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The Murder of Charles Preller by his Homosexual Lover, Hugh M. Brooks, 1885


Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast

On January 28th, 1885, the Steamer Cephalonia left Liverpool for Boston. On board were two highly educated and refined appearing young Englishmen named Charles Arthur Preller and a man known as Walter Lennox Maxwell, M. D. They were strangers to each other when they boarded the vessel, but as they were both Englishmen bound for a foreign land, they immediately became quite friendly, and by the time they reached Boston, on February 3, they had become inseparable companions.

They went to the same hotel, where they discussed a trip to Auckland, New Zealand, but as Preller, who was a commercial traveler, was forced to make a business trip to Canada and thence to Philadelphia, they agreed to meet in St. Louis a few weeks later and arrange the details. Preller left for Canada on February 6, but Maxwell remained in Boston until March 28, during which time he became financially embarrassed and was forced to pawn a watch.

He arrived in St. Louis on March 30 and proceeded direct to the Southern Hotel, where he was assigned to room 184.

Almost immediately after his arrival the manager of the hotel received a telegram signed by Preller asking if Maxwell had arrived. Upon receiving an affirmative answer, Preller started for St. Louis and arrived at the hotel on Friday, April 3.

Maxwell had but $60 at this time, so he endeavored to sell some stereopticon apparatus to raise money.
The two men spent most of their time in Maxwell’s room. The latter was very effeminate in his manner and a letter subsequently found, but which was not fit for publication, indicated that a peculiar relationship existed between the two.

On different occasions Preller displayed considerable money, mostly in $100 bills. He was last seen shortly after dinner on Easter Sunday, April 5. On that evening, Maxwell told different persons about the hotel that Preller had gone to the country but would return in a few days.

At 10:15 o’clock that night Maxwell showed the effects of excessive drinking and talked in an incoherent manner. In the presence of Henry Arlington, the head waiter, he displayed a pistol and a roll of $100 bills. He also asked: “If a man committed murder in this country and had $600 could he beat the case?”
On the next morning (Monday), Maxwell went to Hickman’s barber shop at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, where a barber named Armo shaved off his beard. After the work was completed he asked the barber, “Could any one recognize me now?”

He then went to a trunk dealer named Frederick Beiger and purchased a canvas trunk and two trunk straps. A hotel porter named William Train took these to Maxwell’s room the same day and there saw a zinc trunk in the room, which he moved to one side and which he afterward recalled was very heavy. This trunk was the one which Maxwell brought to the hotel when he first arrived.

On this day Maxwell paid his bill and disappeared. As the room he vacated was not needed and as he had left the zinc trunk and the one he had just purchased there, it was presumed that he or Preller would return in a few days, and they were not disturbed.

About six days later, a peculiar odor was noticed in this room, but on the 14th, it became so unbearable that an investigation was instituted. The zinc trunk, which was securely bound with ropes and the two straps purchased from Beiger, was opened, and the body of Preller was found cramped up in it. With the exception of a pair of drawers, upon the waistband of which was the name “H. M. Brooks,” the body was nude. For the purpose of preventing identification the mustache had been cut off with scissors. On the breast were two gashes, skin deep, in the form of a cross. On a paper placard was the inscription, “So perish all traitors to the great cause.”

The writing on this card was compared with Maxwell’s signature on the register and proved to be the same style of writing. It was the theory of the police that this placard was placed in the trunk for the purpose of misleading and conveying the impression that the murder was a political assassination.

Among Preller’s effects was found the following telegram:

“Boston, Mass., Mar. 19, 1885. “C. A. Preller, Belvedere Hotel:
“Yes, could go direct to Auckland from here. Will write to Philadelphia tomorrow.

This caused the police to suspect that Maxwell might have started on this trip with Preller’s money. They therefore made inquiry at the depot and ascertained that a man of Maxwell’s appearance had purchased an unlimited ticket to San Francisco and had given the name of “H. M. Brooks.”

