Saturday, February 5, 2011

The St. Louis Trunk Tragedy

On Sunday, April 12, 1885, the manager of the Southern Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, entered room 144 responding to guests’ complaints of a foul odor emanating from inside. The manager found nothing amiss on Sunday but by Tuesday the stench was unbearable.  He checked again and it appeared that the occupants had moved out, leaving behind several trunks. Inside one of the trunks was the decomposing body of a man wearing only a pair of white drawers. Apparently one of the two young Englishmen sharing the room had murdered the other.  Though the death had been made to look like a political assassination, it was in fact the tragic ending of a “peculiar relationship.”

Date:  April 5, 1885

Location:   St. Louis, Missouri

Victim:  Charles Arthur Preller

Cause of Death: Poisoning

Accused:   Hugh Mottram Brooks (alias Walter H. Lennox Maxwell, MD)


Hugh Brooks, alias Walter Maxwell
Charles Arthur Preller and Hugh Mottram Brooks met in Liverpool, England in January 1885 and travelled together to Boston on the steamship Cephalonia. Preller was a successful 32-year-old international travelling salesman for J. H. Dixon, a London textile company. Brooks, 24, was an attorney who had also studied medicine. He was travelling under the name Walter H. Lennox Maxwell, MD.

The two men became fast friends as they crossed the Atlantic, in fact correspondence found later —described as “not fit for publication”—indicated that they had begun a homosexual relationship. They had planned to travel together to Auckland, New Zealand, but Preller had calls to make in North America first. Maxwell stayed in Boston while Preller went to Montreal; they agreed to meet in St. Louis a few weeks later.

Maxwell arrived in St. Louis on March 30, checked into the Southern Hotel and was assigned to room 144. Preller arrived on April 3, and though he checked into a room of his own, it was well known that both men were sleeping in room 144. Hotel employees observed that Preller displayed a considerable amount of money mostly in $100 bills. Maxwell appeared to be broke.

The Southern Hotel, St. Louis, MO
On April 5, Easter Sunday, Maxwell told several people around the hotel that Preller would be traveling in the country but would return to the hotel in a few days. At 10:15 that night Maxwell was drunk in the hotel bar where, according to Henry Arlington, the head waiter,  he displayed a pistol and a roll of $100 bills. He asked Arlington:
“If a man committed murder in this country and had $600 could he beat the case?”
The next day Maxwell went to Hickman’s barber shop and had his beard shaved off. He then went to a trunk dealer, Frederick Beiger, and purchased a canvas trunk and two trunk straps. Later that day he paid his hotel bill and disappeared, leaving behind several trunks. It was presumed that Preller would return for them, so the trunks were left undisturbed.

Six days later a peculiar odor was noticed in the room and on April 14 the stench became unbearable. The odor was emanating from a zinc trunk that was bound by ropes and the straps purchased at Beiger’s. The trunk was opened and inside was the body of a man, naked but for a pair of white drawers with “H. M. Brooks” on the waistband. His mustache had been cut off with scissors and a cross was cut, skin deep, in his breast. Also in the trunk was a paper placard with the inscription:
“So perish all traitors to the great cause.”
The writing style matched Maxwell’s signature on the hotel register. St. Louis police believed the placard was a deliberate attempt to give the misleading impression that the murder was a political assassination.

Among the belongings that Maxwell left behind the police found several prescription blanks from Fernon’s drug store in St. Louis. Mr. Fernon told detectives that he knew Maxwell and that at 2:00 PM on April 5 he sold him four ounces of chloroform and at 4:00 another two ounces. An autopsy was performed on the body and it was determined that Preller had died from chloroform poisoning.

A letter among Preller’s belongings confirmed what others at the hotel had heard; that the two men had planned to travel together to New Zealand. Police suspected that Maxwell would now be making the journey alone and checking at the train depot they ascertained that a man fitting Maxwell’s description had purchased a ticket to San Francisco, giving the name of “H. M. Brooks.”

St. Louis police telegraphed San Francisco Captain of Detectives I. W. Lees who began a search for Maxwell. A man fitting Maxwell’s description had checked into the Palace Hotel under the name T. C. D’Auguier of Paris. The clerk said that he had a strong French accent. A man named Robbins, who checked in around the same time, recalled talking to D’Auguier on the train. Speaking with a strong French accent D’Auguier told him he was a French brigadier. As it happened, Robbins spoke fluent French and began addressing D’Auguier in his native language. D’Auguier was forced to admit that he did not speak French, but continued to use the accent for the rest of the trip.

This and other evidence convinced Lees that D’Auguier was the man that was wanted in St. Louis. He also determined that D’Auguier had booked passage on the City of Sydney, a steamer bound for Auckland, New Zealand.

St. Louis Police Chief Harrigan sent a cablegram to the U. S. Consul in Auckland. The cost for a cablegram to New Zealand was $3.34 a word and the message was 155 words for a total cost of $517.70—an enormous sum in 1885. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported at the time  that the message was:
“the most expensive police message ever sent from a telegraph office in the United States.”
 Maxwell was taken into custody when the City of Sydney arrived in Auckland.

