“A Carnival of Murder on the High Seas,” announced the Halifax Herald, the evening paper of the Canadian port where the Herbert Fuller arrived on the morning of July 21, a week after the killings. “One of the most thrilling tales of murder on the high seas ever related in the new world, startles the people of this continent today.” This was not an overstatement. News of the Fuller murders appeared in hundreds of American newspapers in every state, from New York to Los Angeles, Maine to Texas, and across Canada, most often under page 1 headlines. “For cold blooded butchery,” concluded the Boston Globe, “the crime has few parellels [sic].” Versions of what had occurred aboard the ship and how it managed to find its way to shore would emerge in bits and pieces over the coming days.
The ship was met by a pilot outside the harbor at six in the morning and brought into the anchorage. Trailing behind the ship was one of its two small boats, in which the three bodies had been placed the morning of their discovery. The dock was already crowded as the boat was brought alongside: “The stench was frightful and those nearest the water hastened away.” Somebody official cut the fastenings of the boat’s canvas cover and ripped it open, exposing the bodies: “They were wrapped in white shrouds, which were soaked with slime, salt water, blood and decaying matter.” “It was a terrible sight,” wrote another observer, “or rather, more horrible from what was not seen, but felt, than what was discernable. . . . There they were—lying beside each other, undistinguishable from bags of merchandise, in their horrible companionship of days!” The crowd on the dock “pushed and swayed” to catch a glimpse of the corpses, but they were seen by only a few officials and reporters “and were not exposed to satisfy the morbid curiosity of the crowd.” The bodies were brought up and placed in wooden boxes. “The corpses presented a ghastly, sickening sight as the canvas was lifted from the silent forms. The faces were covered with dried clotted blood and their hair was disheveled and matted; the men were dressed in underclothing, which was torn and soaked with crimson fluid. The canvas was quickly dropped back; none cared to gaze for more than a few moments at the soul-rendering spectacle.” The bodies were taken off to the city morgue; the crowd there was mostly women. “Many of them fainted and it was no more than they deserved.”
The survivors, meanwhile, were all brought ashore and taken to the police station. All were under arrest, though their status varied. In the past week, suspicions among the survivors had settled first on Charley Brown and then on Tom Bram. Both arrived in Halifax as prisoners of the other seven; Brown had been chained at the base of the main mast, Bram at the mizzen. Now, the two suspects were placed in separate jail cells. Bram, though, was quickly reported to be the single “suspected murderer.” The other crew members, including the steward, Spencer, were put together in other cells, while Lester Monks, officially under arrest, was confined only to the police chief ’s office, with an officer as guard. The deference shown Monks, well dressed and identified as a Harvard student, included the favor of sending a telegram.
“Ship at Halifax. Come at once.” Frank Monks had no idea what his son’s telegram on the morning of the twenty-first meant. He thought perhaps the ship had been wrecked or disabled in some way and Lester might be a victim. He rushed to the Boston Chamber of Commerce, where from various reports he learned the reason for the ship’s arrival in Halifax and that Lester was uninjured. But barely two weeks after he had sent his worrisome son away for what he expected would be many months, if not more, Frank Monks once again found himself enmeshed in Lester’s troubles. The senior Monks made plans to get to Halifax as fast as possible, by train, with his brother George to accompany him. Frank Monks also hired Frank G. Forbes, “a clever young Halifax barrister.”
Lester—white, well spoken, and the only surviving native American of the Fuller’s people—quickly became the focus of newspaper attentions. His “is the only narrative, reliable or unreliable as it may be, that can be ascertained so far,” hedged the Washington Evening Times late on the twenty-first. Morrill Goddard was less cautious. Goddard, the editor of the New York Sunday Journal, telegraphed Monks: “Will you write story of experiences on board the Fuller for Sunday Journal in about two thousand words and telegraph it tomorrow, Thursday evening? Will send you check for such article at usual magazine rates. Wire answer my expense.” A handwritten “Please” was added before the last instruction. Monks did not reply.
Monks did make a statement, to a local reporter who happened to get a few minutes with him late on the twenty-first. It was the first public accounting of what happened on the Herbert Fuller.
At the time of the murder I occupied an apartment between the chart room and the captain’s cabin. To the right of the cabin was the room occupied by the second mate. At the time of the murder the captain was in the chart room. We all retired about 11 o’clock on the night of the July 13. Toward 1 o’clock in the morning I was awakened by screams. I thought I might possibly have been dreaming, and lay over on my side. A few seconds after I heard another scream. I realized that the alarm came from Mrs. Nash. I grabbed my revolver, and took time only to put on my trousers, and ran out with the revolver in my hand to ascertain the cause.
