Mr. Brigg's hat
It was a quiet evening when Mr. Briggs, a well-to-do London bank clerk, stepped into a first-class carriage on the North London railway. Ten minutes later, two passengers stepped into the same carriage to find pools of blood on the cushions. Mr. Briggs himself lay stunned and bleeding along the tracks a few miles distant; he would later die without giving any hint as to the identity of his assailant. The investigation and trial that would follow turned into a sensational case is the subject of Kate Colquhoun’s who-dun-it Murder in the First-Class Carriage. More than just a mysterious crime with pitifully few clues, Colquhoun writes, the Briggs murder revealed the deeper anxieties of Victorian society, and inspired crime buffs of future generations.
Much like Kate Summerscale’s recent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Colquhoun dwells on the efforts of the nascent Scotland Yard detective force as they try to find a killer with only a battered hat as a clue. But unlike the Victorian English countryside setting of Whicher, Colquhoun’s backdrop is the bustling, Dickensian world of 1860s London, where the threat of violence was much more real. Police searches run into the lower class areas of London, into its immigrant enclaves and the sometimes startling ways that the world of Mr. Briggs, respectable bank clerk and pater familias, collide with those of his alleged murderer.
Or do they? As much as Colquhoun weaves the story of the rudimentary efforts of London police, there’s always the nagging question of whether the man police suspect—and the press preemptively convicted—really committed the crime. When the verdict is read and the crowd’s reaction to the public execution complete, Colquhoun ends the story on a startling revelation that is hardly discussed, a fact that left me dissatisfied after completing the book. In spite of quoting extensive, almost obsessive contemporary testimony and press coverage, Colquhoun leaves who these men really were frustratingly out of reach. The story instead becomes more of a larger picture of English prejudice and world politics over the more engaging one of the man on the train and his killer. On the whole, Murder in the First Class Carriage is mostly of interest to those who are curious about the history of criminal justice and British social history, rather than the casual reader of true crime.