British Transport Police History Group
In 1840 Richard Mayne created a group of plain-clothes detectives but by 1842, these detectives were able to come into the open.
In the 1860s, 10,000+ miles of railway lines were in the process of redefining Britain. Cheap, efficient travel spread out, connecting distant towns to each other. And the world’s first underground rail in London had opened, bypassing the cluttered horse-drawn traffic. In fact rail travel powered the industrial revolution.
But with this change came a new fear of train travel. The trains were self-contained carriages lit with a single gas light and with no passage between, meaning that each carriage was essentially a locked room between stations.
Banker Thomas Briggs moved his large family from stuffy, polluted London to spacious, leafy Hackney, just 20 minutes by train. Briggs (69) still worked as Head Clerk in the Bank of Robarts in London, commuting daily to work on the North London line. He was 5’9”, a stout standard middle class man who dressed in a waistcoat, silken top hat and carried a heavy cane and leather bag! Now the story, from Dark Histories and Transport Police History Group .
On 9th July 1864, Briggs bought his first class ticket and chatted with the regular ticket collector. At 9:50PM, he boarded the train, settled back, placed his bag and cane down, and travelled home.
Later that night two bank clerks boarded a North London Railway train at Hackney and found their first-class carriage soaked in blood; this was the same carriage Briggs had boarded 4 stops previously. Conductor Benjamin Aimes telegraphed Chalk Farm station where the train was to terminate, and emptied the train.
In the compartment was a walking stick, Briggs’ leather bag and a hat. Meanwhile Alfred Ekin was driving an empty train in the opposite direction, when he noticed a dark shape on the ground. Stopping his train, he headed back to find it and to remove it from the tracks. But he found a man, barely alive. He carried him to the local pub where PC Dougan ran to assist. On searching the body, Dougan removed a diamond ring, cash and letters addressed to Robarts Bank. By 2am, the family had been contacted… then Briggs died. However no one had seen suspicious people leave Hackney Station that night, nor people covered in blood.
The police were looking to quickly resolve the case, to allay fears and to avoid press criticism. So they appointed Inspector Richard Tanner as lead detective. At 31, Tanner was an ambitious, brilliant rising star in the Met.
British Transport Police History Group
A hefty reward for information (£300) was offered. John Death, a Cheapside pawnbroker, had dealt with a watch chain matching the description released by police. Inspector Walter Kerressey visited Death immediately and confirmed that an English speaker with a German accent pawned a chain only 2 days after the murder.
Later, cab driver Jonathan Matthews reported a man who owned a hat matching the Beaver hat found in the carriage. Matthews told of a 25 year old German tailor called Franz Muller who’d immigrated to Britain in 1862, a distant relative by marriage. Matthews’ story was a solid lead, especially since he supplied the police with Muller’s calling card, including photograph and address.
Insp Tanner visited & found that Franz Muller had indeed lodged there for two years; the landlady Mrs Blyth said that the amiable Muller had left 3 days prior (16th July), aboard a slow sailing ship bound for America named Victoria.
So Tanner urgently requested permission to chase Muller across the Atlantic. An arrest warrant was granted and Tanner left for Liverpool that night (20th July), taking Death and Matthews on a much faster City of Manchester steam-ship. Thus the group could land in New York before Muller and await his arrival. But NB this was right in the midst of America’s Civil War (1861–5)!
Luckily the detectives travelled so quickly across the ocean that they had 3 weeks of waiting, time for extradition preparations to be outlined, before Muller’s ship arrived on 5th Aug. After alerting the pilot boats, the Met men waited on the New York docks.
After Victoria docked, Tanner went aboard and waited. The passengers were called for a quarantine check and when Muller responded, Tanner arrested him for Briggs' death. Muller denied it but when the police searched Muller’s cabin, they found both Briggs’ gold watch and a silk top hat.
During the extradition hearing, Muller was defended by Chauncey Shaffer, a flashy solicitor who defended difficult criminal cases. Schaffer unsuccessfully claimed that the extradition proceedings were invalid.
Tanner, Kerressey, Death, Matthews and Muller returned home on 1st Sept aboard Etna, docking in a crowded Liverpool port on 16th Sept. The police charged Muller at Bow St, then took him to Holloway Prison to await trial. The German Legal Protection Society, an organisation of influential German immigrants, paid for Muller’s defence.
In court (27th Oct) the defence attacked the press’ handling of the story before trial. Plus they doubted that Muller could have managed to attack the stout Briggs in minutes, carrying his body and tossing him out. The defence also worried about anti-German prejudices.
The trial lasted for 3 days, then the jury was out for only 15 mins: guilty. So the judge ordered public execution by hanging. Appeals were lodged by the German Legal Protection Society, yet on 14th Nov Muller was hanged on Old Bailey’s scaffold. Matthews collected his reward.
This, the first railway murder in Britain, was successfully, and very speedily handed and the public could relax. And several proposals to make trains safer for passengers were discussed in parliament, and enacted. The case also indicated the commitment that Scotland Yard showed in the first pursuit of a criminal over the Atlantic.
Only later could Scotland Yard use scientific forensic investigative methods .