In Maxwell’s trunk were found several prescription blanks from Fernon’s drug store, located at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, St. Louis. The detectives called on Fenton, who stated that he knew Maxwell, and that on April 5 he sold him four ounces of chloroform at 2 p. m., and two ounces at 4 p. m. Professor Ludeking immediately performed an autopsy and declared that Preller died from chloroform poisoning.
Great publicity was given to the case by the press and two St. Louisans who had seen Maxwell at the Southern Hotel notified the police that on May 6 they took westbound train No. 23 and rode as far as Pierce City, Mo. They stated positively that Maxwell was on the train and had his beard shaved off.

A telegram was immediately sent to Captain of Detectives I. W. Lees of San Francisco, in which a complete description of Maxwell was given.

At that time, it was Captain Lees’ custom to spend much of his time in the evenings around the corridors of the Palace and Grand Hotels, and he recalled that some evenings previously, while he and Detective Dan Coffey were at the Palace Hotel, they saw a man who in a general way answered the description of the much-wanted Maxwell. The two officers proceeded at once to the hotel and ascertained that the man they referred to was registered as T. C. D’Auguier of Paris, and was evidently a Frenchman as he spoke with a strong French accent.

The records at the hotel showed that T. C. D’Auguier had only stayed at’the hotel one day and while he was assigned to room 692, the chambermaid stated that he had not slept in his bed that night.

It was recalled that when D’Auguier registered another man named Robbins registered at the same time and probably came in on the same train. This man was still stopping at the hotel, and when located by Lees he made the following interesting and important statement:

“I came from Chicago, but when we reached some small station, a car from St. Louis was attached to our train. There was but one passenger on that car and that was the man who came through to San Francisco and registered the name `D’Auguier’ at the Palace Hotel in my presence. When his car joined our train he came into the car I was in and began conversing, speaking with a strong French accent. He said that he was a French brigadier, and as I speak French fluently I addressed him in that language. He was completely nonplused and was forced to admit that he did not speak the language, although he continued to use the French accent.

“As he joined us from another train, the conductor, desiring to keep his records straight, asked him for his name. This seemed to excite him greatly, and he asked me, ‘What for does he want ze name, eh?’ When I explained the matter he breathed a sigh of relief.”

Captain Lees then questioned Robbins closely and the description he gave of the man tallied exactly with that given by the St. Louis officials. Robbins also stated that this man carried a pistol and an open-faced watch, which he dropped to the floor on one occasion.

Almost immediately after interviewing Mr. Robbins, Lees learned from the St. Louis police that Maxwell checked three pieces of baggage to San Francisco, and that the checks were numbered 2006, 2069 and 2046. Captain Lees and Detective Coffey went to room 692 and under the bureau they found a crumpled receipt from the transportation company which delivered the baggage, and these three numbers were on the receipt.

As Lees next learned that the St. Louis officials suspected that Maxwell was en route to Auckland, he and Detective Coffey visited the ticket agent and ascertained that on April 12, a man of Maxwell’s description paid $90 for a steerage passage and sailed on that day. This man spoke with such a strong accent that the agent could not understand his name so the man wrote the word “D’Auguier” on a card. Fortunately the agent saved the card, which he handed to Captain Lees, and it was obvious that it was written by the same person who registered at the Palace Hotel.

The next important information came from a woman who was an inmate of a brothel on Eddy Street.
She told Captain Lees that on the night of April 11 a man of Maxwell’s appearance came to her resort where he spent the night.

He had been drinking heavily and spoke with a French accent, but on one occasion he was looking at an album containing photographs of celebrities and when he saw the picture of Henry Irving, the celebrated English tragedian, he exclaimed in perfect English: “Why, there’s Irving’s picture.”

The woman laughingly said: “Why, I thought you were French.” The man replied: “Oh, yes, Madam, I am ze Frenchman but I know ze Irving.”

This woman furthermore stated that on one occasion, she left the room occupied by the “Frenchman” and herself and when she returned and opened the door suddenly, he was sitting on the edge of the bed with a pistol in his hand. He put the pistol under his pillow, braced a chair against the door and lay awake all night.

