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The Murder of Captain Joseph White by the Knapp Brothers, 1830


Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast

In the year 1830 there lived in Salem, Mass., a very wealthy retired merchant named Joseph White. He was eighty-two years of age and had never married. His niece, Mrs. Beckford, acted as his housekeeper and was assisted by a man servant and a maid servant.

Mrs. Bickford’s daughter was married to a young man named Joseph J. Knapp, Jr., and resided with her husband in Wenham, Mass., which was seven miles from Salem. The Knapp family, consisting of the father, Joseph Knapp, Sr., and his sons, Joseph Knapp, Jr., and John Francis Knapp, was well known and highly respected.

On April 5, 1830, Mrs. Beckford went to Wenham, to spend a few days with her daughter, Mrs. Joseph Knapp, Jr.

At 6 A. M., April 7, 1830, Mr. White’s man servant arose, and upon opening the shutters of the kitchen window observed that the back window of the parlor was open and that a plank was raised to the window from the back yard. He informed the maid servant of his observations and the two proceeded on a tour of inspection.

When they approached Mr. White’s bedroom they were surprised at finding the door open, but their surprise gave way to horror as they approached the bed and found the bed clothing turned down and the sheets and Mr. White’s night clothes saturated with blood. Mr. White was dead and his body was cold and stiff.

The authorities were notified and a closer inspection of the body revealed the fact that the skull had been fractured by some implement which had not broken the skin, and thirteen deep wounds were found on the body, which had evidently been inflicted with a long dagger.

There was nothing to indicate that the mansion had been ransacked. Valuable articles were left undisturbed, and as Mr. White was a most amiable character who had no enemies, the authorities were at a loss to understand what motive could have prompted any one to perpetrate this most atrocious crime.

The mystery became all the deeper when it was observed that the window, through which the assassin probably entered, was evidently not locked on this particular night, which was a most unusual circumstance.

Some were inclined to look upon the servants with suspicion but it was argued that they were old and trusted-employees, and since absolutely nothing of value was disturbed, it was difficult to show what motive either one could have had in committing the murder.

Footprints found in the garden near the board in no manner resembled the prints made by either of the servants.

Great excitement prevailed throughout the community; large rewards were offered for the apprehension and conviction of the assassin, and a Committee of Vigilance was appointed to institute an investigation. Business was almost entirely suspended in Salem on the day of Mr. White’s funeral, and during the funeral services none of the mourners exhibited more outward signs of grief than Joseph Knapp, Jr.
On April 27, while the excitement was still at its height, Joseph J. Knapp, Jr., and his brother John went before the Vigilance Committee and testified that on the preceding evening they were returning in a chaise from Salem to their home in Wenham and that as they approached Wenham Pond three robbers came suddenly upon them. One seized the horse’s bridle while the other two seized a small trunk in the bottom of the chaise.

The brothers stated that they resisted and that the robbers finally retreated and were lost in the darkness.

This statement caused many to believe that a gang of assassins were operating in the neighborhood and it was suspected that this gang was responsible for the murder of White.

The weeks rolled by and the discouraged citizens concluded that the mystery surrounding the death of Captain White would never be penetrated. Finally a rumor was circulated that some person confined in the jail at New Bedford, seventy miles from Salem, could shed some light on the mystery if he so desired.
No one seemed to know where the rumor started, but a representative of the Vigilance Committee proceeded to the jail at New Bedford and learned that a prisoner named Hatch, who had been arrested for shoplifting before the murder of White, had intimated that he could make important disclosures, but he had not been taken seriously. Hatch was then interrogated and, after some hesitancy, stated that some months before the murder, while he was at large, he was an associate of one Richard Crowninshield, who bore a most unenviable reputation in Danvers and Salem, and he had often heard Crowninshield express his intention to kill White.

Hatch was immediately taken before the Grand Jury and on his testimony an indictment was found against Crowninshield.

Other witnesses testified that on the night of the murder, George Crowninshield, a brother of Richard, and two men named Selman and Chase were with Richard in a Salem gambling-house. On this testimony these three men were also indicted and all four were arrested on May 2, but Selman and Chase were subsequently discharged without a trial.