I had to pass the captain’s chart room. The light was burning, and I saw the captain dead on the floor. I heard footsteps in the companionway, and followed them to the deck. There I confronted the first mate. He had a billet of wood in his hand, and assumed a threatening attitude. I leveled my revolver at him, and asked him who had committed the murder.
The first mate said he did not know, and we decided to investigate. All hands were called up. The colored steward and I and the mate decided to put Charles Brown, who was at the wheel at the time [of the murders], in irons. In the morning I made the following report in the log book:
“On this day the steward of the said Herbert Fuller came to me and told me that the sailors all came and made an open statement to him in reference to one of the sailors whose name is Charles Brown. The statement was to his conduct of guilt in regard to the murder which took place on board said vessel. At once we got each man’s statement. On the strength of these statements we concluded to put him in irons. At daybreak, at 7 a.m., all hands were mustered aft and thoroughly searched, and no other weapons were given them but their knives. Each man was then placed a certain distance apart from each other until after hours. Myself, the steward and the mate were stationed amidship, and a good lookout kept until daylight.”
Charles Brown, who was put in irons, made a subsequent statement accusing the mate of the murder. He said he saw him kill the captain through the transom over the chart room. The steering of the ship was then entrusted to the first mate.
The cook, who knew something of navigation, looked at the compass two days after the murder and said the first mate was not steering the course given him. He was steering the ship in an opposite direction. This looked suspicious, and the cook and myself after consultation decided to have the first mate placed under arrest. He was taken unawares and placed in irons. The cook then navigated the vessel to a point off Halifax harbor.
We tried to get the ship back to Boston, but owing to the wind at the time we were obliged to make for the Nova Scotia coast and brought up near Sable Island. We drifted about in the fog for some time and finally saw a pilot, who brought the Fuller into this port. We kept the bodies for three days, as long as we could. The odor of decomposition then became unbearable, and we decided to place them in a boat and cover them with canvass. The boat was towed behind the vessel.
The experience on board was enough to make the stoutest heart quail, and it was a great relief to my pent-up feelings when we came to anchor in Halifax.
This first account of what happened on the Herbert Fuller provided some answers to the mystery but created many more questions; many details would be proved wrong. Monks did not retire at eleven o’clock; he did not put on his trousers; there were no footsteps to hear in the cabin. Bram never steered the ship; Spencer knew nothing about navigation; Boston was never an option. And so forth. It is unclear how Monks quoted an extended log-book entry. Subsequent revelations would prove essential portions of Monks’s account at best incomplete and at worst duplicitous. But if Monks’s statement to the reporter was designed to focus suspicion on Bram, it was very effective.
Still, one logical question about Monks’s actions, or lack of action, immediately occurred to reporters. “The passenger must have slumbered deeply or been strangely deaf to his surroundings not to have heard something of what was going on on the other side of the thin partitions,” observed the Washington Evening Times. “The murders were not committed without noise for the fiendish killing was accomplished with an ax, and the victims were butchered in a most sickening manner.” The Halifax Herald also wondered: “One of the most mysterious elements in this terrible crime is how [Bram], or whoever did the murder, could kill two men and almost finish a third [murder] without wakening Monks.”
There is no definitive narrative of what happened on the Herbert Fuller from the time of the murders to the end of the abbreviated voyage eight days later in Halifax. Nine survivors, one of them the killer, each told his own tale, varying in length, detail, and reason. Most of the men just told what little they knew; some told what they imagined; at least one told what might prove rewarding—a salvage fee worth more than two years of regular wages; one told lies to cover his tracks as the killer.
Lester waited anxiously for his father’s arrival. “He became very nervous as time passed, and his hands shook and dark circles blackened his eyes.” On the morning of the twenty-second, though, after a good night’s sleep in the city marshal’s private office, Monks’s first long sleep in a week, he was all talk again, again to the Boston Globe.
It was, wrote Thomas F. Anderson, the Globe reporter who interviewed Monks at some length in the police chief’s office, a “rather disjointed narrative,” not a roughly chronological account, like the previous day’s report. (Anderson, a Boston newspaperman since the late 1880s, had unusual access in Halifax, where he was born in 1865.)
“Young Monks,” the reporter observed in preface, “is an exceedingly good looking and frank appearing young fellow, and a typical Harvard man in tone and action.” How this reflected on Monks depended on one’s opinion of typical Harvard men, though Monks apparently had neglected to specify that he was a former typical Harvard man.