In describing the man’s jewelry she stated positively that he had a new closed-case watch and a peculiar looking chain, one link being gold and the next silver. Lees telegraphed to St. Louis and learned that the murdered man had such a chain in his lifetime.

As Mr. Robbins stated positively that the “Frenchman” had dropped an open-faced watch and as this woman was just as positive that she saw a closed-face watch in the possession of the “Frenchman,” Captain Lees concluded that a new watch had been purchased and the old one disposed of. He therefore detailed Detective Coffey to visit the pawnshops. After a long search he finally located a pawnbroker on Market Street who had purchased an open-faced watch from a man of Maxwell’s appearance. The watch was still in stock and when the dealer opened it the name “Hugh M. Brooks” was engraved inside the case.

Immediately after this discovery, a Market Street secondhand book-dealer called on Captain Lees and stated that on the morning of April 12 a man of Maxwell’s appearance entered his store and said: “Monsieur, I take ze long ride and I like ze book so lively as to keep up ze spirit.” The seller then offered him a spicy novel written in French, but the “Frenchman” said: “No, no; I like ze translation ze best.” He finally purchased “Peck’s Bad Boy.”

As Captain Lees had become firmly convinced that D’Auguier was Maxwell, he telegraphed to Chief Harrigan that there was no doubt but that the man wanted left San Francisco on April 12 for New Zealand.

Harrigan had the Auckland officials notified and Maxwell was apprehended as the vessel came into the harbor.

He denied that his name was Maxwell and although he claimed he had never been in St. Louis, he had a diary in his pocket which contained a memorandum in his own handwriting showing that he arrived at St. Louis on March 30, and left on April 6.

He also had Preller’s watch-chain and some of his clothing in his possession.

On May 25, President Cleveland signed the extradition warrant which was served by Detectives Tracy and Badger of St. Louis.

The prisoner engaged an attorney with the $125 he had left and an attempt was made to prevent the extradition.

After a delay of seventy-seven days the prisoner was turned over to the detectives, who arrived in San Francisco on August 11, 1885. By this time the prisoner refused to discuss his case.

He was returned to St. Louis and an investigation was at once begun by the grand jury.

The prisoner was identified as Maxwell by the druggist who sold the chloroform ; by the trunk-dealer who sold the canvas-covered trunk and also the straps bound around the zinc trunk which contained the body ; by the barber who shaved him, and about six attaches of the hotel, including a porter named William Train, who carried the trunk to Maxwell’s room.

An indictment was found against the prisoner on a charge of murder. He pleaded not guilty and his trial began in May, 1886.

After Arlington, the head-waiter at the hotel ; Armo, the barber; Beiger, the trunk-dealer; Fernon, the druggist; Professor Ludeking and numerous attaches of the hotel testified to the facts heretofore related in this narrative, Detective John F. McCullough was called and his testimony created a sensation.
Circuit Attorney Clover believed that if some shrewd person representing the prosecution, but apparently a criminal, could be stationed in Maxwell’s cell, he could gradually ingratiate himself into the confidence of the prisoner and obtain damaging admissions, or possibly a confession.

He therefore arranged to have Detective McCullough “forge” the name of one Morris to a check. A prosecution was then instituted; witnesses who honestly believed the name was signed with intent to commit forgery testified before the grand jury, and that body, knowing nothing of the prearrangement, indicted McCullough, who had for the occasion assumed the name of “Dingfelder.”

The detective was confined in jail awaiting trial and was placed in Maxwell’s cell, where he remained forty-seven days and nights.

The following is the substance of the detective’s testimony as to what transpired during that time:

“I represented that I was friendly with people who would testify falsely to help me out of trouble and the defendant said : ‘I wish I could get witnesses to do that for me, I might go free also.’

“I told him I expected to get cut on bail soon and when I did I would help him, but I must know what he wanted the witness to testify to and also the circumstances of the case.

“He said that he wanted to prove that he had had $100 bills while he was in Boston, as the prosecution claimed he had exhibited money only after the death of Preller.

