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He… never had any infantile troubles.
—FRANK MONKS ON SON LESTER, “MONKS MEMORABILIA”
The first son of Frank and Elizabeth Monks was born as a blank. The birth registry of Brookline, Massachusetts, for April 27, 1876, says Frank Hawthorne Monks, merchant, and Elizabeth Crowell Monks, wife, themselves both born in nearby Boston, had a son born at their home on Monmouth Street with no given name. Maybe the birth was registered before the parents could agree on or commit to a name. Perhaps it was just an accident of timing: the name had been chosen but not communicated to the registrar. In any case, it was a small irregularity at the outset of a life that would grow substantially more irregular.
Soon enough, the son was given the name Lester Hawthorne. The middle name of father and son was not, as it might suggest, homage to the famous author, born and buried in Salem, a short distance up the coast from Boston. The Monkses were not a literary family. No, the middle name was given merely for Nancy Hawthorne, Frank’s mother’s paternal grandmother, of Hampton, Virginia. Nancy was widowed when her husband, William Hatton, was knocked overboard by a sailboat boom and drowned; she died soon after, resurrected nominally among the Monkses.
Lester, meanwhile, was a name original in the family lines, intended perhaps to suggest some Anglo lineage—the name derives from the ancient English city Leicester—to a boy whose paternal grandfather had arrived poor from Ireland. Lester’s older sister was Marion, and his younger brother would be Archibald, both old Anglo names, like Lester new to the family.
Initially, Lester created a favorable impression. “He was one of the handsomest babies I ever saw,” thought his father. “He was very strong and robust and never had any infantile troubles.” Frank Monks wrote this in 1894, at the threshold of Lester’s early adult troubles.
Lester Monks’s story “is a potential epic that someone should have researched thoroughly and written up.” This was the opinion in 1978 of his much younger cousin the Reverend G. Gardner Monks, in his memoirs privately published and distributed to a score of family members on his eightieth birthday. “Long before I ever met him, from many family conversations I got the clear impression that he was a skeleton in the family closet who must at all times be kept carefully out of sight.”
The reverend was utterly respectable: Harvard, Oxford, Union Theological in New York, Episcopal Theological in his native Boston, where the Monkses in America began in 1830. Reverend Monks was the first headmaster of the storied Lenox School for two decades, then canon of Washington Cathedral for ten years and afterward St. Paul’s in Boston for seven years, before commencing an active retirement in Maine in 1965. Many decades earlier, Lester had proved entirely unrespectable, yet for the young reverend it “is well to admit… that he was my favorite cousin.” Reverend Monks had a number of cousins to choose from, but Lester, dead before the reverend turned thirty, was a lifelong fascination.
WHEN OLIVER WENDELL Holmes decreed certain families the Brahmin caste of New England in 1860, the Boston Monkses were not in the running. Though several of them achieved highly, the family could never reach the heights of Boston society.
The first American Monks, John Patrick, was born poor and Catholic near Dublin in 1804. Little is known of his parents, other than that at some point his father kept a roadside inn. Otherwise, the Monkses in Ireland are “a near total void of information.” That is, hardly Brahmin provenance.
At seventeen, John was apprenticed to a shipwright in Liverpool; four years later, he was in Nova Scotia working as a shipwright himself, with a small lumber business on the side. Seeking broader opportunity, John Monks moved on to Boston in 1830 and worked for a shipbuilder. In 1832, he married Catherine Mary Erskine, a nineteen-year-old from Ireland. Around the time of his marriage, John brought a large cargo of timber from Maine and turned it into deck planking for ships. In time, he was a major lumber merchant.
John and Catherine had three children who would live into adulthood—William, born in 1833, Catherine in 1834, and Richard in 1836—followed by two daughters who died in infancy. After five pregnancies before age thirty, Catherine Monks gave out in 1843.
