THE DEATH SHIP : My Big Chance to Play Detective

THE DEATH SHIP : My Big Chance to Play Detective
By Tom Henighan

(From 1957 until 1959, I served as American Vice Consul in what was then the British Colony of Aden (now part of the Republic of Yemen). In my autobiography Coming of Age in Arabia (Penumbra Books, 2004), I describe a murder investigation which formed one highlight of my time in South Arabia. I’m happy to share the story of this murder with interested readers, some of whom may want to check out my autobiographical book for other Arabian adventures. This true story I soon tried to turn into fiction, my first attempt at writing a full-length novel. That was one I never marketed—an apprentice effort. The wireless operator, “Sparks,” on the Robert Craig (see below) also tried to write a mystery based on some of these events. I hope he brought it off! As for me, I’ve had to wait until 2010 to get my first mystery out—and it has nothing to do with Aden! I hope the readers and potential readers of NIGHTSHADE enjoy this story of my real murder mystery investigation, one full of odd details and ironies worthy of the best mystery yarns).

American Consulate, Aden, Friday morning, October 31, 1958. “Here’s something interesting,” Cathy O’Hara, our secretary, announces, waving a telegram at me. It is a signal just received from the captain of an American military transport ship, the U.S.S. Lieutenant Robert Craig, anchored in Aden’s outer harbour. The captain’s message is not the usual perfunctory request for some minor consular intervention; on the contrary, it sounds distinctly frightened. One of the ship’s crewmen, an electrician named James T. Hill, has disappeared and may have been murdered. The Robert Craig is in a state of terror.

I climb on board a launch at the Prince of Wales Pier and head for the outer harbour. It is a beautiful Aden morning, sunlight glittering on thewater, oil tankers and a few cargo ships floating lightly at anchor. We motor past these, the gulls soar and cry, and, as we move, the rocky cliffs that encircle the harbour take on a purer definition. I try to recall a few
lines from a poem by Oliver St.John Gogarty about the “lapsing, unsoilable
whispering sea,” although right now there is no whispering, and not a touch of roaring majesty: the sea is merely companionable, comforting in its bright, low-keyed equanimity.
When I catch sight of the Robert Craig, however, my blithe mood darkens a little. This is not from any conjured-up melodrama of expectation; the grey ship, lying low in the water, is actually a grim sight —sleek and almost menacing, with a high bow that slopes down amidships, a white bridge topped by a single stack, steely cranes fore and aft that rise
like jury-rigged crosses or bare gallows trees. From stem to stern, right down to its brick or blood-red paint border at the water line, this ship is an instrument of pure utility, but lacking any Bauhaus charm.

I go up the ladder, survey the nearly empty deck, and greet the second officer, who takes me at once to the captain’s cabin. The skipper’s name is Claus Lampe. A middle-aged man, slightly bowed, with a grey careworn face, he speaks with a slight German accent. My youthful appearance does nothing to reassure him, while for my part I am surprised to
find the panic of his telegram perfectly expressive of the atmosphere of
the ship. As we leave the deck, faces peer from behind containers, figures move between the cargo booms. From time to time, recounting his story, Lampe glances nervously around, then pauses and listens intently, as if he were expecting a visit from the Gestapo or the Golem. Mr. Benson, the second officer, stands guard outside the cabin door.

Lampe’s story is simple, at least on the surface. Jimmie Hill, a seaman electrician, has been missing since about 12:30 p.m. the day before. At that time the ship was on the high seas at 14º 50′ north latitude, and 49º 50′ west longitude. What were later to be verified as bloodstains had been found at the stern on the port side near a door leading to two levels. The upper level held the carpenter’s shop and two storerooms, and
the lower was occupied by the ship’s steering engine room. The bloodstains
led from the ship’s side railing across about fifteen feet of deck and down the stairwell, stopping on the upper landing. There were two smudged fingerprints in blood on the bulkhead by the stairs. On the deck and the stairs were rag marks where someone had attempted to wipe up the blood.

