On this day: 24 August 1864; Murder suspect arrested in New York Harbour

On the evening of Wednesday 24th August 1864, Detective-Sergeant George Clarke of the London Metropolitan Police Detective Department, accompanied by a New York Police Officer, climbed on board the sailing ship Victoria, newly-arrived in Staten Island Bay from London.  For Clarke it had been a long wait.  Together with his senior officer, Inspector Dick Tanner, he had been in New York since August 5th when the two detectives had first arrived from Liverpool on board the Inman Line steamship, City of Manchester. Their quarry was  Franz Muller, who they had identified as the prime suspect in a murder committed on the North London Railway, an incident of particular concern to rail passengers as it was the first murder to be committed on a British train.

Franz Muller, 1864

At about 10 p.m. on 9 July 1864, at Hackney Wick station, a heavily-bloodstained First Class railway compartment, containing only a bag, a hat and a walking stick, had been found by boarding passengers. Later that night, the  almost lifeless body of an elderly man, Thomas Briggs, had been found on the railway line between Hackney Wick and Bow. Briggs died later the next day and Tanner and Clarke had been on the case since 11 July.  Between then and 17 July they had established that the hat in the compartment had not belonged to Briggs but that a 15 carat gold watch-chain belonging to Briggs had been pawned at a jewellers in Cheapside by a man with a foreign accent. There was however, no information about Briggs’ missing watch. The real breakthrough came when, on 18 July, a cabman, Jonathan Matthews, identified the hat as having belonged to a German acquaintance of his, Franz Muller. Unfortunately, the detectives quickly found out that Muller had decided to emigrate to America and had boarded the sailing ship Victoria on 14 July. Arming themselves with arrest warrants, the two detectives and two of the principal witnesses travelled to Liverpool to catch a steamship which, hopefully, would get them to America well before the Victoria arrived.

America at that time was engaged in a bloody civil war and political relations between the Union forces in America and Britain were greatly strained. Despite this, the two detectives established a good working relationship with the New York police. Nonetheless, they were concerned that Muller might attempt to escape if he found out on arrival that British detectives were waiting for him. To reduce this risk, Clarke was sent by Tanner to Staten Island where he spent the next two weeks locating and offering rewards to the numerous ships pilots (any of whom might be engaged to navigate a safe passage for the Victoria into harbour) to ensure that they did not provide information that might compromise the planned arrest.

Fortunately the strategy worked, and when Clarke and Sergeant Tiernan of the New York Police boarded the Victoria, they found Muller unaware that the police were hunting him. After the arrest, Clarke searched Muller’s box and amongst his possessions found a watch and hat believed to be those that Thomas Briggs had been carrying on the night of his murder. Extraditing Muller from New York was not straightforward but, on 16 September, the two detectives returned to  Liverpool with their prisoner. Within a British  justice system that was speedier and more draconian than today, Muller was tried at the Old Bailey, convicted of murder and executed in public by hanging.

For more information on this case and the many other Victorian crime inquiries that involved Detective Sergeant (later Detective Chief Inspector) George Clarke please see my recent book about his life. “The Chieftain“.

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