[... back to menu for this book]
1864 - MURDER ON SEA AND RAILROAD
Flowery Land pirates - Calcraft - A gibbet for five - Public execution - North London Railway murder - Mr. Briggs - Muller - Chase to New York - Detectives' triumph - Trial and execution - King of Prussia intervenes - Kreuz Zeitung - Abolition of public executions - Danish War-Naval battle off Jutland - First German flag in Persian Gulf.
THE year 1864 constitutes a vivid page in my memory. Amongst its events were
two murder cases, noteworthy in themselves, and the more so since they led to an
important modification of the law.
In February were tried and condemned the Flowery Land "pirates " - six Philippine Spaniards and one Levantine - sailors who had mutinied and murdered the captain and mates of the British ship they were serving in, not without provocation if their defence had any substance in it. All were found guilty and sentenced to death, but two were reprieved. The simultaneous hanging of five men was without parallel since the execution of the Cato Street conspirators in 1828, and immense crowds assembled and made the vicinity of Newgate a bear-garden from the previous Sunday evening and onward through the night. Calcraft was the hangman - a short, thickset shabby man, whose venerable white locks, beard and sinister face belied the cringing and fawning deference of his behaviour. I had been familiar with this expert's name from early boyhood, as well as that of his notorious predecessor, in Judge Jefferys' s days, Jack Ketch, and I fancy few were more generally known, if not esteemed. It was said that he had two handsome marriageable daughters who never received either offers or valentines, and that a passenger, on recognising them in an omnibus, had left so precipitately that he had, poor man, forgotten to pay his fare. Mr. Jonas, [-265-] Governor of Newgate, another personage well before the public gaze, had general charge of the spectacle.
It was well stage-managed. There were five ropes on the gibbet, to which Calcraft brought out the culprits one by one, adjusting the noose on No. 1 and then going back into the prison for No. 2, and so on. When all appeared to be ready a cry went round the mob, "Hats off!" and a great groan arose when the drop fell and left all five men struggling in the air. The fall then given was short; necks were seldom dislocated, and strangulation was the usual result.
The other murder, which did not occur till July, took place in London under what were then entirely novel circumstances, although unfortunately paralleled several times since. Its dramatic developments require a good deal of matching.
Late one Saturday evening, Mr. Thomas Briggs, over sixty years of age, chief clerk in a Lombard Street bank, a season-ticket holder on the North London Railway, took train at Fenchurch Street - then the terminus of that line - where he was recognised by the officials, to proceed to his home at Hackney. A little later the driver of a light engine saw something dark between the tracks - "in the 6-foot," as railwaymen phrase it - near the canal bridge between Bow and Hackney Wick Stations. He stopped and found the body of Mr. Briggs battered and gashed, and lying where it had evidently fallen from a train. The deceased's watch, chain, ring and hat were missing and an examination of the carriages disclosed a bloodstained first-class compartment presenting evidence of a desperate struggle. Murder had without doubt been committed; but by whom?
At first the detectives were baffled, but a Mr. Death, jeweller, of Cheapside, gave information that a short foreigner had exchanged a gold chain for another chain and a ring at his shop, while a hatter detailed how a top-hat had been brought to him by a similar personage for whom he had altered and shortened it. A cabman likewise came forward, and their combined testimony directed suspicion to a young German tailor named Muller, who, however, had disappeared from his usual haunts. Ultimately it was found that he had embarked for New York on the sailing-ship [-266-] Victoria - we are writing of times when wind and canvas still claimed no small proportion of the Atlantic passenger traffic. Detectives, with Death, the Jehu and other witnesses, followed in hot pursuit by the next mail-steamer, City of Cork, and before Victoria arrived in the offing had obtained a warrant of arrest.
When the sailer at last appeared the London and New York detectives met her on a tug, mustered the passengers and duly found their man. Luggage was next examined, and Mr. Briggs's hat and watch were found in the German's box. Of course he had become the innocent possessor of the goods by purchase, and so he confided to the American magistrates; but they were not exactly marines, and showed their appreciation of the story by granting extradition. So the detectives (and Death) led him back to London in triumph, and they were considered to have done very well. As there was then no Atlantic cable we may concede so much. Muller was tried, found guilty, and executed on November 14th, saying at the last moment to his German pastor, "I did it." A short time before, when taking the sacrament, he had reiterated his innocence.
