‘Opening Up the Body’ is a Wellcome-funded project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1921. This post was written by Project Archivist Natasha Shillingford.
Following on from the discovery of a post mortem case of a monkey on the railway we decided to explore other cases of railway mysteries in the post mortem collection of St George’s Hospital. We soon came across a case worthy of the great Hercule Poirot.
On 23rd September 1886 Moritz Fischer was admitted to St George’s Hospital with a compound depressed fracture of the skull, with laceration of the dura mater and brain with meningitis.
The case notes said that ‘The man was found in a 1st class compartment of the Metrop[olitan] Railway with a fractured skull.’ He was conscious but did not speak. There was a scalp wound about eight inches in length which extended from the centre of the forehead. The external table of the skull was fractured and the internal table was driven through the dura mater into the brain, with the brain substance protruding. The fragments of the bone were picked out with forceps and the scalp was brought together with sutures. He went on well without any special symptoms for nine days when he passed his urine into the bed and became drowsy. His temperature slowly rose from 99 degrees to 106 degrees on the evening of the 3rd October and he died on the 4th.
The post mortem examination states that there was a wound 3 ¼ inches long over the frontal region. It started from a point 1 inch to the right of the middle line and passed obliquely forwards and to the left. The angles of the wound were infiltrated. Beneath it, part of the temporal bone was absent. Some soft greyish substance protruded which was examined microscopically and found to consist almost entirely of nerve fibres, blood and granular matter.
What happened to Mr Fischer in the first-class compartment to cause such brutal and deadly injuries?
Lloyds Weekly London Newspaper reported on September 26th 1886 that on the arrival of the train at Bayswater, ‘the attention of the newspaper boy attached to the bookstall on the platform was attracted to the last compartment by one of the first-class carriage fourth from the engine, there being a stream of blood on the outside of the carriage door, the window of which was open. On looking through into the compartment the lad observed a gentleman lying prostate on the floor, alone, and with his feet towards the door, there being a small quantity of blood on the carpet, and a much larger quantity on the cushion of the seat nearest the engine.’ The acting-inspector on duty opened the door and ‘saw that the unfortunate man was quite insensible, and that blood was flowing from a terrible wound on the forehead.’ The gentleman was ‘attired in a grey overcoat, the coat underneath being of black diagonal cloth, and his trousers were light-striped. His gold watch and chain were safe, as were also his rings, but not much money was found in his possession. A few papers were discovered, and they were all in German. A visiting card was found bearing the inscription, “Mr. Moritz Fischer,” and the police, as the result of subsequent inquiries, ascertained on Friday that the injured gentleman was Mr. Moritz Fischer, head of the firm of Mr. A. Fischer and Co., general foreign agents of 35 Carter-lane, and having residence in Westbourne-terrace.’ Thus it appears that none of Mr Fischer’s belongings were stolen so theft was unlikely to be a motive for an attack. However, ‘It was reported that despite the carriage being empty, they could not be quite certain on the point, owing to the confusion which prevailed.’ Therefore it is entirely possible that another individual was in the carriage with Mr Fischer and escaped during the turmoil.
The police, however, were of the opinion that Mr Fischer sustained his injuries by accident, and the following anecdote appeared to confirm this hypothesis:
‘A friend of the injured man says that about twelve months ago Mr. Fischer met with a curiously similar but by no means so serious an accident while travelling on the railway. He had put his head out of the carriage window when he was struck by some projection in the tunnel. He was severely cut, and had to wear a bandage for some time. The injury then sustained was just over the forehead, as now, but the skull was not fractured. The old accident subsequently formed a standing joke among his friends, and he was often rallied about putting his head out of carriage window and advised not to be of so inquisitive a turn of mind. Only a few nights ago the old joke was repeated to him, along with the question whether he had lately been putting his head out of the window. This may be an explanation of the mystery, or it may be only a striking coincidence; but it is a singular fact that most of the known facts appear to lend themselves to such an explanation of what at first appeared to be a very tragic crime.’
The newspaper paper continues by saying that ‘It is conjectured that Mr. Fischer had a propensity for watching the people who occupied the adjoining compartments, and while indulging in this habit he must have placed his feet on the carriage seat, and in his endeavour to place his body as far outside the window as possible, his head must have come in contact with the projection in the spring of the arch.’
However, at the inquest into the death of Moritz Fischer (reported in the London Evening Standard 08 October 1886), a friend of the deceased, Fritz Mercier, said that despite being aware of Mr Fischer previously having injured his head during a journey from Manchester, he refuted the claim that he was well known to have put his head out a carriage window. Despite this, the inquest further confirmed that there was no sign of a struggle, there was no derangement of the carriage and ‘On the night of the accident when the traffic had ceased, Witness went in a carriage and found at the very spot where it was supposed the gentleman met with his injury, that it was quite possible by leaning about 18 to 20 inches out of the window, to meet with a similar accident. At the same spot there was a continuous trail of blood on the wall.’ Furthermore, a witness spoke to picking up a pair of spectacles about twenty yards from where the blood was found on the wall, and another witness testified that Mr Fischer had never been known to be without his spectacles.
Based on the evidence, and despite conflicting testimonies from the friends of Mr Fischer, the jury returned a verdict of Accidental Death. Foul play or a case of curiosity killed the cat, either way please refrain from putting your head outside a carriage window on a moving train.
If you are interested receiving updates from the Library and the St George’s Archives project, you can subscribe to the Library Blog using the Follow button or click here for further posts from the Archives.