By Walton Golightly
On the afternoon of June 27, 1881, a train arrived at Preston Park Station near Brighton. Percy Mapleton, 21, stumbled out of one of the coaches covered in blood. He had lost his coat and hat and had a gold watch-chain hanging from his shoe.
He said that during the journey from London Bridge Station two men burst into the compartment. One had hit him on the head, knocking him out.
Later, Mapleton said he had been shot at. As for the gold chain, he said he’d put it in his shoe for safekeeping. A search of the carriage, meanwhile, revealed three bullet holes and other signs of a fierce struggle, including blood. Some expensive Hanoverian medals were also found.
Even though he lodged an official complaint against his attackers, the police were suspicious of Mapleton’s story. They thought he had attempted to commit suicide – a criminal offence in the UK at the time. Then the doctor who examined Mapleton suggested the police detain him, saying his superficial wounds could not account for all the blood found. On hearing this, the police searched Mapleton – and found two Hanoverian medals in his pockets. Mapleton said he didn’t know where they came from.
Feeling they still did not have enough evidence to arrest him, the authorities let Mapleton go. Meanwhile, police searched the line between London Bridge Station and Preston Park Station. In Balcombe tunnel, they found the body of an elderly man, later identified as Isaac Gold, 64. He had been shot and stabbed. Relatives confirmed Isaac’s gold watch and chain and a large sum of money had been stolen. In Brighton, detectives went to question Mapleton, who was staying at a boarding house. Only, he had fled.
The Daily Telegraph published a description of Mapleton, noting he was of middle height with a ‘sickly appearance, scratches on throat, wounds on head, probably clean shaved, low felt hat, black coat, teeth much discoloured’. Mapleton, it added, was ‘inclined to slouch and when not carrying a bag, his left hand is usually in his pocket. He generally carries a crutch stick’.
More importantly, however, notes crime writer Martin Fido, the story was accompanied by an artist’s impression of Mapleton created from a description provided by someone who knew him. It was the first time that a composite picture was used in this way by a newspaper. The novelty generated enormous public interest, and resulted in many mistaken sightings.
Mapleton was finally arrested on July 8, 1881, in Stepney. He still had his bloodstained clothing with him and was later identified by a pawnshop owner as the man who had pawned a revolver with him. At his trial, the court learnt how, desperately short of money, the accused had taken the train with the intention of robbing a female passenger. Finding none, he settled on Gold. Percy Mapleton, who wore full evening dress in court because he thought it would impress the jury, was found guilty and hanged in November 1881.