Just over a year after Catherine’s death, John Monks married Delia Smith Hatton, born in 1818, from a Baptist family tracing substantial American roots back to the mid-1600s; she was the granddaughter of Nancy Hawthorne Hatton. Here was some proper American heritage for the Monkses to attach to. John and Delia had five children: Henry Grafton, born in 1846; Louisa in 1848; Frank Hawthorne, father of Lester, in 1850; George Howard in 1853; and Robert Hatton in 1856. “We were a very united family with few disagreements,” George recalled many years later, “and our family life was a very happy one.” Any disagreement with his assessment is not recorded.
By the early 1850s, John Monks was thriving. He was listed among fifteen hundred “Rich Men of Massachusetts” in 1851, with a worth of $200,000: “Began poor. Born in Ireland. An extensive dealer in, and sawer of ship-timber,” reads his entry, brief, like most. Nearly half of those listed had begun poor like Monks. His worth put him firmly above the average rich man; only three hundred or so were worth more. He was worth more—in dollars, that is—than, for example, Harvard-educated lawyer Sidney Bartlett ($150,000), whose Harvard-educated son Francis would become the Monks family attorney.
During the 1850s, Monks added real estate investment to his lumber wealth. Among his purchases was a commercial building in Congress Square that would become the locus of family business in succeeding generations. The original Monks Building at 35 Congress Street was destroyed in the great Boston fire of 1872 and replaced by the family with a handsome new building there, designed by prominent Massachusetts architect Alexander Rice Esty. The building survives; the Monks name remained over the main entrance into the 1960s.
In the meantime, fatal illness intervened. John’s oldest son, William, was sent to Europe in 1858 in hopes of curing a lung disease; he died in France the following May, with his father and stepmother at his bedside. They returned to Boston in July. In December, John Monks died of the same disease, leaving Delia with seven young children but enough money to live well. By 1864, the family was at 61 Chester Square, “a very comfortable and cheerful house” at a fashionable address (as 556 Massachusetts Avenue, less so today).
John’s daughter Catherine improved the Monkses’ connections in 1863 by marrying Horace Standish Bradford, of two Brahmin families. Catherine’s half brother George would enter the family in a fully Brahmin line by marrying Olga Eliza Gardner in June 1897. Boston society would be well represented in the wedding party and on the guest list, which included longtime US Supreme Court associate justice Horace Gray.
The Monks family forged associations with Harvard via three of John and Delia’s four sons. Henry graduated in 1867 and George from the college in 1875 and the medical school in 1880. Robert, artistically inclined like his mother, did not go to Harvard (or any other college) but married fellow artist Anne Bellows Hill, a daughter of the Reverend Thomas Hill, a Harvard graduate (A.B. 1843, D. Div. 1845) and Harvard president during the 1860s. Robert and Anne married in 1881; five years later, her older sister Elizabeth married Dr. Alfred Worcester, a three-degree Harvard man. Worcester became a renowned pioneer in various aspects of medical care and, in 1950, the oldest living Harvard graduate. A half century earlier, he became the physician in close charge of his sister-in-law’s alcoholic nephew, Lester Monks.
Of John and Delia’s four sons, only Lester’s father, Frank, had no Harvard connection. After proper preparatory schools—Boston Latin and the Greylock Institute—he eschewed college for a business partnership with his considerably older half brother Richard. In 1868, they formed Monks and Company, flour and grain merchants in Boston. Nine months later, a serious illness forced Richard to retire from business for a period, and the partnership folded. Frank, just nineteen years old, stayed in the flour business, soon partnering with an older sales agent who moved to Boston from Ohio. The partnership, Smith & Monks, flourished. Meanwhile, Frank married Elizabeth “Lisbeth” Oakford Crowell, of an old Maine family who had established themselves in Boston; the Crowell home at 51 Chester Square made them close neighbors of the Monkses. Frank and Elizabeth had known each other as neighborhood children, and “hence there was no occasion for a long courtship.” Engaged on Christmas Day 1871, they married the following October, at her parents’ house. He was twenty-one, she nineteen.
By then, half brother Richard had recovered, and, while remaining in the flour business with Kyse Smith, Frank partnered again with Richard, forming Monks Brothers, this time in banking and brokerage. Both of Frank’s businesses had offices in the Monks Building. The business with Richard soon failed again, but the flour business with Smith boomed.