The low flat-crowned hats which were coming into vogue about the time of the murder became popularly known as "Muller-cut-downs."
Interest in the case was heightened by the efforts of the German community, convinced of the innocence of their countryman, to secure an acquittal. The King of Prussia, he who afterwards became the first German Kaiser, tried to move Queen Victoria to delay the execution, as he believed there was new evidence which, if produced, would put a different complexion on Muller's proceedings; but British justice was inexorable, and Calcraft got his victim at the place and time originally appointed.
The Kreuz Zeitung of Berlin shed tears, saying, in reference to the attempt of the King of Prussia to stay execution, "What a sad illustration of the constitutional monarchy is it that the 'ruler' of about 200,000,000 of the human race is unable, even upon the petition of princes most nearly related to her, to keep the rope from the neck of a poor Ger-[-267-]man journeyman tailor for so brief a period as three or four days!" The Kreuz Zeitung was evidently anxious to equip Buckingham Palace with an autocrat of the approved German variety.
The Briggs murder caused a press campaign against the English plan of separate compartments in railway carriages, it being urged that with undivided cars as in America such a crime would be impossible. Some of the railway companies, including the North London, bowed to public opinion so far as to insert windows in the partitions between compartments, above the passengers' heads, so that in the event of a disturbance, observation by a traveller next door would not be impossible.
Owing to the disturbances caused by mobs gathering on Sunday evenings to be in time for Monday morning's show, hanging day was changed to Wednesday early in 1865. But this was only a first fruit of the Pirates and Muller episodes. Abolition of public executions, which had been urged perfunctorily for several years, was now pressed for in earnest, with the result that some four years later the reform received parliamentary sanction. Private executions in London in accordance with the present system were inaugurated September 8th, 1868. The first person to take advantage of the Act was Alexander Mackay from over-Tweed, so that Scotland was well to the front as usual. But I imagine that but few Caledonians will willingly concede that he was the real Mackay.
The war of Germany and Austria against Denmark on the subject of Schleswig-Holstein broke out early in the year. Popular sympathy in England was almost wholly with the Scandinavians, and intervention in their favour would have commanded wide approval. But the Queen was adverse, and, although both France and Russia had formerly joined with Great Britain in recognising the integrity of Denmark, neither would now do anything. Napoleon III urged that the brunt of war would necessarily fall on France owing to the military feebleness of Britain, although the latter's interests were much more deeply concerned. So Lord Palmerston wisely refrained from [-268-] single-handed interference. It was not a decision, however, that shed any particular glory on our country.
So Denmark fought her fight single-handed and was of course beaten in spite of her gallant defence of Duppel. A Danish guide misled some enemy troops, thereby causing Prussians and Austrians to fire on each other with fatal results: for which he paid in kind. In May three Danish frigates, in a small battle of Jutland, engaged and defeated two frigates and three gunboats belonging to Austria. One of these caught fire and ran to Heligoland - then a British possession - for shelter. The Panes also vindicated their Viking blood in several other little naval victories, news of which was always well received in London. Attention had been strongly directed towards Denmark by the Prince of Wales's marriage to Princess Alexandra the previous year, and sympathy with the Princess, who had been popular from the first, was very freely expressed.
I was acquainted with a Dane, named Kaarsberg, who still suffered from a wound received in the former Danish- German War of 1848. He was furious against the Teutons, and the news of their repeated successes made him quite ill. It is noteworthy that Flensborg, which, after the Great War, voted for inclusion in Germany, was Danish to the core in 1864. In 1870, during the Franco-German War, I met at Busra the skipper of a German barque which had been chased by a French gunboat, the Bruat, into the Persian Gulf and subsequently into the Shatt-el-Arab. He was a Flensborg man, and bearing poor Kaarsberg in mind, I asked him how he liked being a Prussian. He replied that, although against the transfer in the first instance, he had found advantage in belonging to a great Power, but that now he was afraid to put to sea on account of the French gunboat, he wasn't so sure about it. I believe his ship flew the first German flag ever seen in the Persian Gull. Forty years later, in the decade preceding the Great War, matters had changed. The Germans' trade with the Gulf had become an important item; they had established "rights "there, and were evidently aiming at eventual domination in connection with their expected possession and control of the Euphrates Valley Railway.