On May 15, Captain Joseph J. Knapp, Sr., a prominent shipmaster and merchant, and father of Joseph J. Knapp, Jr., received the following letter:

Charles Grant, Jr., to Joseph J. Knapp.
“Belfast, May 12, 1830.

“Dear Sir :—I have taken the pen at this time to address an utter stranger, and strange as it may seem to you, it is for the purpose of requesting the loan of three hundred and fifty dollars, for which I can give you no security but my word, and in this case consider this to be sufficient. My call for money at this time is pressing, or I would not trouble you ; but with that sum, I have the prospect of turning it to so much advantage, as to be able to refund it with interest in the course of six months.

At all events, I think it will be for your interest to comply with my request, and that immediately—that is, not to put off any longer than you receive this. Then set down and inclose me the money with as much despatch as possible, for your own interest. This, Sir, is my advice ; and if you do not comply with it, the short period between now and November will convince you that you have denied a request, the granting of which will never injure you, the refusal of which will ruin you. Are you surprised at this assertion ?—rest assured that I make it reserving to myself the reasons and a series of facts which are founded on such a bottom as will bid defiance to property or quality. It is useless for me to enter into a discussion of facts which must inevitably harrow up your soul.

No, I will merely tell you that I am acquainted with your brother Frank, and also the business that he was transacting for you on the 2nd of April last; and that I think that you was very extravagant in giving one thousand dollars to the person that would execute the business for you. But you know best about that, you see that such things will leak out.

To conclude, Sir, I will inform you that there is a gentleman of my acquaintance in Salem that will observe that you do not leave town before the first of June, giving you sufficient time between now and then to comply with my request; and if I do not receive a line from you, together with the above sum, before the 22d of this month, I shall wait upon you with an assistant. I have said enough to convince you of my knowledge, and merely inform you that you can, when you answer, be as brief as possible.

“Direct yours to

“CHARLES GRANT, JR., “of Prospect, Maine.”

This letter was an unintelligible enigma to Captain Knapp, who knew no man by the name of Charles Grant and had no acquaintance in Belfast, Maine.

Receiving this threatening message at a time when the entire community was terrorized, Mr. Knapp became alarmed and proceeded at once to Wenham to consult with his sons, Joseph and John.

After perusing the letter, Joseph Knapp, Jr., stated to his father that it contained “a lot of trash” and suggested that it be delivered to the Vigilance Committee. The father acted on his son’s advice. After giving his father this foolish advice, Joseph Knapp, Jr., made a series of stupid blunders. He knew that the letter received by Joseph Knapp, Sr., was intended for Joseph Knapp, Jr., and either for the purpose of directing the investigation into another channel, or to convey the impression that Grant was some crank or joker whose statements were unworthy of investigation, he drove into Salem the next day and requested a friend to mail two letters, at the same time saying that his father had received an anonymous letter and he wanted to “nip the silly affair in the bud.”

One letter was addressed to Hon. Gideon Barstow, Chairman of the Vigilance Committee, and read as follows:

“May 13, 1830.

“Gentlemen of the Committee of Vigilance :—Hearing that you have taken up four young men on suspicion of being concerned in the murder of Mr. White, I think it time to inform you that Steven White came to me one night and told me, if I would remove the old gentleman, he would give me five thousand dollars; he said he was afraid he would alter his will if he lived any longer. I told him I would do it, but I was afeared to go into the house, so he said he would go with me, that he would try to get into the house in the evening and open the window, would then go home and go to bed and meet me again about eleven. I found him, and we both went into his chamber. I struck him on the head with a heavy piece of lead, and then stabbed him with a dirk; he made the finishing strokes with another. He promised to send me the money next evening, and has not sent it yet, which is the reason that I mention this.

“Yours, etc.,

The second letter was addressed to Hon. Stephen White, a nephew of the murdered man and the principal heir. It read as follows:

“Lynn, May 12, 1830.

“Mr. White will send the $5000, or a part of it, before to-morrow night, or suffer the painful consequences.


