- Historic Sites
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
Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1830’s, was a city of some 14,000. Merchants and sailors, shopkeepers and ship chandlers, owners and bankers and insurers, doctors and lawyers lived in its red brick and white wood houses. Neighbor and trader with more of the rest of the world than any other port of the United States, Salem in the spring of 1830 was pressing its prime. In Samuel Eliot Morison’s neat phrase, “the movement from wharf to waterfall” was beginning. But wealth had not quite yet made prudence a virtue, and the great shipowners were still adventurers as well as the leaders of Salem society.
One of these shipowners was Captain Joseph White, eighty-two years of age and as wealthy as he was elderly. To get to his house one walked down Essex Street, past the rooms of the East India Marine Society, where the captains met for news and reminiscence; past the side streets that led toward the harbor, where spars slanted against the sky and the smell of tar and new canvas filled the air. Only a little farther along stood the Captain’s big white house, set back behind its elms. It backed along Brown Street, and just beyond, off Essex Street on Newbury, was the Salem Common, with a wooden rail fence around it and a gate surmounted by a gilt eagle.
At six in the morning of April 7, 1830, a man rushed out of Captain White’s house and dashed across the street. A little later, a doctor came and disappeared into the house.
Captain Joseph White had been murdered. The man who had dashed out was Benjamin, his man of all work. When he had come down to open the shutters and light the fire, he had found a back window open, the strip of metal that usually barred it standing against the wall, and a plank set against the outside sill. Upstairs, the door of the Captain’s bedroom was open, and when Benjamin went in the Captain lay in bed. He was quite dead, and not yet cold. Calling Lydia, maid and cook for the last sixteen years, Benjamin told her that the Captain “had gone to the eternal world” and that he would go and call the neighbors. Lydia had heard nothing. There had been no one else in the house that night.
The doctor who answered Benjamin’s summons was named Samuel Johnson. He found the Captain lying on his right side, his left temple fractured by a blow heavy enough to kill him; in addition there were thirteen deep stab wounds, six over the heart and seven under the left arm, which the assailant evidently had lifted up for his purpose.
As word of the murder got around, consternation gripped Salem. Instantly, everybody became a suspect, even Captain White’s highly respectable nephew, Stephen White. He had the run of the house, and he was understood to be the heir to most of the Captain’s fortune. Stephen was staying then in Boston at the Tremont House, but from April 7 on he took care to be seen frequently in Salem. A Committee of Vigilance was formed the day following the funeral, after a public meeting in the Town Hall and a great harangue by the Reverend Henry Colman, whose church Captain White had attended. The committee met in Stephen’s office, and he gave a thousand dollars to it.
Another member of the family was suspected, young Captain Joe Knapp. Also a respectable young man, and a member of the East India Marine Society, he had commanded one of Captain White’s ships, the Caroline, and he had married pretty Mary Beckford, the Captain’s favorite great-niece and daughter of his housekeeper. How angry the old man had been! But young Mary had gone ahead, and now the Knapps were living on Mrs. Beckford’s farm in Wenham, a good six or seven miles away. There they had been on the night of the murder, along with Mrs. Beckford herself, who was visiting them.
As the weeks passed, rumors persisted. That death—even death by violence—should come to a Salem man off the coast of Sumatra, or in the Spanish Main, or almost anywhere else, was a thing to be expected. But here in Salem, and on Essex Street! Doors were bolted for the first time in living memory. Pistols and dirks were promptly sold off storekeepers’ shelves, and more had to be ordered from Boston. Sword canes became more popular than Malaccas.
Rumor multiplied the number of suspicious-looking characters who had been seen lurking along Brown Street behind Captain White’s house that night. Suspicion continued to mount, until people began wondering even about their own kin. The Benjamin Crowninshield girls, writing their weekly newsletter to their father in Congress, expressed apprehension that their “Cousin Richard”—he was the black sheep of that great Salem family—“would be found to have had a hand in it.” We must suppose that the Committee of Vigilance had more than this to go on when “Cousin Richard” Crowninshield and his young brother George were arrested on May 2. Black sheep though they were, as Crowninshields they belonged to one of the wealthiest, most elegant, and most distinguished families of Salem.
There had originally been five Crowninshield brothers, and all had served on the family’s ships. One had died at sea. Of the other four, Benjamin and Jacob had gone into politics. Ben had been Secretary of the Navy and later had succeeded Jacob in Congress. George was the dandy of the family. After retiring, he built the first American yacht, then eclipsed it with a second, the famous Cleopatra’s Barge.