ST. LOUIS • Hannah Brooks of Manchester, England, turned to the jailer and asked if there was news from Jefferson City.
"There is, Mrs. Brooks, and it is bad," he told her. "You had better prepare yourself for the worst."
On Aug. 9, 1888, Gov. Albert Morehouse rejected a final plea from the British government to spare her son, Hugh Mottram Brooks. The jailers allowed Mrs. Brooks to enter his cell for a final embrace. That was unusual, but there was nothing ordinary about the case of the Little Chloroformer, as Hugh Brooks was known to the world.
He had come to St. Louis in 1885 with Charles Arthur Preller, a well-born fellow Britisher. They met crossing the Atlantic and agreed to journey together to New Zealand. Brooks, a commoner, passed himself as Walter H. Lennox-Maxwell, a doctor from London.
They took rooms here in the Southern Hotel, at 410 Walnut Street, the city's finest. They were seen together constantly. Then Brooks was alone, suddenly flashing money and claiming his friend had left town. Brooks, alias Maxwell, bought a new trunk and took a train to San Francisco on April 6, 1885.
Eight days later, maids at the Southern complained of a stench in Room 144. Charles Bieger, the trunk dealer, pried open his recent sale. Inside was Preller's swollen, blackening body.
Death was poisoning by chloroform, an anesthetic purchased by "Dr. Maxwell."
Brooks made it to Auckland, New Zealand, where police were waiting on the dock to arrest him. His flight already was an international news story.
Two St. Louis detectives fetched him from Auckland. Mobs of curious people met their train at the old Union Depot on 12th Street (Tucker Boulevard). He was taken to a cell in the Four Courts Building, at Clark and 11th streets.
Brooks' lengthy trial in 1886 was a sensation, covered stenographically by the newspapers. Brooks testified he tried to treat his friend for a "private disease" and accidentally used too much chloroform.
Weeping on the witness stand, Brooks said he fled because, "I was in a strange land, a stranger."
He was found guilty and condemned. His parents, Samuel and Hannah Brooks, traveled here to plead for his life. Great Britain asked for clemency. Gov. Morehouse was unmoved.
Hannah Brooks was still in St. Louis on Aug. 10 when her son was hanged at the Four Courts. From the gallows, Brooks said only, "Goodbye." More the 200 witnesses jammed the enclosed yard. Fifty police officers kept a surging crowd in the street.
Hannah Brooks did not watch. Weeping, she told reporters, "I hate this country now." Hugh Brooks, 27, a death row convert to Catholicism, was buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.