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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The spellbinding summation Daniel Webster delivered at the trial was printed as part of an anthology of speeches later that year and sold to an admiring public. But Black Dan’s political ambitions took a turn for the worse in 1850 when, belying his years of opposition to slavery, he gave an impassioned speech defending the new Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to aid in the return of escaped slaves to their Southern masters. The legislation was part of a compromise that would allow California to be admitted to the Union as a “free state.” But abolitionists perceived the speech as a betrayal and believed it to be an attempt by Webster to curry favor with the South in his bid to become the Whig Party’s presidential candidate in 1852, and he lost the nomination. Webster died shortly thereafter from an injury resulting from a carriage accident. The autopsy revealed the cause of death to be a brain hemorrhage, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver.

For its part, Salem would become an important center of antislavery activism. Prior to Frederick Douglass’ emergence as a national figure in the 1840s, Salem native Charles Lenox Remond was the most famous African-American abolitionist in the United States and Europe. His sister, Sarah Parker Remond, also lectured abroad, and often shared the podium with Susan B. Anthony at antislavery conventions.

Salemites would make every effort to put the White murder behind them. Even a century after the trial, the town was reluctant to speak of it. Caroline Howard King, whose memoir When I Lived in Salem appeared in 1937, destroyed the chapter about the crime before publication, judging it to be “indiscreet.” In 1956, when Howard Bradley and James Winans published a book about Webster’s role in the trial, they initially encountered resistance when conducting their research. “Some people in Salem preferred to suppress all reference to the case,” Bradley and Winans wrote, and “there were still people who viewed inquiries about the murder with alarm.”

Today, the Salem witch trials drive the town’s tourist trade. But, every October, you can go on historian Jim McAllister’s candlelight “Terror Trail” tour, which includes a stop at the scene of the crime, now known as the Gardner-Pingree House. You can also tour the inside of the house—a national historic landmark owned by the Peabody Essex Museum—which has been restored to its 1814 condition. The museum possesses—but doesn’t exhibit—the custom-made club that served as the murder weapon.

I was allowed to inspect it, standing in a cavernous storage room wearing a pair of bright blue examination gloves. The club is gracefully designed and fits easily in the hand. I couldn’t help but admire Richard Crowninshield’s workmanship.

Crime historian E.J. Wagner is the author of The Science of Sherlock Holmes. Chris Beatrice is a book and magazine illustrator who lives in Massachusetts.


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