Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"A Most Extraordinary Case."

Joseph Knapp, expected a sizable inheritance on the death of his great uncle,  82 year old Captain Joseph White. But he hadn’t the patience to wait for the old man’s natural death, and in 1830 he and his brother John hired a hit man to murder him. They probably would have gotten away with their scheme, but they were prosecuted by the great Daniel Webster whose courtroom skill and persuasive oration set legal precedent and won their convictions.

Date: April 6, 1830

Location: Salem, MA

Victim: Captain Joseph White

Cause of Death: Clubbing and Stabbing

Accused: Richard Crowninshield, John Francis Knapp, Joseph Jenkins Knapp, Jr.


Captain Joseph White, a wealthy, retired merchant, lived in a fine house in Salem, Massachusetts with a manservant and his niece, Mrs. Beckford, who served as housekeeper. Mrs. Beckford’s daughter was married to Captain White's grandnephew, Joseph J. Knapp, Jr., and  lived in Wenham, MA, not far away. Knapp had learned that Captain White had just completed his will, leaving $15,000 to Mrs. Beckford. He believed that if his great uncle died without a will his mother-in-law would, instead, inherit half his fortune--$200,000. He set out to guarantee this would happen.

Joseph Knapp conspired with his brother John Francis Knapp to hire a local criminal, Richard Crowninshield, to murder Captain White. They planned the deed for the night of April 6, 1830 when they knew Mrs. Beckford would be in Wenham, staying with her daughter. As a relative, Joseph Knapp had free access to Captain White’s home and on that day he entered the house, stole the will, and left the back parlor window unlatched.

That night, while the two brothers waited outside, Richard Crowninshield entered the house through the window. He went to the bedroom where Captain White was sleeping, fractured his skull with a club and stabbed him thirteen times with a long dagger.

The town of Salem was shocked by the news that a prominent citizen had been murdered in his sleep. They organized a Committee of Vigilance to investigate the crime. Adding to the confusion, the Knapp brothers falsely reported to the Vigilance Committee that they had been robbed by three men on the road from Salem to Wenham. This led to the belief that a gang of assassins was working in the neighborhood.

The Committee had no clues in the case until a pickpocket in the New Bedford jail, seventy miles away, testified that his friend Richard Crowninshield had told him that he had killed Captain White. Crowninshield was arrested in Salem but would say nothing about the murder.

Around the same time, Joseph J. Knapp, Sr., father of the Knapp brothers, received a letter from a Charles Grant of Belfast, Maine, demanding a large sum of money to avoid "ruinous disclosures". Joseph, Sr. could make no sense of the letter; it had been intended for his son. He showed it to Joseph, Jr. who called it “a devilish lot of trash” and told his father to take it to the Vigilance Committee. Then, to muddy the waters, Joseph, Jr. wrote two letters, both purporting to be from Charles Grant. One to the Committee claiming that he (Grant) had been hired to murder Captain White by the Captain’s nephew, Steven White. The second was to Steven White from Grant, demanding payment for the murder.

The Committee dispatched a messenger to Belfast, Maine, and arranged to have Grant arrested at the post office when he came to pick up his mail. His real name was Palmer; he was an associate of Richard Crowninshield and was privy to the whole plot, including the instigating role of the Knapp brothers. To avoid prosecution himself, he told all. The news reached Salem and the false letters were found to be in Joseph Knapp, Jr.’s handwriting. Joseph and John Knapp were taken into custody.

On his third day of imprisonment Joseph Knapp, Jr. made a full confession to his role in planning the murder, fabricating the story of the robbery, and forging the letters. After learning of Knapp’s confession, Richard Crowninshield realized he had no hope and hanged himself in jail with a handkerchief tied to the bars of his cell.

The Knapps were to have been tried as accessories to murder, but under existing law, accessories could not be convicted unless the actual murderer was first convicted. Crowninshield’s suicide made this impossible. It appeared that the Knapp bothers would get away with murder.

Trials: July 1830 - John Francis Knapp, 
            November 1830 - Joseph Jenkins Knapp

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts employed the distinguished Daniel Webster to prosecute the case. Though better known as a defense attorney, Webster occasionally served as prosecutor. He described Captain White’s murder as,
“… a most extraordinary case. In some respects, it has hardly a precedent anywhere; certainly none in our New England history. This bloody drama exhibited no suddenly excited, ungovernable rage. The actors in it were not surprised by any lionlike temptation springing upon their virtue, and overcoming it, before resistance could begin. Nor did they do the deed to glut savage vengeance, or satiate longsettled and deadly hate. It was a cool, calculating, moneymaking murder. It was all "hire and salary, not revenge." It was the weighing of money against life; the counting out of so many pieces of silver against so many ounces of blood.”

The defense in the first trial argued that John Knapp could not be considered an accessory in the murder because the legal requirement said that an accessory must be present during the murder. The Knapps had been standing in the street, 300 feet away from the room where the murder was being committed.

Webster’s response was:
“To constitute a presence, it is sufficient if the accomplice is in a place, either where he may render aid to the perpetrator of the felony, or where the perpetrator supposes he may render aid. If they selected the place to afford assistance, whether it was well or ill chosen for that purpose is immaterial. The perpetrator would derive courage and confidence from the knowledge that his associate was in the place appointed.”

With the letter of the law seemingly supporting the defense, it was not an easy case for a jury to decide but in the end they sided with Webster. John Knapp was convicted of murder. Four months later his brother Joseph was convicted as well.

Verdicts: John Francis Knapp - guilty of murder
                Joseph Jenkins Knapp, Jr. - guilty of murder

John Francis Knapp  and Joseph Jenkins Knapp, Jr were hanged together from the same scaffold.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century

Originally posted November 18, 2009.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Trials of Capt. Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. and George Crowninshield for the Murder of Capt. Joseph White of Salem , Boston, Charles Ellms, 1830

Shurter, Edwin Du BoisMasterpieces of modern oratory , Boston, Ginn and company, 1906

Duke, Thomas Samuel, Celebrated criminal cases of America, San Francisco, The James H. Barry company, 1910


The Ballad of William White


Anonymous says:
September 1, 2010 at 12:31 PM

George Crowninshield's hands were tied behind his back, before he hung himself, does that not imply he was murdered to cover up something or someone?

Anonymous says:
October 26, 2010 at 2:43 PM

Richard hung himself in jail, not George. read the chapter in Cleopatra's Barge( google it )Also Smithsonian magazine Nov. 2010 issue.

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