Not a Gentleman's Work: The Untold Story of a Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth
"the reader will find an epic who dunnit in this detailed but somewhat disorganized narrative about a different America.”
The number of books that explore forgotten crimes in the past grows because these who dunnits are all the more fascinating because they are nonfiction. Such books also recreate for readers adventures in detail of eras long past.
In Not a Gentleman's Work, Gerald Koeppel describes a time "when steam was overtaking sail on the world's commercial and passenger routes." "American seamen were switching to steam vessels or quitting the sea entirely." Sailing ship captains increasingly preferred hiring obedient Europeans seeking a gateway to United States citizenship.
The author gets right into the story. Not a Gentleman's Work has no introduction, only a teaser prologue. Eventually the reader learns that the book tells the story of three ax murders on a voyage to South America in 1896.
A "wood-hulled barkentine . . . a three-masted ship" built in 1890, the Herbert Fuller carried lumber. It also took on passengers, some of whom traveled to enjoy a slow journey even if with limited accommodations. On this voyage the ship had only one passenger.
Frank Monks put his Harvard expelled son Lester on a "long voyage [that] was intended to sever his consumption of alcohol." The son, however, had secretly stocked a more than sufficient supply of beer, brandy, and whiskey for the voyage on the Herbert Fuller.
"It was not strange that among the hired hands on the Herbert Fuller few bothered to introduce themselves to each other." They only passed through between other jobs, sharing only that they were largely from northern Europe.
The ship did not have a happy crew. Captain Charles Nash built his Herbert Fuller and other ships. On previous voyages, he had threatened to kill mutinous sailors. Persons who knew First Mate Thomas Bram found him mentally unstable with issues about being of mixed race.
Sailor Charley Brown (German born former Second Mate Justus Leopold Westerberg) was "the oldest and strangest sailor aboard." He suffered from paranoid delusions. Other members of the crew, from what little survives of their records, also had personal issues.
On the night of July 14, 1896, someone took an ax to Captain Nash and his wife and also to Second Mate August W. Blomberg, killing them on their cots in rooms in the same cabin. These murders were "the end in themselves, the satisfaction of an urge." "Who he [the killer] has never been certain."
Lester Monks slept only inches from the killings but claimed that he only woke up when he heard the screams of Mrs. Nash. She lay separated from him by only a thin wall. Monks had a pistol, and the captain's gun turned up in his room.
A week later, Monks and the eight remaining crewmen found themselves under arrest in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Originally the crew believed that the three victims died at their own hands in a struggle over the ax. The majority of the crew changed their minds and confined sailor Charley Brown and First Mate Thomas Bram on suspicion of the murders.
Koeppel argues for Brown's innocence, for although "a strange duck" and having delusions, he had never seen the inside of the cabin where the murders had occurred and would not have known where to find the ax. At the time of the killings, he was struggling to keep the ship on course during his regular watch.
It remains a mystery that the crew did not also incarcerate the alcoholic college dropout Lester Monks. He gave conflicted details on what he saw and implicated Bram.
Most of the book deals with the long and very different lives of Bram and Monks after the murders. Bram, a black person from St. Kitts, was found guilty in juries composed of white, native born Americans. They likely reached their decisions prejudiced by newspaper coverage that was influenced by the social status and wealth of Monks' father.
In the trials that followed, a federal court in Boston convicted Thomas Bram but, in 1897, the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction and death sentence based on violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. A new trial resulted in a life sentence for Bram although he eventually received a parole (1913) and a presidential pardon (1919) due to a campaign on his behalf by Atlanta newspapers.
With patience, the reader will find an epic who dunnit in this detailed but somewhat disorganized narrative set in a very different America. Such a work can be fun, true crime at its best! Not a Gentleman's Work has annotation and a bibliography.