Monday 13 May 2013

A Molecule For Murder

The drug of death! The chemical killer! That should get your attention! In contrast to last week’s life-saving molecule, the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, today we look at a famous chemical that was used in a gay murder.

As an anaesthetic chloroform was used extensively during surgery. Though looking at old thrillers and murder mysteries, where a hapless innocent victim is ambushed with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief being clamped over the mouth and nostrils, it is clear that there’s a darker use for this chemical.

Today’s tale begins in January 1885 in the port of Liverpool. On board the steamship “Cephalonia”, bound for Boston, Massachusetts, were two men who had just met. One was a well-off international salesman for a London textile company, 24-year-old Charles Arthur Preller. The other man was, he claimed, Dr. Walter Lennox Maxwell of London. He was no such thing. He was actually 32-year-old Hugh Mottram Brooks of Manchester - though he had studied medicine.

The two men’s friendship increased as they steamed across the Atlantic, and they both planned to carry on together to New Zealand. Preller had business in the USA first, so they agreed to meet up in St. Louis as few weeks later before heading off Down Under.

Brooks booked into a hotel under his alias of Dr. Maxwell. Preller arrived three days later. They shared the room, though to avert suspicion of their relationship Preller booked a separate room in his own name. The couple were indeed a couple, as letters discovered later would prove.

The relationship seemed to be like ones often found today – a  gay man with money finds himself in a relationship with a gay man who wants to spend it. The hotel staff noticed that it was Preller who had the money and Brooks seemed to have none. Then, on the evening of Easter Sunday, 5th April, Brooks was seen waving a roll of $100 bills around in the hotel bar. There was no sign of Preller, which was unusual as they were always seen together. Brooks was drunk, and said to the head waiter “What’s the penalty for killing a man? Would $500 get a man off?”

The following day Brooks paid his bills and left, saying Preller had gone out of town and would be back for his luggage in a few days. No-one had actually seen Preller since Sunday morning. Brooks then travelled to San Francisco and boarded a steamship for Auckland, New Zealand.

Six days later the hotel maids reported an unbearable stench coming for a locked trunk in Brooks’ room. The manager had it dragged outside and opened by the local trunk dealer. The dealer recognised it as one he had sold to Brooks the previous week. When he opened it he discovered why Brooks didn’t take it with him.

Inside the trunk was the swollen, blackened, rotting corpse of Charles Preller, naked except for underwear bearing Brooks’ name. An autopsy revealed Preller had died of chloroform poisoning. It was clear that Brooks had murdered him and a manhunt began.

Brooks was traced to the steamer crossing the Pacific. Police sent a telegram ahead to Auckland, so that when the steamer arrived police were ready to arrest Brooks.

At his trial in May 1886 Brooks claimed he bought the chloroform to treat an ailment Preller was complaining off that fateful weekend. Using it as an anaesthetic Brooks claimed he gave him a second dose when it looked like Preller was coming round during the treatment. Preller died from the overdose. Doctors found no evidence of any treatment carried out on Preller’s body.

Brooks denied the murder throughout his trial, though the police gave evidence from Brooks’ time in custody when he admitted to a fellow prisoner that he had been angry at Preller for not paying for his ticket to Auckland. Brooks was heard to admit to wanting to “fix” Preller “on account of his meanness”. Prosecution witnesses included the men who sold Brooks the trunk and the chloroform, and hotel staff who said he suddenly had a lot of money on the day he checked out.

The trial caused a sensation around the world, not only in America and New Zealand, but also in England where journalists interviewed Brooks’ parents.

The jury retired to consider their verdict on the evening on 4th June, and the following morning found Hugh Mottram Brooks guilty of the murder of Charles Arthur Preller. Brooks was hanged on 10th August 1888.

Perhaps this murder would still be well-known today had it not been for the first in a series of murders which began three weeks later which caught the public attention – the first of Jack the Ripper’s brutal killings (more of him later this month).

A more detailed account of the St. Louis Trunk Murder can be found here. 

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