When Elizabeth was pregnant with Lester, the family moved out to Brookline and then, after Archie was born in 1879, to a larger Brookline house. In 1889, with his partner readying to retire and presciently sensing a downturn in the Boston-based flour business, Frank switched to local railroads; among other positions, he became general manager of the West End Street Railroad Company, whose cars ran through a substantial portion of Boston streets. Frank also became a trustee with Richard of their father’s substantial estate. Frank, wrote his younger brother George, “was industrious and able, and was a devoted son to my mother and a good brother to me.”
Frank was also a good father, particularly supportive of Lester’s early interest in boats. At a young age, Lester became “passionately fond of yachting,” facilitated during family summers at various rented houses on the Massachusetts coast. At twelve, Lester proved himself seamanlike beyond his years. He was on a boat sailed by older and supposedly wiser sailors who lost control in a squall. Lester watched as the sails tore and the boat took on water. He then suggested that the boat’s tender, towed astern, be filled with water to use as a drag and keep the sailboat’s bow into the sea instead of dangerously broadside to it. This was done, “and the squall was ridden out in safety.”
Two summers later came a more harrowing experience. Lester and his good friend Guy Hamilton Scull, a future Harvard classmate and later brave and famous world adventurer, set off with two other boys on a sailing trip from Marblehead around Cape Ann to York Harbor on the southern Maine coast and back, a voyage of some ninety mostly open-water miles. Lester and Guy manned Guy’s twenty-foot centerboard catboat, the other two boys in a less comfortable but faster and more seaworthy twenty-one-foot sloop. The boys were fourteen; it was their first long cruise. The boats had cabins barely large enough for sleep and a small amount of eatable provisions. “There was,” wrote one boy, “the complete freedom of life, and the excitement of relying on our own skill and judgment for the first time.” Parents who let boys of this age make such a voyage today would be prosecuted, or at least abused on Twitter.
The boys sailed north without incident. On the return the following day, the thirty miles from York Harbor across Ipswich Bay to the turning point at Cape Ann turned rough late in the afternoon. The boats sailed toward a “very black looking squall” a few miles from the cape. The boys on the quicker boat looked anxiously at the other boat, which was nearly a mile to leeward, “and wonder[ed] whether they would be all right.” As it happened, the squall had no violent winds, and the quicker boat got past the cape with ease and found a mooring in Gloucester Harbor at ten at night.
The other boat, meanwhile, had much harder going. While reefing, they were blown off course and seaward. Then the wind dropped, and they had a long, slow nighttime beat toward Gloucester. For a while, they noticed a red light that they thought far ahead. Then the light was upon them: the port running light of a coasting schooner that nearly ran down the boys’ small unlit boat.
They finally made their way into Gloucester at five in the morning and tied up to the stern of their cruising companion, all cheer: “There was Lester Monks… grinning down the hatch at us.” He and Guy had sailed the whole night without sleep or worry. Six summers later, Lester would claim to be a habitual heavy sleeper who had slumbered through three axe murders occurring within a few feet of him.
At sixteen, Lester was “the youngest helmsman on the coast” around Marblehead, where his racing prowess became well known. For the summer of 1895, he purchased Bessie, a “fast and able” twenty-six-foot Cape catboat, in “perfect condition,” with a large inventory of sails and equipment. “As an amateur skipper there are few better in the bay than Lester Monks,” said his Marblehead friends. On the breeze-filled final weekend of July, he put his boat to the test. “Lester Monks was trying to see how far down he could put his sloop Bessie without taking [on] water; she took many strong puffs, and proved herself a very able boat.” Whether such a test proved Lester a very able skipper is less clear.
Summers were Lester’s distinguished season. The other seasons involved school. He attended Noble & Greenough and Boston Latin, both feeders for Harvard. His scholastic record is unavailable, but it presumably was with good reason that Lester applied not to Harvard per se but to the Lawrence Scientific School, then an independent undergraduate geology program at Harvard with considerably less rigid acceptance standards. On his admission exam for Lawrence Scientific, Lester scored Cs in Chemistry, Algebra, and History. That was the high ground. In Physics, Plane and Solid Geometry, English, and French, it was all Ds. Perhaps other students were admitted with worse, but the family name apparently was good enough for Lester to matriculate in the fall of 1894.
