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Murder Aboard: The Herbert Fuller Tragedy and the Ordeal of Thomas Bram

Jun 27, 2019

Murder Aboard: The Herbert Fuller Tragedy and the Ordeal of Thomas Bram
by C. Michael Hiam


Murder Aboard jumps right into the action: An 11-person crew of the barquentine Herbert Fuller departs Boston with a load of timber in July 1896, bound for Buenos Aires. Also on board is a young Harvard dropout, a gentleman with a frail constitution who thought the southern climate would settle his nerves. He is sailing as the ship’s one passenger and shares the aft cabin with the captain and the captain’s wife.

Within days of departure, when the ship is far offshore, the captain, his wife and the second mate are hacked to death with a firefighting ax in the middle of the night as they lie in their bunks. The problem is that no one knows exactly who did it. Each has his suspicions, and each has a possible alibi, but none has a motive and no one confesses. Who murdered the three people?

To make matters more confounding, none of the surviving crew knows how to navigate beyond DR, but they turn the ship around and somehow find their way to Halifax, take a pilot and a tow to the inner harbor, and the investigation begins. The bloody aft cabin is extensively photographed and measured; the crewmembers are incarcerated and give statements, but the problem remains. No one can tell whose story is correct.

Ultimately, everyone is extradited back to the U.S. to stand trial in Boston, and suspicion soon settles on the chief mate, Thomas Bram. Under intense examination by the prosecutor and even the presiding judge, another crewmember claims to have actually witnessed the murder through a porthole in the cabin. He had been standing watch at the time, and he said he could not leave the helm or the vessel would veer off course. But why didn’t he raise the alarm? Why didn’t he take immediate steps to join forces with the remaining crew and overpower the killer? These questions plagued the hapless jury.

Navigators will enjoy the following exchange between the prosecutor and Mr. Bram:

“Were you in the longitude of Cayenne [French Guiana] when you changed the course on the day after the murders?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And were you in the latitude of Cayenne also?”

“If we were, we would have been in Cayenne, sir.”


Spectators in the courtroom laughed and jeered. Hiam spares no details of the fascinating account, at one point even describing the jury’s animated deliberations, in which they play-acted the murders, each acting out a different character on board, hopping up on tables, swooning on the floor, and jumping in and out of the jury’s bathroom for effect. Murder Aboard is a riveting account of the tragedy and subsequent courtroom drama, a brilliantly researched and tightly spun tale.

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