Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Percy Lefroy Mapleton - The Horrible Railway Murderer

The news broke in the Brighton Guardian on Wednesday 29 June 1881 with the headline: SHOCKING OUTRAGE ON THE BRIGHTON LINE. The paper speculated on this terrible crime committed in the early evening of the previous Monday morning, described as a crime ‘enshrouded in mystery’.

            'Isaac Frederick Gold, a coin dealer of 64 years lived at ‘Titchfield’, 26 Claremont Terrace. On 27 June 1881, the unfortunate businessman set off homeward on the London to Brighton express train. At this stage, no one knew much about what actually happened, except that the train stopped at Preston Park, where a ticket collector, Arthur Gibson, joined the train.
On opening a first class carriage, Arthur found a young man inside, besmeared with blood and showing signs of having had a struggle with someone. The young man told Arthur Gibson that he and another man, Mr. Gold had had a fearful encounter with a man on the train, but the man had succeeded in making his escape. The stationmaster, Mr. Hall, sent the ticket collector with the young man to Brighton, where the other stationmaster, Mr. Henry Anscombe, was ready to receive him. A gold chain was attached to Lefroy’s shoe, which he said he had put there ‘for safety’.

            At this time, although the police were a little suspicious, they decided that the young man, Percy Lefroy Mapleton had not committed a crime against another person. More likely, they’d decided, he had been trying to commit suicide, itself a criminal offence. Even after the discovery of the blackened body of the unfortunate coin dealer subsequently taken from Balcombe Tunnel and moved to a shed adjoining the Railway Arms Hotel at Balcombe, the police still took no action against Percy Lefroy, and he remained the only person who knew what had really happened to Isaac Frederick Gold.

A Deliberate Act of Evil

That fateful morning, occupying the smoking compartment of a first class carriage, (the third carriage of the train), Mr. Gold was later jointed by 21 year-old Percy Lefroy Mapleton. Isaac Gold wasn’t to know that this innocuous looking man had set out that morning determined to rob any poor wretch he could find. Having failed to carry out his devious plan at London Bridge, he’d decided to catch the 2.00pm train to Brighton. Once he set his sights on Mr. Gold, he must have thought it was his lucky day. Sometime, between London and Brighton, Percy Lefroy Mapleton stabbed Isaac Gold to death and stole his watch and some gold coins. When he got to Preston Park, he was seen disembarking from the carriage, blood-soaked, in a state of distress, minus his hat, collar and tie, and with a gold watch chain dragging from his shoe. He wasn’t too upset though, to convince the railway staff that he’d been attacked by two men who’d smashed him on the head and knocked him unconscious.
‘I have been murderously attacked,’ he claimed.

Too Much Blood

Percy Lefroy Mapleton actually made a formal charge against his ‘attackers’ and offered a reward to anyone who could catch them and bring them to justice. After being interviewed by a Constable Howland and giving a description of his attackers, he went to the County Hospital. The doctors were confused thinking that the wounds were very slight yet had caused a great deal of bleeding. Percy Lefroy began to feel uneasy and invented a sudden urgent appointment in London, but first he had to go back to the police station for more interviews. The net was closing in on Percy Lefroy Mapleton, and so he went shopping to buy himself a new collar and tie and then set off for Brighton Station.

All Despite the Evidence to the Contrary

Signs of a fierce struggle in the train carriage, including blood on the floor and door handle, and a newspaper and handkerchief found in the compartment, together with three bullet marks, began to alert the police that there was something even more sinister than attempted suicide behind Percy Lefroy’s account. Further, coins similar to those found on him at the time he arrived at the Brighton Station were discovered in the compartment. Things were not looking rosy. Despite that, the police still failed to arrest him and he was escorted by a detective sergeant, George Holmes, to a boarding house run by his relatives in Wallington in Surrey.

            By now a search of the London to Preston Park Railway had been instigated and in due course the blackened body of an elderly man was found in Balcombe Tunnel. It proved, indeed, to be the stabbed corpse of Isaac Frederick Gold. It was a particularly brutal attack. The victim had a deep stab wound in his eye and his face was cut to the bone, gashed from the right ear to the lower jaw and his throat was cut. It appeared the attack took place in Merstham Tunnel and thrown out of the carriage at Balcombe. A knife was found not far from the body and this, too, was covered in blood. His watch, chain and money were all missing so the Station Master at Balcombe immediately alerted the police by telegram.

            That night, Mrs. Gold was told and she left Preston at 10.30pm with Mr. Holes, a neighbour, on the fast train. Mr. Holes did the identification, as Mrs. Gold was unequal to this painful task.

Time for Action – at Last

After the Three Bridges Railway Station stationmaster had informed Det. Sergeant Holmes about the discovery of the body, the detective was told by the Brighton Police to keep Percy Lefroy Mapleton within his sights. The detective was not, it seems, all that bright because when Lefroy Mapleton asked him to wait outside while he changed his clothes. D.S. Holmes agreed and, of course, the cunning murderer made his escape. The Press were asked to help find him by the Director of the CID. The Daily Telegraph made the following appeal with a description, (as reproduced with grateful thanks to Wikipedia and verified)

‘Aged 22, middle height, very thin, sickly appearance, scratches on throat, wounds on head, probably clean-shaved, low felt hat, black coat, teeth much discoloured… He is very round shouldered, and his thin overcoat hangs in awkward folds about his spare figure. His forehead and chin are both receding. He has a slight moustache, and very small dark whiskers. His jawbones are prominent, his cheeks sunken and sallow, and his teeth fully exposed when laughing. His upper lip is thin and drawn inwards. His eyes are grey and large. His gait is singular; he is inclined to slouch and when not carrying a bag, his left hand is usually in his pocket. He generally carries a crutch stick.’

