In July 1896, the Herbert Fuller put to sea from Boston with 11 people on board. The barkentine was loaded with lumber, boards stacked high upon its deck, and its next stop was Rosario, Argentina – only it wasn’t. After just 18 days at sea, the ship turned up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, carrying only eight as it sailed into the harbor flying a black distress flag.
Trailing behind the ship was its jolly boat containing three murdered corpses. Just nine days into its journey, the ship had become a slaughter house. The captain, Charles Nash, and his wife Laura, of Harrington, Maine, had been murdered with an ax. The second mate, August Blomberg, a Russian sailor, had also been killed with the ax.
All three had been murdered on the night of July 13-14, and the remaining crew had decided to put into Halifax – some 750 miles away – as it was the closest port available. They spent a harrowing seven nights at sea trying to keep an eye out for their safety and suspiciously watching their fellow passengers.
At first the men tried to develop a theory that Nash and Blomberg had killed each other. The theory was that Blomberg had attacked the captain’s wife and the captain attacked him and her. In the struggle, all three were hacked with the ax and died. But it was clear the theory made no sense, and by the time the ship arrived in Halifax the crew had whittled the suspects down to three men:
- Lester Hawthorne Monks. Monks was the sole pleasure passenger on the ship. A Harvard University student from Brookline, Mass., his doctor had advised him that a sea voyage would be good for his health. Perhaps the doctor was hoping to slow Monk’s drinking. If so, he failed. Monks' baggage included whiskey, brandy and 60 bottles of beer. The primary reason suspicion fell on Monks was that his whereabouts during the murders were unaccounted for, and he discovered the murders.
- Justus Leopold Westerberg. Westerberg was a Swedish sailor who had certain peculiar behaviors. Though he was a jovial and popular member of the crew, he had a habit of talking to himself. And once, when in Rotterdam, he had a paranoid episode in which he grew feverish and suspicious of men traveling with him on a train. He was placed in hospital and when the doctors tried to awaken him one morning, he had awakened startled and fired off his pistol. After the murders he had been given the job of sewing the bodies into cloth to go into the jolly boat. When blood got on his coveralls, he threw them overboard. He was jumpy and behaved oddly after the murders. Westerberg was at the wheel of the ship when the murders occurred, and the theory against him was that he tied the wheel long enough to go into the cabins, which were on the deck behind the wheel, and to perform the murders.
- Thomas Bram. Bram was the first mate on the boat, hailing from Saint Kitts. He acted very suspiciously after the murder. He first said he believed the crew was mutinying. He discovered the ax that had been used to kill the three people and tossed it overboard. He said he wanted to protect everyone from further attack. Bram had also destroyed other evidence: He had doctored the ships logs and he initially proposed that the ship should continue on its voyage and deliver its cargo rather than go back to port. Well before the ship departed, Bram had warned Monks that he shouldn’t go on the trip.
With the ship in Halifax, the police took over and began sorting out the tangled mess. They made inquiries about Monks and concluded the case against him was not realistic. He was in the clear.
Then Westerberg made a startling revelation. He had seen Bram striking someone in the cabin where the bodies of the captain and his wife later turned up. He had been too frightened to say anything until the ship was safely ashore.
The police took this charge to Bram and his response was: “He couldn’t have seen me from the ship’s wheel.”
The police were astounded. It seemed to them Bram had slipped and admitted that he had been in the cabin where Westerberg said he was. Further evidence came out about Bram’s history. On one occasion he had been charged with making a delivery on a ship, but he had sold the ship’s contents and the ship itself, and told the owners it had sunk. He had been fired another time for planning a similar crime.
Another witness came forward to tell of a time he had been on another voyage with Bram. Bram had suggested killing the captain and stealing the vessel and its cargo. When the man objected, Bram offered that it needn’t be that particular captain; the two men could hook on as crew on another vessel to carry out the plan.
The trial, conducted in Boston, was a sensation. The jury convicted Bram, ruling he should be hanged. A procedural error meant Bram received a second trial. He was again convicted, but this time was not sentenced to death. In 1898 Bram went to prison, and the matter might have stayed settled but for a prolific, pulp mystery writer named Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Rinehart was casting about for story lines for a book when she stumbled upon the Herbert Fuller murders in 1914. She liked the story, but decided it needed a plot twist. In her fictional account of the murder, The After House, she made the vessel into a yacht and added some glamor to the trip. And to make it even more interesting, in her story Westerberg’s character actually committed the murder, not Bram.
In Rinehart’s story, Westerberg suffers from mental delusions that lead him on killing sprees. Rinehart said that in real life Westerberg had a pattern of violent, psychotic episodes that extended long after the trial.
Rinehart’s books were extremely popular. Among her readers was Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt took an interest in the case and bought Rinehart’s version of events. He lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to pardon Bram.
Bram had been released from prison in 1913, but found that having a criminal record was a disadvantage. Wilson acquiesced and, though he didn’t specifically declare Bram innocent, he did give him the pardon in 1919. Bram spent the rest of his life as a businessman in Georgia, where he had been imprisoned.