Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Müller literature

The sooner the disgusting history of Muller and of all that belonged to him is forgotten the better, but, as it passes out of sight, it may be as well to notice some of the curious specimens of imbecility which it brought to light. People have got into a habit of thinking that nobody knows his own business, and that, in particular, lawyers and jurymen are not competent to hang a man and have done with him without the interference of a ragged regiment of amateurs, who have as much right to have an opinion on the effect of evidence as on any other matter of which they are densely ignorant. That Müller was guilty, and that, if he had been innocent, he would have been able to explain the evidence given against him, were facts which no lawyer or person accustomed to criminal trials could ever really doubt. If anything had been wanted to confirm the impression derived from the evidence for the Crown, it would have been supplied by the evidence for the prisoner. An alibi which owed all its cogency to so nice a calculation of time that if a kitchen clock was ten minutes fast it would become evidence against the prisoner, was one of those two-edged swords which a man accustomed to defending prisoners views with disgust. Müller's counsel must have wished with all his heart that Müller had either forgotten his visit to Camberwell or kept it to himself. The little points which made in Müller's favour were just the sort of points which almost always occur in criminal trials, and which juries, when properly advised by the judge, set on one side. Mr. Lee's evidence was no doubt singular, but it was quite consistent with Müller's guilt. It certainly, too, was a most singular thing that a journeyman tailor going quietly home in a railway carriage should conceive and execute such a crime in a few moments, and without anything like premeditation; but, on the other hand, it was obvious from the nature of the case that, in point of fact, some one had done so. The jury, like sensible men, kept their minds steadily on the broad facts of the case, and returned a verdict accordingly. The Secretary of State also, on this occasion, showed vigour, and refused to allow himself to be frightened from his duty by remonstrances and clamour. Müller's confession adds little to the opinion which every competent person must have entertained on the subject, but it throws a singular light on the value of the petitions and memorials heaped upon poor Sir George Grey.

First in importance, and not last in folly, comes the memorial of the German Protection Society. It forms an immense mass of disjointed gossip, some of which would have been prevented by the rules of evidence from going before the jury under any circumstances. For instance, no counsel who had the least respect for himself would have tried to tell the Court that some one or other had seen four men in a cab who threw a bloody pair of trowsers out of the window, or that the Baron de Camin (is he the No-Popery champion?) met “a blood-covered man” who appeared to him to have committed a murder. Neither would any lawyer who knew his business have gratified the peculiar national genius of his clients by delivering a sort of juridical monograph on the way in which hats are cut down, and by exhibiting the results of their zeal in “turning over all the rich stores of Petticoat Lane, and hunting through Kennington, Lambeth, &c. &c.” The result of this intelligent operation was the discovery of a number of Mr. Digance's hats in a post-mortem condition, one of which “was entirely similar to the so-called Briggs's hat, with the letter B inside it.” The memorial goes on to observe —
‘There were certain marks in it showing that it had been made to order. Mr. Digance therefore had to be asked whether he could point out the owner of this hat. The defence did not make much use of these different hats, and handled the whole of this part of the evidence rather clumsily.’
There was no doubt abundant clumsiness, but it was not on the part of the counsel for the defence. Mr. Digance never said that he could swear positively that the hat was Mr. Briggs's, but only that it was in every respect similar. How is this evidence shaken by proof that he could not, at a moment's notice, point out the original owner of an old secondhand hat which he saw for the first time at the Old Bailey? In their enthusiastic zeal, the German Society utterly missed the point of the evidence. It was not merely that Müller had a hat very like Briggs's, but that, the murderer having had a hat sworn to as Muller's, and having carried off Briggs's hat, Muller had a hat very like Briggs's for the possession of which he could not account, while his own hat could be accounted for only by supposing that it had been left in the railway carriage. If the Society could have shown where Muller got the hat so like Mr. Briggs's, they would have been better employed than in hunting through Kennington, and Petticoat Lane to show that there were other hats in the world of the same kind. Of course, they chose to say that the Repschs and Matthews were not to be believed, but that was emphatically a question for the jury. The memorial is, full of statements which are either irrelevant or contradicted. There is, for instance, a long history about pedlars at the London Docks, who were in the habit of selling stolen goods. This appears exceedingly likely, but consider the extravagance of the argument founded on it. Muller says, “I bought this watch at the Docks of such and such a pedlar.” The evidence is that there really was such a pedlar at the Docks, and that he was a suspicious character. This shows that Müller knew a pedlar who was a suspicious character; but where is the proof, except his own word, that the pedlar sold him the watch? The Society always stop just short of the point. They collect a mass of facts which might be important as the foundation of something else, but that something else never comes. The one really important piece of evidence in the whole case they judiciously managed to spoil. The Blyths may or may not be considered to have contradicted the Repschs; at all events, they ought to have been cross-examined at the trial on the point about the hat. They were not cross-examined, obviously because Serjeant Parry had no instructions (he did not even venture to ask the Blyths whether Müller wore his boots or a slipper on the days in question), and was too wise to ask dangerous questions in their absence — a wisdom, by the way, which failed him when he brought out the point about the lining of the hat bought by Matthews. Why had Serjeant Parry no instructions? Because those who got up the case did not do their duty by asking the necessary questions beforehand. After such an omission, the value of the evidence is so much diminished as to be almost destroyed. If witnesses were allowed after a trial to mend their evidence, there would be no end to cases. Trial by jury would be superseded by a muddling kind of amateur discussion, which never comes to a point at all, but runs of into a series of conjectures and collateral issues as uninstructive to the understanding as they are burdensome to the memory. Of all the nonsense talked about the trial, the most offensive part is the suggestion that Muller's being a German had anything to do with the result. Does any one doubt that an Englishman would have been hung on the same evidence?

