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The Sensational Murder That Rattled Victorian England: Background information when reading Ruler of the Night

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Ruler of the Night

Thomas De Quincey Mystery #3

by David Morrell

Ruler of the Night by David Morrell X
Ruler of the Night by David Morrell
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2016, 352 pages
    Nov 2017, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

The Sensational Murder That Rattled Victorian England

This article relates to Ruler of the Night

Print Review

In Ruler of the Night, David Morrell uses the first murder on a train as the starting point for the mystery set in 1855. Such a tragedy didn't actually occur until 1864, however, and the historical facts of the case are quite different than those penned in the novel.

The world's first public railway to use steam locomotion opened in 1825 on a 25-mile stretch between Stockton and Darlington in the North of England. Less than 20 years later, over 6,000 miles of tracks had been built across Britain. By 1864, crimes such as luggage theft and robberies had become quite common. The public was beginning to believe that rail travel was unsafe.

On Saturday, July 9, 1864, the 9:50 p.m. train from Fenchurch Street on the North London Railway arrived at the Hackney stop at 10:11 p.m. Two clerks boarded and noticed blood on the floor of their first-class compartment. They immediately notified a guard, who searched the cab and discovered a bag, a beaver hat and a walking stick as well as much more blood. He locked the carriage door and telegraphed ahead to the Chalk Farm Station that he believed a crime had been committed. The car was detached from the rest of the train and the articles found at the scene were handed over to the London Metropolitan Police.

Meanwhile, at 10:20 p.m. the driver of a train traveling the opposite direction noticed what he thought was a body on the edge of the embankment. He stopped his cars and investigated, finding a severely injured man unconscious along the track. The man was later identified as 69-year-old Thomas Briggs, chief clerk at the bank of Messrs. Robarts, Curtis and Co. of Lombard Street. Briggs had enjoyed a family dinner with his niece and her husband and was on his way home—a journey of only 20 minutes. He died of his injuries the next day, never regaining consciousness.

Scotland Yard Inspector Richard Tanner and Sergeant George Clarke were assigned to the case. They were able to determine that the walking stick and bag did indeed belong to Briggs, but the hat did not. They believed that robbery was the motive since Briggs' gold watch and chain were missing, as were his gold spectacles. Their investigations led to John Death, a jeweler, who remembered a customer—a young German man—with whom he swapped a gold chain (later identified as having belonged to Briggs) for a cheaper one and a gold ring.

Franz Müller The case received a lot of press, and a significant reward for information was offered. A cabman name Jonathan Matthews came forward, telling police he had found a small cardboard box bearing the name "Death" in his home, which had been given to his eldest daughter by her fiancé Franz Müller. He also identified the hat found at the scene as one he'd purchased for the young man, and provided the police with a photograph. Death confirmed the photograph was of the man who had traded the gold chain.

An arrest warrant was requested and granted for Müller, but he had left the country on a ship bound for New York City three days prior. Tanner and Clarke, as well as Matthews and Death, boarded a steamship on July 20 which arrived in New York on August 5—three weeks before Müller's slower ship would dock. When it finally did make it to the harbor, Tanner was there. He immediately arrested Müller and organized an impromptu line-up from which Death easily identified the German. Briggs' hat and watch were discovered in Müller's trunk. Extradition was granted and on September 3, Müller left the US with the officers.

Müller maintained his innocence throughout his three-day trial, and although the evidence was largely circumstantial he was sentenced to death after only 15 minutes of deliberation. Only 23 years old, he was hanged outside London's Newgate Prison at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, November 14, 1864 in front of a rowdy crowd of 50,000 spectators. A death mask was made that is still in Scotland Yard's "Black Museum," and he was buried within the walls of Newgate.

As a result of the murder, railways started installing small circular windows between compartments that were referred to as "Müller's Lights." Railway carriages started having side corridors so passengers could move around while the train was in motion. It also became mandatory for communication cords to be installed in all train cars so that staff could be contacted in case of emergency.

Picture of Franz Müller

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to Ruler of the Night. It originally ran in January 2017 and has been updated for the November 2017 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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