During its six-decade run, ending in 1906 when it was incorporated into Harvard generally (its institutional descendant is the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences), Lawrence Scientific had many distinguished students. The roll notably includes zoologist Alexander Agassiz, Louis’s equally accomplished son; botanist Daniel Cady Eaton, grandson of pioneering botanist Amos; botanist Horace Mann Jr., son of the educator; Harvard Medical School dean Henry Bowditch, grandson of mathematician and maritime navigation pioneer Nathaniel; hydraulic engineer Clemens Herschel; Union army general and Medal of Honor recipient Horace Porter; board-game pioneer Milton Bradley; philosopher William James; New York philanthropist Philip Schuyler; and 1896 Olympic triple-jump champion James Brendan Connolly, who had to quit college in order to compete.
Lester Monks, as his entry exams might have foretold, did not become one of this illustrious company. Freshman year he excelled in Geology, relative, that is, to his other courses: a D, over failing Es in English, German, Chemistry 2, and Physics. His second year, which was not as a sophomore but as a repeat freshman, started better but rapidly tailed. In November, a C in Chemistry 1, a C– in German, a D in Physics 1, and an E in English. The midyear grades fell to two Es and two Ds, plus an E in Chemistry 2 (apparently a second attempt after the prior year’s E). By April, Lester was down to three Es and a D, and Chemistry 2 was missing. No final grades were reported.
Lester’s grades were bad at least in part because his absences were many. On November 8, 1894, during his first semester, he was unable to attend lectures “on account of sickness,” the ailment unspecified in his required explanatory note to Montague Chamberlain, the school secretary (and ornithologist of some note). A form filed upon his return to classes the next day indicated the absence was due to “bad cold and jams in bowels,” an interesting combination. “His father fears pneumonia, which the boy has suffered from twice,” Chamberlain wrote on the form. On December 14, what Monks called tonsillitis occasioned another absence. The next day, the school dean, Nathaniel Shaler (who remains a revered career Harvardian despite his overt racism and Anglo supremacism), wrote the senior Monks that Lester “is not doing as well as he ought to do in his work.”
“I hear this with the greatest regret,” Mr. Monks replied to Chamberlain, “and assure you that I will do all in my power to bring about a change in this matter.… I feel confident that I shall be able to work very much more effectively… if I am kept advised of the condition of affairs respecting my son’s work.”
If there was regular communication and monitoring, it is not recorded. Lester’s grades and attendance deteriorated.
The following fall, he was absent “a great deal.” In December 1895, Lester’s uncle and Harvard professor George informed Chamberlain that “Lester seems now to be all right again. He is up and about” and anticipating a return to classes in the new year. “I shall take especial pains to urge upon him the necessity for work in order that his enforced absence from college may not count against him too much at the end of the year.”
Again, the situation did not improve. In late January 1896, Lester wrote a long note to Shaler, seeking to explain his absence for much of the month, again “having been sick a great deal” and promising improved performance on his spring midyears. Unfortunately, “cold and headaches, continuation of old troubles,” kept him out of school for twelve days in February. In April came a new ailment: “in bed with bad knee and fever results of a bicycle accident.” The knee makes sense; the fever casts doubt. But the incident does call to mind an alarming tendency that had been noted recently by the New York Times: “There is not the slightest doubt that bicycle riding, if persisted in, leads to weakness of mind, general lunacy, and homicidal mania.” In any case, Lester’s ailments prevented class attendance from April 18 to May 5. He presumably also missed classes on April 14, when he served as usher for the Tuesday midday wedding of his sister, Marion.
Lester Monks’s college days were effectively over. “I have decided that it is best for me to leave the Scientific School,” he wrote to Chamberlain at the end of May 1896, as if there was any doubt of his status. “My health has been so poor for the last two years, with no prospect of a change for the better, that it seems [best not] to continue my course.” Before his signature, Lester managed, “Thanking you for your kindness and interest toward me.” A handwritten notation in blue ink at the top of the page—“agreed,” over Shaler’s signature—is the final word on Lester Monks’s brief and troubled Harvard career. Five weeks later, he was aboard the Herbert Fuller.
