On the evening of April 6, 1830, the light of a full moon stole through the windows of 128 Essex Street, one of the grandest houses in Salem, Massachusetts. Graced with a beautifully balanced red brick facade, a portico with white Corinthian columns and a roof balustrade carved of wood, the three-story edifice, built in 1804, was a symbol of prosperous and proper New England domesticity. It was owned by Capt. Joseph White, who had made his fortune as a shipmaster and trader.
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A childless widower, White, then 82, lived with his niece, Mary Beckford (“a fine looking woman of forty or forty-five,” according to a contemporary account), who served as his housekeeper; Lydia Kimball, a domestic servant; and Benjamin White, a distant relative who worked as the house handyman. Beckford’s daughter, also named Mary, had once been part of the household, but three years earlier she had married young Joseph Jenkins Knapp Jr., known as Joe, and now lived with him on a farm seven miles away in Wenham. Knapp was previously the master of a sailing vessel White owned.
That night, Captain White retired a little later than was his habit, at about 9:40.
At 6 o’clock the following morning, Benjamin White arose to begin his chores. He noticed that a back window on the ground floor was open and a plank was leaning against it. Knowing that Captain White kept gold doubloons in an iron chest in his room, and that there were many other valuables in the house, he feared that burglars had gained access to it. Benjamin at once alerted Lydia Kimball and then climbed the elegant winding stairs to the second floor, where the door to the old man’s bedchamber stood open.
Captain White lay on his right side, diagonally across the bed. His left temple bore the mark of a crushing blow, although the skin was not broken. Blood had oozed onto the bedclothes from a number of wounds near his heart. The body was already growing cold. The iron chest and its contents were intact. No other valuables had been disturbed.
I first read of the Salem murder many years ago in a Greenwich Village secondhand bookshop. I’d ducked inside to escape a sudden downpour, and as I scanned the dusty shelves, I discovered a battered, coverless anthology of famous crimes, compiled in 1910 by San Francisco police captain Thomas Duke.
The chapter on Captain White’s savage killing, evocative of the golden age mystery tales of the late 19th century, riveted me at once. The famed lawyer and congressman Daniel Webster was the prosecutor at the ensuing trial. His summation for the jury—its inexorable cadence, the slow gathering of dreadful atmospheric details—tugged at my memory, reminding me of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of terror. In fact, after talking with Poe scholars, I learned that many of them agreed the famous speech had likely been the inspiration for Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” wherein the narrator boasts of his murder of an elderly man. Moreover, I discovered, the murder case had even found its way into some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works, with its themes of tainted family fortunes, torrential guilt and ensuing retribution.
Those facts alone proved an irresistible magnet to a crime historian like me. But the setting—gloomy, staid Salem, where in the 1690s nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft and hanged—endowed the murder case with another layer of gothic intrigue. It almost certainly fed the widespread (and admittedly lurid) fascination with the sea captain’s death among the American public at the time. The town, according to an 1830 editorial in the Rhode Island American, was “forever...stained with blood, blood, blood.”
Soon after the discovery of the body, Stephen White—the murdered man’s nephew and a member of the Massachusetts legislature—sent for Samuel Johnson, a prominent Salem physician, and William Ward, Captain White’s clerk and business assistant. Ward made note of the plank at the open window, and near it he discovered two muddy footprints he believed had been made by the intruder. Decades before footprints were generally recognized as important evidence, Ward carefully covered them with a milk pan to shield them from the fine mist that had begun to fall. Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson’s cursory examination revealed the body was not quite cold; he concluded that death had occurred three to four hours earlier.
Dr. Johnson then performed an autopsy before a “coroner’s jury” comprised of local citizens, whose role was to assess the initial facts and determine whether a crime had taken place. In the jury’s presence, Johnson carefully examined the corpse, stripping off the shirt and inserting probes into some of the stab wounds to determine their depth and direction. He counted 13 stab wounds—“five stabs in the region of the heart, three in front of the left pap [nipple], and five others, still further back, as though the arm had been lifted up and the instrument struck underneath.” He attributed all the stab wounds to the same weapon, which suggested that there had been a single murderer. Though the wounds had oozed, there was no sign of spurting or spraying blood. Johnson interpreted this to mean that the blow to the head had come first, either killing White or stunning him, thereby slowing his circulation. Uncertain as to which of the many wounds was fatal, Johnson believed that a more complete autopsy was necessary.