"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 11, 2013

The "Herbert Fuller" Murders

Of all the crimes that have taken place at sea, the gruesome triple murder that was committed aboard the barkentine “Herbert Fuller” is among the most frustrating. Whether one thinks the man accused of the killings was guilty or innocent, it is impossible to say that justice was truly done in the end.

A long and unsatisfactory legal saga had its beginning on July 3, 1896, when the “Herbert Fuller,” captained by Charles I. Nash, set out from Boston to South America with a load of lumber. The first mate was Thomas M. Bram, a former restaurant manager who had returned to his original occupation of sailor eight years earlier. Aside from the captain and his nine-man crew, the only passengers were Nash’s wife Laura and Lester Monks, a Harvard student who wished to take a sea-voyage “for his health”—ironic, considering the decidedly unhealthy experiences he was soon to face. (Incidentally, the luggage of the twenty-year old Monks is an interesting touch. Aside from clothing and necessary accessories, he brought on board a bottle of brandy, a bottle of whisky, and sixty bottles of beer.)

Aside from Nash and his wife, all the inmates of the ship were strangers to each other. They got along well enough, with the exception of Bram and Julius Leopold Westerberg (who went by the name of “Charley Brown.”) Brown, who was described as “jolly and talkative”—despite the fact that after a previous voyage he had suffered an episode of paranoid delusions—quarreled frequently with the first mate during the early part of the voyage, in the trivial, querulous way people sometimes do when forced familiarity breeds contempt.

Bram did not appear impressed with his captain, either. The steward later testified that he said of Nash, “Here is a man who has a good wife and is not deserving of her.” He added, somewhat cryptically, “Some other sport will dash his money up against the wall.”

Thomas Bram

The trip, however, was essentially uneventful until the night of July 13. Charley Brown was at the wheel, when he claimed that shortly before two in the morning, he looked into the window of the chart-room and saw Bram striking something with what appeared to be an axe. He also saw a man lying on the floor. Then the first mate went into the main cabin, where the captain and his wife slept. He then heard Mrs. Nash scream. A minute or so later, Bram reemerged on deck. He said nothing, but merely turned and went to starboard.

Before long, another crew member, Francis Loheac, came to relieve Brown at the wheel. Oddly, Brown said nothing of what he had witnessed. He joined Hendrik Purdok, the lookout, as if nothing at all peculiar had happened.

Meanwhile, Loheac heard a “gurgling noise” from the direction of the chart-room. He then saw Bram walk down the steps of the deck. He abruptly turned and ran back up, just as Monks was heard calling “Mr. Bram! Come down!”

Monks, it turned out, had been awakened by Mrs. Nash’s scream. As he came to, he also heard heavy, ominous breathing from the chart-room, which was next to his cabin. Unsure of what was going on, he reached for a revolver that he kept under a pillow (he obviously thought little of his companions) and called for the captain. Getting no response, he opened the door that connected his quarters to the chart-room and rushed in, to find Nash lying on the floor, emitting the labored gasps of one who is painfully dying. Monks ran to the main cabin to summon the captain’s wife. In the dim light, he did not see any sign of her, only sinister-looking dark patches that turned out to be hunks of hair.

Horrified, Monks realized the ship was turning into a slaughterhouse. Keeping his revolver at the ready, he cautiously returned to the deck and summoned the first mate. He added, “The captain is killed!”

Bram took one look at Monks’ gun and came to understandable, if unfortunate, conclusions. Holding a board in front of him for protection, he cried “No! No! No!” The young student managed to convince Bram that he was not an assassin, and got the mate to accompany him back to his cabin so he could change out of his pajamas. On the way there, Bram fetched his own revolver. In order to get to Monks’ cabin, they passed through the chart-room where the captain still lay alive, although obviously breathing his last. Throughout all this, Bram said nothing about Mrs. Nash or the second mate, August W. Blomberg, who were both unaccounted for. He was even silent about the fact that they had just passed a dying man in the next room.

After Monks dressed, the pair returned on deck—again passing Captain Nash, as well as Mrs. Nash’s open door. Bram went to Loheac to ask him where Blomberg was. “Forward,” Loheac replied. When Bram returned, he said calmly to Monks, “There is a mutiny.” Monks asked what had happened to Brown. “He has gone forward with the men,” said Bram. He then cried, “The whole crew has mutinied and may rush on us!” He knelt before Monks, grabbing his legs and begging to be protected. He then stumbled about the deck, vomiting and muttering that Blomberg had poisoned him.

By this point, Monks was, in his own words, “excited but not nervous.” He took Bram to the starboard rail, which enabled him to monitor both sides of the ship. He told Bram to stand guard over Loheac at the wheel.

Lester Monks

The two stayed in position until four a.m., when it began to turn light. They then fetched the steward, Jonathan Spencer, and told him of the grim doings that had taken place overnight. Spencer went down into the after house, where he found Blomberg’s dead body.

The terrified steward ran back up on deck to share this latest horrid surprise. “What does this mean?” he wailed.

Bram suddenly pointed across the ship and announced, “There is an axe. There is the axe that did it!” He was gesturing towards a half-concealed axe, covered in blood. Bram cradled the gory object, repeating hysterically, “This is the axe that done it!”

He suddenly stopped. “Shall I throw it overboard?” And, before anyone could stop him, that is exactly what he did.

The rest of the crew was called on deck, where they were informed there was a murderer in their midst. Bram continued his strange, jittery behavior, noting several times that both he and the Captain had been Freemasons. At one point, he described himself as a widow’s son—although the point was lost on his listeners, he was repeating a traditional Masonic distress signal.