Most of this I verified for myself, after reassuring the captain that we could help him. By this time my own delight and excitement were as vivid as Lampe’s gloom. I could hardly wait to get back to the consulate and report. Before I departed, however, the captain led me to his cabin, closed the door, and addressed me with a ferocious intensity, speaking in a whisper. What he said was quite clear, but I felt as well something lurking behind his words. “We’ve searched everywhere. Somebody murdered Hill and threw him overboard. You’ve got to bring the police. Whoever did it might kill
… any of us. I don’t want anything to do with him.”

“You sound as if you know who did it.”

He shook his head, wiped his sweating face. “I know what I know.
And, believe me, the crew are afraid. Can you get the police on board —
right away?”

“I hope so … Today, I hope. Don’t worry, I’ll come back as soon as I
can.”

“Tell them to bring some weapons. If you knew what we were up
against, you’d understand. Everyone’s afraid. We don’t want to spend
another night with a murderer.”

“Captain Lampe, I’m required to conduct an investigation.”

“You’re going to question these seamen? Do you know what you’re up
against? These are tough men . . .”

I smiled, left him there, and returned to the consulate. I could hardly
wait to report to my boss, Bill Crawford. But Esmail, my sterling Somali assistant, intercepted me. When I told him the story, his eyes beamed with anticipation. Before I could blink, he was reading me the appropriate regulations of the consular handbook. His conclusion, that it was well within our authority to conduct the investigation, pleased me no end. We needed a police guard, however — it was the captain’s specific request. I put through a call to R.H. Stewart, the Assistant Police Commissioner, with whom I had a
good rapport. He was quite willing to supply the guards, but there was a problem. That morning there had been labour protests and marches in Crater, the old Arab quarter of the Colony. All available men were assigned. Perhaps we could try the army?
This was something Crawford would have to approve. He did so, to my
delight, and even paved the way with a call to the local British commandant.
Since the situation on board seemed a bit ambiguous, the British
decided to take no chances. I would meet that evening with a contingent
of soldiers and together we would board the ship. With the soldiers keeping
order, I would conduct an investigation beginning that very night. We telegraphed Captain Lampe to this effect and at the appointed hour I met the soldiers at the staging area. This was at a dingy barracks shed in Tarshyne, just beyond the Prince of Wales pier. In a dim, small room Esmail and I — along with one junior naval officer — stood by
while a young lieutenant briefed eighteen soldiers. The whole scene had
a Jack Armstrong quality about it — an air of bravura adventure and
unreality — but I enjoyed every minute of it. The lieutenant’s briefing,
however, was deadly serious; we might have been about to board an
enemy destroyer. When he had finished, he gave the order to fix bayonets;
we made our way in near darkness to the jetty, where the Royal Navy launch waited for us.

As our launch churned through the murky harbour waters the lieutenant
continued to give orders. We had asked Lampe to leave a ladder for us. The lieutenant would go up first, I would follow, then the soldiers. Esmail would wait on the launch, together with a couple of guards and the naval officer– at least until everything was secure on board.

By night, the Robert Craig looked even more sinister than she had by day. Inwardly, I kept questioning my own reaction to the ship. Surely I was simply projecting onto her my own foreboding, my own excitement. Surely she was just a good solid working transport ship. But no, when I studied her at that moment, her masthead light shining above us, her
bridge, deck, and hull gleaming dully in the Aden night, it struck me again how bleak and somehow heartless she looked: a perfect setting for a mean or spiteful act of inhumanity.
We hove to; the ship towered above us, waves slapped at metal. We
cut the engine and bumped close to the swaying ladder. The lieutenant
drew his pistol and started climbing; I followed. The soldiers came up
behind me. They scrambled aboard and deployed precisely as the lieutenant
had specified in the briefing. Captain Lampe and the first mate stood by, their relief quite apparent. They did not seem to think this show of military force excessive. To me there was a touch here — although only a touch — of comic opera.

The questioning would take place in the captain’s cabin. Esmail came
aboard and he and I, together with the lieutenant and two soldiers, followed
Lampe there.

With armed guards at the door, the captain began to confide in us.