What ruined Lester at Harvard was neither physical ailment nor insufficient intelligence but liquor. “Doubtless alcohol,” wrote his cousin, “was a major problem even this early. Many of his escapades were apparently a good deal less than innocent.” Lester’s oversight of a sleigh notoriously hoisted to the roof of a Harvard dorm was generally understood to have been alcohol fueled.
It would be said later, in courts, newspapers, and books, that Lester Monks left Harvard after his second year on account of bronchial or related health issues. To be sure, he had them, but they derived from one particular health issue: “alcohol, which was to prove the curse of his adult life.”
Precisely when, how, and why Lester’s life became alcohol infused is impossible to know. In the generations of American Monks, there are no apparent alcohol issues. Alcoholism did not run in Lester’s bloodlines. Undoubtedly, something troubled Lester, before his arrival at Harvard. What it was perhaps was unknown even to him. But it shaped his behavior and affected his fate.
Though a number of Monks passed through Harvard successfully before and after Lester, it was never the place for him. With Lester’s removal from Harvard, his family decided a long sea voyage might cure him or at least keep him far away to avoid further family embarrassment. The decision was made quickly. Two days after his letter formally withdrawing from the Lawrence Scientific School, Lester placed a “For Sale” notice in the Boston Herald for his catboat, Bessie; they would not be racing that summer. Inquiries were made by his parents for a suitable ship for a long voyage, and the Herbert Fuller was selected.
We know that Lester brought with him a supply of alcohol. He also brought something that can go very poorly with alcohol—a gun. “Just before I started on what I thought was to be such an enjoyable and health-giving trip, I happened to think of the desirability of getting a revolver. At first I had decided not to get one, but happening to be near a gun store in Boston, and having some spare change, I went in and purchased the firearm.” As he later told reporters in Halifax, “That fact unquestionably explains why I am here today a live man.”
It is certainly true that Lester’s revolver would help him get back to shore alive. The trouble with his whimsical tale is that it is a lie. In fact, as he would eventually testify under oath, the revolver “was given to me by my uncle.” Uncle George, the father of Lester’s later charmed younger cousin Gardner, was among the relatives who came to see Lester off. He told Lester that “he still believed in him,” that he “had a chance and a good one” to get over his troubles, “but it was now or never.” The older man also noted a lumber ship was not a yacht and its voyage no cruise. “So, I have brought you this”: a revolver plus a box of cartridges.
Lester Monks would never be asked to explain why he lied about how he came to be armed. It is understandable perhaps that the prosecutors didn’t ask—it might have deflected from their case against the accused—but it is inexplicable that the generally heroic defense attorneys, needing to shift blame elsewhere, would never seek to catch Lester in this lie.
Thomas was always a good boy [and] good boys make good men.
—CAROLINE BRAM, MOTHER OF THOMAS, BOSTON GLOBE, APRIL 7, 1897
Thomas Bram had had a full life on land and sea before fate put him aboard the Herbert Fuller at age thirty-two.
Bram was born in February 1864 on St. Kitts, one of the Windward Islands in the Caribbean. The day varies from document to document, but his death certificate says February 3, so that will be the last word. His full name was Thomas Mead Chambers Bram. His parents appear to have been—the record is thin—Daniel Burnet Bram, a native of Dutch Guiana who arrived at St. Kitts as a ship’s cook and settled there as a shoemaker, and Caroline T. Gibbs, a St. Kitts native. Somewhat incredibly, his lawyer would later say his mother “was an English woman and his father a Dutchman,” which was true only in the very broadest of senses. Despite Thomas Bram’s lifelong assertion of whiteness, both his parents were of substantially African descent, though they each may have had whites in their lineage. They had three children: Thomas first, then Christina Elizabeth in 1865, and Levi Albert Gibbs in 1867. While the children were young, Daniel Bram left his family in St. Kitts for places and a fate unknown.
