Thomas Bram

Suffolk County, Massachusetts
Date of Crime:  July 14, 1896

(Federal Case) Thomas M. Bram was sentenced to death for murdering three people aboard a ship on the high seas. The crime occurred about 2 a.m. aboard the Herbert E. Fuller, a cargo ship that was 750 miles into a voyage from Boston to Argentina. The victims were the captain, Charles I. Nash, his wife, Laura A. Nash, and the second mate, August W. Blomberg. All were hacked to death with an ax in the after house of the ship.

Lester H. Monks, a Harvard University student, awoke on the ship after hearing a woman's scream. Monks found the captain and his wife dead in the after house, and then made his way to another part of the ship where Bram, the first mate, was on duty. At the time there was only one other man on deck, Francis M. Loheac, who was at the wheel of the ship. However, just minutes before Monks discovered the bodies, Loheac had relieved the another man, Charlie Brown, from the wheel. The body of the third victim was found in the after house just before dawn.

At daybreak the ship's crew was summoned to deck. Although the killer would presumably have been splattered in blood, none was found on anyone. Bram, as first mate, assumed command of the ship and placed Brown second in command. The ship sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was the easiest port to sail to due to the prevailing winds.

The next day, after crew members reported that Brown had changed clothes after leaving the wheel, Bram had him manacled on suspicion of murder. Brown acknowledged that he had changed clothes, but said he had done so only because he was cold. Brown went by his given name, which was before the Peanuts character of the same name appeared, but his real name was Justus Leopold Westerberg.

Four days later, Brown claimed that while at the wheel, which was directly behind the after house, he had heard a noise and peering through a skylight window, had seen Bram strike Captain Nash with what was presumed to be the murder weapon. Even though the accusation was dubious, as it came from the chief suspect five days after the murder, the crew of the ship seized Bram and had him shackled.

When the ship reached Halifax, the suspects were interrogated by Halifax Police Detective Nicholas Power. Power felt that Bram was the likely murderer and by his own account presumed him guilty from the start. Racism may been a consideration as Bram was of mixed race and had a swarthy complexion darkened by exposure, while Brown was white.

According to Power, Bram disputed Brown's account, saying: “He [Brown] could not have seen me; where was he?” To which Power replied, “He states he was at the wheel.” Bram answered, “Well, he could not see me from there.” Although Power presented Bram's statements as an inferential confession, he later acknowledged Bram's statements could be understood innocently.

The U.S. consul in Halifax transferred jurisdiction of the case to Boston. At trial Brown and Power testified against Bram. Cross-examination brought out that Brown had been confined to a mental institution in Rotterdam five years earlier following a violent psychotic episode. The defense had Monks testify that, in the seconds between his hearing the scream of the captain's wife and his meeting with Bram on deck, Bram would not have had time to change his clothes. This was an important point as the ax murderer's clothes would have been splattered with blood.

Bram was convicted and sentenced to death. However, on appeal the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction due to a Fifth Amendment issue regarding Power's testimony. On retrial, Bram was again convicted, but because of a new law, the jury was able to spare his life. Bram was released on parole from his life sentence in 1913.

An acclaimed mystery writer, Mary Roberts Rinehart, became convinced of Bram's innocence. She based a 1914 novel, The After House, on his case, and it portrayed Brown, under the name “Charlie Jones,” as a homicidal maniac. Rinehart's advocacy helped to persuade U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to grant Bram a full pardon in 1919.  [4/09]


Reference:  Center on Wrongful Convictions

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Boston Cases, Triple Homicide Cases