The Murder of Captain Joseph White

Today if you go to Salem Massachusetts you are likely to find that they relish in their history.  I am sure it is not something they are proud out, however, from a financial point of view for the town it is rather lucrative.  It seems that the more modern residents have decided to live by my theory of life... "it is what it is." Since they cannot change history and so many people are fascinated by the story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 they may as well live with it.  

Such was not the case in 1830.  It had been almost 150 years since those famous trials, where it has all been proven innocent people were executed, but the residents of Salem still lived on edge.  On the morning of April 7, 1830 their fears were heightened.  The handyman of local, wealthy, widower, Captain Joseph White found the 82 year old man in his bed, murdered.  

Joseph White had been a shipmaster and trader in many things, including slave trading which by 1830 was illegal yet ignored. By all accounts he was not necessarily a nice man, but he was respected.  He was known to be a tyrant at times, change his will often and use his wealth to get his way.  White was childless and lived in a home with his niece Mary Beckford who was his housekeeper, a domestic servant and a handyman.  He apparently had several nieces and nephews which obviously led to great nieces and nephews.  One of those great-nieces was the daughter of Mary Beckford, also named Mary.  She had married Joseph Jenkins Knapp Jr.  At the time of their courtship Joseph Jr. had been a master of one of the ships that was owned by Joseph White. White disapproved of their union and upon their marriage not only disinherited Mary Knapp (although this seems to have been a common threat he would follow through with and possibly later change) but also fired Joseph Jr. from the ship that he had been master. Joseph and Mary Knapp moved to a farm approximately seven miles from the home of Joseph White.

Prior to finding his master's body in his bed, the handyman had first noticed a window open on the ground floor of the home.  He began searching the home because he knew the Captain had valuables all throughout.  After finding his body, the handyman summoned White's nephew, Stephen who then got word to the medical examiner, Mr. Johnson.  Johnson determined that White had been hit upon the head (although the blow was not enough to break the skin) and then stabbed approximately thirteen times. He determined that the time of death had occurred approximately 3-4 hours prior to his arriving sometime likely between 7 and 9 am. Johnson theorized through his examination that one assailant had committed the crime.  Johnson also thought that a more extensive autopsy should be done, which was rare at the time.  The second autopsy was performed the following day by a Dr. Pierce. He looked at the wounds and was less sure that all the stab wounds had been created by the same weapon and did not fully agree that the crime was committed by a single assailant.

After thoroughly going through the home it was determined that nothing had been taken, so robbery was not considered a motive. With a prominent citizen being murdered, without any apparent motive at hand, the town of Salem was enveloped in fear. Residents began openly arming themselves and changing the locks on their doors. Citizens were apparently turning on each other as they did not know who to trust. The town then organized The Committee of Vigilance who was in charge of investigating the crime and bringing someone to justice.  

A few weeks after the crime the Committee received their first lead.  White's nephew Stephen got a letter from a jailer stating that an inmate named Hatch and heard brothers, Richard and George Crowninshield, discussing things about White.  Hatch was brought before a grand jury and on May 15, 1830 Richard Crowninshield was indicted for murder.  At the time of his arrest his brother and two other men were charged with abetting in the crime.  Charges were eventually dropped on the two other men. Richard apparently had planned to keep his mouth shut in jail and was convinced that he would eventually be found innocent. It is believed that his lawyer had also informed him of a law in Massachusetts wherein one could not be brought to trial as an accomplice to a crime until which time the perpetrator is tried and convicted. 

Around the time that Richard was arrested Joseph Knapp Sr. received a letter postmarked from Maine that was apparently not for him but for his son Joseph Jr.  The letter demanded $350 or threatened ruin to the family and was signed "Charles Grant." Joseph Sr. turned this letter over to The Committee of Vigilance who devised a plan to trick the letter writer.  They responded back to the letter and sent look outs to the pick up area to apprehend the receiver.  When they did so they were met with a man named John Palmer.  He was promptly arrested and started to "sing." He was friends with the Crowninshield brothers and had heard a story that John Francis "Frank" Knapp had propositioned the Crowninshield brothers to kill Joseph White with the promise that his brother, Joseph Jr., would pay $1,000.  Having this information Palmer apparently expected to cash in on things too but had mistakenly sent the letter to Joseph Sr.