A full night’s sleep after a week had restored him. “I never really knew the true value of sleep until last night. To go eight days and nights without any is hard enough, but when it is accompanied, as in my case, by the knowledge that in wakefulness alone lies the hope of life, the mental and physical condition of one who suffers is scarcely to be described.” Spencer, in fact, slept less than Monks, but Monks had little to say about him.
“I do not, of course, know,” Monks continued, “just how long a period elapsed between the time I was awakened by what I believe was Mrs. Nash’s screams and the time I reached the deck and confronted the first mate, but it could only have been a very few minutes and the very most, not more than 10.”
Monks acknowledged that this would not have been enough time for Bram, if he was the killer, to have gone aft to consult with Brown: “Here is a seeming mystery that I am not prepared to explain, and at the present moment I could not say definitively on my oath just who killed the three victims, although morally certain of his identity.”
“I firmly believe that it was Bram,” Monks then asserted, “and I also believe that the superinduced cause was whisky.” Liquor is something about which Monks was well schooled.
“I firmly believe that it was Bram,” Monks then asserted, “and I also believe that the superinduced cause was whisky.” Liquor is something about which Monks was well schooled.
Was Bram a drinker? Not historically: “He wasn’t a drinking man himself,” New York shipping agent William Whicker would say. “I’ve seen him around here weeks at a time, and never saw him take more than a glass of beer at a time, and that was very seldom.” In any case, Monks said he suspected that Brown was somehow involved but for some reason said nothing for days. “This reticence, to my mind, I could not possibly understand, and do not know how any man could keep such a horrible secret so long, and give no indication that he was the possessor of it. It may be, however, that the man was simply a coward, and that his fears of possible consequences to himself were sufficient to restrain him.” Indeed.
The helmsman Brown himself, said Monks, could not have left his position to do the killings. “The wind was aft abeam and in that case even a momentary neglect of the helm would have brought the bark about.” Dozens of ship captains would eventually testify about how long the ship would hold its course.
The reporter mentioned talk that Bram may have intended to take over the ship and sell it to insurgents in Cuba, where the unrest that soon prompted the famous American invasion was brewing. “I doubt,” said Monks, “if Bram, who certainly has some intelligence, very seriously considered the feasibility of such a course. It would have been very easy to convince the seamen, who were a mixed and rather ignorant lot, that such a scheme could be worked, but Bram himself must have known that the thing was practically impossible.”
Monks wasn’t shy about his opinion of the crew. “If it all had the effect upon me it did, what must it have had upon the superstitious fears and fancies of the sailors themselves? As time wore on this feeling grew upon them, and some of them were in a veritable panic over the imagined groans and screams they heard at night.” There actually is no evidence of that.
The Globe reporter observed that Monks’s experience sounded like one of W. Clark Russell’s sea stories. “Well, now, that brings up another strange coincidence,” Monks replied, without mention of a first strange coincidence, “for the very evening before the murder I had been reading one of Clarke [sic] Russell’s stories, in which a lot of Malays rise up and murder the captain of the vessel. I little dreamed that within a few short hours I myself would be an actor in an almost similar tragedy.” Monks didn’t specify his role. Nor, apparently, had he closely read Russell’s factual account. It was just two Manila sailors who mutinied, killing both mates and several crewmen before setting the ship on fire and, after being shot by the wounded captain, jumping overboard. In one of the ship’s boats, the captain, his wife, and their young daughter, with the fourteen remaining crew, made a passage of seven hundred miles to St. Helena and eventually, by Cunard steamer, back to New York. The heroic captain, who had been jailed for brutality to a previous crew, was quite alive and comfortably retired in 1896. Later, Monks strangely would say that he didn’t remember saying anything to the reporter.
If he was confused about the story he was reading in the hours before the murders, Monks was clear that being armed saved him. “If I had not had my revolver with me when I reached the deck, after discovering the slaying of Capt. Nash, I should probably have been the fourth victim.” How that is so is unclear. “The fact that I had the revolver with me,” he continued, “I owed to a sudden impulse. Just before I started on what I thought was to be such an enjoyable and health-giving trip, I happened to think of the desirability of getting a revolver. At first I had decided not to get one, but happening to be near a gun store in Boston, and having some spare change, I went in and purchased the firearm. That fact unquestionably explains why I am here today a live man.” But a dishonest one; in fact, as he would ultimately acknowledge, his uncle had provided the gun.
Monks’s grandiose lying to the Globe reporter about the gun suggests that other parts of Monks’s story might also be invented. His inversion of the truth about the Thayer’s Captain Clarke—he was a heroic survivor, not a pathetic victim—suggests a psychological blockage about the Fuller’s captain. Both were strong men capable of violence, but the one in the book Monks was reading was the survivor and the one who slept a few feet from Monks was the victim.
