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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Webster’s summation was later deemed a masterpiece of oratory. “The terrible power of the speech and its main interest lie in the winding chain of evidence, link by link, coil by coil, round the murderer and his accomplices,” British literary critic John Nichol wrote. “One seems to hear the bones of the victim crack under the grasp of a boa-constrictor.” Samuel McCall, a prominent lawyer and statesman, called the speech “the greatest argument ever addressed to a jury.”

After just five hours of deliberation the jury accepted Webster’s contention that Frank Knapp was a principal to the crime and convicted him of murder.

“The town now begins to grow rather more quiet than it has been since the murder of Mr. White,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in a letter to a cousin, “but I suppose the excitement will revive at the execution of Frank Knapp.”

Hawthorne, a still-struggling, 26-year-old writer living in his mother’s home in Salem, was riveted by the case. The son and grandson of respected sea captains, he was also a descendant of John Hathorne, one of the infamous hanging judges of the witchcraft trials. The family connection both fascinated and repelled the future novelist, and no doubt informed his lifelong interest in crime and inherited guilt. At the time of the Knapp trial, Hawthorne was writing short fiction for local papers, including the Salem Gazette, which covered the story assiduously. Some scholars have suggested that Hawthorne wrote some of the newspaper’s unsigned articles about the murder, though there is no hard evidence to support that.

In letters, Hawthorne described the town’s “universal prejudice” against the Knapp family and expressed his own ambivalence about the jury’s verdict: “For my part, I wish Joe to be punished, but I should not be very sorry if Frank were to escape.”

On September 28, 1830, before a crowd of thousands, Frank Knapp was hanged in front of Salem Gaol. His brother Joseph, tried and convicted in November, met the same fate three months later. George Crowninshield, the remaining conspirator, had spent the night of the murder with two ladies of the evening, who provided him with an alibi. After two trials he was acquitted by a now-exhausted court. The two men who had been in the company of George in the gambling house were discharged without trial.

By September 9, 1831, Hawthorne was writing to his cousin that, “The talk about Captain White’s murder has almost entirely ceased.” But echoes of the trial would reverberate in American literature.

Two decades later, Hawthorne found inspiration in the White murder in writing The Scarlet Letter (1850). Margaret Moore—the former secretary of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society and the author of The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne—argues that Webster’s ruminations on the uncontrollable urge to confess influenced Hawthorne’s portrayal of the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. Dimmesdale is tortured by the secret of being the lover of Hester Prynne—and when Hester hears Dimmesdale’s final sermon, Hawthorne writes, she could detect “the complaint of the human heart, sorrow-laden, perchance guilty, telling its secret, whether of guilt or sorrow, to the great heart of mankind; beseeching its sympathy or forgiveness—at every moment—in each accent....”

The late Harvard University literary scholar Francis Otto Matthiessen argued that echoes of the White murder and Webster’s summation also found their way into The House of Seven Gables (1851). The opening chapter sets the gothic tone by describing the Pyncheon family’s sordid history—the murder 30 years prior of the family patriarch, “an old bachelor and possessed of great wealth in addition to the house and real estate.” Later in the novel, Hawthorne devotes 15 pages to an unnamed narrator who describes and taunts the corpse of the tyrannical Judge Pyncheon. Matthiessen saw Webster’s influence particularly in the way Hawthorne used the imagery of moonlight: “Observe that silvery dance upon the upper branches of the pear-tree, and now a little lower, and now on the whole mass of boughs, while, through their shifting intricacies, the moonbeams fall aslant into the room. They play over the Judge’s figure and show that he has not stirred throughout the hours of darkness. They follow the shadows, in changeful sport, across his unchanging features.”

The White murder also left its mark on Edgar Allan Poe, who at the time of the crime was poised to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (which he left after one year by deliberately getting court-martialed for disobedience). Nobody knows if Poe followed the trial as it occurred, but by 1843, when he published “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he had clearly read about it. Poe scholar T. O. Mabbott has written that Poe relied critically on Webster’s summation in writing the story. At the trial, Webster spoke of the murderer’s “self-possession” and “utmost coolness.” The perpetrator, he added, ultimately was driven to confession because he believed the “whole world” saw the crime in his face and the fatal secret “burst forth.” Likewise, Poe’s fictional murderer boasts of “how wisely” and “with what caution” he killed an old man in his bedchamber. But the perfect crime comes undone when Poe’s murderer—convinced that the investigating police officers know his secret and are mocking him—declares, “I felt that I must scream or die!...I admit the deed!”


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