A Murder in Salem

In 1830, a brutal crime in Massachusetts riveted the nation—and inspired the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Richard Crowninshield bludgeoned 82-year-old Capt. Joseph White while the former slave trader and shipmaster slept. (Chris Beatrice)
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This was performed on April 8, at 5:30 in the evening. Dr. Abel Peirson, a medical colleague, assisted Johnson. A second post-mortem as thorough as this one was unusual in early 19th- century criminal investigations. In 1830, forensic science was still largely a footnote in legal and medical texts. But thanks to increasingly rigorous anatomical studies in medical schools, there had been progress in identifying murder instruments based upon the nature of the wounds and determining which had been the most likely cause of death.

The surgeons agreed that the skull fracture was due to a single severe blow from a cane or bludgeon, and that at least some of the chest wounds were caused by a dirk (short dagger), the cross-guard of which had struck the ribs with enough force to break them. Peirson disagreed with Johnson’s initial assessment that there was likely only one assailant. A medical consensus was elusive, in part, because of the 36-hour interval between inquest and the second autopsy—which had allowed extensive post-mortem changes, affecting the appearance of the wounds, as had Johnson’s initial insertion of a probe.

Stephen White gave the Salem Gazette permission to publish the autopsy findings. “However revolting the subject may be,” the newspaper said, “we have deemed it our duty to lay before our readers every particle of authentic information we can obtain, respecting the horrible crime which has so shocked and alarmed our community.”

The possibility that more than one assailant might have been involved and that a conspiracy might be afoot fueled unease. Salem residents armed themselves with knives, cutlasses, pistols and watchdogs, and the sound of new locks and bolts being hammered in place was everywhere. Longtime friends grew wary of each other. According to one account, Stephen White’s brother-in-law, discovering that Stephen had inherited the bulk of the captain’s estate, “seized White by the collar, shook him violently in the presence of family” and accused him of being the murderer.

Town fathers attempted to calm matters by organizing a voluntary watch and appointing a 27-man Committee of Vigilance. Although not burdened by any experience in criminal investigation, its members were given the power to “search any house and interrogate every individual.” Members took an oath of secrecy and offered a $1,000 reward for information “touching [on] the murder.”

But the investigation went nowhere; the committee was confronted with a scenario of too many suspects and too little evidence. No one had made plaster casts of the incriminating footprints that Ward had carefully covered the morning of the murder. (By 1830, scientists and sculptors were using plaster casts for preserving fossil specimens, studying human anatomy and recreating famous sculptures—but the technique was not yet de rigueur in criminal investigations.)

Since nothing had been stolen, the assailant’s motive puzzled townspeople and authorities alike. But revenge was not out of the question. As many in Salem knew, Joseph White was hardly the “universally respected and beloved” old man one local newspaper described. A bit of a domestic tyrant, he was given to changing his will at a whim and using his large fortune as a weapon to enforce his wishes. When his pretty young grandniece Mary announced her engagement to Joe Knapp, the old man declared Joe a fortune hunter, and when the marriage went forward without his consent, White disinherited Mary and fired Knapp.

What’s more, White had been a slave trader. The ownership of slaves was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783 and the slave trade outlawed five years later. Yet White had boasted to Salem minister William Bentley in 1788 that he had “no reluctance in selling any part of the human race.” (In Bentley’s estimation, this “betray[ed] signs of the greatest moral depravity.”) In a water-stained letter written in 1789 that I found deep in the archives of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, a sailor named William Fairfield, who served on the schooner Felicity, told his mother about a slave revolt that had killed the ship’s captain. Joseph White was one of the owners of the Felicity.

Some of White’s ships had engaged in legitimate trade, hauling everything from codfish to shoes. But many had sailed from Salem laden with tools and trinkets, to be traded in Africa for human cargo. Manacled and cramped into ghastly holds, many of the captives did not survive the voyage. Those who did were traded in the Caribbean for gold—enough to buy property, build a mansion and fill an iron chest.

“Many maritime families in Salem supported the slavery system in one way or another,” says Salem historian Jim McAllister. That was how they had built their fortunes and paid their sons’ Harvard tuitions. There was an understanding in Salem society that this shameful business was best not spoken of, particularly in Massachusetts, where antislavery sentiments ran high. “A few of our merchants, like others in various seaports, still loved money more than the far greater riches of a good conscience, more than conformity with the demands of human rights, with the law of the land and the religion of their God,” Salem minister Joseph B. Felt wrote in 1791.


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