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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That same evening, after stealing what he believed to be the will, Joe Knapp “unbarred and unscrewed” a window in Captain White’s house. Four days later, at 10 p.m., Richard Crowninshield entered the front yard through the garden gate and climbed through the unlocked window to murder White.

The detailed confession pointed to Richard Crowninshield as the principal perpetrator of the deed: he would surely hang. But Richard learned from defense attorney Franklin Dexter that Massachusetts law did not allow the trial of an accessory to a crime unless the principal had first been tried and convicted. Richard must have seen a way to exercise his ingenuity one last time and perhaps save his brother and friends. On June 15, at 2 in the afternoon, a jailer found Richard’s body hanging by its neck from two silk handkerchiefs tied to the bars of his cell window.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it seemed, had been cheated out of an open-and-shut case, unless the state could find a legal basis for putting the other three men on trial. Newspaper reporters descended on Salem from as far away as New York City—ostensibly with the lofty goal of ensuring that justice be achieved. In the words of pioneering journalist James Gordon Bennett, then a correspondent for the New York Courier: “The press is the living jury of the Nation!”

The prosecution in the White case faced a quandary. Not only was there no prior conviction of the principal (due to Richard Crowninshield’s suicide), but Joe Knapp was refusing to testify and uphold his confession. So the prosecution turned to Senator Daniel Webster of Boston, the New Hampshire-born lawyer, lawmaker and future secretary of state, perhaps best remembered for his efforts to hammer out compromises between Northern and Southern states that he believed would forestall civil war.

Webster, then 48, had served several terms in the House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1827. He was a close friend of such Salem area notables as Stephen White and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. Webster’s commanding presence, his dramatic dark coloring and his relentless gaze had earned him the sobriquet “Black Dan.” In the courtroom he was known to be fierce at cross-examination and riveting at summation—“the immortal Daniel,” the New Hampshire Patriot and States Gazette had called him.

Asked by Stephen White to aid prosecutors at the murder trial, Webster was torn. Throughout his lengthy legal career, he had always stood for the defense. A large part of his reputation rested on his passionate oratory on behalf of the accused. Further, his personal connections with the victim’s friends and relatives raised delicate issues of legal ethics.

On the other hand, if he stood by his friends, the favor would someday be repaid. Then there was the handsome fee of $1,000 that Stephen White had discreetly arranged for his services. Webster, a heavy drinker who had a tendency to spend beyond his means and was chronically in debt, agreed to “assist” the prosecution—which meant, of course, that he would lead it.

The accused men had chosen to be tried separately, and the first to come to trial, in August 1830, was Frank Knapp. Interest ran high. Bennett reported that the crowds trying to enter the courtroom to see Webster were “like the tide boiling up on the rocks.” With Richard Crowninshield dead—“There is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession,” Webster famously said—Webster’s intent was to establish Frank Knapp as a principal rather than an accessory. Several witnesses testified they had seen a man wearing a “camlet cloak” and a “glazed cap,” such as Frank often wore, late on the night of the murder, on Brown Street, behind the White property. Webster argued that Frank was there to give direct aid to the murderer, and was therefore a prime actor. The defense challenged the witnesses’ identification and scoffed that Frank’s mere presence on Brown Street could have provided vital aid. The jury deliberated for 25 hours before announcing they were deadlocked. The judge declared a mistrial. The case was scheduled to be retried two days later.

The second trial brought debate over the forensic evidence to the fore. In the first trial, only Dr. Johnson had testified. But this time the prosecution included the formal testimony of Dr. Peirson. His dissenting opinion on the autopsy—that there possibly had been two assailants—had been widely read in the Salem Gazette. Now Peirson was being used as an expert witness in an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the theory that Richard Crowninshield had acted alone in the lethal assault upon Joseph White. Webster speculated that Knapp might have delivered the “finishing stroke;” or that the other wounds had been inflicted “from mere wantonness.” Knapp’s defense attorney ridiculed the argument, wondering aloud why Knapp would return to the house to stab a dead body: “Like another Falstaff did he envy the perpetrator the glory of the deed and mean to claim it as his own?”

In the interim between the two trials, the new jury had been exposed to newspaper accounts of the first hearing, as well as to heavy criticism leveled at the previous jury for its failure to convict. Thus encouraged, the second jury listened intently as Webster captivated the courtroom with a dramatic re-creation of the crime: “A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared . . . With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half-lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this, he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds his victim before him....”


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