Thomas M. Bram

Unguarded remark construed as confession to triple ax murder

Thomas M. Bram was convicted and sentenced to death in federal court in Boston in 1896 based on what was deemed an “inferential confession” to a triple murder aboard a U.S. merchant ship on the high seas — even though he emphatically denied that he had committed the crime.

A little after 2:00 A.M. on Tuesday, July 14, 1896, the Herbert E. Fuller was 750 miles and five days into a voyage from Boston to Argentina with a cargo of lumber when the captain, Charles I. Nash, his wife, Laura A. Nash, and the second mate, August W. Blomberg, were hacked to death with an ax in the vessel’s after house, the structure housing a chart room and officers’ quarters near the stern.

Lester H. Monks, a Harvard University student who had joined the voyage as a passenger, was awakened by a woman’s scream. Armed with a revolver, he rushed to Mrs. Nash’s cabin, where he found the door ajar and her lying dead in a pool of blood. In an adjoining room, he found the captain, not yet dead but unable to speak.

Monks cautiously made his way forward, emerging onto the deck through a hatchway near the main mast, where Bram, the first mate, was on duty. Seeing Monks holding a revolver, Bram picked up a plank and threw it at him. The plank missed Monks, who shouted, “Come below, the captain has been murdered! Come below, for God’s sake!”

Bram and Monks went below, examined the bodies, and returned to the deck, where they stood back to back, each armed, ostensibly in fear of mutiny. The only other man on deck was Francis M. Loheac, who was at the wheel of the ship. Just minutes before Monks discovered the bodies, Loheac had relieved the man who would become Bram’s principal accuser — a seaman who went by the name Charlie Brown but whose real name was Justus Leopold Westerberg.

As daybreak approached, the ship’s steward, Jonathan Spencer, emerged from the forecastle, where the crew was quartered. When Monks and Bram told him that the captain and Mrs. Nash had been slain, Spencer ventured into the after house, where he discovered Blomberg’s body.

Spencer, Monks, and Bram questioned Loheac, who said he had heard nothing out of the ordinary during his turn at the wheel. Suddenly, Bram pointed across the deck and exclaimed, “There is an ax. There is the ax that done it.” Spencer picked up the ax, but Bram took it from him. “Shall I throw it overboard?” Bram asked. “Yes,” Monks replied, as he would explain under oath, “for fear the crew may use it against us.”

“No,” Spencer shouted — but it was too late. Bram had thrown the ax into the ocean. “You shouldn’t have done that,” said Spencer.

The crew then was summoned to the deck. Although the killer presumably would have been splattered with blood, none was found on anyone. Bram placed Westerberg second in command and set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was not the nearest port but was favored by the prevailing winds.

The next day, Westerberg came under suspicion when crew members reported that he had changed clothes after leaving the wheel. When questioned, Westerberg acknowledged that he had changed, but insisted he had done so only because he was cold. Bram, professing disbelief, ordered Westerberg manacled and proclaimed that the killer was in custody.

Four days later, Westerberg accused Bram of the crime. Westerberg claimed that while at the wheel, which was directly behind the after house, he had heard a noise in the chart room and, peering through a skylight window, had seen Bram strike Captain Nash with what was now presumed to be the ax Bram had thrown overboard.

As dubious as Westerberg’s accusation might seem — coming as it did from an accused man five days after the fact — the crew seized and shackled Bram. Spencer assumed command, and Herbert Fuller proceeded to Halifax, arriving on July 21 with both suspects in irons and the victims’ bodies in a small boat towed astern.

Westerberg’s version of events apparently rang true to Halifax Police Detective Nicholas Power, who led the investigation. Power’s suspicion of Bram may have been heightened by his pernicious disposal of the murder weapon, which of course might have borne fingerprints.

Although fingerprinting had yet to be employed forensically, the potential had been popularized by Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Pudd’nhead Wilson in the 1880s. Racism also may have been at play. Bram was of mixed race and had a swarthy complexion darkened by exposure, whereas Westerberg was white, as were the victims.

In any event, whatever Power’s considerations may have been, by his own account he presumed Bram guilty from the start. Power would testify that he prefaced his interrogation of Bram: “Your position is rather an awkward one. I have had Brown [Westerberg] in this office, and he made a statement that he saw you do the murder.... Now, look here, Bram, I am satisfied that you killed the captain, from all I have heard from Mr. Brown.”

According to Power, Bram responded, “He [Westerberg] could not have seen me; where was he?” “He states he was at the wheel,” said Power, and to that Bram was quoted as replying, “Well, he could not see me from there” — an assertion that lawyers in the case would call an “inferential confession.”

