July 16, 2020


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.

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