Date Of Execution: 2 Jun 1903
Crime Location: British Barque Veronica, Atlantic Ocean off Brazil
Execution Place: Walton Gaol, Liverpool
Executioner: William Billington
Gustav Rau, Willem Schmidt and Otto Ernest Theodor Monsson were convicted of the murder of Alexander Shaw and several other seamen.
Gustav Rau and Willem Schmidt were executed.
Otto Monsson was too young to execute and was imprisoned.
They had been crew members on the British barque Veronica. They mutinied on or around 8 December 1902 and killed the Captain and six crew members and then set fire to the ship.
They were later rescued and returned to England. However, one of the survivors told the authorities what had happened and the four mutineers were arrested. However, one of them gave evidence against the other three and the charge against him was dropped and he gave evidence for the Crown.
They were charged with the murders of:
They were rescued from the island of Cajueiva off the coast of South America. There were five of them in total, four mutineers and the ship's cook. The ship's cook was the one that had informed the authorities upon return to England whilst the fourth mutineer gave evidence against the remaining three for the Crown.
It was noted that the survivors were all German except for the ships' cook who was African and that a significant factor in the affair was the mutineers selectively killing the non-Germans who they could not trust. The German that gave evidence against them at the trial was described as only a boy of 18 or 19 and had only joined the mutiny after he was told that he was to either join or go overboard. He had initially been tasked with killing Paddy Doran whilst he was on watch but could not bring himself to do it and so Gustav Rau had killed him instead.
The Veronica had been on a voyage from Ship Island in Mississippi, United States of America to Monte Video with a crew of twelve hands all told and carrying a cargo of lumber timber and all went well until 7 December 1902. She had been 186ft long and with a net registered tonnage of 1,000 tons.
Around 7 December 1902 Gustav Rau, who was the ring leader, conspired with the others to murder some of the crew. It was noted that Gustav Rau and Willem Schmidt had brought two revolvers on board at Ship Island which they used to carry out their purpose.
It was not clear why they carried out the mutiny as it was submitted that they had all appeared to work together well when seen in port. However, it was suggested that after two weeks that the three men had become disaffected towards the officers which resulted in them carrying out the mutiny and that the it appeared that there was ill feeling between the men and the officers on account of the unnecessary harshness on the part of those over them and that it appeared that they had brooded over what were later described as not very substantial grievances.
They first knocked Paddy Doran out with a belaying pin. They had gone up to him and asked him, 'Can you see the North Star tonight?', which was said to have been a natural question as they were heading south east over the equator and that after they passed the equator the north star would have moved out of sight, at which point Gustav Rau hit him over the head with a iron belaying pin as he looked under the sail to the north. The blow had knocked him senseless and he was thrown in the port locker in the forecastle head. When he later asked for water Gustav Rau killed him.
When Alexander McLeod asked what was going on Gustav Rau and the mutineer who gave evidence against the others attacked him with belaying pins and threw him overboard.
They then went forward leaving the fourth mutineer in charge of the port locker with Paddy Doran in it and then shot Fred Abrahamsson who staggered to the Captain's cabin shouting 'Oh,Lord, I am shot' but he survived for the time being.
The fourth mutineer was then told to go aft and dispatch Gustav Johansson who was at the wheel. He later said that on the way he swapped his iron belaying pin for a wooden one as he didn't want to kill him but admitted to striking him with it and taking the wheel, causing Gustav Johansson to run off terrified forward to the forecastle.
Whilst that was happening, the Captain, Alexander Shaw, who was at the compass came to see what was happening but he was hit with an iron belaying pin somewhere about the body and then shot twice by Gustav Rau, however, he managed to get to his cabin.
Julius Persson meanwhile had been in the forecastle with Alec Bravo and tried to escape but was struck by Otto Monsson with an iron belaying pin and knocked down and then thrown overboard from the port side, it being said that there was a pool of blood on the deck there to tell the tale of what had been done.
Whilst the mutiny was underway the cook who had been asleep in his cabin woke up and in a state of terror he barricaded his door and screwed down all the windows. However, he was later compelled to come up after Gustav Rau made threats and when he did he encountered Gustav Rau pointing a revolver at him. It was said that the cook then begged for his life but Gustav Rau said, 'Well, we want some coffee now, go and make some coffee for us in your galley. Do not on any account go aft', which it was noted was where the wounded captain and second mate were. Gustav Rau then said to him, 'Ask no questions and we may spare your life'.