“You have to arrest him now. We’re all frightened. It’s Robinson for sure that did it.”

“Who’s Robinson?”

“The chief electrician. He’s got a violent temper. He’s a black man from Brooklyn. They were gambling — four or five of them. Hill was a big winner, almost a card sharp.”

“Wait a minute! How do you know Robinson did it? We’re here to take evidence, not to arrest anyone.”

“I saw him that night. He was carrying a bucket. At the port side after-end. Washing away the bloodstains, I know that. I didn’t want to go near him. Why don’t you talk to him right away?”

I considered this and said, “No, let’s do it this way. We’ll talk to his roommate first, then anyone else involved in any way. We’ll get Robinson’s testimony later when I know what questions to ask him.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” said the lieutenant.

Esmail and I took over the captain’s cabin and began to interrogate the crew.

I enjoyed this very much. It had a touch of Perry Mason, but thanks
to the eerie night atmosphere and the almost palpable fear on board the
Robert Craig, there was a whiff of Macbeth. I swore in each witness and
read them the following statement:

I am a Foreign Service Officer of the United States of America. I desire to
question you under oath concerning the disappearance of Jimmie Hill from
aboard the U.S.S. Robert Craig. Any statement that you make must be
freely and voluntarily given and may be used by the government as evidence
in any proceedings against you or any other therein. Do you understand?

Following this introduction, I asked the questions; Esmail took dictation,
typed the statement, and each witness in turn read and signed it.

I still have the transcripts of my interrogation and I can vouch for its
thoroughness. My object was to establish everyone’s whereabouts, to probe
into the relationships among the gamblers, and to establish some kind of motive for the murder. I succeeded in pinpointing the gambling group, uncovered some of the animosities among them, and made clear by my questioning that the murderer could have ambushed Jimmie Hill without showing himself for more than a few seconds on any of the main decks.

After the first night’s questioning, Captain Lampe approached me.

“Mr. Henighan, you must have legal experience.”

Over the next few days a motley cast of characters appeared before me. I sat behind the captain’s desk and questioned everyone from Charlie the Wiper and “Sparks” to most of the engineers, carpenters, and firemen on board. Esmail recorded their testimony and occasionally suggested a line of questioning. The British guards were eventually replaced by U.S. sailors from visiting warships. And when the U.S. vessels departed, a few
days later, these men were assigned to the consulate, so that Captain Lampe had guards on board during the whole time of our investigation.

I quickly extended the scope of my interrogation. Reports were coming in that Chief Electrician Cecil Robinson, the captain’s prime suspect, was behaving rather strangely. On the way to Aden, one crewman reported, he had declared, “I feel like killing someone tonight.” Before Hill was discovered missing, Robinson had asked one of the officers to
examine a bucket, possibly the same one that the captain had seen him
carrying near the scene of the crime. In Aden, Robinson reportedly suggested
to his mates that information about the gambling be suppressed;
he was also seen peering over the side to monitor the arrival and departure
of the investigators, myself included.

Quite early in the game we questioned Robinson himself. He was a large well-built man in his mid-thirties and he answered most of my questions in a pretty matter-of-fact manner, but without making very much eye contact. He could not, however, establish an alibi, since no one testified to having seen him during the crucial hours of the night of the
murder. He claimed to have won money during the poker games with
Hill that preceded his assistant’s disappearance — although it was eventually
established that he lost something like a thousand dollars.

After the interrogation Robinson declared that the next time he
appeared before us to answer questions he would insist on being represented
by a lawyer. A couple of days later I got a call from Commissioner Stewart. A body
had been pulled from the harbour. Could I come over and have a look?
I met Stewart and examined quite a few photographs of what was left of
Jimmie Hill. It was not a pretty sight. Most of his face had been eaten
away; both arms were missing and a leg. The lively sport of the midnight
interrogations gave way to some serious private reflections on mortality.
Aden had a way of stimulating such moments. Would I like to see the
actual remains? Stewart asked. I thought not.