Power related the substance of what Bram allegedly had said to the U.S. consul in Halifax, who transferred jurisdiction of the case to Boston. There, on October 29, 1896, a grand jury — relying solely on Westerberg’s purported eyewitness account — returned an indictment charging Bram with the three murders.

Bram’s trial opened on December 14, 1896, before a jury and, under a procedure peculiar to maritime cases, two federal judges, Le Baron B. Colt and Nathan Webb. The prosecutors were Sherman Hoar, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, and his assistants, Jonathan H. Casey and Frederick P. Cabot. Two able court-appointed attorneys, James E. Cotter and Asa P. French, defended Bram, who was indigent.

The prosecution case relied primarily on Westerberg’s purported eyewitness account, which the defense attempted to undermine by eliciting on cross examination that Westerberg had been confined to a mental institution in Rotterdam five years earlier following a violent psychotic episode. The prosecution of course also called Spencer and Monks, who described how Bram had thrown the ax overboard. And Monks described how Bram had thrown a plank at him, although this hardly seemed sinister, given that Monk was pointing a revolver at Bram.

The only other prosecution witness of consequence was Detective Power, who described what he said to Bram and what Bram said to him during the interrogation in Halifax. On cross examination, Power acknowledged that Bram’s words could be construed innocently — Bram’s might have been saying simply that it was impossible to see into the after house from the wheel.

When the prosecution rested, Bram took the stand to deny the crime.

Bram was followed on the stand by an expert witness — Hugh G. Messenger, a ship carpenter, who testified that he had examined the Herbert Fuller at the behest of the defense and determined that Westerberg, from his vantage point behind the wheel, could not have seen what he claimed to have seen.

The prosecution had not arranged an inspection of the ship, which was at sea during the trial, and thus had no expert to counter Messenger. The defense also recalled Monks to the stand to testify that, in the seconds between Mrs. Nash’s scream and his encounter with Bram on deck, Bram would not have had an opportunity to change clothes — a crucial point, given that the killer’s clothes would have been blood splattered.

The case went to the jury on New Year’s Day 1897. That evening, the jurors conducted an experiment, ostensibly to verify Messenger’s claim that Westerberg could not have seen the attack. Using napkins to cover parts of a window in the jury room, they created an opening the size of the skylight through which Westerberg would have peered. Then, guided by a diagram prepared by Messenger, the jurors looked through the window from the approximate distance of the ship’s wheel to the after house and concluded that it would have been possible for Westerberg to have seen what he described.

Some jurors continued to harbor reasonable doubt, however. It took some ballots for the jury to agree on a guilty verdict, which was returned on January 2. When Bram’s lawyers learned of the unauthorized experiment, they moved for a new trial, but on March 9 the motion was denied and Bram was immediately sentenced to death by hanging — the only sentence permissible for murder under federal law at the time.

“If I have to die,” Bram tearfully told the court, “I thank God I shall die an innocent man.”

Bram’s execution was set for June 18, but it was stayed pending appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. The oral argument spanned two days, October 18 and 19, 1897, with French arguing for Bram and U.S. Solicitor General John K. Richards for the government.

Of sixty-seven issues aired in the appeal, by far the most extensively briefed and argued was the admission of Power’s testimony. And it was based on that issue that the court, by a six-to-three vote on December 13, granted Bram a new trial. The majority held that Power’s confrontation of Bram had called “imperatively for an admission or denial” by Bram, thereby rendering his response involuntary.

“A plainer violation ... of the letter and spirit [of the Fifth Amendment] could scarcely be conceived of,” Justice Edward Douglass White wrote for the majority.

Bram’s second trial opened on March 16, 1898, before the same judges, and with the same lawyers, and same witnesses as the first trial, except, of course, for Power, whose testimony had been barred by the Supreme Court.

There were two other differences between the trials. First, shortly after the first trial, Congress had approved an act authorizing juries in federal murder cases to find a defendant guilty but to specify “without capital punishment.” Second, the Herbert Fuller, which had been at sea during the first trial, was anchored in Boston Harbor for the second and, on the motion of the defense, the jury toured the vessel.

On April 20, the jury found Bram guilty, but spared his life. Bram was sent to the federal prison in Atlanta. He did not appeal the verdict, but was released on parole on August 27, 1913.

Meanwhile, Mary Roberts Rinehart, an acclaimed mystery writer, had become convinced of Bram’s innocence. She based a 1914 novel, The After House, on the case, portraying Westerberg — “Charlie Jones” in the novel — as “a madman, a homicidal maniac of the worst type.”

Rinehart’s advocacy was instrumental in persuading President Woodrow Wilson to grant Bram a full pardon on April 22, 1919. Although the pardon was not expressly predicated on innocence, it is hard to imagine any other basis for pardoning a man twice convicted of a triple ax murder.

— William S. Warden