An elderly, colorless banker, Briggs by name, takes a first-class carriage seat on a train out of London’s equally colorless Fenchurch Street Station. Before he disembarks, Briggs proceeds to paint the inside of his compartment a lurid blood red, which comes at the expense of his skull. His murderer has reduced it to jelly.
This nasty bit of mayhem took place nearly 150 years ago. Kate Colquhoun’s Murder in the First-Class Carriage is not only a skillful reconstruction of the crime and the pursuit of the perpetrator; it’s also a natty evocation of Victorian London and modernity’s anxieties, and a hard look at the courts and newspapers that befouled the whole sorry affair.
Consider the time and place: London in the mid-nineteenth century, on the cusp of modernity. Colquhoun’s London is vivid and enervating — the street theater of costermongers, lamplighters, pickpockets, fraudsters, and roughs; the colored lights of the penny gaffs; the fumes and fragrances of docks, breweries, and an open sewer system — a place where “fogs rose from the river, mingled with the soot from house and factory and cloaked the city in a yellowing, soapy atmosphere.” London was spirited, adventure-filled, and enterprising, but its citizenry felt vulnerable, alienated, and hesitant, caught between conservatism and progress. And trains were emblematic of this conundrum: for all their dazzle, they devoured rural communities; they epitomized the relentlessness of progress, spinning out of control, full of danger as evidenced by this first railway murder.
The murder of Briggs threw these concerns into high relief — if a man of such means could be a victim, who was safe? — and attracted considerable attention. So much so that Colquhoun is able to follow the coppers’ progress on a day-by-day basis, divined from police records, legal documents, and newspaper articles. She marshals the evidence, ferrets out the details, accumulates the little mysteries surrounding the murder. Her tone is admirably, hauntingly even, though a note of thrill runs through it. It allows the reader’s sense of fury to grow, for there it much to this tale that is reprehensible to today’s sensibility, and historical context can take a walk.
For starters, newspapers had found the suspect — a German tailor, slight and shabby and implacable in his claims of innocence, with a trail of circumstantial evidence — guilty long before he came to trial, in a rude mix of sensationalism and xenophobia. “The Victorian press paid little heed to prohibitions against stirring up prejudice against suspects or prisoners awaiting trial,” goading the people’s desire “for vengeance and its demand for the apparent reimposition of security.”
The trial was a farce: the prosecution was under no legal obligation to disclose the information it held, the defendant could not speak, the defense could not summarize; the judge instructed the jury that its decision could be based on probability rather than certainty, diminishing standards of proof. The tailor’s prospects were grim; despite the gathering resistance to capital punishment, the grotesque saturnalia that was the public hanging appeared to launch him into eternity.
Colquhoun’s work is an exquisite cautionary tale, as valuable today as it is telling of then. What price technological progress? How best assimilate foreign nationals drawn by opportunity? “How should a nation priding itself on its morality and civilisation deal with threats to the safety of its citizens?” One hundred and fifty years come and go, and the answers are as elusive as ever.