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The Dublin ­Railway Murder: the locked-room mystery that ­electrified Victorian society

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A sketch of the murder of George Little in 1856

A sketch of the murder of George Little in 1856

Meticulous research: Thomas Morris

Meticulous research: Thomas Morris

The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris

The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris

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A sketch of the murder of George Little in 1856

At just after 8 o’clock on a winter’s morning in 1856, clerk George Little left the house on Waterloo Road that he shared with his sister, mother and aunt and walked to work at the Broadstone railway terminus.

Housing both the Royal Canal and the railway, Broadstone had become Dublin’s gateway to western Ireland and was a busy spot from early in the morning until late at night. Little was by all accounts a fastidious and unassuming man whose responsibility as the sole earner in his household weighed heavily on him. He had joined the railway as a clerk in the transfer office three years earlier and was promoted to chief cashier in May 1856, a position that meant handling and recording large sums of money.

Each rural station sent its ticket office income up the line to the company headquarters at the terminus. A day’s takings could be well over £100, which was five or six times what the average farm labourer would earn in a year. Events such as a livestock fair could swell the takings to thousands.

Thanks to the Mullingar Fair, Thursday, November 13 was a busy day in the cashier’s office, so Little stayed on alone to work late. It’s a grim irony of his story that he had insisted on upgrading the previously lax security, and only recently had the door modified to safely lock himself in. Unfortunately, these precautions made it harder for his colleagues to gain access the following day. Little’s body was discovered in a pool of blood beneath his desk: he had been savagely beaten and his throat slashed. The initial assumption was suicide because the office door was locked from the inside and the desk still heaved with cash. Yet before long it became clear it was murder.

Little remains a silent character in the story of his death, yet it’s appropriate that Thomas Morris begins The Dublin Railway Murder with a description of the dead man’s family circumstances and his last day alive. As he observes, “one of the most unsavoury aspects of the brief public obsession with the Broadstone murder was the way it made a celebrity of the suspected killer, while the victim was almost forgotten”.

This apparent locked-room mystery electrified the public. There was an initial preoccupation that the killer was looking for more victims. Once a suspect was found, attention switched to whether he would escape the noose.

Such obsession was rooted partly in the rarity of such a crime: homicide was almost unknown in Dublin in 1856. In 1849, police recorded 203 murders in Ireland, but by 1855 the figure had halved. Morris notes that newspaper reports of crime in Dublin rarely encountered “anything more serious than a mugging or a stolen joint of meat”. People were fascinated by this murder because of the inaccessible nature of the crime scene and the perpetrator’s vanishing act.

Ireland’s most experienced detective, Augustus Guy, paired up with a leading lawyer to investigate. Two celebrated sleuths dispatched by Scotland Yard were also baffled. To the newspapers’ delight, five suspects were arrested then released before a local woman claimed she knew the truth.

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Meticulous research: Thomas Morris

Meticulous research: Thomas Morris

Meticulous research: Thomas Morris

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Morris retells the events across five sections and an epilogue: ‘The Murder’, ‘The Investigation’, ‘The Suspect’, ‘The Trial’, ‘The Phrenologist’. While real life follows no such neat divisions, it works well here, allowing him to move fluidly through an intricate story with a large cast. Morris’s previous book, The Matter of the Heart, which uses 11 landmark operations to explore the heart’s inner workings and failings, was widely praised for its research, and The Dublin Railway Murder benefits from similar rigour.

Overusing research is a trap that catches writers of historical fiction and non-fiction alike: it’s tempting to cram in every hard-won detail, but doing so can compromise the flow of the story. However, Morris has clearly been meticulous and careful in deciding what to include and what to omit. The depth and quality of his sources are evident in the way he sets the scene and introduces each individual. While the opening section contains long passages before we hear any individual’s voice, later dialogue and exchanges between characters (presumably derived from court archives) convey an authentic sense of the tense and thrilling search for Little’s killer.

Interesting parallels

Kate Summerscale’s 2008 non-fiction account The Suspicions of Mr Whicher established the market for well-told historical true crime, and fans of that book as well as Hallie Rubenhold’s more recent Ripper narrative The Five are likely to enjoy The Dublin Railway Murder. Closer to home, it has interesting parallels — including scenes in the intimidating environment of Dublin’s Green Street Courthouse — with Margaret Kelleher’s The Maamtrasna Murders, a fascinating chronicle of a tragic miscarriage of justice that occurred 26 years after Little’s death.

Non-fiction books such as these prove that while readers enjoy untangling clues and solving the puzzles in crime writing, uncovering the ‘who’ in ‘whodunnit’ is by no means the only motivation. The Dublin Railway Murder also illuminates a fascinating Victorian culture and society. And, most importantly for the silent man at the centre of this story, Morris’s painstaking investigation of this perplexing crime and its far-reaching consequences ensures that George Little is no longer forgotten.

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The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris

The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris

The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris

Fiction: The Dublin ­Railway Murder by Thomas Morris
Harvill Secker, 384 pages, hardcover €21; e-book £9.99


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