This was the worst crime Dublin has seen for years.

The morning of Friday, November 14th 1856, the Chief Cashier at the Broadstone Railway Terminus in the City was discovered dead. He had been lying on his desk, covered with his blood, and had fallen into a pool.  

George Little had his throat cut and his head almost unrecognizable. The room was filled with cash and hundreds of pounds worth of silver and gold.

This sickening crime could only have been committed by someone. What happened to the money that was left behind if it were robbery? The unassuming George Little was a man known for his integrity and kindness.

Thomas Morris, forensically deconstructing the Dublin Railway Murder murder inquiry that made news across Britain and Ireland, draws on the National Archives of Ireland’s 160-year-old archive. 

In this piece, Morris, written only for FEMAIL, reveals the bungled police investigation into the murder of Mr Little. He also explains the surprising involvement of a Phenologist, who thought the skull shape could prove the guilt of the main suspect. 

THE MURDER VICTIM: On the morning of November 14, 1856, George Little, the chief cashier of Broadstone railway terminus was found dead on the floor of his office, lying in a pool of his own blood. Pictured, ‘The Murder of Mr Little’ woodcut, from Illustrated Police News, 1882

THE MURDER VICTIM: George Little, chief cashier at Broadstone’s railway terminus, was found unconscious on his desk in his office. He had been dipped into his blood. Pictured, ‘The Murder of Mr Little’ woodcut, from Illustrated Police News, 1882

MURDER WEAPONS FOUND: Dublin’s Broadstone Terminus as it appeared in 1860, showing the pontoon bridge over the Royal Canal. The first breakthrough in the case came when police officers drained the canal and found a hammer and a cutthroat razor in the mud

MURDER WEAPONS FOUND: Dublin’s Broadstone Terminus as it appeared in 1860, showing the pontoon bridge over the Royal Canal. First breakthrough came from police officers who dug through the canal, finding a hammer as well as a razor blade in the mud.

SUSPECT: Any hope of finding the man responsible for Mr Little's murder had all but vanished when Mary Spollin came forward and accused her husband, James Spollin, seen above

SUSPECT – Any chance of finding Mr Little’s killer had almost vanished after Mary Spollin, a woman who accused James Spollin (see above) stepped forward.

Broadstone was the victim of a brutal murder that shocked Dublin. Homicide is almost an unknown crime in Ireland.

Although violent crime was common in rural areas hardest hit by the Great Famine in 1840s, no murderer had been convicted of Dublin’s courts in fifteen years. This outrage was wanted by the public, so that he or she can be caught quickly.

However, they would be disappointed. It would be difficult and complex to investigate George Little’s death in Dublin Metropolitan Police history.

This was a bad start. 

Inquiries only got underway after the conclusion of the inquest – a day after the discovery of the body and, as it turned out, more than 36 hours after the cashier’s death. 

Numerous people from railroad employees to curious citizens of the general public had broken into the crime scene and destroyed any forensic evidence.

Superintendent Augustus Guy (the detective who was assigned to the investigation) learned that George Little had worked until late on the morning of his murder and had remained in his office well into the evening. 

SCENE OF THE CRIME: A contemporary engraving of George Little’s office, the scene of his murder. Source: Illustrated Times, Saturday 11 July 1857

SCENE OF THE CRIME: A contemporary engraving of George Little’s office, the scene of his murder. Source: Illustrated Times Saturday 11 July 1857

George was able to add a surprising amount of money to his account because the railway had seen a lot of traffic that week. There were thousands of people travelling on the train to Mullingar for the annual horse show. 

When the piles of notes and coins remaining on his desk were tallied and compared with the accounts in his ledger it emerged that more than £330 was missing – a fortune for most Dubliners, more than ten times what a labourer would earn in a year.

Superintendent Guy interviewed all those who were present in the building on that particular day. This included more than 40 employees of railways. 

When I began to research the story of the Broadstone murder, I was astonished to discover that the transcripts of these interviews have survived in the National Archives of Ireland – giving a unique insight into the workings of a Victorian murder investigation.

These documents, among other things reveal that detectives had plenty of suspects.

Many of those interviewed had secret identities and were willing to lie about where they were on the night that the murder occurred. 

ON TRIAL: Spollin, in his first public appearance since his arrest, hears the charges against him at the police court. Source: Illustrated Times, Saturday 11 July 1857. He was later acquitted

ON TRIAL: Spollin hears his charges at the police court for the first time since his arrest. Source: Illustrated Times on Saturday, 11 July 1857. Later, he was acquitted 

A letter written by Thomas Kemmis, a government lawyer attached to the investigation, names no fewer than 14 persons of interest – railway employees whose evidence was inconsistent, or gave grounds for suspicion.

While the detectives interviewed the employees, an army uniformed officer scanned the station looking for clues. This was a remarkable scale search. Contemporary newspaper reports claim that police officers removed entire locomotives from their coffins in an unsuccessful search for the money.

Their first breakthrough was when they dewatered the Royal Canal which runs outside the station. Embedded in the mud were a hammer and a cutthroat razor – almost certainly the murder weapons.