The German Society have succeeded in one thing, though probably it was not their intention to do it. They have given an admirable illustration of the superiority of our English mode of trial to that trial by gossip which they have endeavoured to substitute for it. By acting on the plain rules of common sense embodied in the law of evidence, we have brought to justice a most atrocious criminal, about whose guilt there is now no sort of question. With all their gossiping and searching, the German Society have really added nothing to the material evidence beyond a single fact—the evidence of the Blyths—which they ought to have ascertained before the trial. There is, no doubt, something amiable in the wish to save a man in his utmost need; but this, like almost every other case of the kind that has happened, shows the absurdity of the attempts which people persist in making to see further into millstones than those whose profession it is to inspect them. In every sensation case which has been tried for some years past, there has been an attempt to add to the evidence extra-judicially, and in no instance has anything material been added, unless any one, influenced by that injured man's judicious letter to the Times, chooses to consider Smethurst's case as an exception. Think of the inquiries made about the Road murder, about the case of Jessie M. Lachlan, about Palmer's case, about Townley's case. In no one instance has the popular tribunal added anything material to the facts judicially proved, though now and then its clamours have prevailed on the Secretary of State to interfere unreasonably with the execution of the law.

The truth appears to be, that a good bloody murder, with a spice of mystery, stimulates a certain class of persons into something approaching to thought, though nothing less pungent will induce them to attempt such a process. When they try to use their minds they are naturally awkward, and the results are at times grotesque in the extreme. For instance, a gentleman of the name of De Gruyther, who describes himself as late of Allahabad in the East Indies, feels bound to publish a pamphlet on what he calls the “Great North London Railway Tragedy.” We are almost sorry that we cannot give his performance in extenso, so completely does it illustrate the imbecility of amateur jurymen. We will content ourselves with one or two specimen passages. They simply baffle all criticism. Take, for instance, Mr. de Gruyther's notions of law:—
‘D. and B. are lawfully engaged discussing some wine. D. rises up and strikes B. B. does not retaliate immediately, but pauses a second, and then stabs or strikes D., killing him. The deed would be murder, and could not be justified on the ground that, at the time, B. was engaged in the commission of no other felony.’
That the “deed” would be manslaughter is a proposition as familiar as that the eldest son is heir-at-law to his father. Take Mr. de Gruyther as to facts:—
‘Supposing even that the identity of the hats had been established, there are countless easy and natural theories by which the fact of Motor's hat being on the scene of the tragedy, and the stolen property in his possession, could be reconciled with his innocence.’
Mr. de Gruyther had been good enough just before to give a specimen of one of these easy and natural theories. He says:—
‘In my opinion, as far as the author of the outrage could control the matter, it was a misadventure, and consequently comes under the head of homicide.
It has not been shown, that Mr. Briggs, died of the blows received in the carriage, nor is there any proof that while the homicidal passion or spirit of molestation was in active operation, that [sic] Mr. Briggs was either forcibly thrown or driven out of the carriage by his assailant and so died. It is manifest, then, he was not murdered. The supposition is that, in the heat of the assault, Mr. Briggs feigned unconsciousness. On this his assailant, desisted from further violence, and turned to rifle the bag. Mr. Briggs finding a pause, availed himself of the cessation, jumped up, opened the door and leaped out of the carriage [and politely shut the door, we suppose]. It is self-evident, then, if a pause intervened, and Mr Briggs' assailant did all he could, not to murder him, and that Mr. Briggs did not die under the direct blow or assault of his assailant that his death, sad as it is, is not murder, though it might have occurred during the commission of a felony.’
The idea of Mr. Briggs's assailant “doing all he could not to murder him” is unequalled in literature of any description. To touch it would be to spoil it.