            In addition to this description, the paper printed an artist’s impression. This resulted in plethora of false claims by people convinced they had spotted the murderer.

The Inquest on Isaac Gold

The Coroner was Wynne Edwin Baxter, who opened the inquest on Isaac Gold on 29 June 1881 and the proceedings lasted several days. The police officers involved in the case including Det. Sergeant Holmes, were soundly castigated for their inefficiency and a verdict of wilful murder was returned on Percy Lefroy Mapleton. As a result the Railway Company offered a handsome reward for his capture.


Lefroy Mapleton had found himself lodgings at a house at 32 Smith Street, Stepney giving an alias of ‘Park’. The murderer had sent a telegram to his employer for the forwarding of his salary and this was his undoing, negating his precautions of keeping the blinds drawn and only venturing out after dark. When the police entered the premises, they discovered his bloodstained clothes, but he refused to talk except to deny his guilt.

The Trial

Before the Lord Chief Justice at Maidstone Assizes, Lefroy Mapleton was found guilty within ten minutes after the jury retired, after evidence from witnesses from the Railway company and the police. A woman said she had seen two men struggling in the train as it passed her home. The evidence against him was more than enough for a firm conviction.

            Lefroy Mapleton had needed money and only intended to rob someone at London Bridge, preferably a female who would be an easier target. Since there was no victim suitable, he’d attacked Isaac Gold. Despite his penury, he managed to appear in Court in full evening dress, hoping to impress the jury, including wearing a silk hat, no doubt he found it fitting since he was the godson of Sir John Lefroy, Governor of Tasmania.

Final Moments

Percy Lefroy Mapleton was hanged at Lewes on 29 November 1881 by William Marwood. According to an eyewitness account (with grateful thanks for a reproduction from the Daily Telegraph of 30 November, 1881, on the excellent website, editor Mark Crail), Marwood took great pride in his work. He placed the leather belt around the murderer’s body and fastened his elbows and wrists, leaving his neck bare. It was almost nine o’clock, the clergyman was ready and two warders on hand, one either side of the condemned man. Everyone was waiting, the sheriff and the governor of the jail, the magistrate and the surgeon. Lefroy Mapleton may have worn his best evening garb for his trial but for his execution he was just a poor young man in an old grey tweed suit, tightly pinioned, with bruised wrists and hair disarranged. He was unshaven and with a ghastly pallor. The ‘terrors of death’ were particularly noticeable,’ reports the eyewitness, and continues: ‘He could scarcely take the step which was to place him where he had never stood before and from where he would never step again, and Marwood, who at no instant let go of the belt, was fain once more to push him forward.’

Marwood placed the prisoner under the cross tree. As he took up his position beneath the fatal beam with the assistance of Marwood, Percy Lefroy asked, ‘Will the rope break?’ The executioner simply replied, ‘No.’ Then Marwood had to stoop to secure his legs and then he placed the white cap over the victim’s face. The rope was adjusted and the thimble, through which the rope ran, placed beneath his neck. As the hood went over his head, Lefroy Mapleton lifted up his head, his lips moving as though in prayer. As the clergyman prayed, the lever was pulled back, the trap opened and the victim fell into the vault below, his neck immediately broken. Despite the suddenness of death, the eyewitness felt the preparations had been cruelly prolonged. ‘It was a tedious and horrible form of execution,’ he concluded. The coffin, according to the eyewitness, was a perfect fit. Lefroy Mapleton had been measured for it and placed in it, just to make sure, a few minutes before his execution.

At the Whim of the Executioner

Marwood, Percy Lefroy Mapleton’s executioner, used the long-drop method and death was instantaneous. Some executioners, for example, the notorious William Calcraft (1800-1879) preferred to make a proper spectacle of their handiwork for their own twisted satisfaction and the delectation of their admirers. Calcraft used the short-drop method and made his victims ‘dance’ for him and some of them took several minutes to die by slow strangulation instead of the broken neck effected by the long-drop. Calcraft practised his grisly vocation from 1824 for forty-five years and was said to be very fond of children.

Footnote: William Marwood hated the press and it is claimed he once said he would die happy once he had hanged a reporter.

Execution – An Entertaining Day Out

Until 1868, when an Act of Parliament decreed that executions should take place behind the prison walls as in the case of Percy Lefroy Mapleton, a public hanging was a spectacle and a source of popular entertainment. People went to executions to enjoy themselves and have a good day out. In the first half of the nineteenth century, people were hanged for alarmingly minor offences and often these were multiple hangings. In both the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, children also suffered the death penalty for murder, arson, highway robbery and property crimes. This tragic part of our history includes two children; a boy and girl aged seven and eleven, being hanged at Kings Lynn on 18 September 1708 – for theft. So maybe, although there was still far to go, the Victorians were beginning to move towards a more compassionate and informed morality.
On 29 May 1868, the Capital Punishment within Prisons Bill was passed by Parliament to end public hangings in Britain and all future executions would be carried out behind prison walls. The last public execution in Britain was that of Michael Barrett, who’d attempted to blow up Clerkenwell Prison, killing four passers-by and injuring many more. The first private hanging was carried out at Maidstone Prison two months later when a Dover railway porter was hanged for murdering a stationmaster. (See Dover – Murder & Crime by Janet Cameron)

Cameron, Janet, Brighton and Hove, Murders and Misdemeanours, Amberley Publishing, 2008.

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