There’s something about the railway that seems to stir the imagination of crime writers. Within these circles, the Victorian corridor coaches are held in the same esteem as a creepy country estate or a grand art deco hotel.
Real-life crime on the railway has demonstrated the same ability to draw the public’s interest.
The very first murder on Britain’s railway was committed in 1864 by Franz Muller – a German tailor – who killed Thomas Briggs on the 9.50pm North London Railway service out of Fenchurch Street station. Briggs, an elderly bank clerk, was beaten, robbed and thrown from the compartment.
Muller was pursued by police to New York and extradited back to England where, following a trial, he was executed. His was one of the last public executions of its kind.
There were other notable cases throughout the 19th century, all of which are detailed in the BTP’s historic case files. On 11 February, 1897, the body of Elizabeth Camp was discovered under a seat in a carriage at Waterloo. Her fiancé, Edward Berry, had been waiting on the platform to meet her. Elizabeth Camp had received multiple blows to the head, thought to have been inflicted by a pestle, but the murderer was never found.
The body of Gold, who had been shot and stabbed, was discovered in Balcombe Tunnel. Despite being escorted by a detective, Lefroy managed to evade police and went on the run. A manhunt was launched and a £200 reward was offered for information that would lead to his arrest; the Daily Telegraph even published Lefroy’s portrait – the first time a national newspaper is thought to have published the picture of a wanted man. Lefroy was eventually caught, convicted and hanged.
Perhaps these cases were followed with such interest because they fuelled the anxiety that many people at the time had about travelling on the railway. They no doubt will have played some part in constructing the mystique around railways that has made the train carriage such a popular setting for fictional crime tales.
MYSTERY ON THE RAILS
For the next few months, the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York is running its Mystery on the Rails season. The event series will allow visitors to play the role of detectives and learn what it is about the railway that has inspired crime authors over the decades.
In an announcement promoting the new exhibition series, Amy Banks, NRM’s head of exhibitions and design, said, ‘Crime on the railways has always fascinated the public, media and crime writers alike and the unique setting of the railways, which is so familiar to us all, makes a perfect setting for a thrilling crime story. Trains are exciting, exotic and glamorous locations to set a crime story and real-life stories of crime on the railways have, and continue to be, fascinating backdrops for writers to explore the darker side of society.’
The centrepiece of the series is the Missing Passenger exhibit – a visitor exhibition trail from artist and director Geraldine Pilgrim. The exhibition will be held in the museum’s Station Hall. Visitors will be taken back in time to 1937 and tasked with solving the murder of Edward Robey, a theatre and film agent to the stars. The investigation will require them to talk to passengers on the train and accumulate evidence before gathering the suspects together and presenting their findings.
Amy went on, ‘We are really excited about The Missing Passenger as it gives visitors a chance to immerse themselves in a specific murder mystery trail inspired by the enduring role railways play in crime and detective fiction. It combines two enduring British fascinations – crime and trains and is a new twist on what adult visitors might expect from an exhibition at the National Railway Museum.’
Although crime on the railway is an enduring challenge, things like CCTV and DNA evidence have, more or less, resigned the real-life railway murder mystery to history. It seems safe to assume that most passengers don’t fear a gruesome end every time they catch a train. Thankfully the 21st century railway is a much safer place in all respects.
Mystery on the Rails runs from 23 March to 3 September 2017 at NRM in York. More information is available on NRM’s website.
To find out more about historic murders on Britain’s railways visit the ‘Crime history’ section of the British Transport Police (BTP) website.