In all of the long interview, as in Monks’s account of the previous day, there was not a word of feeling for the victims, especially Charles and Laura Nash, the couple with whom Monks had shared meals, a cabin, and a measure of social equality. Lester’s comments were all about his own miraculous escape and nothing about the tragic loss of life. Narcissism hadn’t quite been invented yet—Freud’s paper introducing the modern psychological concept was published in 1914—but Lester M. would have made a fine patient.
That was it for Lester’s free speech. The elder two Monkses arrived in Halifax very late on the twenty-second and went immediately to the jail. “The strain on young Monck [sic] has been so great that he broke completely down at the meeting with his father, and he went into a dead faint. Stimulants had to be administered to revive him.” After that, Lester was entirely under the control of his relatives and attorney Forbes. His public statements to reporters ceased.
On the morning of the twenty-third, the US consul general in Halifax, Darius Ingraham, started taking evidence from the Fuller survivors. Ingraham (1837–1923), a Maine native and former Portland mayor, had been appointed to the Halifax position by President Cleveland in 1893. It was a job that rarely called for much effort or expertise. Indeed, Ingraham and everyone else were quite “at sea regarding the question of proper legal procedure.” Thus, numerous people were present for the rounds of questioning, including several city officials and the entire Monks brigade: Lester, his father, his uncle, and his lawyer, Forbes. In fact, Ingraham invited Forbes, whom he knew well from his several years in Halifax, to participate in the questioning. Ingraham later explained: “I stated to Mr. Forbes that, as he was counsel for Mr. Monks and as these prisoners had no counsel, that it might be the interest of justice if he thought of any question which might further the interest of justice that he could ask, as well for the benefit of the prisoner as for the public.” As to the fact that Forbes had been hired to protect Lester’s interests and that it might conflict with the interests of others, Ingraham shrugged. “Well, I had no particular thought about that.”
It was Ingraham’s job to conduct the interview of Bram, as with the others, but he let Forbes take over for the questioning of Bram. It was, Ingraham admitted, “quite a lengthy deposition.” Finally, after making no objection to any of Forbes’s questions, Ingraham just seemed to get tired of them: “I said finally I thought the questions were unnecessary, that it made a prolongation of it.”
Precisely what questions Forbes put to Bram is unrecorded. But to a reporter afterward, Bram said, “Yes, I have stated that it was not I who committed the murders, and I feel that the matter will be cleared in a short time, and it will then be shown that I am innocent. I have nothing to fear.” Apparently, Bram felt unthreatened by Forbes’s questions. For his part, Forbes apparently gained enough information to protect his client.
The contents of his bags were never examined, including the pajamas he was wearing ten nights earlier.
On the afternoon of the twenty-fourth, Ingraham announced that Monks was “exonerated from all blame” and freed. The three Monkses proceeded quickly to the Herbert Fuller and gathered Lester’s belongings, including his liquor from the storage room. As he was no longer considered a suspect, no one in authority ac- companied them. The contents of his bags were never examined, including the pajamas he was wearing ten nights earlier.
The public, meanwhile, not privy to the details of the investigation, was left to speculate. One question in particular was still being asked: “Many persons have asked how it is that the passenger slept up to the time Mrs. Nash was being killed.” The question would go unanswered.
While Monks escaped serious inquiry, Spencer emerged as a hero to some. “Somebody ought to erect a monument to that man,” Detective Nicholas Power told a Boston Herald reporter on the twenty-third. “It was one of the best pieces of work imaginable. If it had not been for Spencer there is no telling what might have happened.” Power’s opinion was not enough to free Spencer from confinement.
More quickly than he might have, Detective Power decided what happened on the Fuller. This was typical. Over a long career, Power imagined himself a great crime solver, a proto–Sherlock Holmes. In fact, he was more of a proto-Clouseau, though Clouseau, while bumbling, always got the right man; Power, equally self-impressed, usually got the wrong man. When he died in 1938, age ninety-five and long retired, he was carefully described in the local paper as “the most colorful police figure Canada has ever produced.” Power’s career highlights were mostly major errors in black-and-white. In 1876, he became convinced two visiting Americans were responsible for a local bank robbery. The case against them contained no physical evidence, no witnesses, and no recovered money; neither the Americans nor anyone else was ever convicted. Power showed no interest in a bank official who, days after the theft, left suddenly for England. In 1883, Power famously arrested and interrogated two Irish Americans he believed were planning to assassinate Britain’s Prince George, the future King George V, aboard a royal yacht in Halifax Harbour. The suspects had dynamite, diving suits, and related apparatus. As it turned out, the men knew nothing about the prince; they were headed to jobs in local coal mines.
