Franz Műller - Britain's first railway murder.


There was considerable public concern about the safety of train travel in the 1860’s so a murder occurring on the railway was headline news.  The person convicted of this crime was a young German called Franz Műller, age 23, who had originated in Cologne and was struggling to make a living as tailor in London.  At the time of the murder he was lodging in Hackney in east London. Click here for photo.


The crime.

The victim was sixty nine year old Mr. Thomas Briggs who was the chief clerk at the bank of Messrs. Robarts, Curtis, and Co., of Lombard Street.  He was travelling home to Hackney Wick from Fenchurch Street station by the 9.45 p.m. North London Railway, a twenty minute journey, on Saturday the 9th of July 1864, having dined with his niece, Caroline Buchan and her husband at their home in Peckham.  At the inquest Caroline stated that her uncle had left their house at around 8.30 p.m. and was sober.  Her husband had accompanied him to the bus stop and was able to confirm that Mr. Briggs had his walking cane, a black bag, his hat and a gold pocket watch on a chain.


Two bank clerks, Harry Vernez and Sidney Jones, were travelling home and got into a first class carriage at Hackney and noticed that it was empty but for a black bag and that there was blood on the window, a seat and the floor.  They alerted the guard, Benjamin Aimes, who discovered a blood stained hat and a walking cane.  Aimes telegraphed his superior, Mr. Greenwood and having locked the compartment proceeded with the train to Chalk Farm where Mr. Greenwood also examined the carriage and took possession of the items.  In the meantime, a body had been discovered on the tracks by the crew of a passing locomotive between Bow and Hackney Wick (also known as Victoria Park) stations, with severe head injuries at around 10.20 p.m.  They alerted PC Edward Dougan who took charge of the scene.  At this point, Mr. Briggs was still alive but unconscious and was taken to a nearby pub, the Mitford Arms in Cadogan Terrace where he was attended by a Dr. Brereton.  Sadly, he never recovered consciousness and died at 11.45 the following evening in his own home in Clapton Square leaving a wife and daughter, both called Mary.  Police Inspector Kerressey visited the house and found that his gold pocket watch and chain were missing, but strangely there was quite an amount of money still on him. It is thought that his assailant exited the train at Hackney Wick station.

There was a significant amount of blood on the seat of the train compartment indicating that Mr. Briggs had been attacked therein, prior to being robbed of his watch and chain and thrown from the moving train.  Mr. Briggs’ walking cane may well have been the weapon used as there was a considerable amount of blood on it.  Further injury was caused by the fall from the moving train onto the ballast below.


A suspect emerges.

Jonathan Matthews was a cabdriver who had known Műller for around two years and on hearing about the murder had become suspicious of Műller, whom he knew had gone to America three days earlier. On the 18th of July Matthews went to the police, taking a box from Death's jewellers in Cheapside that Műller had given to his younger daughter, and was able to provide a photograph of him. Mr. Briggs’ chain was found by the police at the jeweller’s shop, the owner, Mr. John Death, remembering that it had been brought on the 11th of July for exchange by a young man with a German accent, who bought a cheaper one and with the difference bought a ring both of which were packed up in a box bearing the shop’s name.

Despite the huge publicity surrounding the case Matthews stated in court that he had only heard about the murder nine days after it was committed as he did not read newspapers regularly. A £300 reward had been offered for information leading to an arrest.  He later gave evidence that he had purchased the hat found in the train after Műller took a liking to a similar one that he himself had.


The police went to Műller’s address in Park Terrace and showed the hat found in the carriage to Műller’s landlady Mrs. Ellen Blyth.  She confirmed that it was Műller’s and told the police that he had left her household on the 14th of July. In fact enquiries revealed that he had emigrated on a sailing ship, “The Victoria”, bound for New York early in the morning of the 15th of July.  The ticket for this passage cost just £4.  Mrs. Blyth had not noticed anything strange about Műller’s behaviour on the Sunday after the murder, nor had she seen any blood on his clothes which she washed for him.



There was sufficient circumstantial evidence to obtain an arrest warrant which was issued on the 19th of July by the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court. Chief Inspector Richard Tanner and his sergeant, George Clarke, together with Jonathan Matthews and John Death, took a faster steamship, “The SS City of Manchester” on the 22nd of July and arrived in New York on the 5th of August, two weeks before Műller got there.  Tanner boarded the Victoria and was able to identify Műller.  He organised an impromptu identity parade from which John Death picked out Műller, who was now arrested and after some negotiation with the American authorities, extradited to Britain on September the 3rd to stand trial.  Mr Briggs’ hat and watch were discovered in Műller’s trunk, the “stove pipe” hat having been cut down and otherwise modified but still easily identifiable as the one Mr. Briggs had been wearing by the makers label inside, Dignace of 18 Royal Exchange.  The group arrived back in London on the 17th of September.



