Historical story

Speech worth a halter. This murder trial shocked Salem

Salem made history with the famous 17th century witch trials. Two centuries later, however, the city became the scene of another famous trial that inspired two eminent writers, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

On the morning of April 7, 1830, Joseph White, 82-year-old wealthy captain and merchant, was found dead at his home in Salem. The famous physician Samuel Johnson and William Ward, the clerk and business assistant of the deceased, were brought to the scene.

Ward carefully checked the whole house, securing a plank left with an open window in the back and two muddy tracks. This evidence pointed to a night burglary, but nothing of value was stolen from the house. White's mansion was one of the most magnificent in the area, and the owner himself kept an iron chest filled with important papers, gold ducats and other valuables in his bedroom. All this remained in place, which caused a shadow of fear among the inhabitants of the village. Especially when the cause of White's death was known.

The first, preliminary autopsy was performed by Samuel Johnson on the same day in the presence of the so-called a coroner's jury of elected citizens of Salem. The inspection revealed that the sleeping victim was first hit on the head and then suffered 13 stab wounds . Dr. Johnson indicated that the perpetrator was probably one person. However, the doctor was not able to tell immediately which of the wounds turned out to be fatal, so the next day, accompanied by a colleague, he carried out a more detailed examination. From them it appeared that the murder weapon was probably a dagger. It was also questioned whether there were more of the perpetrators.

Edgar Allan Poe

The results were published in the Salem Gazette with permission of the deceased's heir, Stephen White. The article caused so much fear among the people that they began to arm themselves and organize security patrols. Everyone wondered:why did Joseph White die in such drastic circumstances?

Unfortunately, no one knew the answer, including the local authorities, which , due to their inexperience in handling such cases, neglected the evidence previously secured by Ward left with nothing. Anyway, no wonder. In the first half of the 19th century, criminology was still in its infancy. However, rumors began circulating around the city about the possible causes of the events of that fateful April night. After all, if the murder was not due to a break-in for robbery, it must have been revenge ...

Fortune built on slavery

Although the obituary announcing the death of Joseph White described him as a person universally respected and loved, the reality was quite different. The captain got his fortune from overseas trade. His goods included shoes, fish, knick-knacks and… people.

He usually traded his goods in Africa for black slaves, which he then sold in the Caribbean. This was, of course, an illegal occupation, as in the state of Massachusetts in 1783 the right to own slaves was abolished, and 5 years later the trade in them was banned. However, many wealthy Salem citizens owed their enormous fortunes to selling people to plantations . Of course, this was not talked about openly because of the abolitionist sentiment. Nevertheless, rumors began to circulate among the townspeople that some escaped slave might have contributed to the captain's death.

In Massachusetts, slave ownership was abolished in 1783 and trade in slaves was banned five years later.

Other people also reported how Joseph White viewed his fortune as a bargaining chip in the family game. He had no children, so his relatives were to inherit him. Everyone was hoping for a legacy from a rich uncle, but the price for his "slice of cake" was high.

Among White's heirs was his sister's granddaughter, Mary. The girl fell in love with Joe Knapp, whom the captain considered a fortune hunter and was against their relationship. Mary, however, insisted and married him. Thus, she was struck off White's last will. After his death, Knapp publicly announced that Stephen White, a state political activist who inherited the most of Joseph's fortune, was behind Joseph's death.

The emotions in Salem started to boom. They wanted to unravel a brutal murder mystery as quickly as possible and were awarded a prize of $ 1,000 for helpful information. It didn't take long for the reaction to happen…

Inheritance conspiracy

A week after this atrocious crime, Stephen White received word that there was a petty thief in New Bedford Jail who knew who was behind his uncle's death. In February 1830, he overheard two brothers, Richard and George Crowninshield. Their goal was to steal the deceased's iron chest. The siblings were arrested and Richard was charged with the main charge of murder.

In May, Joseph Knapp, the father of a man who had married White's disinherited relative, received a letter demanding $ 350. The sender, Charles Grant, was supposed to have information damaging to the family . The letter was handed over to the local authorities, which set a trap for the addressee. It turned out to be John CR Palmer, and for the price of immunity he testified that, while at the Crowninshield family home, he overheard George telling his brother that Joseph Knapp's son ordered them to kill White for $ 1,000. This way, Mary's husband and his brother Frank, who were accused of complicity in the crime, were also imprisoned.

The closing speech inspired Nathaniel to create one of the characters in his most famous work - "The Scarlet Letter".

What was the purpose of the crime? As Richard Crowninshield testified, Joe Knapp wanted to secure his wife a share of his uncle's inheritance. To this end, a few days before the murder, he sneaked into the captain's bedroom and stole from the iron chest what he mistakenly believed to be the only version of the will. Little did he know that the original was already in the office of the deceased's lawyer. He burned the stolen document, thus counting on an equal distribution of the fortune. It was then supposed to facilitate Richard's access to the house by opening a window at the back.

This testimony pointed to Richard as the main perpetrator of the crime, for which he was punishable by death. The man, however, learned from his attorney that Massachusetts law did not allow the perpetrators of a crime to be tried unless the main accused had previously been tried and convicted . Richard was aware that there was no hope for him anymore, but he could save his brother. He did so by hanging himself in the cell.

The prosecutor's office did not want to let go easily and was looking for a legal basis to bring the remaining three men to court. For this purpose, Daniel Webster of Boston, a distinguished lawyer and senator, was approached. He was known for the passionate speeches with which he selected his clients.

The prosecution was built around the theory from the second autopsy suggesting a greater number of attackers. It was speculated that Joe or Frank Knapp could have delivered the final blow. And although the defense tried to mock this idea, Webster's oratory skills, supplemented by his dramatic re-enactment of the possible course of the crime, began to raise suspicions among jurors that the captain's death was a result of the envious husband of a disinherited relative.

The nail in his coffin was the lawyer's closing speech, which sealed the sentence on the Knapp brothers. They were sentenced to death by hanging for participating in the murder. And Richard's brother was acquitted because of the alibi provided by a certain lady with whom he was to spend the whole unlucky night.

David Webster's speech went down in history, inspiring Edgar Allan Poe in "The Heart of the Accuser," and the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, descendant of one of the Salem witches' accusers. The closing speech inspired Nathaniel to create one of the characters in his most famous work - "The Scarlet Letter".