“The defendant then told me that he became enraged at Preller on May 3, the day he arrived in St. Louis, because he refused to pay his (Maxwell’s) passage to Auckland, and he decided to get even with him. He said that on Sunday Preller complained of a pain in the side. The defendant said he could fix that so he injected a large amount of morphin into his arm, rendering him unconscious. He then tied a cloth about his face and kept it saturated with chloroform until he was dead. The body was then stripped and placed in the trunk.

“I told the defendant that I expected to be released on a bond in a few days and that when I sent the witnesses to him there would have to be some means of identification. The defendant then wrote `Dingfelder, 2.W’ on a card, the ‘2.W’ meaning two witnesses. This card was torn in half, the defendant taking one-half and I the other. (The detective here produced his half.) It was then agreed that I would give my piece of the card to the witnesses and when they called they would produce this piece of card, and if it matched the piece the defendant had he would feel safe in talking to them. I was released on bonds shortly after this card incident and I went to New York, from where I wrote to the prisoner regarding the witnesses and received an answer.” (Here the witness produced the letter and envelope.)

Upon cross-examination the detective testified that he believed he was justified in such deceptions if done for the purpose of ascertaining the truth where a murder had been committed.

On May 26, the defendant took the stand and testified substantially as follows:

“My true name is Hugh M. Brooks. I am 25 years of age and I was born in Hyde, Chester, England. I studied law in Slockport from 1878 to 1882 and was admitted to the bar. I also studied medicine and surgery at Manchester, but I am not a licensed physician. I first saw Mr. Preller at the Northwestern Hotel at Liverpool, but was not introduced to him until we met on board the steamer Cephalonia bound for Boston.

“I had then assumed the name of Maxwell. When we separated in Boston it was with the understanding that we should meet again in St. Louis.

“I treated Mr. Preller several times and he acknowledged having been benefited.

“On the Sunday after the arrival of Mr. Preller in St. Louis he complained that he was not well and when he described the symptoms, I concluded he was suffering from a stricture and that a catheter should be inserted in the urethra.

“I discussed the administering of chloroform with Preller and looked up authorities to refresh my mind as to the precautions necessary.

“I then went to the drug store and procured four ounces of chloroform and a quantity of absorbent cotton. Preller removed all his clothing, except an undershirt, and lay on the bed.

“I poured out a fluid gramme of chloroform on some lint and left the bottle on the washstand, but it fell into the basin and spilled so I was forced to make a second purchase.

“When I returned I proceeded to administer the anaesthetic and Preller lost consciousness.

“I was proceeding with my work when he winced as though in pain, so I administered more chloroform. Almost immediately the breathing became labored and I at once resorted to all means of resuscitation with which I was familiar until I was completely exhausted. I then saw that my efforts were all in vain as my friend was dead.

“When I realized what I had done I became almost insane with grief and I drank heavily. The cutting of Preller’s mustache, the cross on the breast and placing the placard bearing the inscription in the trunk with the body was done by me when I was in a fear-crazed condition.

“At first I intended to notify the authorities but as I understand the law in England, a man cannot make a statement in his own behalf, and as I thought it was the same here I did not think I could escape punishment.

“I therefore took Preller’s money, clothing and jewelry and attempted to escape.”

Affidavits from prominent Englishmen were then produced tending to show the good character of the defendant.

On May 30, Morgue Superintendent Ryan, Drs. Hewett and Midlet and Prosecuting Attorney Clover had the body of Preller exhumed and after an examination of the organ referred to, which was in a wonderful state of preservation, it was unanimously agreed that the organ was in good condition and that there had never been any occasion for the treatment described by Maxwell.

On the night of June 4, the case was submitted to the jury and on the following morning a verdict of guilty was returned.

The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court for a new trial, claiming among other things that the trial judge erred in permitting the introduction of the confession against the objection of the defense, as it was claimed that the confession was not voluntarily made, as required by law, but was obtained by fraud and artifice.

On this point the Supreme Court decided that while artifice and deceit were resorted to in obtaining the confession, it did not render the person obtaining it incompetent to testify regarding it, but the circumstances might properly be considered as affecting the credibility of the witness.

The Supreme Court declined to grant a new trial and Brooks was hanged on August 10, 1888.