Műller came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 24th of October 1864 before Mr. Baron Martin.  The Solicitor General, Mr. Sergeant Ballantine led for the prosecution with Mr. Sergeant Barry and his team forming the defence.  The prosecution presented the evidence outlined above.  On the third day of the trial the defence made their opening arguments.  A Mr. Thomas Lee who knew Mr. Briggs said that he saw two men in the carriage with Mr. Briggs, one whom he described as stout with light whiskers and the other tall and dark.  Neither fitted Műller’s description.  However Lee had not thought this worth reporting to the police at the time.  Műller claimed that he was visiting his girlfriend, Mary Ann Eldred in Camberwell at the time of the crime.  Defending counsel, Mr. Beard who had been briefed by the German Legal Protection Society was able to produce a telegram delivered to May Ann’s landlady showing that Műller had told May Ann of the proposed visit.  However the jury were not swayed by the defence and retired at 2.45 p.m. on the third day of the trial, taking just 15 minutes to find Műller guilty.

A full transcript of the trial can be found here.



On Monday the 7th of November Műller was informed by the Under Sheriffs, the Ordinary and the Governor of Newgate, Mr. Jonas that his execution had been fixed for Monday the 14th. They exhorted him to use the remaining week to repent and confess but to no avail.  On the 10th of November a deputation from the German Legal Protection Society was received at the Home Office claiming to have new evidence and requesting a stay of execution whilst it was considered. However this was to no avail and on the 12th of November, the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, announced that there would be no reprieve.

On the Sunday night the gallows was drawn out of the prison by two horses and prepared in front of the Debtor’s Door. Műller was hanged outside Newgate at 8 a.m. on Monday the 14th of November 1864 by William Calcraft.  At 7.45 a.m. the bell of St. Sepulchere’s began to toll.  A few minutes before 8 a.m. Műller was led to the Press Room where Calcraft put a leather body belt around his waist to which his arms were strapped.  His wrists were strapped in front and his collar removed before he was led to the gallows.  Here Calcraft placed the noose around his neck and hooked the other end of the rope onto the chain hanging down from the beam.  He drew the white hood over Műller’s head.  On the gallows Műller was questioned by Dr. Louis Cappel, a German speaking priest from London’s German Lutheran Chapel, who at the last moment whilst Calcraft was concluding his preparations, succeeded in obtaining a confession.  Having twice protested his innocence, Műller  finally said “Ich habe es gethan”, literally translated as “I have done it” to which Dr. Cappel replied “Christ have mercy upon your soul” and just a moment before the drop fell Műller said “My God, I feel sure of it.”. Dr. Cappel ran down the steps from the gallows, exclaiming “confessed, confessed, Thank God!” Calcraft withdrew the bolt and Műller dropped a few inches, He was seen initially to be slightly convulsed but quickly became still.

The execution was attended by a large crowd, estimated at 50,000, whose rowdy behaviour was, as had by now become the norm, condemned at least by the Times and the Sporting Times newspapers. A young man and at least two women plus the baby of one of them were injured in the crowd.  A death cast was made and is still in Scotland Yard’s Black Museum. See photo.  Műller’s body was buried within Newgate later in the day.  A broadside on the case was published as was the norm at this time. Click here for photo.
Although 1864 was a busy year for London and Middlesex executions with eight in total, there would only be a further three public hangings outside Newgate after Műller’s, before the passing of the
Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act in 1868.



It is unclear what Műller’s motive was to kill Mr. Briggs.  Simple theft is the most probable one and perhaps he didn’t have time or opportunity to go through Mr Briggs’ pockets and take the money from them.  It seems unlikely that the two got into such a violent quarrel on the short journey.  Sadly we will never know for sure why he did it.


After this incident the railway companies began installing small circular windows between train compartments, which became known as “Műller's lights”. In 1868 the Regulation of Railways Act (Section 22) stipulated that a means of communication must be installed in each carriage of trains that travelled more than 20 miles so that passengers could inform the train crew in the event of an emergency.


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