It was said that whilst the cook was making coffee that Gustav Rau stood over him with the revolver and said, 'Go and make some coffee, taste it yourself before either I or any of the crew drink it lest you should have put poison into it, taste it yourself'.
It was said that after having some coffee that Gustav Rau, who had assumed command of the ship, ordered such of the crew as were left to go aft with him to barricade into the aft part of the after house the captain and the second mate. They boarded over the port holes and the skylight was roped down, it being said that that was done to prevent the captain or second mate from firing at them. They then removed the doors to the first and second mates cabins and placed them against the door leading to the navigation room to prevent the captain getting up through that, with additional decking taken up to secure the doors and to prevent any egress whatever.
At some time after that Gustav Rau killed Paddy Doran with a belaying pin after he asked for some water.
It was said that it was not known how long the captain and the second mate were imprisoned, but it was thought to have been some days during which time they had no water other than that that had been in a tin of peas. It was said that after some time Gustav Rau decided that he needed the charts, sextant and glasses and so he opened the skylight a little and called down to the captain to give them too him but the second mate told him, in a weak voice, that the captain was too ill to walk or move. Gustav Rau then ordered the captain to come and it seemed that he then crawled from his cabin to speak to him through the skylight.
It was said that in the exchange that the captain asked, 'What have I done that I should be treated like this? We never knew that anything wrong was going on board the ship. Why did you not tell me if anything was going on wrong? I have a wife and children, cannot you spare my life, give me some water at any rate', to which Gustav Rau consented to give him some water in exchange for the chart and other things necessary for navigation.
The captain and the second mate were left imprisoned in the cabin for some days more but it was determined that that it was not safe to leave them alive and that as 'Dead men tell no tales', it was decided that they should die.
As such, the mutineers arranged themselves on the poop armed with three revolvers, having taken the third revolver from the chief mates cabin after he had been thrown overboard.
Gustav Rau, Willem Schmidt and Otto Monsson each had a revolver whilst the younger German that later gave evidence for the Crown was armed with an iron belaying pin. When Fred Abrahamsson came up the steps aft to the wheel house he saw the men there armed and started to run along the starboard side where he was shot in the shoulder by Willem Schmidt. However, he managed to run overboard at the end of the rail into the water.
At that point Gustav Rau gave the order, ''Bout ship', saying that they could not sail on and leave him out of sight alive. The three mutineers then shot at Fred Abrahamsson in the water until he sank.
They then turned their attention to the Captain who would not come out of his cabin. Gustav Rau then ordered Alec Bravo to go down and chase him out with an axe which he did. When Alexander Shaw came up the steps with his hands before his face Gustav Rau placed the pistol to the side of his head and shot him dead, causing him to fall back down the steps into the navigation room.
The ship's cook said that after the murders that Gustav Rau with the help of some others decided to make up a story so that if they were picked up that they would have a safe story to tell.
He said that they had to say that one man died coming through the Florida Straights from fever and that Alexander McLeod and Willem Schmidt fell from the top sail yard resulting in Alexander McLeod dying and Willem Schmidt receiving two wounds to his head after which Alexander Shaw made Fred Abrahamsson first mate and Gustav Rau second mate. He said that the story was to then state that a fire broke out on the ship between 8pm and midnight and that the captain shouted 'Launch the boats' and that they had to brace the main braces to launch the boat aft. He said that there was one lifeboat forward and another aft on davits. He said that they were to say that they had had to brace the yards so that they could swing the forward lifeboat and that it took so much time that the fire got the better of them, adding that they had used all the effort they could to put the fire out but that they could not.
He said that the story was to state that the captain and the balance of the crew went off in the second lifeboat but that they did not see them as the smoke was so thick.
He said that the story also stated that when they set off they had only eleven biscuits and a small keg of water with them.
The ships’ cook added that Gustav Rau would make them all repeat the story three times a day whilst he pointed a gun at their head saying that the one that did not learn it would die and that as Gustav Johansson and Alec Bravo could not remember the story they were shot and thrown overboard.