Reports of the murder were spreading through the Colony. I was suddenly
very popular at cocktail parties. The armed intervention seemed
especially to delight the British. Someone suggested that this was the first
time a British military force had boarded and occupied an American ship
since the War of 1812. Newsweek picked up the story, garbling some of
it, and I wrote a corrective letter, which was published in the magazine
on May 18, 1959, at the time of Robinson’s trial. My letter was quite
straightforward but elicited a reminder from Crawford that all such correspondence should be submitted to the State Department for approval. This struck me as rather officious.

My inquiry lasted nearly a week. At that point the Naval Commander of Middle East Forces, who had been kept informed of developments by Captain Lampe, ordered two naval intelligence agents flown down from Naples to take over the investigation. Those were innocent days in so far as forensic science went, and despite the arrival of the professionals there was no striking breakthrough in the case. The agents simply ran a few lie detector tests and coordinated and expanded the information we had
developed.

The naval men were generous in their praise of what Esmail and I had done and suggested that Bill Crawford place some kind of commendation in my file. I don’t think he did this, but at the time it hardly seemed to matter. The real issue for me was an internal one, one connected with my personal values, and with my sense of reality.

For I was certainly convinced, as was Esmail, that Cecil Robinson had
murdered Jimmie Hill. The motive was there, the opportunity was there,
and Robinson’s actions betrayed his guilt at several points. Yet despite my
belief and conviction I made little real attempt to press Robinson all the
way to the end. Why?

For one thing I was struck by his position as a black man among an
otherwise white crew. The good Captain Lampe’s fearful allusions to “what he might do,” although far from overtly racist, seemed to conjure up, however indirectly, the stereotype of the dangerous, prowling black killer. Then, too, I had been trained by the example of a thousand detective stories to expect the murderer to be fairly hard to identify. (We
demand that the solutions of our literary mysteries be less than obvious). As one of my friends exclaimed in disappointment after finishing Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “Seven hundred pages and the butler did it!”) The Robinson solution seemed far too easy.

These things I saw at the time. But there was much that I missed. For one thing, although I partially sensed that the Robert Craig story held an image of the outcast seaman worthy of the tales of Joseph Conrad, I overlooked the symbolic power of that white man’s corpse washed up on the shores of the Colony. That mutilated corpse, Captain Lampe’s fears— these were a link, however tenuous, between the racism at home and the racism I had found in the colony. Cecil Robinson’s undoubted isolation and rage were surely more than personal burdens. When I left Washington, blacks were still forced to ride in the back of public buses; America’s major civil rights battles were just beginning. With the arrival of the Robert Craig and the disclosure of its secrets, the Aden shore had become an uncomfortable passageway between far distant and nearby scenes of oppression and conflict.

Stories of the murder spread beyond Aden. Several of my young State
Department colleagues — the ones I had met at the Foreign Service
Institute — saw my letter to Newsweek and kept me posted of later
events in the Robinson case. At the time of the trial, the New York Daily
News ran the typically graphic headline, “CHARGED WITH TOSSING PAL
TO SHARKS AT SEA.“ The news services also highlighted the story. The
prosecution argued that Robinson had clubbed Jimmie Hill to death and
thrown him overboard “into waters teeming with sharks.” Robinson
finally admitted disposing of Hill, but claimed he had been dead when
he hit the water. He had thrown the older man down a hatch and killed
him, he said, after Hill made “a homosexual advance” to him. Robinson
pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to ten years
in prison.

The truth underlying the grim outcome may never be known. Fear
and desire, Freud intimated, are the two underlying elements of any
good story. The third is perhaps mystery, or ambiguity. Life and literature
meet at certain depths to suggest how inconclusive is our “factual”
knowledge, how tinged with uncertainty all our profound experiences.
The “uncanny” is no mere literary trope but a very real potential of
human experience. Nor should this surprise us, since, as the Russian
writer Ivan Bunin once affirmed, “the creepiest thing in the world is the
heart of man.”

See Coming of Age in Arabia (Penumbra Press, 2004) for more about Tom’s Aden adventures. And don’t miss his novel NIGHTSHADE (2010), an exciting mystery story set in Canada, published by DUNDURN in its Castle Street Mysteries series.

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