1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

On this date in 1864, German tailor Franz Muller hanged before an unruly London mob estimated near 50,000 angry souls.

Muller was among Britain’s last public hangings, before executions disappeared behind prison walls four years later. But what he’d done was a first, and father to a legion of detective novels and dinner theater: Muller committed the first murder on a British train.

Certainly Muller’s motive was as pedestrian as his locomotion was novel, for the victim was a 69-year-old banker who was relieved of a gold watch and gold spectacles, then pitched out of his compartment onto an embankment on a North London commuter train.

This operation was facilitated and — so conceived a public that was spellbound by the crime — poor Mr. Thomas Briggs’s escape from his attacker prevented by the then-prevalent use of the compartment coach, a railcar design without any interior corridor communicating between the berths. As each compartment opened only to the outside, passengers were stuck in their rooms between stations (and ticket-takers had to scuttle hazardously along exterior running-boards). Known in much of Europe as the English coach, these designs would quickly lose popularity thanks in part to this very affair.*

In a sense, these spaces just translated into the industrial era the age-old terrors that had always stalked travelers. It must be this that accounts for the extraordinary interest the public took in Briggs and Muller: in a sealed compartment, face to face with a desperate man, one would be as nakedly vulnerable as the mail coach on the roads of yesteryear quailing at the shadow of Dick Turpin. London businessmen did not expect such harrowing encounters on their daily commute.

A reward soon yielded a tip that put police onto this working-class immigrant Muller — the man sure ticked every box for a proper moral panic — who had dropped into a Cheapside jeweler’s** shop two days after the murder to exchange a gold chain (later identified as Briggs’s chain), and hopped a ship to New York soon thereafter. Inspectors took a faster ship and beat him to the Big Apple. He still had Briggs’s watch and top hat on his person, the latter ingeniously cut down.†

In a recent book about Briggs’s murder, Kate Colquhoun argues that despite the verdict, Britons “never quite felt they got to the bottom of” why the murder occurred. It’s commonly supposed that Muller didn’t intend to slay his victim and perhaps didn’t even realize he had done so.

Muller’s disarmingly amiable personality contrasted sharply with the circumstantial but persuasive evidence of a violent bandit; he struck the men who awaited him in New York as having been genuinely surprised by his arrest. Muller himself denied his guilt throughout a breathlessly reported three-day trial and even pressed for a stay of execution claiming to have developed new evidence of his innocence.

There was no stay, and only at the very last moment before the drop fell did the condemned youth succumb to the pressure of the German-speaking Lutheran clergyman who had been his companion in the last days to confess himself of the crime with the words Ich habe es getan.

Rev. Louis Cappel, whose immediate public announcement of this solemn unburdening played better as theater than as ministry, later explained in a letter to the London Times‡ (Nov. 16, 1864) that

the unhappy man declared he was innocent not while, but before, the Sacrament was being administered to him. Soon after entering his cell on the last morning I asked Muller again whether he was guilty of this murder. He denied it. I then said, “Muller, the moments are precious; we must turn our minds wholly to God; I shall question you no more about this, but my last words to you will be, ‘Are you innocent?'”

He remained silent for a minute or two, but presently exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, and clasping his arms round my neck, “Do not forsake me; stay with me to the last.”

* As a stopgap safety measure in the following years, before the widespread introduction of cars with interior corridors, existing compartment coaches were fitted with peepholes (called “Muller’s lights”) between compartments as well as wires enabling passengers to ring the alarm

** Submitted without comment: the jeweler’s name was John Death.

† Muller’s truncated-top-hat design actually enjoyed a brief fashion vogue that became named for him as a “Muller cut-down”.

‡ Consonant with the growing elite consensus on the matter, half the Times‘ execution coverage — a full column and a half of newsprint — was dedicated to excoriating the “lawless ruffianism” of the jeering hang-day mob.

On this day..

4 thoughts on “1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

  1. My 4 great grandfather was Benjamin Ames who was the train guard that day. Only discovered this case today whilst going through tax and legal documents relating to my tree on ancestry and read the old Bailey summary. What a really interesting case. The defence barrister really didn’t cross examine the witnesses much- it was abysmal.

  2. The top of the morning has been demolished and replaced by affordable housing.

  3. The pub where Mr Brigg’s body was brought after the murder was called the Mitford Castle and is now egregiously called the Top O’ The Morning. It’s at the Hackney Wick end of Victoria Park in EAST London.

  4. Hello,

    This reminds me of an article in French I had read which I show here :


    In France, the story says it was when judge Poinsot, a magistrate, President of a chamber of a court, was found dead in his compartment in a train travelling from Paris to Bonneville in Savoie in 1860 that the company running the French railway took the measure to put a ringing bell in each compartment of each train. So that any passenger having a problem could use the bell to make the alarm sound and warn the train driver who would then stop the train.
    But I have also read this may be an urban legend : actually it would already been decided to install ringing bells in train compartments anyway before the murder of judge Poinsot took place. And the chance only making this measure put in place after the murder.
    In 1886 another crime made the national headlines. Prefet Barrême was found dead in his train compartment as well. The blame was put on one Charles Jud, supposedly a master of crime, a genial criminal who used many aliases and was never caught.
    Today some historians estimate Charles Jud was not caught not because he was so clever as to escape all police forces but because he never existed.
    Prefet Barrême’s death would have been the work of a criminal whose deed was the only one.
    But Jud’s contribution to History is more decidedly a literary one : it is accepted that Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, one of whom was very familiar with the Parisian railway and metro, took the case of Charles Jud, whether he really existed or not, as the inspiration of their creature : Fantômas ( first story published in 1911 some months after the first armed robbery by the Bande à Bonnot, who would be another source of inspiration ). The genius of crime and evil who always escape police and uses many aliases, disguises his physical appearance, make a train disappear, hijack a bus to do a bank ram-raiding, things thought to be impossible to realize. Who takes the skin of the hands of a man he killed and confectionates a pair of gloves so that whenever he commits a murder the dead man will be blamed since it is his fingerprints that are left on the victim or the crime scene. Even when Fantômas is caught and sentenced to death he manages to exchange place with an innocent comedian who is wrongfully guillotined at his place.

    About the article in French I have read and indicate above, here is an English translation of two paragraphs ( of course one can paste and copy the whole article in a translator ).

    ” Some advocated a railway employee goes to lock each compartment when completed. He would have reopened in each station. The idea was thus a murderer, once accomplished his crime could no longer escape. They are opposed to wasting time at the station and especially the risk to travelers trapped in an accident. Nobody had forgotten the disaster of Meudon, where more than fifty people had perished in the flames, trapped in their locked cars.

    1st Class Wagon There were also those who wanted the windows between compartments to see what was happening in neighboring compartments. There, it was a public outcry. “How will the newlyweds who need privacy? “Screamed critics. The suggestion was abandoned.
    Other advanced the idea of a corridor, enabling the controller to check if everything was going well in the compartments, with comings and goings, as was done in German trains and American trains. The Minister was angry, it was unrealistic, it would lead companies railway and France to ruin! Ultimately this idea will be adopted, it would lead to modern trains. ”

    Best Regards

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