Mr Briggs' Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder

Author(s): Kate Colquhoun
Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 352
ISBN: 9781847443694
ASIN: 1847443699
Release Date: 19th May 2011
Rating:
4

Review

On the evening of July 9 1864, well-to-do elderly banker Thomas Briggs became the unwitting victim of Britain's first railway murder, struck down in his 1st class compartment by a blunt object as his train approached Hackney from Fenchurch Street. The perpetrator of this crime made his getaway, stealing Briggs' silk top hat and gold watch and chain, whilst accidentally leaving behind a less well appointed soft hat.

This dastardly act shook the nation to its core and became a cause celebre with the newspapers and the penny pamphlets pouring over the lurid details and scrutinising Scotland Yard's efforts to apprehend the criminal. This was an era before the advent of forensics, when good honest legwork and paperwork were the methods employed by detectives. With no witnesses to the crime the case would always depend upon the accumulation of circumstantial evidence and any subsequent court committal would hinge upon the balance of probabilities.

The murder itself resonated through the nation in similar ways to the strangulation of 17 year old heiress Lesley Whittle in 1975, and the abduction and murder of James Bulger in 1993. These are the cases that rock society and pose questions - if this type of haphazard, insidious and heinous crime can result of the slaying of innocent ordinary people, then who can consider themselves safe?

After weeks of slow progress, and with the newspapers baying for further information to satiate their readership, it was announced that the principal suspect was Franz Müller, a German tailor plying his trade in the square mile. Unfortunately before he could be reprimanded, he had already departed these shores to start a new life in America - an emigration planned weeks before the murder. And so began a wild chase across the Atlantic to intercept Müller and extradite before he disappeared in the new frontiers forever.

Kate Colquhoun is to be congratulated for the onerous work in researching all the details of this complex and compelling case. Of course her work was aided by the invention of very mechanism she uses to sell her own book - the sensationalist press of the Victorian era in many respects is not far removed to the excesses of the modern popular press, and their graphic coverage has been massaged into more contemporaneous prose whilst retaining the tenet of the narrative.

Colquhoun can't answer for Müller's motives since he was advised by his defence not to take the stand. His attorneys placed Müller in another part of London at the time of murder, and this was corroborated by many witnesses. Colquhoun postulates that Müller must have been at least implicated and dismisses these accounts, although there was strong evidence the crime was committed by multiple assailants.

This is a riveting read, with a deliberately ambiguous denouement, that will keep you guessing to the end. A fascinating insight to the machinations of the Victorian legal process and a book not to be missed.