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The Young Devils And Dan’l Webster

April 2024
15min read

When four aristocratic blackquards were jailed for a brutal murder, justice seemed triumphant. But these were no ordinary criminals, and justice needed eloquent help

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Webster Enters the Case

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