At that point it became further apparent that the remaining men could not effectively sail the Veronica on their own and so they prepared the lifeboat, thoroughly caulking it and filling it with all the navigation aids and provisions that they could.
It was noted that the lifeboat was a very large lifeboat and that during the trial it was actually kept in the basement of the court building in case the jury needed to see it.
After caulking the lifeboat and loading in provisions such as kegs of water, tinned meats, and all kinds of food of every kind, including freshly baked bread, wood was chopped up from the lumber that was on board and logs were piled up in he after cabin on top of which they put their blood stained clothes which was all then saturated with oil from the tanks.
Before setting the ship on fire they launched the second lifeboat and attempted to capsize it so that if it were found it would add colour to their story about the fire and the two lifeboats being launched, however, after launching it they found that they could not capsize her and so they left her floating in the water.
They then set fire to the Veronica and abandoned it.
It was noted that Gustav Rau was an experienced navigator as he had been in the German Navy and he gave the commands and directed the course, steering in a south-east course with the breeze behind them, sailing for five days at which point they sighted land, that being the north-east coast of Brazil, at which point Gustav Rau gave the orders for all the provisions to be thrown overboard, it being noted that it would not do to say that they left the ship in a hurry whilst also managing to fill the lifeboat with provisions. Gustav Rau also ordered the men to throw their caps over too so that when they landed they might land in a suitably destitute condition.
They landed on an island called Cajueira which formed the bar to a river in north Brazil, it being noted that strangely enough the island was owned by some Liverpool shipowners, Hugh Evans & Co who had warehouses there. It was noted that their ships called there for cargo but that virtually no one lived there and that when a ship was expected people would come across from the mainland in order to help put the cargo aboard.
It was further noted that oddly enough, when he mutineers arrived at the island that one of Evans and Co's boats, the Brunswick, was expected there. It was further noted that the mutineers landed on Christmas day and that the Brunswick arrived shortly afterwards.
When the Brunswick arrived Gustav Rau and the cook went on board and said, 'We are the five survivors from the Veronica, she was accidently burned. We put off in a great hurry from her, utterly destitute. We sailed five days in a lifeboat. We had only between us eleven biscuits and a small keg of water. The rest of the crew sailed in another lifeboat from the Veronica. We lost sight of that lifeboat, and where she is now we don't know'.
It was noted that it was a plausible story and a possible story and that it was accepted by the Captain of the Brunswick who took the five men on board.
It was noted that on the return voyage that the cook held himself aloof from the other four men, at his request, and was berthed apart from them and made no communication with them at all.
It was further noted that during the journey back to Liverpool that the event was discussed by the sailors on board the Brunswick and that as the matter was talked about and canvassed, various observations were made, for example, Willem Schmidt said that, 'Oh, we had to leave the Veronica in such a hurry that we could not even find time to get our caps, that is why none of us have caps'. However, one of the sailors on the Brunswick commented, 'Well that is an odd thing because you found time to bring with you , in a bag, a new suit of clothes and a new pair of brown boots'. It was said that little things like that came up.
The question of the mixed nationalities of the crew on board the Veronica was also brought up with someone on the Brunswick asking Willem Schmidt, 'It is a very strange thing that you four survivors should all be Germans', to which Willem Schmidt's response was, 'Oh, not at all, not at all, because we were all in the same watch'. It was later noted that that was not true as there were two Germans in one watch, and two in the other.
However, the court heard what then happened was a striking illustration of the old saying, 'Murder will out', because later during the voyage home the cook went to the captain of the Brunswick and told him about the murders. The result was that when the Brunswick touched at Lisbon on its way to Liverpool that the captain ordered that the Germans were not to be allowed on shore.
It was said then that at that point they must have themselves realised that the cook, who had held himself aloof from them, had had an interview with the captain, but that they did not know what he had said.
When the Brunswick arrived at Liverpool the Germans were arrested. However, when they gave their statements in their own language, they gave different accounts of what had happened, the reasoning being that they had suspected that the cook had told the truth and that if so that their story would not compete with it.
