June and a verdict of wilful murder against Lefroy was returned. The railway company offered a substantial reward for information leading to his arrest.
Great interest was taken by the public and Lefroy was at last found on 8 July at a house at 32 Smith Street, Stepney. He had kept the blinds down in his room all day and gone out only at night.
Bloodstained clothing was found in his room and since he had already been identified as a man who had exchanged some counterfeit coins and also pawned a revolver, the evidence against him was overwhelming.
Lefroy was tried at Maidstone Assizes before Lord Chief Justice Coleridge. The jury found him guilty after a retirement of ten minutes. Evidence was given by a number of railway witnesses including Holmes, the booking clerk who issued a ticket to Lefroy, the guard of the train, the ticket collector at Preston Park, and also by a woman living at Horley who saw two men struggling violently in a train as it passed her cottage.
Lefroy (whose real name was Mapleton) was hanged at Lewes on 29 November, 1881. At the time of the murder he was desperately short of money and went to London Bridge for the purpose of robbing a passenger. He had hoped to find a lady who would yield to threats but he met a courageous old gentleman who compelled him to murder.