The Young Devils And Dan’l Webster


The next day, Nehemiah Brown, the keeper of the gaol, stopped and called at Dick’s cell, but got no answer. Brown looked through the wicket. There was Dick, hanging at the grating by two silk handkerchiefs knotted together, his knees bent and not more than a foot from the floor. It was an exceedingly deliberate suicide, and a gauntlet thrown in the face of Justice!

As soon as Rufus Choate explained the legal consequences of Dick’s removal as principal, the Committee of Vigilance was quick to see how serious the challenge was. It appeared to be more than an aging attorney general could cope with, even with the confession Mr. Colman had obtained from Joe Knapp.

Stephen White, as a member of the committee, met the challenge by retaining the great Daniel Webster for a fee of one thousand dollars.

On the third of August, 1830, as much of Salem as the courtroom would hold jostled and scrambled in. The lawyers were already at their tables, taking papers out of their green bags—the attorney general and Webster at the table nearest the bench; Dexter, Gardiner, and Rantoul at the defense table behind them.

Then “three young men, well and rather genteelly dressed, and of fair presence,” as one newspaper put it, were brought into the dock. But only Frank Knapp was to be tried. For he was charged as the principal now, with Joe Knapp and George Crowninshield as his accessories. They could not be tried until Frank had been convicted. Now they were remanded.

Nineteen prospective jurors were rejected by peremptory challenges, and eleven more for cause shown, before a jury was impaneled. Justice was choosing her representatives on earth with care, here in this case between the Great Man Eloquent and a young blackguard of Salem.

The fact of the murder was quickly established by Benjamin, Captain White’s manservant; by Lydia, the cook; and by Doctor Johnson.

Now the attorney general called Joseph J. Knapp, Jr., to the witness stand, and inquired of him if he was willing to be sworn. But Joe shook his head, and said nothing. “On advice of counsel,” the attorney general remarked. Dexter denied it. So did Gardiner and Rantoul. Joe had, indeed, asked Dexter if he had better testify, and had been told: “You must decide for yourself.” Joe had muttered, “It won’t do.”

“Perfidy to the State and to the Government which would have saved him!” Mr. Webster was to call it. But that was not quite true.

It was now incumbent on the Reverend Mr. Colman to summon up his best memory of what Frank had said to him and Phippen; and he did so very well indeed. Then Palmer, the shoddy witness. There was also testimony from a boy who worked for Mrs. Beckford in Wenham—a tale of what he said he had heard Joe and Frank say on the other side of a stone wall against which he had been “nooning.” It was damning enough, but scarcely survived cross-examination.

Still, it was becoming very plain that Frank had been an accessory. Yet Dick Crowninshield’s ghost was haunting this court room. Could Webster make the jury believe that Frank as well as Dick had been a principal, and not merely an accessory? Could he prove, to put it in legal language, that Frank had been “present, aiding, and abetting the murder”?

There were many witnesses who thought they had seen Frank Knapp on Brown Street that evening, but none was certain; and there was no unanimity on how the man had been dressed. Some said he had worn a dark frock coat, others that he had worn what Frank usually wore, a camlet cloak. Even if Frank had been there, what could he have done to aid and abet Dick from so far away? Brown Street ran behind the White mansion, toward the Common; it was three hundred feet away through the Captain’s garden.

What if Frank had been on Brown Street only to be informed of the result? Mr. Dexter asked the court to instruct the jury that in such an event Frank could not be convicted. The court agreed: “If the defendant did nothing more than this, he must be acquitted.” But there was nobody to tell the jury that Dick had sent Frank home, and that he had come back only to find out what had happened. Not even Frank himself, for those were the days before a defendant could take the stand on his own behalf.

Webster’s closing speech was not so well reported at the time that he did not feel it necessary to embellish it for publication later. But we can easily imagine the impact of his eloquence, particularly the great passage on suicide:

Meantime, the guilty soul cannot keep its secret. It is false to itself; or rather it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself … It must be confessed. It WILL be confessed. There is no refuge from confession, but suicide.