In part of their statements, they said, in parts, that 'There was ill-feeling between us and the officers', and that 'one night trouble arose and the first mate came forward to the forecastle where the crew were, by himself. He came forward and there was trouble and he jumped overboard. After that the captain and the second mate came forward and the black cook shot at them and they ran aft and were barricaded for some days in the after part of the cabin, and after a few days the black cook decided that the captain and the second mate should be let out of their prison to die, and were grouped on the poop. We were all standing on the poop armed with revolvers or a belaying-pin, and the black cook was there with a revolver. I knew what the cook's intentions were and the second mate came up and the captain came up and the black cook fired and they jumped overboard'.
They then said that after that the black cook concocted the story of the of the accidental fire and proposed the plan with the lifeboats and that after that the black cook killed Gustav Johansson and Alec Bravo.
It was noted that the new story itself was a strange story, it being noted that it stated that the second mate had come forward by himself to attack the crew of eight, and not that the officers had come forward in a body armed with revolvers or anything of that kind. However, it was further noted that whilst the new story places the cook as the ring leader, what it also did was corroborate the cooks version of events in that seven men in truth met their deaths on the voyage and that the captain and second mate had been imprisoned in the cabin for several days. The statements also admitted that the story of the accidental fire and the deployment of the lifeboats was also unfounded.
It was further noted that if the cook had have been guilty as the Germans alleged, then why did he not hold his tongue on the Brunswick as he already knew that the captain of the Brunswick had accepted the story of the accidental fire as being true and that if he were guilty then why did he not let the matter rest there?
After the German had been in in prison for only a few hours, the younger German then asked to make a further statement which not only contradicted the first story, but also the second story and corroborated nearly every aspect of what the cook had told, it being further noted however that at that time he had no idea of what the cook had said in his statement as his statement had not been heard in court and as such, the fact that the two statements corroborated each other indicated that they were truthful.
As such, the Crown reconsidered their position and resolved to withdraw the murder charge against the young German, stating that they felt that with him being a young man of 18 or 19 that he might have been overawed into participation into the crimes by the minds more powerful than his own and further that they felt that it was not fair to ask a jury to decide in such an important case upon the evidence of one man alone. It was additionally noted that of course the young German had made his statement voluntarily and that no promise or hint of favour had been held out to him at all and that he had made the statement absolutely and entirely of his own free will.
When the case was introduced at the court it was heard that it was the hand of Gustav Rau that had fired the shot that had immediately caused the death of the Captain and that as such, it was asked whether Willem Schmidt and Otto Monsson were also guilty of that murder, to which he said, yes, if they had stood by ready to take part in the accomplishment of one purpose common to them all, reiterating, yes, if Otto Monsson had stood by armed with a revolver and that if Willem Schmidt had stood by armed with some weapon, either a revolver or a belaying pin, it mattered not. The judge said that if they had both stood by ready to help and to assist Gustav Rau then guilt attached equally to them.
After the story was told at the trial, the judge made it clear that there was one thing that he wanted to add and that was that if the cook had not told his story to the captain of the Brunswick, that it was possible that the inquiry would never have been held because everyone would have accepted the story of the fire and of the two lifeboats, which was at that point known, because of the statements of the prisoners, to have been a complete fabrication from beginning to end.
Gustav Rau, Willem Schmidt and Otto Monsson were all convicted of murder on 15 May 1903 and Gustav Rau and Willem Schmidt were executed on Tuesday 2 June 1903 at Walton Gaol in Liverpool.
A notable feature of the trial was that a scale model of the Veronica was made as an exhibit to aid visualising the course of the events. Photographs of a sister ship were also taken and used although none are known to have existed of the Veronica itself.
Gustav Rau was also known as Dirk Herlaar.
see National Archives - ASSI 52/83, HO 144/982/108104
see The Trial of Gustav Rau, Otto Monsson and Willem Smith The 'Veronica' Trial G. W. Keeton & John Cameron Published by William Hodge and Company , Ltd., London, 1952
see Shields Daily Gazette - Friday 03 April 1903
see Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Wednesday 03 June 1903
see Derby Daily Telegraph - Friday 27 March 1903
see Cavan Weekly News and General Advertiser - Saturday 06 June 1903
see Dundee Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 12 May 1903
see Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Wednesday 01 April 1903
see Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 11 April 1903