Immediately after Mr. Knapp, Sr., delivered the letter sent from Belfast to the Vigilance Committee, a letter was mailed to Chas. Grant, Jr., Prospect, Maine, by the Vigilance Committee and a trusted agent proceeded to that point. He at once took the postmaster of the town into his confidence and remained in hiding in the office.

The same day a man called for the letter and stated that his name was Charles Grant, Jr. He was taken into custody and proved to be an ex-convict named Palmer who resided in the adjoining town of Belfast.
Seeing the advisability of proving that he did not participate in the White murder, Palmer made a statement as follows:

“I have been an associate of George and Richard Crowninshield and on April 2, 1830, I was sitting by a window in their house and saw Frank Knapp and Charles Allen drive up. The Crowninshield brothers, Knapp and Allen, then went for a walk. Upon their return, George and Richard informed me that Frank Knapp had asked them to kill Mr. White and that Joseph Knapp, Jr., would pay $1000 for the job. Several different modes of executing it were discussed but it was finally decided to kill him at night when Mrs. Beckford was not home.”

Palmer was detained as a witness and warrants were at once procured for the arrest of John and Joseph Knapp.

The arrest of these two young men created a great sensation. Fearing that he might have unconsciously assisted the assassin, the young man who mailed the two letters for Knapp went before the Vigilance Committee and testified to all he knew regarding the incident.

It was then proven that the letters were in the handwriting of Joseph Knapp, Jr.

On the third day of his imprisonment, Joseph Knapp made a complete confession as follows:

“I knew that Mr. White had made out a will in which he gave my mother-in-law, Mrs. Beckford, a legacy of $15,000. According to my understanding of the law, which I have since learned was erroneous, I believed she would get $200,000 if no will was found. I therefore decided to steal the will and have Mr. White assassinated. Four days before the murder I was in Mr. White’s chamber and procuring the key to his iron chest, I took his will and carried it home, burning it several days later. My brother Frank negotiated with Richard Crowninshield who agreed to do the deed for $1000.

“The night of April 6th was finally decided upon and I persuaded my mother-in-law to spend a few days with my wife at Wenham.

“On the 6th I visited Mr. White’s home, to which I always had access, and unfastened the window at the back of the rear parlor. That day Crowninshield showed me the bludgeon and dagger with which the murder was to be committed. Crowninshield and my brother Frank met at 10 o’clock that night by appointment and proceeded to a spot where they could observe the movements in White’s mansion. It was a beautiful moonlight night.

“Crowninshield requested Frank to go home. He left, but soon returned. During his absence the lights in the mansion were extinguished and shortly afterward the hired assassin placed a plank against the house, entered the window and crept upstairs to White’s sleeping chamber. The moon was shining through the window on to the old man’s face. Crowninshield swung his bludgeon and struck White on the left temple, probably killing him instantly. But, to be certain, he lowered the bed clothes and stabbed him repeatedly in the region of the heart.

“He then felt his pulse and being satisfied that the job was well done, he departed. He met Frank on a side street and explained in detail what he had done. After hiding the bludgeon under the steps of a meeting-house on Howard Street, he returned to Danvers.

“I was at home in Wenham on this night. A few days later, Crowninshield, accompanied by my brother Frank, called on me at my home in Wenham and demanded his money. I was only able to pay him one hundred five-franc pieces. He related to me all the details of the assassination and I informed him that our work had been all in vain; that the will I stole was not the last one, and even if it had been, my object would not have been accomplished because of my misunderstanding of the law.

“The story my brother and I told the Vigilance Committee on April 27th in regard to the alleged robbery was a sheer fabrication. It was I who wrote the two anonymous letters.”

Richard Crowninshield, who had assumed an air of indifference ever since his arrest, collapsed when informed of Knapp’s confession.

The officers proceeded to the meeting-house and found the bludgeon described by Knapp, under the steps.

When Palmer was brought to Salem he gave the authorities additional information regarding Crowninshield’s criminal career which enabled them to recover a quantity of stolen property concealed in Crowninshield’s barn.

On June 15, Crowninshield committed suicide by hanging himself to the bars of his cell with a handkerchief.

Indictments for the murder were shortly afterward found against John Knapp as principal and Joseph J. Knapp, Jr., and George Crowninshield as accessories.

