Not a Gentleman’s Work: The Untold Story of a
Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth. By Gerard Koeppel.
Hachette Books. $28.
There is something of a cottage industry
in the exhumation and exploration of
long-ago murder cases. All parties have long since passed away, and in the days
well before modern criminology (not to mention DNA analysis), when evidentiary
standards were minimal or nonexistent, it is certain that there have been any
number of miscarriages of justice waiting to be explored and made right – if
not for the sake of the participants in the dramas, then for the sense of
satisfaction stemming from delving deeply into the past and uncovering
innumerable legal, ethical and moral mistakes. After all, there are plenty of
those even today, despite all our technology and supposed analytical
sophistication. How many more must there have been in olden times?
Gerard Koeppel’s Not a Gentleman’s
Work is one recent example of the “murders revisited” trend. Its subtitle,
however, is misleading: far from being “untold,” this story, which begins in
1896, was very widely reported in newspapers of the day, and continued to be a
topic of discussion, reporting and (eventually) presidential concern all the
way to 1919. What Koeppel means by
“untold,” however, is that his book claims to reveal, for the first time, who was
really responsible for the crime around which the story centers. It was a
particularly gruesome triple murder, committed with an axe aboard a commercial
sailing ship called the Herbert Fuller.
The victims were the captain, his wife, and the second mate. The murders take
up only two pages of the book, although that is quite enough to show their
viciousness in “a total of nearly thirty swings with the axe.” But even in
describing the killings, Koeppel makes some curious statements, pointing out in
one paragraph that “the murderer was not perfect in his swing,” the axe blade
having hit wood and a ceiling beam as well as the human victims – then stating
in the next paragraph that the killing “suggest a killer who was not in a
hurry, redundantly effective in his purpose, if not perfect in his practice.
His victims weren’t just killed; they were thoughtfully and thoroughly
mutilated.” But the second paragraph’s statement is very much at odds with that
of the first, and “thoughtfully…mutilated” is a comment not in keeping with
Koeppel’s description of the scene.
The book is full of little touches like this, not-quite-opinions that do
not quite work. Koeppel makes his dislike and suspicion of the sole passenger
on the ship, Harvard dropout Lester Monks, clear from the start, writing of his
“brief and troubled Harvard career” and stating that “what ruined Lester at Harvard
was neither physical ailment nor insufficient intelligence but alcohol” –
over-consumption of which, by the way (or perhaps not “by the way” at all),
would seem a better explanation of a massive number of axe blows, including misaimed
ones hitting parts of the ship’s sleeping quarters, than anything “thoughtful.”
Koeppel is at pains to present small details in ways that hint at their
considerable significance; but then he tends not to confirm that they were
anything of importance. Thus, regarding the nausea and vomiting of the ship’s
first mate, Thomas Bram, after the killings are discovered, Koeppel
theatrically asks, “What was the importance of Bram’s vomit and his wiping it
up, intentionally or not, before a sample could be saved?” Bram either slipped
in his vomit and sat in it, so his clothing absorbed it, or sat in it
deliberately, in which case “his actions [would have] suggested an attempt to
destroy evidence that might somehow point to his guilt.” But nothing more is
made of all this – and nothing whatsoever is made of the far more telling fact
that Monks and the crew members found the murder weapon, complete “with two
hand marks on the handle,” and summarily threw it overboard.
Indeed, Koeppel makes little or nothing out of many elements of the
story that would seem crucial to it. One of the most significant involves the
Monks’ family attorney, Francis Bartlett, who, Koeppel writes, read all the
newspaper accounts of the murders, then listened to Lester Monks recount the
events for a full two hours, and then, according to Koeppel, placed “a hand on
young Monks’s shoulder, and said, ‘My boy, tell me why you did it.’” This
extraordinary scene, obviously so exceptionally pertinent to the narrative and
recounted in more detail as to dialogue and feelings than Koeppel could
possibly have gleaned from available sources, is ended by the author with
ridiculously understated blandness: “Lester’s response is not recorded.”
Part of the difficulty with Not a
Gentleman’s Work is that even though the book is short, at fewer than 240
pages, it feels padded-out with largely extraneous detail that reflects
Koeppel’s skill at research but bears at most indirectly on the basic story. For
instance, he reports various people’s word-for-word presentations as told
separately to the prosecution and defense, as if to encourage readers to try to
catch someone or other in a serious contradiction. But no one tells a story
exactly the same way twice, so the minor differences are of no consequence; and
in any case, if the author himself had discovered significant inconsistencies
and pointed them out, without expecting readers to wade through multiple
versions of individuals’ recounting of events, that would have been a different
matter and in line with the “untold story” concept.
What happened after the murders was that Bram was convicted of the
killings in January 1897 despite considerable evidence that he was not guilty,
and in spite of the serious misgivings of several jurors about his culpability;
the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction later that year; Bram was
tried again and again found guilty, being sentenced to life in prison; he was
paroled in 1913; and President Woodrow Wilson granted him a pardon – largely
because of a newspaper campaign on Bram’s behalf – in 1919. The way the tale
wends through generations of a rapidly changing America would make for a
fascinating societal story, but that is not the one Koeppel tells, except that
he trots out the usual recriminations about racially biased U.S. justice: Bram,
who was born on the island of St. Kitts and considered himself white, actually
had parents of African descent, while the jurors who convicted him were white
and native-born. And surely there was prejudice aplenty in what happened to
Bram, but that is not all there was,
and not even the main issue at his trials. The societal elements, though,
appear to be of little interest to Koeppel, who prefers to focus on the
personal by following the very different lives of Bram and Monks in the years
after the murders. The approach would have worked had either of the men gone on
to great acclaim or extreme notoriety, but that is not what happened, so the
entire narrative comes to seem a bit pale.
The book is also somewhat oddly edited, or perhaps just under-edited.
The family name Monks is often incorrectly used as its own plural (“American
Monks” and “a number of Monks,” for example), but the plural is at other times
correctly given as “Monkses”; there is a reference to “a millennia” rather than
“a millennium”; “accidentally” is misspelled “accidently”; there is a mention
of “exerting his authority” rather than “asserting”; and so on. Individually,
these are minor matters, but collectively, they call into question the care
with which the story has been assembled. Also questionable is Koeppel’s
inclusion not only of precise dialogue that no one could have known, but also
of narrative elements that have verisimilitude but are unsupported by evidence,
such as the details of the ship’s journey back to port after the murders.
Koeppel is scarcely alone in filling in historical blanks this way: plenty of
history-reconsidered works tread the thin line between fact and docudrama.
Nevertheless, when the professed purpose of a book is to ferret out the truth
of a horrific long-ago crime, close attention to what is known and what is not
would seem particularly important.
Not a Gentleman’s Work is mostly written in a breezily accessible style, but its meandering narrative and somewhat confusing presentation tend to drag at it. Additional editing work – not only for specific language but also to tighten the narration and better connect its elements – would have made the book considerably more compelling, but perhaps would have reduced the narrative to something less than a book-length one. In fact, given the paucity of information on a number of the people involved in the story – and Koeppel’s decision to try to make the tale character-driven rather than societal in scope – there may simply not be enough known about the Herbert Fuller case, despite the voluminous coverage it received for a time, for a book-length treatment to sustain.