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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
At this point Mr. Webster paused, as a dash in his revised version indicates; and someone sitting close by said, loud enough to be heard “—and suicide is confession.” Mr. Webster picked it up, and concluded, “And Suicide is confession.”
Yes. There was no gainsaying that. But may it not also be something more? May not a man take his own life with as much love as he can lay it down for his friends?
It was going to take more than eloquence to convince the jury that Frank was “present, aiding, and abetting” this murder. And Webster was not quite persuasive enough. The jury was out all one afternoon, all the next day, and still could not agree the following morning. At three o’clock that afternoon, the foreman reported that “there was not the least probability of their ever coming to an agreement.”
Dick Crowninshield’s suicide and Joe Knapp’s refusal to testify against his brother had saved Frank, but Justice has greater staying power than the gallantry of the wicked. Another jury was promptly impaneled, and the case was tried all over again.
This time the testimony that Frank was on Brown Street that evening was more satisfactory. Justice had been outraged, and testimonial truth sought firmer ground. One of the four witnesses to Frank’s presence, Peter E. Webster, had not been able to swear positively that he had seen the prisoner; nor was he any more positive now. But the memories of the other three had improved: from “can’t swear positively” to “have no doubt”; from “I judge it was Frank” to “I can swear positively”; from “My belief is” to “I’ve no doubt.”
So this time the jury found Frank Knapp guilty, and on September 28, 1830, “very neatly dressed in a dark cloth frock coat, blue pantaloons and light vest … ”he was hanged.
Joe Knapp’s trial followed. By refusing to testify against Frank he had forfeited his immunity, which the attorney general had pledged him only on condition that he make a complete disclosure and testify fully and truly. Now the written confession he had made after receiving the pledge (his oral confession, given to Mr. Colman the day before, was not competent evidence) made short work of him. He had made it in the hope of immunity. His “It won’t do” had been a gallant act, but for it he paid the same price Dick Crowninshield had paid. On December 31, 1830, Joe Knapp, too, was hanged.
George Crowninshield, the last of these four young blackguards, took his trial lightly, even gaily. To be sure, he had been in town that night, he admitted, but he had an alibi. He had spent the night safely in bed with one Mary Bassett, and it was his good fortune that another lady could testify to it, one Mary Jane Weller. Mr. Dexter called her “a most precious witness, a most infamous woman, of lewd character.” Lewd and infamous she may have been, but Mary Jane Weller was a precious witness—how good may be judged from her cross-examination:
Q. What sort of weather was it the next day?
A. You know as well as I do. I am not going to answer any such silly questions. I’ve told my story and I don’t want to be made fun of.
Thereupon, it is recorded, “on a suggestion from the Court, counsel desisted from a cross-examination.”
Salem by now had had its fill of the hanging of young men, however vicious. The jury acquitted George Crowninshield, and he lived to a good old age, whatever his youth had been. He died in 1888, stoutly maintaining to the end that it was not his brother Dick, but Stephen White, who had murdered the old Captain.