As the law stood at that time it was necessary to convict the principal before an accessory could be tried.
John Knapp’s trial began before the Supreme Court in Salem on August 20th, 1830, and the great lawyer and statesman, Daniel Webster, was engaged to conduct the prosecution. Joseph Knapp, Jr., was promised immunity if he would testify to the facts for the prosecution, but when called to the stand he refused to testify against his brother. A strong case was made, however, without his assistance.

Before entering into a discussion of the evidence, Mr. Webster, in addressing the jury, spoke as follows:

“I am little accustomed, gentlemen, to the part which I am now attempting to perform. Hardly more than once or twice has it happened to me to be concerned on the side of the government in any criminal prosecution whatever; and never, until the present occasion, in any case affecting life.

“But I very much regret that it should have been thought necessary to suggest to you that I am brought here to ‘hurry you against the law and beyond the evidence.’ I hope I have too much regard for justice, and too much respect for my own character, to attempt either; and were I to make such attempt, I am sure that in this court nothing can be carried against the law, and that gentlemen intelligent and just as you are, are not, by any power, to be hurried beyond the evidence. Though I could well have wished to shun this occasion, I have not felt at liberty to withhold my professional assistance, when it is supposed that I may be in some degree useful in investigating and discovering the truth respecting this most extraordinary murder.

“It has seemed to be a duty incumbent on me, as on every other citizen, to do my best and my utmost to bring to light the perpetrators of this crime. Against the prisoner at the bar, as an individual, I cannot have the slightest prejudice. I would not do him the smallest injury or injustice. But I do not affect to be indifferent to the discovery and the punishment of this deep guilt. I cheerfully share in the opprobrium, how great soever it may be, which is cast on those who feel and manifest an anxious concern that all who had a part in planning, or a hand in executing, this deed of midnight assassination may be brought to answer for their enormous crime at the bar of public justice.

“Gentlemen, it is 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 lion-like temptation springing upon their virtue, and overcoming it, before resistance could begin. Nor did they do the deed to glut savage vengeance, or satiate long-settled and deadly hate. It was a cool, calculating, money-making 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.

“An aged man, without an enemy in the world, in his own house, and in his own bed, is made the victim of a butchery murder, for mere pay. Truly, here is a new lesson for painters and poets. Whoever shall hereafter draw the portrait of murder, if he will show it as it has been exhibited, where such example was last to have been looked for, in the very bosom of our New England society, let him not give it the grim visage of Moloch, the brow knitted by revenge, the face black with settled hate, and the bloodshot eye emitting livid fires of malice. Let him draw, rather, a decorous, smooth-faced, bloodless demon ; a picture in repose, rather than in action ; not so much an example of human nature in its depravity, and in its paroxysms of crime, as an infernal being, a fiend, in the ordinary display and development of his• character.

“The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now clearly in evidence spread out the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this, he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds his victim before him. The room is uncommonly open to the admission of light. The face of the innocent sleeper is turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon, resting on the gray locks of his aged temple, show him where to strike. The fatal blow is given, and the victim passes, without a strug-gle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death ! It is the assassin’s purpose to make sure work; and he plies the dagger, though it is obvious that life has been destroyed by the blow of the bludgeon. He even raises the aged arm, that he may not fail in his aim at the heart, and replaces it again over the wounds of the poinard ! To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse ! He feels for it, and ascertains that it beats no longer ! It is accomplished. The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window, passes out through it as he came in, and escapes. He has done the murder. No eye has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe !

“Ah, gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake ! Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner where guilt can bestow it, and say it is safe. Not to speak of that Eye which pierces through all disguises and beholds everything as in the splendor of noon, such secrets of guilt are never safe from detection, even by men. True it is, generally speaking, that ‘murder will out.’ True it is, that Providence hath so ordained, and doth so govern things, that those who break the great law of Heaven by shedding man’s blood seldom succeed in avoiding discovery.

“Especially, in a case exciting so much attention as this, discovery must come, and will come, sooner or later. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, every thing, every circumstance, connected with the time and place; a thousand ears catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slightest circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret. It is false to itself ; or rather it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labors under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it.

