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Murder Aboard

The Herbert Fuller Tragedy and the Ordeal of Thomas Bram

C. Michael Hiam

A brutal ax-murder at sea and a racially charged court case transfixed America, eclipsing even Lizzie Borden in notoreity.

The trial of Lizzie Borden in 1892 seized the public’s imagination both for the brazenness of the crime and for her obvious guilt. That Borden was exonerated and went on to live a comfortable life made her an antihero celebrated ever since in verse, song, film, books—even opera. In late-nineteenth-century Massachusetts, however, her fame was was arguably surpassed by that of Thomas Bram, who was charged with multiple counts of murder in two trials only a few years later. But unlike Borden, whose motive was evident (to hasten her inheritance), Bram stood accused of crimes so inexplicable that no motive was ever established. And Bram’s legal odyssey stretched nearly a quarter century, far longer than that of Borden (whose arrest, trial, and acquittal all happened within ten months); and Bram’s trial ended in frustrating ambiguity regarding his guilt. Bram’s story—much the more nuanced, and so more difficult to comprehend but also more interesting, in legal and human terms—was long forgotten. Until now.

Bram was first mate aboard the barkentine Herbert Fuller, bound from Boston to Buenos Aires with a load of lumber, when, in the wee hours of July 14, 1896, three of his shipmates—the captain, the captain’s wife, and the second mate—were awakened just long enough to behold an ax descending upon them. Hundreds of miles from land, Bram and eight other survivors were left in a state of bewildered shock.

In the welter of bizarre events that ensued, the murder weapon was discarded, the vessel was commandeered and brought to port in Halifax, Nova Scotia, by Bram and two other men—a young Harvard student named Lester Hawthorne Monks, and Johnathan Spencer, the steward—and, owing to a confluence of social factors, Bram alone was indicted for all three murders. Chief among these factors is that Bram, one of only two possible suspects, was a “half-breed negro” from St. Kitts; the other suspect, Charles Brown, a Swede (and the very picture of the hearty Nordic mariner), was cleared. Monks’s father hired a fancy attorney who steered government prosecutors, including the U.S. district attorney, Sherman Hoar, a former U.S. congressman with unfulfilled political ambitions, to hang the deed on Bram.

The heavily biased case against Bram brought Hoar the spectacular conviction he craved, but Bram’s fate hung in legal limbo for years as the case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court—where the verdict was eventually overturned. Now acclaimed author C. Michael Hiam has reconstructed the entire story, from the contested events aboard the Fuller, to the gripping trial, to the afterlives of Bram and other principals.

Credit: Bachrach

Murder Aboard is both a true-crime thriller and an illuminating journey into the social world of the late nineteenth century, and the lasting harm done to an innocent man.

C. Michael Hiam, Ph.D., is the author of Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship; A Monument to Deceit: Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars; and Eddie Shore and That Old-Time Hockey. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Reviews

“Hiam has combined true crime with nautical adventure to create an utterly original and gripping story of murder on the high seas. Three people lay hacked to death in their bunks and the murderer had to be on board—but who was it? A fiction writer who dreamed up such a premise could rightfully be proud, and yet it actually happened—and has been brought to life for us by Hiam’s impeccable research and elegant prose.” —Sebastian Junger

“A riveting account … a brilliantly researched and tightly spun tale.” —Ocean Navigator

“Hiam has a light touch and keeps the story moving, making for an easy, enjoyable read.” —Bob Gordon, Halifax Magazine