In 1896, Power had a third opportunity to nail an American suspect. He had Bram brought to him for questioning. This was before questioning of Bram by the American consul and after Power had questioned Monks and Brown. Bram arrived chained; Power personally stripped him.
“Bram,” Power began, “we are trying to unravel this horrible mystery. Your position is rather an awkward one. I have had Brown in this office and he made a statement that he saw you do the murder.”
“He could not have seen me,” Bram replied. “Where was he?”
“He states he was at the wheel,” said Power. “Well, he could not see me from there.”
Power pressed: “Now look here, Bram, I am satisfied that you killed the captain, from all I have heard from Mr. Brown. But some of us here think you could not have done all that crime alone. If you had an accomplice you should say so, and not have the blame of this horrible crime on your own shoulders.”
“Well,” Bram replied, “I think and many others on board of the ship think that Brown is the murderer, but I don’t know anything about it.”
Whether Bram’s statement to Power contained an implicit admission of guilt (“he could not have seen me”) or a profession of innocence (“I don’t know anything about it”) would be contested for years to come.
Reports of Power’s interview with Bram quickly found their way into the press, via Power, of course. “The police are apparently satisfied that the mate, Thomas Bram, is the perpetrator,” reported the New York Times, “and believe that they will have but little difficulty in fastening the crime on him.”
Bram, for his part, denied it: “I assure you I did not commit the murders. Brown was the only one who could have committed the murders.” He told the Halifax police chief, “Tom Bram has neither part nor lot in this murder case. I am, as it were, cast into the den of lions, and I am glad to say that the same God that delivered Daniel is able to deliver me, and will deliver me.”
Late on the twenty-third had come word from US authorities that indeed any trials would be held in Boston and that all of the Fuller survivors were to be transported there as soon as possible. “Although he did not fear the issue of a fair trial anywhere,” re- ported one paper that day, Bram had one concern if he wound up on trial in Boston: “In his opinion the citizens of Boston would be prejudiced against him owing to the fact that a Boston man had played so prominent a part in the case.” Meanwhile, faith in Brown as a witness took a hit. A reporter spoke to him at length on the twenty-fourth; the next day’s headline was “BROWN A MADMAN?” Word of his Rotterdam event had gotten out, and Brown confirmed it. “The question which naturally arises now,” asked the paper, “is, was there any derangement of Brown’s faculties at the time of that horror on board the Herbert Fuller.” Brown, like Bram, remained locked up. So did supposed hero Spencer, a situation that drew the attention of Boston’s Dr. John Dixwell. Dixwell was a brother-in-law of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the son of a prominent lawyer who had been master of the Boston Latin School. Like many in this story, Dixwell had been educated at Harvard. As an undergraduate, Dixwell had studied geology under Nathaniel Shaler who, a quarter century later, oversaw the end of Lester Monks’s higher education. As a prominent Bostonian, Dixwell was deeply involved in social philanthropies and had been following the Fuller case closely since the news broke, particularly the unfairness to Spencer. “It is the irony of fate,” Dixwell told the Boston Globe, “that because this poor colored man is utterly without friends he should not be shown that same equality before the law which the Halifax authorities have already accorded to Monks.”
Dixwell had wired Lester’s uncle (whom he knew as a fellow doctor) in Halifax, asking him “to make every effort possible” to get Spencer released; Dixwell offered to furnish bail in any amount. Dr. Monks did not reply, and Dixwell awaited the crew’s return to Boston. Canadian authorities had no authority to hold them. The crimes had happened on an American ship in international waters.
A steamer brought the entire contingent from Halifax to Boston. All of the Fuller survivors were technically under arrest, but their travel conditions varied, from Bram, relaxed and “neatly dressed” but handcuffed and locked in a storeroom, to Monks, at liberty with his father, uncle, and lawyer in comfortable staterooms. The steamer arrived at Boston on the morning of the twenty-seventh. The Boston Globe hailed Monks as “the boy hero of the bark.” As Charley Brown, manacled, went down the gang-plank to shore, he and the captain and crew exchanged good-byes. Reaching the bottom of the gangplank to be met by a deputy marshal, Bram held out his manacled hands and said, “Good morning,” and then continued for those in range, “I feel first rate, and am glad to get to Boston. I hope this thing will be over quick.”
It would not be.