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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
Joe now had more need of a lawyer than a clergyman, and Phippen Knapp had gone to Boston to get one. He was lucky: he was able to retain Franklin Dexter and William H. Gardiner, leaders of the Boston bar; they would take on Phippen’s close friend and classmate, Robert Rantoul, for their junior. Phippen could not have done better.
Mr. Colman had promised Phippen to wait for his return before going to see Joe again and take his confession, but Phippen wasn’t back until three o’clock, and Colman couldn’t wait. When Phippen came to Joe’s cell, Mr. Colman refused to let him in until he had “finished his business.”
This was not until seven that evening, when Joe finally signed the confession, which Colman had written out in his own hand. Joe’s part in the murder turned out to be sordid and mercenary. He had said to his brother Frank, as far back as February, “I wouldn’t begrudge a thousand dollars that the old gentleman was dead.” If the Captain’s will were destroyed, his money wouldn’t all go to Stephen; half would come to Mrs. Beckford, Joe’s mother-in-law, and thence through her to him.∗
∗ Apparently Joe Knapp shared Salem’s assumption that Stephen White was the principal heir, but in this he was tragically mistaken. Like many another close-fisted Yankee, the Captain kept his financial affairs to himself. His will, dated January 8, 1830, and filed for probate on May 4, less than a month after he was murdered, divided his fortune among his nephews and nieces and their descendants; Mary Beckford, Knapp’s mother-in-law, received $15,000—less than some of the legatees, more than others. Stephen White was named executor, but a thorough examination of the will—still on file in the County Court House in Salem’makes no specific cash bequest to Stephen and contains no residuary clause. [Ed.]
Frank said he didn’t have the pluck, but he knew who would—the Crowninshields, Dick and George. Joe answered: “I told him, well, I didn’t think they would, but he could go and see.” Frank did go and see, and some time later Joe met Richard Crowninshield, who showed Joe the tools he would do it with, a club and a dirk. On the morning after the murder, Joe’s confession continued, Frank came to the farm at Wenham and told Joe how the deed had been done. About ten o’clock on that fateful April night, Richard Crowninshield had met Frank Knapp in Brown Street, had told him to go home, and then had himself gone into the house by the back window, which Joe had previously unbarred. Richard had met Frank again about eleven. Then they had separated and gone home. A fortnight later, Joe Knapp said, Richard came to the farm and “I gave him one hundred five-franc pieces,” and “Richard Crowninshield informed me that same evening, that he had put the club with which he killed Capt. White, under the Branch Meeting House steps.”
Here by rights this sordid tale should end, with assurance that Justice would easily triumph and the four blackguards would hang. And so it would have ended, had not Justice run into difficulties.
Dick Crowninshield, in his cell in the Salem gaol, undoubtedly knew that Joe Knapp had confessed. The Committee of Vigilance, in a burst of pride, had revealed it to the newspapers. Dick read all about it, and gossip had the run of the gaol. So, Dick mused, Joe had taken the easy way out!
Hence it happened that one day, as lawyer Dexter was visiting his client, Frank Knapp, he heard his name called. He stepped over to the window of the cell. Dick Crowninshield wanted to ask him a question. If Dick were to die suddenly, could anything be done to George and Frank? No, Mr. Dexter said. Crowninshield pressed his question. Mr. Dexter said he was sure of it. The Supreme Judicial Court had held, some ten years before, that where no principal has been convicted no accessory can be convicted; and that since the law presumes every man innocent until he has been proven guilty, no one can be tried as an accessory until someone has been proven to be the principal in the crime.
Having delivered this legal opinion, Mr. Dexter went home to Boston. Late that night his wife heard him pacing the floor, and asked him what was the matter. “I had a talk with Richard Crowninshield today,” he said, “and now I am led to believe they are all guilty.”
Who knew better than Richard Crowninshield that he and he alone was the principal in this crime? He had met Frank Knapp on Brown Street and had left him, urging Frank to go home. He believed Frank had done so. Perhaps he had, and had then come back, for he was there after the murder, curious about how it had come off. At most, Frank had done nothing more than hang around. As for his brother George, Richard Crowninshield knew very well that he had spent the night “at Mary’s.” If that Boston lawyer knew what he was talking about—and he seemed to—Richard Crowninshield thought he saw a way to keep Frank and George from hanging. Joe was looking out for himself, damn him. He had taken the easy way. Dick would now take the hard way.