This real-life murder mystery featured as many twists as Agatha Christie’s whodunit. 

Five suspects were arrested one after the other, and they were then freed, despite detectives being unable to prove that their guilt.

All hope of discovering the murderer was gone when a local woman spoke up and revealed that she knew his identity to detectives.

This extraordinary development was followed by a similarly sensational trial for murder. 

Newspaper readers became so captivated by the story that it was quickly published as a book. James Spollin was ultimately found innocent. The man who had murdered George Little is still at large and most likely walking around Dublin streets.

One person was certain that he was able to prove the identity and motive of the murderer using an innovative scientific method that left no doubt. Frederick Bridges, a phrenologist was his name.

For a time in the 19th century, Phrenology became a very popular discipline. According to the Phrenologists, the brain shape could be used as a marker of personality or talents. The Phrenologists believed that by simply looking at a client’s skull and feeling each skull’s distinct bumps and ridges they could give a complete picture of their mental abilities.

Bridges wanted to use this experience in policing. Bridges knew that there was something special about a killer’s brain that would distinguish them from the rest of law-abiding citizens. 

A criminal investigation would have devastating consequences. 

Bridges predicted detectives will no longer need to do expensive investigations or gather extensive evidence. Instead, they will hand over any suspects to an anthropologist who will inspect their skulls and determine the identity of the killer.

Why stop at that? Bridges envisaged a world in which people would routinely be screened for their potential phrenological features, and potentially murderous individuals pre-emptively placed behind bars to protect society. The future was very similar to that of Minority Report (a Spielberg film in which potential criminals are detained before they even commit any crime).

NEW THEORY: Frederick Bridges, pictured, was convinced that he could prove the identity of the killer, using a revolutionary new scientific method called phrenology. Phrenologists believed that the shape of a person's brain gave an indication of their personality and talents

NEW THEORY: Frederick Bridges, pictured, was convinced that he could prove the identity of the killer, using a revolutionary new scientific method called phrenology. The shape of the brain of an individual was a sign of their talents and personality, according to phrenologists.

Frederick Bridges spent many years working on his theory. He attended executions across the nation to gather information about the skull sizes of the murderers. He would then remove the corpse of the murderer from the gallows and shave his head. The plaster cast was made for further study.

Bridges collected many plaster heads until he believed he identified an exclusive physical feature that is only found in violent criminals. The angle between the eyebrows and an individual’s ear was what it represented. The angle between an individual’s ear and their eyebrow was approximately 25 degrees in normal people. But in murderers the angle was always much larger, between 35 and 45 degrees – or so Bridges claimed.

Frederick Bridges saw an opening when James Spollin was found not guilty of the Dublin Railway Murder. 

Spollin would have to meet Spollin and inspect his skull before he could answer the question about whether he was really the rail murderer. Lucky for him, Spollin was found in Bridges’ hometown Liverpool a few months later. 

The Dubliner had travelled to the port because he wanted to emigrate to America – but he was virtually destitute, and could not afford the transatlantic fare.

Bridges couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Bridges managed to get an introduction from the Irishman. He became close friends over the next few weeks. 

STUDY: Bridges took a plaster cast of James Spollins's head, pictured. A cursory examination of Spollin's skull was enough to convince the phrenologist that the man was a murderer

STUDY. Bridges made a plaster cast from James Spollins’s skull. The phrenologist was convinced by a cursory examination that Spollin was a murderer after examining his skull.

Spollin had his skull examined by Bridges, who was convinced that he was a serial killer. Bridges was so certain of his findings that he wrote immediately to Sir George Grey, the home secretary, informing him that “the configuration of” [Spollin’s]Head is a very dangerous kind. This country is too dangerous for such a person to exist.

Bridges did not receive a response to the strange letter. It seems the home secretary wasn’t convinced that it was possible for a killer to be identified by the head shape. 

However, others at the top of government were open to his ideas more than other people. Frederick Bridges was soon invited to join Viscount Palmerston who just quit as prime minister.

Palmerston loved phrenology. Palmerston was interested in learning more about Bridges’ method and how it could be used to improve the criminal justice system. Bridges received a long private audience at which point he could examine the head of the great man.

It is possible to believe that Palmerston wanted phrenology to be an integral part modern police work. 

When he returned as prime minister in 1859 he made a special grant to Frederick Bridges of £50 to fund his research. However, these eccentric theories were never accepted by the mainstream because of a variety of reasons. 

Phrenology was discredited by the end of 1850s. Palmerston, perhaps younger and more intelligent members the government, decided to give up the idea.

As for James Spollin, the prime suspect for the Dublin Railway Murder slipped quietly away to a new life on the other side of the world, his fare paid by Frederick Bridges. 

We now know that Spollin’s head shape had no bearing on whether or not he was a killer. But his case nearly transformed policing – and in a very strange way indeed.

Harvill Secker publishes THE DUBLIN RAILWAY MURRDER by Thomas Morris