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.
Her next stop was Rosario, Argentina – only it wasn’t. After just 18 days at sea, the Herbert Fuller turned up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, carrying only eight as she sailed into the harbor flying a black distress flag.
The ship’s jolly boat trailed behind with three murdered corpses. Just nine days into her voyage, the Herbert Fuller had turned into a slaughter house. Someone had taken an ax to the captain, Charles Nash, and his wife Laura, of Harrington, Maine. 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 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.
The Herbert Fuller Mystery
At first the crew tried to develop a theory that Capt. Nash and Blomberg had killed each other. Perhaps 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 clearly the theory made no sense. So by the time the ship arrived in Halifax, the crew whittled the suspects down to three men.
- Lester Hawthorne Monks, the sole pleasure passenger on the ship. A Harvard University student, his doctor advised him to take a sea voyage. Perhaps the doctor hoped to slow Monk’s drinking. If so, he failed. Monks’ baggage included whiskey, brandy and 60 bottles of beer. But suspicion fell on Monks because he couldn’t account for his whereabouts during the crime. He had also discovered the murders.
- Justus Leopold Westerberg, a Swedish sailor with certain peculiar behaviors. Though a jovial and popular member of the crew, he often talked to himself. He once went to a Rotterdam hospital after he grew feverish and suspicious of fellow train travelers. In the hospital, doctors once startled him awake and he fired off his pistol. Then, after the murders, he had to sew the bodies into cloth. Afterward, he threw his bloody coveralls overboard. Westerberg had also acted jumpy and odd after the murders, and he stood at the wheel of the Herbert Fuller when they occurred. Police theorized he tied the wheel long enough to go into the cabins behind the wheel and commit the crimes.
- Thomas Bram, the first mate, hailed from Saint Kitts. He acted suspiciously after the murder. Bram discovered the murder weapon and tossed it overboard. He said he wanted to protect everyone from further attack. Bram had also destroyed other evidence by doctoring the ship’s logs. He initially proposed the Herbert Fuller should continue on its voyage and deliver its cargo. And well before the ship departed, Bram had warned Monks that he shouldn’t go on the trip.
With the Herbert Fuller 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. The police cleared him.
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 arrived ashore safely.
The police took this charge to Bram. His response: “He couldn’t have seen me from the ship’s wheel.”
The comment astounded the police. It seemed to them Bram had slipped and admitted he had been in the cabin where Westerberg said he was. Further evidence came out about Bram’s criminal history. On one occasion he had been charged with delivering cargo on a ship. Instead, he sold the ship’s contents and the ship itself, then told the owners it sank. He had been fired another time for planning a similar crime.
Another witness came forward to tell of a time he had taken another voyage with Bram. Bram had suggested killing the captain and stealing the vessel and its cargo. When the man objected, Bram suggested another captain would do; 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, sentencing him to hang. A procedural error meant Bram received a second trial. He was again convicted, but this time did not receive a death sentence. 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 Herbert Fuller into a yacht and added some glamour to the trip. And to make it even more interesting, in her story Westerberg’s character actually committed the murder, not Bram.
Roosevelt and Wilson
In Rinehart’s story, Westerberg suffers from mental delusions that lead him on killing sprees. Rinehart said that in real life Westerberg showed a pattern of violent, psychotic episodes that extended long after the trial.
Rinehart’s books were extremely popular, and she had a fan in 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 won his release from a Georgia prison in 1913, but found his criminal record 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.
This story about the Herbert Fuller was updated in 2021.