1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

3 comments November 14th, 2014 Headsman

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..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft

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