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The Young Devils And Dan’l Webster
When four aristocratic blackquards were jailed for a brutal murder, justice seemed triumphant. But these were no ordinary criminals, and justice needed eloquent help
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Even Richard, the ne’er-do-well of the family and father of the two Crowninshields now in the Salem gaol, had distinguished himself—in a left-handed way. When he went into bankruptcy it was his case, Sturgis v. Crowninshield, in which Chief Justice Marshall upheld the constitutionality of bankruptcy statutes.
All in all, the Crowninshields were a prominent clan; but quite naturally, now that he was a prime suspect in the murder of Captain White, it was young Richard, aged twenty-six, who took the attention of the town. We know very little about him—less, certainly, than did his cousins when they wrote to their father in Washington. Richard was dark, bold, and intelligent. Like the rest of the family, he had no respect for conventionality; unlike them, he had no respect for law, either. He was the admired leader of all the rascals in Essex County.
For two weeks, the Committee of Vigilance got no further. A couple of bad Crowninshields in gaol was the best they had to offer an outraged and anxious community. Then on May 14 Captain Joseph J. Knapp, Sr., young Joe’s father, received a threatening letter. It came from Belfast, Maine, and it demanded $350, “the refusal of which will ruin you.” The letter was signed “Charles Grant, Junior.”
The senior Captain Knapp was even more respected than his son. He had owned ships that sailed out of Salem and others that he had shared with Captain White. Recent adversity had led him to make an assignment to his creditors, but he remained a respected and beloved member of the Marine Society. This letter made no sense to him. He showed it to his son Phippen, who had gone to Harvard, and together they consulted young Joe. He simply laughed at it, and told his father he should take the letter to the Committee of Vigilance. And so he did the next day. Here was a clue, and the committee thought it warranted retaining Rufus Choate, a brilliant young lawyer who had come to Salem only two years before.
It was easy enough to pick up “Charles Grant” in a small community like Belfast, Maine. He turned out to be a thoroughly disreputable character, whose real name was Palmer. Not long out of Thomastown Prison, where he had served two years for burglary, he was a shoddy witness, and he told a sorry tale.
The two Crowninshields had told him that young Joe Knapp had offered them and Knapp’s brother Frank a thousand dollars to kill old Captain White. The three Salem men had asked Palmer to join them in the murder for a share of the fee. When he refused, they told him it was a joke. But later Palmer heard that the fee had indeed been offered, and he had written to Joe Knapp to see if there was anything in it. He had, he claimed, addressed the letter to Joe’s father by mistake.
Palmer was brought to Salem, and the two Knapps, Joe and Frank, were arrested and joined the Crowninshields in gaol. Salem breathed a sigh of relief.
The Knapp brothers were scarcely settled in their cells when Joe was visited by his pastor, the Reverend Mr. Colman, now a prominent member of the Committee of Vigilance. Convinced that Joe was guilty, Mr. Colman had come to get him to confess.
He visited the gaol three times that day, and Joe finally agreed to tell all—but only if Frank consented. Here Mr. Colman needed some help, and he took Phippen, Frank’s brother, with him to Frank’s cell.
Who can hope to know what was said? Phippen later recalled that Frank had said, “I have nothing to confess—it is a hard case, but if it is as you say, Joseph may confess if he pleases.” The Reverend Mr. Colman’s memory of the conversation was somewhat different. According to him, Frank “thought it hard, or not fair, that Joseph should have the advantage of making a confession, since the thing was done for his benefit, or advantage.” And the pastor recalled that Frank had added, “I told Joe when he proposed it, that it was a silly business, and would only get us into difficulty.”
Joe finally admitted his guilt privately to Mr. Colman, but the minister knew that in order to obtain a written confession—with or without Frank’s assent —he would have to offer Joe a pledge of immunity, and for that he needed authority from the attorney general. He rode at once to Boston, stopped at the Tremont House to tell Stephen White the good news, saw the attorney general, and got his written pledge not to prosecute Joe if he would confess and testify for the state against the others. With this in his pocket, Colman rode rapidly back through the night to Salem.
At one o’clock the next afternoon he and two other members of the committee, Dr. Barstow and Mr. Pettiplace, met at the north steps of the Howard Street Church. There, following directions Joe Knapp had given him, Mr. Colman put his hand into a rat hole under the steps and drew out the club that had killed Captain White. Now back to the gaol, to give Joe the attorney general’s pledge, and to get his confession down in writing.