When Bram had calmed down, he offered a decidedly novel solution to this triple murder: Obviously, the two men had killed Mrs. Nash, and then slaughtered each other. “We must not blame the living for the dead,” Bram shrugged, “the dead can’t speak for themselves.” He seemed quite eager for everyone to just put this bit of unpleasantness behind them and go on with their lives. Least said, soonest mended.

It was finally decided to take the ship to Halifax, the nearest convenient port. It is difficult to imagine a more uncomfortable journey. Everyone on board knew they were cooped up with a particularly brutal and senseless killer, but no one knew who he was. There was, however, a growing suspicion about the “Herbert Fuller’s” two strangest inhabitants, Bram and Charley Brown. It was felt that one of those men had to be the killer, but no one could decide which. To be on the safe side, the others put them both in irons until they reached port. From there, the crew was brought back to Boston to have a few words with a Grand Jury.

This panel, after hearing everyone’s stories, brought an indictment against Thomas Bram. His trial began on December 14, 1896. The key testimony came from the three men who were nearest to the scene of the murders: Monks, Brown, and Bram. Monks, a man who evidently radiated inoffensiveness, was universally excluded from any suspicion in the crime. Brown told how from his position at the wheel, he had seen Bram murdering the Captain in the chart room. The terror he felt from this knowledge explained his suspiciously odd behavior aboard the “Herbert Fuller.” Bram retorted that Brown could not possibly have seen him from the wheel—a statement that has been interpreted as either an accidental confession or an innocent statement of fact. He maintained that Brown was undoubtedly the murderer.

The question of motive was a bit of a problem for the prosecution. They found numerous people willing to testify that Bram had long entertained the idea of turning pirate, with the suggestion that he committed these murders in order to seize the ship. The Court, however, excluded all this testimony.

What proved to be a key part of the trial was the question of whether or not Brown could have lashed the wheel long enough to go down and, for whatever insane reason, commit a triple axe murder. The defense, of course, argued that it was very possible to tie the wheel down in such a fashion. The prosecution was not allowed to rebut this testimony, but among the observers, there were any number of experienced seamen who insisted that in the conditions the “Herbert Fuller” faced on the night of the killings, it would have been impossible to immobilize the wheel for more than a minute or so.

The jury began their deliberations on January 1, 1897. By the next day—after apparently a good deal of wrangling—they had their verdict: “Guilty.” Bram was sentenced to death. His lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Central to their argument was the testimony given at the trial by Nicholas Power, the Halifax detective who was the first to formally interview Bram. (It was he who elicited from Bram the suspicious remark that Brown would not have been able to see him murdering the Captain.) The Court agreed that when Power accused Bram to his face of the murders, it had called “imperatively for an admission or denial” by Bram, thereby rendering his response, which was seen as an indirect confession, involuntary. “A plainer violation ... of the letter and spirit [of the Fifth Amendment] could scarcely be conceived of,” wrote one of the justices. They ordered a new trial.

The highlight of Bram’s second trial, which took place in March and April of 1898, was when the jurors were allowed to visit the “Herbert Fuller” to see for themselves whether or not Brown, from his post at the wheel, could have seen the murderous goings-on in the chart room. It was decided that he could have, indeed. The prosecution was also allowed to introduce testimony asserting to the impossibility that Brown could have lashed the wheel long enough to commit murder. Besides, it was argued, if Brown had left the wheel, how was it that Bram himself, the officer of the deck, did not notice his absence?

This jury again found Bram guilty, but added to their verdict the qualification, “without capital punishment.” It was believed this was a compromise verdict made to win over a couple of jurors who were less certain of Bram’s guilt. The former first mate was sentenced to life imprisonment on July 12th, 1898. He was released on parole fifteen years later.

Bram had his champions, who believed that the real murderer was Charley Brown. Foremost among them was the popular novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart. She even wrote a novel based on the case, “The After-House,” where the fictional Bram was an innocent martyr who suffered because of a crime committed by “Charley Jones,” “a homicidal maniac of the worst type.” It is Rinehart who is given most of the credit for Woodrow Wilson’s decision to grant Bram a full pardon in 1919. As a result, the “Herbert Fuller” murders are now officially unsolved.

Bram returned to a life at sea, eventually rising to the position of Captain of his own ship, the “Alvena.” He was last heard from in Portland, Maine, in 1936, after he collided with an anchored lightship. The United States government, he sighed, now owed him at least $4,000 in damages.


  1. Yes, I agree; justice does not seem to have been done, if only because the truth did not come out. A most unsatisfactory case, though it may not have been concluded any better these days.

    1. Yes, it's remarkable how three people could be murdered in a limited area, with only a few people who could possibly have committed the crime, and it still goes unresolved.

  2. I'm just going to say it: weird stuff happens at sea. Really weird stuff. And, sad to say, the sea is not good for those who are already a bit "touched" if you will. The confinement, long days, hard work, unfortunately bland if not downright horrible food and - in the old days - a little too much grog now and then could drive the slightly goofy to the edge of insanity in a remarkably little bit of time.

    Come to think of it, perhaps it speaks ill of me that I love it so...

    1. Indeed. I get the strong impression that *everyone* on board the "Fuller" was a little "off" to begin with, and being crowded together on that small ship could be seen, in retrospect, as a recipe for some kind of disaster.

      And I refuse to think it speaks ill of you, because I feel exactly the same way!

    2. My great-Aunt Genevieve Cormier married Hendrik Purdok, the lookout in 1905. The had 3 girls. He later became a fireman in Fitchburg, MA

  3. The Herbert Fuller was built in 1890 by William Swan & Son and carried cargo from the North East to various
    ports of call, primarily in Central and South America until being sold after fire damaged the ship in 1910.

  4. I've been researching the Herbert Fuller tragedy for several years now - your account is entirely fictional.


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