It was just after 10pm on July 9, 1864 that Alfred Eakin was driving a train towards Fenchurch Street Station when he saw 69-year old city banker Thomas Briggs lying beside the tracks. Eakin stopped his train and checked to see if Briggs was still alive and moved him to the nearest safe place, the ‘Mitford Castle’ pub (nowadays named the ‘Top O’The Morning’). A doctor was summoned, but it was no use. Thomas Briggs sealed his place in criminal history by being the first person murdered aboard a train.
Once the doctor had examined Briggs and Briggs had secured his unwilling footnote in criminal history by actually dying, the police were quickly summoned. After talking to the doctor and examining the body it was obvious that a murder had been committed. Police had a body and soon they had a crime scene when a train pulled into Hackney Station (Briggs’s intended destination) and one compartment got everybody’s attention. The seats were covered with bloodstains, there were bloodstains on the window containing fragments of human brain and police found a blood-stained walking stick and a cheap hat. Driver Eakin had given Thomas Briggs a place in crime history and the hat would secure one for Franz Muller, albeit unwillingly on Muller’s part.
The walking stick belonged to Briggs, The hat didn’t. Also missing was Briggs’s gold watch and chain (a fragment of chain was still attached to his waistcoat) although five pounds (a large sum to most London folk at the time) had been left in Briggs’s pocket. Police now had a murder, a victim and a crime scene. Given that Briggs had been robbed they also suspected a motive. After offering a reward of 300 pounds, a massive reward for the time (around 5 years earnings for an ordinary working man) they soon had a witness, a suspect and the suspect’s photograph. The murder caused panic among rail passengers, immense pressure to catch the killer, a Transatlantic chase and one of Britain’s last public executions. It was also one of the first where a suspect was identified through their mug-shot.
The witness was a cab driver (horse-drawn, obviously) named Jonathon Matthews. Matthews wasn’t what you’d call a good citizen. He had serious debts, had done time for theft and was so indebted that most of the 300 pound reward was immediately claimed from him by his creditors/ That said, your average Mafioso wouldn’t be in line for a Junior G-Man badge and that doesn’t make their testimony any less credible. The fact that Matthews only came forward after the huge reward was offered didn’t reflect on his credibilitiy either, although it didn’t do much to show his sense of civic duty.
Matthews gave lead investigator Inspector Tanner crucial information. He claimed that the hat found at the crime scene looked exactly like a hat belonging to a friend named Franz Muller. Matthews was sure because he owned a similar hat which Muller had liked and asked Matthews if he could buy a similar one. He also said that Muller had given him an almost-perfect gold watch chain as a present and it came in a gift box, a box which Matthews had given to his daughter. Matthews was also able to supply police with one of Muller’s personalised calling cards which bore his photograph. These cards were fashionable at the time. A photographic business card was a common sight in London in 1864. Finally, just to seal the deal, Matthews gave them Muller’s address.
The gift box proved equally useful. It bore the name of the jeweller whose shop it came from. Appropriately, his name as John De’ath, pronounced ‘Deeth.’ John Deeth was a jeweller and pawnbroker with a shop in Cheapside. Cheapside being crammed with pawnbrokers, most of whom didn’t mind what they bought, who they bought it from or where the goods themselves had come from, detectives instantly visited Mr De’ath and asked some very pointed questions. De’ath proved more than helpful He. told them a young German had pawned and then redeemed a gold pocket watch. He later identified the young German as Franz Muller. An arrest warrant was promptly issued for Muller and police sent to his lodgings to make an arrest. Muller had disappeared.
Once more, the mercenary Matthews supplied the missing evidence. He told detectives that he didn’t know where Muller was, but that Muller had told Mrs. Matthews he was going to make a fresh start in America. Inquiries revealed that Muller had gone to America aboard an old-style sailing ship, the ‘Victoria.’ Muller’s choice of ship helped seal his doom. Inspector Tanner, with two other officers and Matthews, boarded the much-faster steamship ‘City of Manchester.’ Despite having left England days after Muller Inspector Tanner arrived three whole weeks ahead of Muller. By the time Muller docked in New York expecting to begin his new life free from police attention, Tanner was waiting with two NYPD detectives at the dockside. Tanner was outside his jurisdiction so his New York colleagues made the actual arrest. Muller was held to await an extradition hearing and his personal possessions were confiscated. The search of his luggage turned up the missing gold watch and another hat.
The hat was especially interesting. It had originally belonged to Briggs and was a tall top hat not looking anything like the hat found in the train compartment. The tall hat had also been cut down by half, with the top of the hate sewn carefully back on to hide the missing portion. It just so happened that the stitching was very neat and the cutting very precise. It wasn’t lost on Inspector Tanner that Franz Muller had been earning a pretty slim wage as a tailor. It probably didn’t help Muller’s claims of innocence that the hat found in the compartment was proved to be the hat Matthews had bought for his German acquaintance. The hat in the compartment was Muller’s own.
Muller had left England in relative obscurity. He returned as one of the most notorious men in the country. A large, rowdy crowd awaited him at Liverpool Docks and an even larger, rowdier crowd greeted his arrival in London. He was taken to the Magistrates Court and remanded at the infamous Newgate Prison to await trial. He’d be leaving Newgate feet first.
The trial was virtually a formality. It lasted only 3 days and the jury took only 15 minutes to deliver a verdict of guilty as charged. Even with distinguished defense lawyer John Parry’s record for securing spectacular legal victories in hopeless-looking cases there was no real doubt as to the outcome. With the verdict quickly delivered the judge immediately donned the traditional ‘Black Cap,’ a square of black silk worn as a sign of mourning to a condemned prisoner and recited what Londoners called ‘the dread sentence’:
“Franz Muller, the sentence of this Court is that youl be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be cut down and buried within the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul…”
Muller’s appeal failed and even a formal request from King Wilhelm I of Prussia for the execution to be called off made no difference. The British public wanted an example made and neither judge or Home Secretary were willing to consider a reprieve. On November 14, 1864 Franz Muller was led from his Newgate cell along what today’s Londoners call ‘Birdcage Walk.’ At the time it was called ‘Deadman’s Walk’ as it led from the condemned cells to the gallows. Franz Muller was about to become the first murderer executed for murder on a railway. He was also one of the last convicts to be publicly executed in Britiain and over 50,000 people came to watch.
Muller’s case, already so unusual, managed to save its biggest twist for last. After being condemned to die Muller had continued to firmly deny his guilt. According to Muller it was all a terrible mistake, despite the weight of evidence against him. To prepare him for his execution Muller had been allowed a German-speaking Lutheran priest as his spiritual advisor, a Doctor Cappel. Cappel had spent hours every day with Muller, consoling him and trying to secure a confession without getting anywhere. Now, with 50,000 people watching and Muller himself standing on the gallows, his arms and legs strapped tightly to his body, the rope around his neck and the hood over his head, Cappel asked him one last time in German whether he was guilty. Seconds before the trapdoors dropped Muller replied, aslo in German:
“Ich habe es getan.” …‘I have done it.”
Muller’s legacy lives on. British trains soon began carrying the ‘communication cord’ that passengers can pull to stop a train in an emergency. Today the emergency cord is a standard fitting on trains the world over. Carriage design also changed. Instead of single compartments that could only be accessed by getting on or off a train, rows of seats with an aisle between them became standard on trains everywhere. They still are. Older carriages with the sealed single compartments all had to have peepholes installed in the partitions between compartments. And the peepholes earned what nickname?