The fate of Bram’s younger brother, Levi, is also unknown; there are reports he was aboard a US-bound ship that sank with all aboard, ship and date unspecified. Bram’s sister, Christina, stayed in St. Kitts, married, and had three children. Bram’s mother and sister were “very intelligent and respectable people,” and the family had “an excellent reputation all over the island.” As for Bram himself, “He was as good a boy as ever lived here,” said a relative, “and as bright as a dollar.” “Thomas was always a good boy,” said his mother, and “good boys make good men.” She said this in early 1897, though she hadn’t spoken to her elder son in many years.
Bram left St. Kitts at age sixteen, in 1879. “I ran away from home—that is, I shipped on a little schooner… unbeknownst to my mother.” He never saw her or any family member again. The schooner brought him to New York; from there, he shipped as an ordinary seaman on another small schooner in the sardine trade between Maine and New York. After a year, he came ashore, soon finding employment in Manhattan as a waiter at a Dennett’s restaurant, then a flourishing regional chain of religious-themed eateries that Alfred W. Dennett had started in 1876 in downtown Manhattan.
The religious aspects of the Dennett’s restaurants, which featured inspirational quotations on the walls and prayer meetings, with cheap but decent food, apparently appealed to Bram, and Dennett took a liking to him. From waiter Bram was quickly promoted to assistant night manager, before being named manager of a Dennett’s in Boston, at 239 Washington Street. Bram was popular there, “of such a genial disposition that he made many friends, not only among the employees of the place, but among the customers as well.” In 1887, after a year in Boston, Bram returned to New York to be the manager of a large new Dennett’s on Fourteenth Street at Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (now the site of New School University). After six months of getting that place established, Bram transferred to a Dennett’s in Chicago. Three months later, it was back to New York to take charge of a small Dennett’s on the Bowery.
The reason for the returns to New York was that Bram had gotten married, to a young woman he had met at his first Dennett’s. Harriet—a.k.a. Hattie or Katie—Louise Hottenroth was two years younger than Bram. Her parents were German natives George Hottenroth and Louisa Hausser; they had each immigrated to New York as children with their respective families in the 1850s and married in 1864. Hattie was born in 1866, the first of an eventual eight children.
Just before he was named manager of the Boston Dennett’s, Bram and Hattie had become engaged. He came back to New York after a week in Boston to marry her, on November 25, 1885, at the Franklin Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan, and they returned to Boston together, living for the year in a rented room in East Cambridge, before making a more permanent home back in Brooklyn near Hattie’s parents. Her mother was not a fan: “Almost from the day of the marriage,” she told a reporter seeking Bram insight in 1896, “he has scarcely done anything for Hattie’s support.”
- "Not a Gentleman's Work takes readers on several gripping journeys: a high-seas crime scene and a powerful courtroom drama. But it doesn't stop there. Gerard Koeppel peers deeply into issues of race, class and money that were as relevant then as they are now."—Brian Murphy, author of Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell about It
- "A gruesome triple axe-murder on the North Atlantic waves with no motive and multiple suspects. It's a tale Agatha Christie would have been proud to write--only this dark whodunit is true. With the historian's eye for detail and the novelist's flare for story, Gerard Koeppel brings to life the bizarre happenings on board the Herbert Fuller and illuminates a puzzling mystery that still endures. A bloody and worthwhile addition to any true crime library."—Simon Read, award winning journalist and author of Winston Churchill Reporting and The Human Game
- "It starts with the 1896 axe murders of a ship captain, his wife, and second-mate. Afterwards, the truth is splintered, justice is twisted, and strong opinions fracture the case into a thousand pieces. One hundred and twenty-four years later, author Gerard Koeppel found those pieces and put them back together. His own experience as a sailor, his impeccable research, and detective-like deductions eliminate suspects and lead the reader to the person responsible. To this day, we have no way of knowing if the author is right; but it's impossible to say he is wrong."—Jason Lucky Morrow, award-winning journalist and author who writes vintage true crime stories for his blog, HistoricalCrimeDetective.com
- "An epic who dunnit...True crime at its best."—New York Journal of Books
- "This captivating and thorough true crime work reads like a suspenseful novel."—Booklist
- "Stupendous."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Jun 16, 2020
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Hachette Books