On the evening of the 9th July 1864 Thomas Briggs, the chief clerk at the firm of Robarts, Curtis, and Company, bankers of Lombard Street, London climbed aboard a first-class compartment on the 9.45 p.m. train from Fenchurch Street Station bound for Hackney. However on arrival at Hackney nothing remained of his presence other than his walking-stick, a leather bag and a black beaver hat, together with a large quantity of blood which in some places lay in pools within the compartment. Later that same evening his almost lifeless body was found by the driver and the stoker of a train returning to London on the railway line between Bow and Hackney stations. His clothes were covered in blood, and he'd suffered multiple lacerations to the head, the most serious of which was a deep wound just above the ear on the left side of the head, where his skull had been fractured. Thomas Briggs was removed to a nearby tavern, but such were the extent of the injuries suffered by a man who was nearly seventy years old at the time, that he died of his wounds on the following night.
Chief Inspector William Tanner of Scotland Yard was placed in charge of the case. He concluded that since both the gold watch and chain and gold spectacles formerly in the possession of Thomas Briggs were now missing that robbery was the motive. It was also established that although the walking-stick and leather bag belonged to Thomas Briggs, the black beaver hat was not his (Briggs habitually wore a top hat) and therefore most likely belonged to his assailant. Investigations revealed the maker of the beaver hat, but proved otherwise of little assistance in identifying its owner, and so the police made the rounds of the London jewelers in the hope that the killer might have sought to dispose of the stolen items. On the 11th July the police called at a shop in Cheapside run by a jeweler named John Death. The appropriately named Mr Death confirmed that he was in possession of a gold chain which was identified as being that of Thomas Briggs. Death explained that he had accepted the chain from a customer in exchange for another gold watch chain and a plain gold finger-ring and gave a description of his customer; "Age thirty; height, 5 ft. 6 or 7 in.; complexion sallow; thin features; a foreigner - supposed German; speaks good English; dress, black frock coat and vest, dark trousers, and black hat."
The real break in the case however came on the 18th July when the police were contacted by a cabman named Matthews. Having read about the case in the newspapers he now believed he had some information of value to Scotland Yard. He told the police of a young German named Franz Müller who had been engaged to his eldest daughter, and further informed them that Müller had visited his house some two days after the murder and produced a box containing a gold chain, which he claimed to have recently purchased. Müller had then given the box to Matthews's little daughter, and Matthews had occasion to later look within the box where he had seen the name and address of Mr. Death. Matthews was able to identify the black beaver hat as the one which he had himself bought for Müller some months ago, and also provided the police with a photograph of Müller. When the police showed the photograph to John Death he readily identified him as the man who had given him Briggs's gold watch chain.
Having now linked Franz Müller to both the property stolen from the murdered man and with the beaver hat found in the compartment, on the 19th July the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street granted a warrant for his arrest. Unfortunately for the police Müller, a tailor by profession who had come to London to seek his fortune, had largely failed in that endeavour and had long since decided to try his hand in the New World. Müller had therefore earlier sailed for New York in the sailing ship 'Victoria' on the 15th July. Undaunted by this news both Inspector Tanner and Sergeant George Clarke made for Liverpool where, on the 20th July, they boarded the 'City of Manchester' which, being a steamship, arrived at New York on the 5th August some three weeks before the 'Victoria'. They were thus able to arrest Müller on his arrival at New York, when a search of his luggage revealed both the missing gold watch and the top hat formerly belonging to Thomas Briggs, although Muller had cut down the crown of the hat by several inches in order to disguise its appearance.
Extradition proceedings were promptly begun on 26th August 1864, but were not as straightforward as they might have been. The United States was engaged in a Civil War at the time, and there was a certain amount of anti-British sentiment around due to the Alabama claims. But in the end extradition was granted and on 3rd September the trio returned to Britain, being greeted on their arrival at Euston on the 17th September by a large and angry crowd which had to be restrained by the local transport police.
The trial of Franz Müller for the murder of Thomas Briggs opened at the Old Bailey on the 27th October 1864 with Mr Baron Martin presiding. The Solicitor General, Robert Collier, appeared for the prosecution and Serjeant John Humffreys Parry for the defence. Müller pleaded not guilty, and whilst the prosecution case was largely based on the chain of evidence outlined above, the defence produced a number of witnesses to support their client's innocence. There was one witness who claimed he had seen Briggs in the compartment on the fateful day with two other men, neither of whom was Müller, whilst they also had an alibi witness in the form of a prostitute who claimed that Müller had been with her at the time of the murder. In answer to the charge that he had been found in possession of Thomas Briggs's watch, Müller explained that he had purchased the watch from a 'man at the docks'. None of which appeared to impress the jury who took a mere fifteen minutes deliberation to pronounce him guilty of murder on the 29th October.
Müller was hanged on the 14th November 1864 in front of Newgate Prison with the German minister in attendance claiming that Müller had confessed at the last minute by saying, "I have done it, and no one else". It seems likely that few members of the crowd of some 50,000 that had turned up to witness the event would have heard, as they were too busy indulging themselves with obscene quips and remarks directed against those present at the scaffold, fuelled by their consumption of alcohol. Indeed such were the scenes of drunkenness and disorder that public opinion began to question the morality of hanging as a form of public entertainment, and the Müller hanging was certainly one of the factors that led to the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act 1868 which thereafter required executions to be carried out behind prison walls.
Of course the case generated considerable publicity at the time, if only because this was the first time in which a murder had been committed in Britain on board a train. This naturally led to widespread concern amongst the public that they too might fall victim to similar murderous outrages at the hands of violent assailants. In order to allay their fears the railway companies began installing small circular windows between train compartments, which very naturally became known as 'Müller’s lights'. They were however soon superseded by the Regulation of Railways Act 1868, Section 22 of which made it compulsory to install a means of communication between the passenger and the train-crew and thus the communication cord was born.
Müller's innovation of the cut-down top hat also enjoyed a brief vogue as the fashionable young gentlemen of the day copied his design and also began wearing similar hats, but perhaps Müller's most significant contribution to posterity was the fact that the phrase 'to muller' entered into East End slang as a synonym for murder and the origin of the modern term 'mullered', which is used in the sense of slaughtered, as in being blind drunk or comprehensively beaten by the opposition.
There was also a spiritualist named Gerald Massey, who was experimenting at the time with the use of planchette writing, and claimed to have received a message from the deceased Thomas Briggs to the effect that, "Muller not guilty; robbery, not murder". Massey therefore concluded that Briggs had in fact died as a result of injuries suffered in falling from the train in an attempt to escape from Müller, rather than being struck by Müller himself and therefore concluded that a conviction of manslaughter would have been more appropriate. Massey wrote a long letter to eight daily papers outlining his arguments, but only the Daily News felt obliged to publish it, and no one took any notice in any case.
Some years later in 1884 Müller’s body was being lifted from its grave in order to make room for another corpse to be buried alongside it, when at some point one of Müller's teeth became dislodged from his skull and was picked up and kept as a souvenir. It was later presented to the Museum of London where it remains to this day.
- Gilda O'Neill, The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London (Viking 2006)
- William Owen Gay, The First Railway Murder, part of a series "Murder in Transit" published in the British Transport Police Journal. Reproduced at
- Murder on the North London Railway - Two news reports from the "Illustrated London News", July 1864. From the Tower Hamlets' Local History website at http://www.mernick.co.uk/thhol/murdernl.html
- David Shaw, Gerald Massey: Chartist, Poet, Radical and Freethinker. (Revised Internet editions published 2005 to 2007) see
- Tooth of Franz Muller: 19th century