On 9th July 1864, a murder took place that captured the interest and the imagination of the British public. The victim was Thomas Briggs, a banker in the City, whose body was discovered on railway tracks of the North London Railway line, his watch and hat missing, the first-class carriage he occupied on his journey left spattered with blood and a hat belonging to someone else. What is notable about the incident is that it was the first killing to ever take place on a British Railway, in an enclosed carriage that had no entrance or connecting passageway, but rather only a direct entry from a station platform.
The notoriety of the murder is heightened further by the Victorian public's new-found appetite for grubby crime stories being related in sensational literature, and in the novelty of the progress of a real-life case being relayed in the now readily available newspapers and periodicals. The fascination for the details of the case reaches even greater proportions when it is learned that the chief suspect, a German tailor, has left the country on a slow-boat across the Atlantic. A police detective is dispatched on a faster ship to arrive in the still expanding New York before the suspect, to apprehend him and extradite him back for trial. The Victorian public avidly follow the exciting course of events that unfold before their eyes.
As, nearly 150 years later, should the modern reader following the case as related in fascinating detail by Kate Colquhoun. As you would expect, the book is thoroughly researched - not just for the particulars of the case of Thomas Briggs, intriguing as it is as a murder-mystery, but also for the effort that has gone into putting it into the context of British society during the Victorian era. In addition to what the case tells us about the newly formed police service, the early forensic science of the period and the workings of the judicial system, much is also revealed about the nature of the public, class differences and international tensions, the nature of the press and the literature of the period.
While there is no skimping on historical research and presentation of all the relevant facts pertaining to the case and the social situation that it takes place in, Mr Briggs' Hat is never dull or academic, but highly readable and no less thrilling than any fictional work, covering every angle of what remains an intriguing and involving real-life murder-mystery.