Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing


Did a small, neat, mild-mannered, Dickens-reading tailor commit the first railway murder in history —a crime that shocked both America and Britain? In July 1864, Thomas Briggs was traveling home after visiting his niece and her husband for dinner. He boarded a first-class carriage on the 9:45 pm Hackney service of the North London railway. A short time later, two bank clerks entered the compartment and noticed blood pooled in the seat cushions and smeared all over the floor and windows. But there was no sign of ...

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Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing

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Did a small, neat, mild-mannered, Dickens-reading tailor commit the first railway murder in history —a crime that shocked both America and Britain? In July 1864, Thomas Briggs was traveling home after visiting his niece and her husband for dinner. He boarded a first-class carriage on the 9:45 pm Hackney service of the North London railway. A short time later, two bank clerks entered the compartment and noticed blood pooled in the seat cushions and smeared all over the floor and windows. But there was no sign of Thomas Briggs. All that remained was his ivory-knobbed walking stick, his empty leather bag, and a bloodstained hat that, strangely, did not belong to Mr. Briggs. The race to identify the killer and catch him as he fled on a boat to America was eagerly followed by the public on both sides of the Atlantic. The investigation and subsequent trial became a fixture in New York newspapers—and a frequent distraction from the Civil War that ravaged the nation. In Murder in the First-Class Carriage, acclaimed writer Kate Colquhoun tells the gripping tale of a crime that shocked an era.

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Editorial Reviews

Sarah Halzack
Relying largely on primary sources, Kate Colquhoun's Murder in the First-Class Carriage sketches the moves of London detectives as they worked to solve the case and bring the perpetrator to justice. It reads like a 19th-century version of a Law & Order episode, with every break in the case making the reader wonder which witnesses are fallible, which leads are worth following, and what clues the police may have missed or botched. It adds up to a suspenseful, well-paced account of a baffling mystery.
—The Washington Post
The Independent

"An enthralling account of a real life mystery . . . Her well-told tale would stand up in court--unlike much of the evidence in the case."

Library Journal
Colquhoun (A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton) details a true "crime of the century." In 1864, banker Thomas Briggs was the first person to be murdered on a British train. To mitigate public outcry and panic, Scotland Yard moved swiftly to identify the suspect, German tailor Franz Müller. Colquhoun details the transatlantic pursuit. Though Müller left for New York a few days after the murder, two groups of detectives and witnesses followed swiftly, and both arrived well before the suspect. News also traveled slowly as it, too, went via ship. Müller was extradited to London, tried, convicted, and hung, his case based on strong circumstantial evidence. Foreshadowing O.J. Simpson's famous glove, this case revolved around hats—Müller ended up in possession of Briggs's hat, while his own hat may have been the one left in Briggs's locked first-class rail carriage. VERDICT Interested readers might also enjoy Andrew Martin's "Jim Stringer" series of railway mysteries. Colquhoun's narrative will appeal to British, rail, and legal historians. She does an excellent job of describing the case and the times. Highly recommended.—Karen Sandlin Silverman, Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
Account of the first Victorian railway murder in Britain, and how the broader historical events surrounding the crime shaped the hunt for a killer. Colquhoun (The Thrifty Cookbook, 2011, etc.) examines the murder of Thomas Briggs in July 1864 as he was traveling on the North London railway. Violently attacked, Briggs was discovered near death on the train tracks, his compartment soaked in blood. The evidence was slim; only a bloodstained hat and a broken watch chain found in the compartment provided any clues for the investigation into the killer. Colquhoun's narrative takes readers from London to New York City and then back again as the police race to identify Briggs' murderer and bring him to justice. The author's suspenseful writing style and clear prose make the tale easy to read, but occasionally the story can become dry due to the amount of information packed into the book. Colquhoun includes quotes from the historical record and seamlessly weaves them into her story, but at times these details can become overwhelming--e.g., the author's account of the extradition hearing is unnecessarily long. However, Colquhoun expertly places the murder within the larger context of British, Continental European and American history. The book ends with a look at the changes wrought by Briggs' killing and the ensuing trial. Despite the occasional slow spots, Colquhoun successfully balances suspense with historical accuracy.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781468300567
  • Publisher: Overlook TP
  • Publication date: 4/30/2013
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 984,120
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Colquhoun is the author of The Busiest Man in England and Taste. In addition to writing for several newspapers and magazines, she appears regularly on radio and television. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.

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