Based on information from Palmer (who was given immunity on all charges before talking) the Knapp brothers were arrested. By the end of May Joseph Jr. was confessing to a minister who was able to promise him immunity.  He said he had mentioned to his brother that he believed that White died without a will that his estate would be divided among his relatives, that included his mother in law.  Joseph Jr. also believed that all current copies of Joseph White's will were kept in a truck in his room. Frank suggested the Crowninshield brothers and by April 2nd plans were finalized.

Seeing as he was family Joseph Jr. had easy access to the home. At some point within a few days prior to the murder Joseph Jr. had gone into the residence and took the will out of the truck and had also unbarred and unscrewed a window.  The day after the murder he had burned the will.  Where he was mistaken was that the latest will was not in the home but at the office of Joseph White's lawyer.  The will gave the bulk of the estate to his nephew, Stephen.  After finding this out and his father receiving the letter from "Charles Grant" (AKA John Palmer), Joseph Jr. admitted that he had written two letters, one to the Committee of Vigilance claiming responsibility for the murder and that he was hired by Stephen White, as well as one to Stephen White demanding payment for murder.... both were signed "Charles Grant" as the previous one had been. Joseph Jr. stated that Richard Crowninshield was the one who committed the murder, even manufacturing one of the weapons himself, a club, to which he had hit Joseph White in the head.  Reports vary through research whether or not the Knapp brothers were nearby during the time the crime was committed, although not in the home. However, that is just one of the many sketchy and contradicting things I found in research. 

Upon hearing that Joseph Jr. had confessed and implicated him, Richard Crowninshield knew that it was not likely that he would get away with the crime.  On June 16th jailers found Richard hanging in his cell having committed suicide. This left a problem for the "prosecution."  Their principal perpetrator was dead and according to the law that meant the others would walk.  However, they were having none of that and called in Daniel Webster who was apparently a well known attorney of the time.  He generally worked for the defense but occasionally took on a case for the state.  From what I have read about Daniel Webster, he may have been well known and considered prominent, working his way up through the government and at one time hoping to run for President, but he also appeared to be a drunk with a major drinking and financial problem.  Webster was also a friend of Stephen White, who offered him a large amount of money to take on the case.

Webster planned to proceed at least against Frank Knapp and George Crowninshield.  After Richard died Joseph Jr. then decided to not uphold his confession and refused to testify against anyone else to which the immunity he had been offered was revoked so Webster was eager to also prosecute. The first question was how he was going to be able to do so according to the law.  

Trials in 1830, at least in this area consisted of a three judge panel.  Each month was called "a session."  Webster brought Frank to trial in July of 1830.  His goal was to show Frank as a principal by trying to prove he was actually present at the time of the murder which would have made him a principal.  Witnesses had testified to seeing someone late in the night in clothes similar to those Frank was known to wear near the White home. Webster's theory began that he was there to help Richard, making him a principal. With Webster's theory actually both Joseph Jr. and Frank were "300 yards" from the home as the crime was committed. Frank's attorney argued that even if it was Frank on the street at that hour it did not make him a killer. The jury deadlocked in their deliberations and a mistrial was given. What seems like amazing to those of us today is that his 2nd trial began just two days after the first ended.  This time Webster brought in Dr. Pierce.  Remember him? He was the second medical examiner, the one who believed there could have been more than one assailant.  Apparently that was enough for the judges and after a five hour deliberation Frank Knapp was convicted.  He was hung on September 28, 1830. Joseph Jr. was put on trial in November and like his brother, he too was convicted and he was hung on December 31, 1830. Most reports state that George Crowninfield was tried twice, just as Frank Knapp but that he was acquitted in his second trial.  However, I must say that there was at least one site (one that will remain nameless but one that prior to this I respected) that reported that he was convicted. I believe that is the same site that also reported that both of the Knapp brothers were hung on the same day which contradicts everything else that I found.  

As a side note I found a few other things interesting in my research.  It was said that for many decades, if not more than a century, the people of Salem refused to discuss the White murder as if it left such a mark on their society that they wanted to pretend it never occurred.  Also, I did a cursory search on the Crowninshields.  Apparently the first settlers of the Salem area were named Crowninshield and very, very prominent.  I have even seen family trees of decedents as many also married into prominent families, most notably the Adams family which consisted of two Presidents and many government officials. However, I was unable to find any reference to either Richard or George (although there were many with that name in the family tree which is not unusual as they were common names of the time).  My theory is that Richard and George likely did come from this prominent line but they shamed the family and it takes a bit more to find them. 


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