Mr. Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, by Kate Colquhoun

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the various historical non-fiction books that I’ve been reading in the last year or so is how smoothly they integrate their research into their story. There have been occasional points where things get bogged down in the details, but overall, I feel like I’ve experienced the story and the time period instead of just learning about it.

Mr. Briggs’ Hat is no exception to this. Certainly the first half of the book, detailing the discovery of the murder and the investigation, is incredibly gripping. (I also benefited slightly from having relatively recently both read and watched The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: there are a couple of familiar names amongst the detectives. [Wow, could I use any more adverbs there?]) I was incredibly impressed at the efforts put in to capture Muller; the detectives not only combed the streets of London for evidence, but took two witnesses to New York to help identify and extradite him.

The second half of the book, while no less interesting, does get more into the political layers, implications, and ramifications of the trial. Once they’ve decided that Muller is the culprit (based on quite a lot of circumstantial evidence, which isn’t quite as tenuous as it sounds to modern ears), things in 1864 get intricate. There’s the necessity of extradition from New York, complicated by the already fraught tensions between the American and British government and populace because of the (US) Civil War. There’s the fact that Muller is German, and Prussia was making moves toward German unification that included aggression toward Denmark (a UK-sympathetic country, due to the Princess of Wales being Danish). And then there’s the ongoing debate about suitable punishment for murder: capital punishment or lifetime with hard labour? Public or private execution?

And that doesn’t even get into the difficulties with the case itself. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the murder (who had been threatening Briggs about a loan, who were the other two men supposedly in the carriage with him), and the witnesses on both sides aren’t exactly stellar characters. But despite all the confusing details with the case, it’s never questioned that Muller is the culprit.

And, despite the hook of the murder case itself, the book isn’t really “about” that. It’s about the political and social forces that collided within the scope of the investigation and trial – without getting at all bogged down into socio-political commentary. It paints a picture of the relatively new field of professional detection, and the constantly changing world of public opinion when it comes to crime and punishment. Colquhoun weaves all the threads together so deftly that sometimes it is like being back in 1864. Hovering over it a bit, not always actually walking the streets, but that’s the benefit of history – you know how things turned out, so you don’t have to deal with the uncertainty that the “locals” would have felt. (….now I think I need to read more Ian Mortimer……)

It’s also increased my “want-to-research” list quite substantially…..not a bad thing.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

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