There is another side to the matter which, to us, is even more disgusting than the explosions of popular folly which it has produced. As if secular absurdities were not enough, the religious world must come upon the scene. A certain Mr. Battiscombe must needs go to Newgate, to look after the poor wretch's soul. It was no doubt an act of charity, but the scene which occurred, coupled with Müller's confession, gives a fair sample of the amount of good that Mr. Battiscombe was likely to do to any one's soul. Mr. Battiscombe at great length pressed Müller to confess if he were guilty. Müller was all piety and sweetness. His reason for not confessing was that he could not die with a lie on his lips. He answered theological catchwords, too solemn to be repeated here, with a beautiful “readiness.” He quoted the well-known hymn, “Just as I am, without one plea,” &c. &c.; he mourned over his past life; he prayed. In a word, he fairly overpowered his clerical friend:—
‘The frankness, simplicity, earnestness, and devotional feeling with which he spoke affected me most deeply. I felt this man is as innocent of the crime as I am.’
Müller was even rather glad to be hung, to be out of the way of temptation:--
“Ah,” he said, “had I lived in America, I fear I should have gone on in the same sinful way. But thus God, has brought me to a sense of my sins. I am happy; I never was so happy.” 
Mr. Battiscombe was fairly overcome. He rushed to the sympathizing columns of the Evening Star, and poured out his experiences:—
‘Oh, how much could I write about Franz Müller? I never during my whole life have felt so intensely interested about any one as I have about him. I feel so assured of his innocence that, as I said to him, “Müller, we may meet no more here, but it is my good hope we shall by the Divine mercy, through the Lord Jesus Christ, meet at his right hand as pardoned through the blood of Christ and sanctified by his Spirit.”’
Mr. Battiscombe concludes by a practical inference:—
‘God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
Müller believes that God has permitted all this to come upon him in punishment of sins committed in his past life, and as the means of bringing him to feel truly repentant, and of putting his entire reliance on Christ as his alone hope of salvation.’
Apparently Mr. Battiscombe thinks so too, or he would not repeat with satisfaction such revolting blasphemy, which is all the more hideous because it is so perfectly unconscious. If it means anything, it means that God Almighty acted a part not much unlike that of a fraudulent detective; that He brought Müller near to the spot at about the time of the murder; that He put Müller's hat, or a hat just like it, into the railway-carriage, and put a hat just like Mr. Briggs's on Müller's head; that He put the murdered man's watch into Müller's box, and prompted Müller to tell a lie about it; and that by all these contrivances He misled a court of justice, and procured a judicial murder, for the sake of bringing Müller to repentance. It may be hoped that in all Europe there is not a police o so vile as to be capable of such conduct. That a poor wretch who had himself committed a hideous murder because a gold chain caught his eye, and who, when he saw a foolish clergyman, invented a set of soft phrases and demure lies because he had some faint hope that they might, save his life—that he should think thus of God is conceivable. One can understand how the man who murdered Mr. Briggs for a watch and about £4 should think that God would murder him for the sake of getting him to do something which he calls repenting. That a clergyman of any denomination should think so would be inconceivable if we had not awful and daily proof of the opposition between morality and some forms of religion. The whole tone of Mr. Battiscombe's letter suggests that it was from him that the suggestions came to which Müller responded so “readily.” We can imagine the sort of prompting which would going the poor wretch to feel as if he was pleased at the prospect of death, and teach him the “mysterious way” in which God moved. Is it not time to say boldly that the whole theory on which such promptings rest is fundamentally rotten and immoral? Mr. Battiscombe is obviously quite incapable of resisting the impression of a few catch-words, and has no conception at all of the hideous facility with which a murderer will lie, especially about his soul. Those who know murderers well, know that no class of men are fonder of pious talk. Religious canting is to a murderer what the cold fit of an ague is to the hot fit. These men have for the most part a genuine pleasure in hymns and prayers. Such things hide from them their own vileness, and make them feel respectable, or as they call it “happy.” In this hideous delusion they are often countenanced by clergymen who are apt to suppose that devotional phrases and devotional feelings are a protection against moral guilt, and that a man who thinks of past sins, to which he is no longer tempted, with shame and disgust, is therefore a changed and a good man. Repentance may be quite sincere, and yet the man himself may be just as bad as he was before—just as likely to commit the very same offence under the same temptation. So long as the clergy suppose that in the twinkling of an eye a bad man can be changed into a good one, and that the ready use of devotional language is the best evidence that he has been so changed, they will be estranged from the sensible part of the laity.

Of Müller himself, and of his tardy confession, we need say very little. It was on the whole as hideous a scene as ever happened. There is something in the awfulness of the crime, the fawning (though perhaps not utterly insincere) devotion mixed up with persistent lying that followed it, and the gradual victory of the fear of hell over the fear of the gallows, extorting the last admission at the last instant, which is enough at once to sicken and to solemnize the most callous observer. One observation, however, it certainly suggests. Let the opponents of capital punishment say what they will, Müller did fear death. He feared it because he reasonably feared hell, and that fear was upon him, and was acting on him, to the very last moment. There can be no doubt that it acted—far down, perhaps, and quietly—on the ragged ruffians, who stood bonneting each other in front of the drop, as it acted also on the most cultivated reader of the next morning's Times. We all fear it. All of us, even the most sceptical, are, at the bottom of our hearts, more or less afraid of being damned, whatever that may mean. No one can say that hell-fire is quite out of the question. This is the real sting and bitterness of the gallows, and for this reason may it be reared as long as people go on committing murder, delivering thereby to all whom it concerns an emphatic lesson that there are things which make men unfit to stay in this world, and expose them to the chance of whatever terrors the world after death may have in store.

Saturday Review, November 19, 1864.

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