The Unexplained: Who was the mysterious ax murderer?
May 1, 2021
The people left on board the Herbert Fuller were tormented by their suspicious minds. But the mystery was never solved.
Let’s say you are on a small ship that is taking a load of lumber from Boston to Rosario, Argentina in 1896. There are eleven people on board. When you have been at sea for a couple of weeks, there is a horrific ax murder in the middle of the night.
Your captain, his wife, Charles and Laura Harrington, and the second mate, August Blomberg, have all been done away with.
Shrouds are sewn on the bodies, and they are towed behind the ship in a jolly boat. Jolly boat—unfortunate terminology. There are no apparent suspects. The ax was thrown overboard to prevent another ax murder.
Do you think you would get any sleep for the rest of your journey?
After the murders, the voyage to Argentina was scrubbed, and the ship was turned around and headed for the closest port, Halifax. This ship and any possible evidence thus wound up in Halifax with only eight living souls on board.
An early theory was that all three victims were in an altercation with each other that somehow resulted in death for all three. This idea was soon discarded as impossible.
The people left on board the Herbert Fuller were tormented by their suspicious minds as they made their way to Halifax. They seemed to zoom in on three possible suspects on their short journey.
Was it Lester Monks, a young drunkard who was a Harvard student? He was so blotto all the time that he couldn’t remember his whereabouts at the time of the crime. He was also the first to discover the bodies.
Perhaps the murderer was Justus Leopold, a sailor from Sweden who had quirky mannerisms. He talked to himself all the time. It was he who prepared the bodies and sewed the shrouds around them. He was steering the boat at the time of the murders, but those who thought he was guilty believed he could have tied the wheel to go do the crime and come back to his station.
The name Thomas Bram, the first mate, came up. He was behaving in a very suspicious manner. It was he who had thrown the ax overboard, and it was discovered that he had also doctored some of the ship’s logs.
The Halifax police were left to sort things out as best they could. They went to work on Monks, and he was cleared of all charges.
Westerberg was next to come under scrutiny. Since he felt safe now, under protection of the police, he volunteered that he had seen Baum striking someone in the captain’s cabin the night of the murders. Bram’s defense was that it would have been hard for Westerberg to witness that if he was at the ship’s wheel, where he was supposed to be.
The police began digging in Bram’s background and found that he had quite a criminal background.
Maybe on too little evidence, Bram was put on trial for murder, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was able to secure a new trial resulting in a new sentence, thus preventing the death penalty. He was sent off to prison. There were still plenty of questions about his true guilt.
Then an interesting thing happened. An author, Mary Roberts Rinehart, became engrossed in reading about the Herbert Fuller case. She decided to use the case as a plot for one of her stories.
She wrote a fiction piece in which the boat was a yacht and in her book, the Westerberg suspect was the one who did the crime. She had made a study of the real man. He had delusions and murderous rages. Her books were popular and read by some important people, including two US Presidents of the era.
Did her novel, The After House, have any impact on the fate of Thomas Bram? There is no way to really know, but he was released from prison in 1913. He was a businessman for the rest of his life.
Who did the murders? To this very day, we don’t know. It is still an unsolved mystery.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious, Indeed, a collection of true stories about strange events still unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.