“The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torment, which it dares not acknowledge to God or man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance, either from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him, and the net of circumstance to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed, it will be confessed; there is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.

“It is said, that ‘laws are made, not for the punishment of the guilty, but for the protection of the innocent’ This is not quite accurate, perhaps, but if so, we hope they will be so administered as to give that protection. But who are the innocent whom the law would protect? Gentlemen, Joseph White was innocent. They are innocent who, having lived in the fear of God through the day, wish to sleep in His peace through the night, in their own beds. The law is established that those who live quietly may sleep quietly; that they who do no harm may feel none. The gentleman can think of none that are innocent except the prisoner at the bar, not yet convicted. Is a proved conspirator to murder innocent?

“Are the Crowninshields and the Knapps innocent? What is innocence? How deep stained with blood, how reckless in crime, how deep in depravity may it be, and yet retain innocence? The law is made, if we would speak with entire accuracy, to protect the innocent by punishing the guilty. But there are those innocent out of court, as well as innocent prisoners at the bar.

“The criminal law is not founded in a principle of vengeance. It does not punish that it may inflict suffering. The humanity of the law feels and regrets every pain it causes, every hour of restraint it imposes, and more deeply still very life it forfeits. But it uses evil as the means of preventing greater evil. It seeks to deter from crime by the example of punishment. This is its true, and only true, main object. It restrains the liberty of the few offenders, that the many who do not offend may enjoy their liberty. It takes the life of the murderer that other murders may not be committed. The law might open the jails and at once set free all persons accused of offenses, and it ought to do so if it could be made certain that no other offenses would hereafter be committed; because it punishes, not to satisfy any desire to inflict pain, but simply to prevent the repetition of crimes. When the guilty, therefore, are not punished, the law has so far failed of its purpose; the safety of the innocent is so far endangered. Every unpunished murder takes away something from the security of every man’s life. Whenever a jury, through whimsical and ill-founded scruples, suffer the guilty to escape, they make • themselves answerable for the augmented danger of the innocent.

“We wish nothing to be strained against this defendant. Why, then, all this alarm? Why all this complaint against the manner in which the crime is discovered? The prisoner’s counsel catch at supposed flaws of evidence, or bad character of witnesses, without meeting the case. Do they mean to deny the conspiracy? Do they mean to deny that the two Crowninshields and the two Knapps were conspirators? Why do they rail against Palmer, while they dp not disprove, and hardly dispute, the truth of any one fact sworn to by him? Instead of this, it is made matter of sentimentality that Palmer has been prevailed upon to betray his bosom companions and to violate the sanctity of friendship.”

After a lengthy discussion of the evidence, Mr. Webster closed his argument with the following impressive appeal to the jury:

“Gentlemen, your whole concern should be to do your duty, and leave consequences to take care of themselves. You will receive the law from the Court. Your verdict, it is true, may endanger the prisoner’s life; but then, it is to save other lives. If the prisoner’s guilt has been shown and proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, you will convict him.

If such reasonable doubts of guilt still remain, you will acquit him. You are the judges of the whole case. You owe a duty to the public as well as to the prisoner at the bar. You cannot presume to be wiser than the law. Your duty is a plain, straightforward one. Doubtless, we would all judge him in mercy. Towards him, as an individual, the law inculcates no hostility; but towards him, if proved to be a murderer, the law and the oaths you have taken, and public justice, demand that you do your duty.

“With consciences satisfied with the discharge of duty, no consequences can harm you. There is no evil that we cannot face or fly from but the consciousness of duty disregarded.

“A sense of duty pursues us ever. It is omnipresent, like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning and dwell in the utmost parts of the seas, duty performed, or duty violated, is still with us, for our happiness, or our misery. If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us. We cannot escape their power nor fly from their presence. They are with us in this life, will be with us at its close ; and in that scene of inconceivable solemnity which lies yet farther onward, we shall still find ourselves surrounded by the consciousness of duty, to pain us wherever it has been violated, and to console us so far as God may have given us grace to perform it.”

The defendant was found guilty as charged.

Joseph Knapp was then tried and convicted and the two brothers were hanged from the same scaffold.

George Crowninshield proved an alibi and was acquitted.