Det. James Tracey
Missouri governor Marmaduke obtained extradition papers signed by President Grover Cleveland and sent St. Louis detectives James Tracey and George Badger to New Zealand to pick up the prisoner. After a delay of seventy-seven days, the prisoner was turned over to the detectives who arrived in San Francisco on August 11. A crowd of more than 2,000 people met them at the train depot when they arrived in St. Louis five days later.

Trial: May 1886

The trial of Walter Maxwell—now known to the court to be Hugh Brooks—was held in St. Louis’s Four Courts building and lasted three weeks. Hotel employees, Hickman the barber, Beiger the trunk dealer, Fernon the druggist and others who had known or seen the two men in St. Louis testified for the prosecution. Their most effective witness, however, was John McCollough, a detective for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. McCollough had been planted in jail under false chages and for forty-seven days was Hugh Brooks’s cellmate. McCollough testified that Brooks had told him he was enraged that Preller refused to pay his passage to Auckland and decided,
“on account of his meanness to fix him.”
 Brooks told McCollough that Preller had complained of a “private disease” that Brooks said he could cure. He injected Preller with a large amount of morphine to render him unconscious then tied a cloth about his face and kept it saturated with chloroform until Preller was dead.

The defense challenged the admissibility of this evidence but their objection was overruled.

On May 26, Brooks took the stand and testified in his own defense. He claimed that the Sunday after he arrived in St. Louis, Preller complained that he was unwell. From the symptoms, Brooks concluded that he was suffering from a stricture that he could cure by inserting a catheter in the urethra. Preller agreed to the operation and Brooks administered chloroform as an anesthetic. Though unconscious, Preller began to wince as though in pain during the procedure. Brooks administered more chloroform and Preller’s breathing became labored and despite Brooks’s efforts at resuscitation Preller died. Brooks fled out of fear that his story would not be believed.

On May 30, Preller’s body was exhumed and examined again to determine if there was any truth to Brooks’s story. An autopsy determined that Preller did not have a stricture and had not been treated with a catheter.

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

Verdict: Guilty of murder


Four Courts, St. Louis, MO
Appeals and requests for new trials were denied but Brooks was given extra time before his execution so that his parents could arrive from England. On August 10, 1888, as 50 police officers held back the crowd, Hugh Mottram Brooks, alias, Walter H. Lennox Maxwell, was hanged in the yard behind Four Courts. It was a double hanging; Brooks was hanged along with Henry Landgraff who, in an unrelated case, was convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 1885.

In jail Brooks had converted to Catholicism and was burred Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis's main Catholic cemetery, in a plot purchased by his father. Preller was buried in an unmarked grave in the neighboring Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Wagner, Allen Eugene. Good Order and Safety: A History of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 1861-1906. St. Louis, Mo.: Missouri History Museum, 2008.

Duke, Thomas Samuel, Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, San Francisco, The James H. Barry company, 1910.

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)
Ewing Brooks

Gravesites (from Findagrave)
Charles Arthur Preller
Hugh Mottram Brooks


Tammi Thiele says:
February 5, 2011 at 4:13 PM

Was his name Peller or Preller?

Robert Wilhelm says:
February 5, 2011 at 5:23 PM

You're right, it's Preller. I should have double checked.

Tammi Thiele says:
February 9, 2011 at 12:37 PM

Sadly his murder got a headstone but he did not.
location of Preller's grave

Location of Brook's grave

Robert Wilhelm says:
February 9, 2011 at 8:55 PM

Thanks for the links Tammi, I've added them to the Resources above. Usually I check Findagrave but I didn't think this case was famous enough. Wrong again.

Tammi Thiele says:
February 10, 2011 at 10:02 AM

One never knows where they will find info. I have found that out the hard way a number of times. If your interested I have a few interesting murder stories I have discovered in cemeteries. Email me privately and I will share them with you I'd love to see what you could do with the stories.

Jeffrey Stafford says:
March 1, 2012 at 4:36 AM

Coming from Brooks's home town I have a special interest in this case having researched it for a number of years. The murder is not mentioned in any local history book, perhaps because the person who wrote the history of our town was a big friend of Brooks's father. Would like to hear from anyone who could let me have a picture of Brooks,Preller, or the Souther Hotel.

Unknown says:
September 10, 2016 at 4:16 AM

I have a letter from Brooks foretold by an ancestor who was in jail with him dated April 17,1886

Unknown says:
September 10, 2016 at 4:19 AM

Yes Tammi the headstone is there for Brooks and only a unknown marker for Preller since no one was there to identify him as a family member, that's what happened in those days.

Unknown says:
December 26, 2016 at 6:32 PM

Maybe someone could get Preller an engraved stone now?

Robert Oldham says:
July 1, 2021 at 5:33 AM

They were willing to go beyond the call of duty to make things work promptly

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