Franz Muller and the first railway murder

On July 9, 1864, Thomas Briggs decided to travel on the new train line from Fenchurch Street to Hackney Wick. It was the worst decision of his life and also his last.
Unluckily for 70-year-old Mr Briggs, his sole travelling companion was Franz Muller (pictured right). Before their short trip was over both would enter the annals of criminal history. Muller was to commit the first-ever murder on a British train, Thomas was to be the first victim.
When travellers boarded the train at the old Bow station, they found the carriage empty, save for a black bag, an expensive walking cane, a hat and a huge pool of blood.
Briggs was discovered dying on the track between Hackney Wick and Bow. But of his assailant, there was no sign.
Muller, a 25-year-old German tailor, had failed financially in his homeland and again in London. He was now planning a new life in America. The gold watch and chain he had snatched from Mr Briggs’ was to help pay for his ticket.
It looked an impossible case, but Chief Inspector William Tanner of Scotland Yard thought differently. He traced the stolen chain to a jeweller in Cheapside called John Death.
Death remembered his customer – a young man with a German accent.
The hat gave Tanner another clue. He knew it hadn’t belonged to Briggs and the ace detective managed to trace it to a German tailor, one Franz Muller.
A search of the killer’s lodgings revealed that he had made a hasty getaway – but Mr Tanner was in luck again.
A friend of Muller’s at the lodging house told the policeman that the German was on board the passenger ship Victoria, steaming towards a new life in New York.
Mr Tanner and Sergeant George Clarke raced to Southampton and boarded the City of Manchester.
The quicker ship reached New York two weeks before the Victoria and the pair simply had to sit back and wait for their quarry to arrive.
The persistent pair found the gold watch in Muller’s luggage along with Briggs’ hat, which the killer had snatched by mistake as he fled the murder scene.
Hanged for a hat
Muller’s trial opened at the Old Bailey on October 27, 1864. Mr Baron Martin presided and the Solicitor General, Sir Robert Collier, had the job of prosecuting the German.
His counsel, Serjeant John Humffreys Parry, was a redoubtable defence lawyer but even he could not argue with the evidence of the Briggs Hat, which Muller had cut down by several inches in order to disguise its appearance.
The hat’s fame spread well beyond the Bailey. The new style became a fashion item and was adopted by fashionable young gentlemen of the day.
That was probably of little comfort to Muller. The jury found the evidence so compelling that they took just 15 minutes to reach a guilty verdict.
Muller was hanged on November 14, 1864, but his fame didn’t end there. Fears over the safety of single carriages were so great in the wake of the crime that the railway companies began to cut peepholes between compartments which became known as “Muller Lights.”

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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One Response to Franz Muller and the first railway murder

  1. Don Hinson says:

    I would like to know if anyone can suggest what really happened. And did Muller really murder Briggs? (It sounds unlikely that he did.)

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