Thursday, July 28, 2011

August 10, 1888 --- Western Justice

In Missouri, a young Englishman hangs for murder.

Two Englishmen, Hugh Brooks (right) and Lawrence Preller, met aboard a ship headed for the States. Brooks is 24 and a family disappointment; he was on his way to New Zealand.  He had studied a little law and some medicine and was traveling under the name of Dr. Walter Maxwell.  Preller was in his 30's and a carpet salesman, bound for Australia. A shipboard friendship and - apparently - a homosexual one, blossomed.  They decided to cross America together; arriving in St. Louis they took a room at the Southern Hotel in St. Louis in early 1885. One day, "Dr. Maxwell," drank heavily at the bar and then left the hotel, rather in a hurry.

Two weeks later, hotel maids found Preller's decomposed body in a steamer trunk. Since Brooks/Maxwell's' travel plans were well-known, he was arrested in Auckland upon his arrival and returned to the USA for trial. Brooks made the claim that Preller had died from an accidental overdose of chloroform prior to a hotel room operation for a "private disease." He had then fled in panic: "Put yourself in my place ... a stranger alone in a vast land ... and tell me what you would have done! Probably just what I did." A post mortem determined that Preller had been strangled and they found no evidence of disease,

The damning witness against Brooks was a cellmate who testified that Brooks had admitted to killing Preller, quoting him: "I thought I'd just fix him for his meanness and get his money too." The jailhouse snitch was actually a railway detective who was planted in the same cell with Brooks. The New York Times condemned the "breezy unconventionality" of Western justice which was "not defensible upon any theory of morals accepted outside of Missouri." In London, The Saturday Review agreed: "No honorable man would for any sum ... perform such service as was expected from this detective." The issue went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court: "This court is unable to find that [Brooks] has been deprived of any right, privilege or immunity guaranteed to him by the Constitution of the United States." Appeals for mercy, through the British Embassy, are unavailing.

With sickly pallor, Brooks walks to the noose, leaving a "Letter to the People of England." Sneering at the "great boasts" of American justice, he complained of "the unlawful, unjust and unfair way in which I have been treated."

The photograph of Brooks appears at

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