Book review: Murder Aboard

In July 1896 the barquentine Herbert Fuller a  sailed into Halifax. It had left Boston 18 days earlier, its deck piled high with 700,000 linear feet of lumber bound for Argentina. There had been 11 on board including the captain, his wife and a passenger.
Now there were only eight, and one of them was a murderer.
In the jolly boat trailing her lay the corpses of Captain Charles Nash, his wife Laura, and the second mate, all three beaten to death. C Michael Hiam’s Murder Aboard explores this crime and its tragic aftermath.
Detective Nicholas Power interviewed the crew. Power had been a copper since the force was established in 1864 and a detective for a dozen years. Throughout his career he manipulated the popular “yellow” press with consummate skill, developing an unearned reputation as Canada’s very own super sleuth, a homegrown Sherlock Holmes. (Power encouraged and adored the comparison).
Power was a racist who seemed to think that anyone not a WASP was probably a perp. Earlier in the year he had investigated the murder of a girl in Bear River, and immediately seized on Peter Wheeler, a Mauritian labourer, orchestrating his trial and execution. Debra Komar explored this case in The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, concluding that it was a wrongful conviction and officials executed an innocent man.
This time Power seized on first mate Thomas Bram. Bram, born in St. Kitts, often claimed to be Spanish or Portuguese. Power took Bram into custody, forced him to strip and then gave him the fifth degree. He emerged from this bizarre interrogation to announce that Bram was guilty, and repeated that opinion in a Boston courtroom, resulting in Bram’s death sentence.
Bram appealed to the Supreme Court who ruled that a new trial be held because Power violated Bram’s rights and his evidence was not admissible. The court excoriated Power: “A plainer violation as well of the letter as of the spirit and purpose of the constitutional immunity could scarcely be conceived of.” Needless to add, Power did not testify at Bram’s second trial.
Bram’s ordeal was not at an end. He was convicted again but avoided capital punishment being given a life sentence. He spent 17 years in prison before being pardoned by President Wilson in 1913. Finally, he achieved a lifelong dream in 1926, becoming the co-owner of the Alvena, captaining his own ship.
Author C. Michael Hiam’s fourth book reflects his eclectic interests. His previous works include a history of airships, the Eddie Shore era Boston Bruins, and Sam Adams, a Vietnam War spook. Haim has a light touch and keeps the story moving, making for an easy, enjoyable read shedding light on Halifax’s policing history and the strange career of Detective Nic Power.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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