top of page

1881: The physiognomy of a murderer - 'there's no art to find the mind's construction in the face'

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

Percy Lefroy Mapleton (also known as Percy Mapleton Lefroy; 23 February 1860 – 29 November 1881) was a British journalist and murderer. He was the British "railway murderer" of 1881. He is important in the history of forensics and policing as being the subject of the first police composite picture to appear on a wanted poster and in a newspaper.

On the 15th July 1881 Percy Lefroy Mapleton was taken to the committal hearing at the Talbot Hotel in the small Sussex village of Cuckfield. His appearance drew a crowd of locals: "The Cuckfielders gathered around, eyes wide open and mouth agape, for they felt something of surpassing interest to them was about to happen. That “something” was at hand. In another minute a tall, thin, cadaverous young man, tightly held by the left arm by a sturdy policeman, supported, too, on the other side by another constable, and followed by four men in a line, passed through the doorway of the hotel.

It was not “entrancing”, yet it was distinctly painful. The wretched appearance of the central figure in that procession as it moved slowly down the principal thoroughfare of that dull village was such as was capable of moving the most careless mind… There was no attempt at mobbing him; there were no shouts uttered; the unhappy prisoner was, if not exactly pitied, at least to a certain extent regarded with a feeling akin to commiseration – his looks were so depressing."

Read the full story of the Brighton Railway Murder and the capture of Lefroy in SWANSON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A VICTORIAN DETECTIVE



A special correspondent of the Daily Telegraph describing Lefroy's appearance and demeanour in court, says :—There he sat, a direct contradiction of every phrenologist and physiognomist in the world. I can safely say I have seldom seen a more thoughtful, harmless face, with a broad and deep benevolent forehead, quiet, meditative eyes, a cranium that showed none of the supposed characteristics of the murderer; a pallid countenance that might have been merely “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," and that kind of indecisive mouth which those who are always open to convincing argument are popularly supposed to possess.

Mapleton in the first Police composite picture

Lefroy Mapleton seemed to be a man in whose presence any old gentleman might safely place his handkerchief over his head and take a nap in a railway carriage. True that he had a retreating chin, but therein he showed the principal characteristic of higher humanity, for have not Darwin and his disciples shown that with advancing civilisation has come a receding and diminishing chin, and that a day will arrive when very intellectual, benevolent, and well-conducted people will have little or no chin at all?

The fact that Lefroy Mapleton has but a small chin was consequently a point in his favour, and had Lavater been on the bench in place of the venerable, gentleman who presided over the Cuckfield court, I am not sure that he would not forthwith have released the prisoner, and arrested someone else in his place.

I have said Lefroy wore a thoughtful look. His demeanour during the earlier part of the examination, and while the details of evidence against him were read by Mr Pollard was that of a man with a critical air, as though he had been asked to pronounce an opinion on an essay which the lawyer had written and in which, by-the-bye, he took no particular interest.

Photograph of the accused

Clad, as he was, in a spotted brown suit, a stand-up collar, and a black necktie, his arms folded, and his quiet eyes fixed in meditation, no one stepping into the court would have imagined for a moment that the pensive gentleman easily seated in an arm chair at nearly right angles to the magisterial table was the most interested person in the court and the suspected assassin of a quiet and inoffensive tradesman. Not a blush, not a wince were there visible on his face.

Had Mr Pollard been dilating on the influences of a comet or upon the spread of phylloxera, Lefroy Mapleton could not have listened to him with greater indifference.

For details of the Lefroy case please follow the links...



bottom of page