Category Archives: Literature

Quoth the Raven “Salem, MA”

SalemMA_Graveyard Fall Foliage_credit Teresa Nevic Stavner

Setting a spooky scene – Salem graveyard. Photo by Teresa Nevic Stavner (courtesy of Destination Salem)

Salem, Massachusetts and Halloween go together like chocolate and peanut butter – both are terrific alone and irresistible when they come together.  So, it’s only fitting that we reach into Salem’s rich history for this spooky Fun Fact Friday.

When we think about literature and Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne usually comes to mind.  But did you know that the master of horror himself, Edgar Allan Poe, was inspired by the seaside city?

In 1830, the grisly murder of the prominent Captain Joseph White swept the nation.  As the trial progressed, it was revealed that  John Francis Knapp had hired Danvers residents Richard and George Crowninshield  to kill White.  John and Joe Knapp (because, it apparently takes 2 sets of brothers to commit a horrible crime), believed that if the immensely rich Captain White died without a will, his money would be thus left to his relatives – most importantly, a Mary Beckford who also happened to be Joe Knapp’s mother-in-law. The idea was that when Mrs. Beckford died, her daughter, Mrs. Joe Knapp would come into the money and the Knapp brothers would be living on Easy Street.

But why bother to kill White?  Wouldn’t his fortune be left to his family anyway?  Well, it wasn’t that simple.  White’s will favored his nephew Stephen.  Were White to die of old age, the bulk of his fortune would be Stephen’s and Mary Beckford’s cut would be much, much smaller.  On a side note, can’t help but wonder how poor Mrs. Beckford felt about all of this.  What was to stop her son-in-law from killing her once she inherited a fortune from her relative’s estate?

Anyhow, to make sure that the will was never found, Joe Knapp stole it from Captain White’s chest…and didn’t realize that people don’t tend to keep very important legal documents just lying around their homes.  The real will was locked away in White’s lawyer’s office.  And Stephen got his money a little sooner than expected.

Ravaged by guilt for what he and his brother had set forth, Joe Knapp wrote a long confession.  Richard Crowninshield (who by now probably realized that $1,000 wasn’t worth killing someone) committed suicide, which authorities took as sign of a confession.  The Knapp brothers and George Crowninshield were brought to trial where they were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

Daniel_Webster_-_circa_1847

Webster was a…serious man. (Photo: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Daniel_Webster_-_circa_1847.jpg)

During the trial, the nouveau riche Stephen White asked close friend and legal bigwig Daniel Webster to aid in the prosecution.  And by “asked,” we mean he paid Webster $1,000.  He could afford it now.

Webster was a sort of 19th century Johnny Cochran.  He was a passionate showman and a great legal mind.  His dramatic orations and recreations of the crime captivated the courtroom audience and, when published in newspapers, readers from around the country.  One of his more popular orations went a little something like…

“Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim . . . A healthful old man . . . The assassin enters . . . With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall . . . 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 face of the innocent sleeper . . . show[s] him where to strike. The fated blow is given! . . . It is the assassin’s purpose to make sure work . . . To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse! He feels for it and ascertains that it beats no longer! The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window . . . 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 . . . True it is, generally speaking, that “murder will out” . . . the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret.”

Sound familiar? The sleeping victim, the madman assassin who would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for his meddling conscience.  We know we’ve heard this story before…

Poe was a little less serious, anyway... (Photo: https://www.poemuseum.org/images/bruckmann-poe-portrait.jpg)

Poe was a little less serious, anyway…
(Photo: https://www.poemuseum.org/images/bruckmann-poe-portrait.jpg)

And it was called “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  Scholars now note the similarities between case and fictional story and cite that Webster’s oration was a big influence on “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  The crime and story both center on a sleeping old man murdered in the night by a cool, calm, confident assassin.  Both Knapp and the unnamed narrator were also compelled to clear their consciences and admit to the crime due to their weighing guilt and the belief that others could see the wrongdoings even in just their demeanor.

During his oration, Webster also dared “painters and poets” to “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.”  After reading over the widespread and frequently republished speech, Poe could very well have accepted this challenge and met it with his own story that portrays the murderer as a passive narrator who is clearly mad, but not a depraved and inhuman caricature.

The White case also intrigued and inspired Salem resident Nathaniel Hawthorne who closely followed the grisly case that shook his hometown.  Tiptoeing around a big spoiler, one of Hawthorne’s novels features a person normally viewed as pure in thought and deed (a “smooth-faced…picture in repose”) who is consumed with guilt over something they had done and ultimately feels the need to purge him/herself to absolve their conscience.  Reverend Dimmsdale in “The Scarlet Letter.” *Phew* sometimes it feels better to confess and be honest…. (Congrats on finding this Easter Egg, by the way!) 

For more information on the White Trial, check out this article from the Smithsonian Magazine“A Murder in Salem.”  It gives an in-depth overview of the trial and how both Hawthorne and Poe were influenced by it in their writings.  And, for some fun, quick Halloween reading, a copy of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Sources:
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-murder-in-salem-64885035/?no-ist=&page=1
http://www.eapoe.org/works/mabbott/tom3t002.htm

North of Boston Literary Lexicon

A majority of the American literature canon is comprised of authors who lived in New England – Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few.  With the exceptions of Twain and Stowe, all of the aforementioned authors lived in this very state (Massachusetts, just in case you forgot).  

The 34 cities and towns that comprise the North of Boston region have an especially rich literary history highlighted the following three authors: Anne Bradstreet, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Frost.

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet. Photo from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/anne-bradstreet

“If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee. 
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.”

(To my Dear and Loving Husband)

The first female poet to be published in the United States, Anne Bradstreet resided in the North of Boston for most of her life.  Bradstreet was born in England in 1612 and emigrated to America in 1630 where she landed in what is now Salem.  After residing in Boston and Cambridge for many years, Anne Bradstreet and her family moved northward to Ipswich and North Andover (where she died in 1672).   Her poem, Verses upon the Burning of our House, was written as an ode to the burning of the Bradstreet’s North Andover home:

“Then coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Photo from http://www.pem.org/collections/2-american_art

But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness. . . . The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude!

(The Scarlet Letter (1850))

Salem’s most famous author, Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in the city in 1804.  A descendant of the notorious Judge John Hathorne (one of the lead judges of the Salem Witch Trials), Hawthorne added a “w” to his last name to distance himself from his infamous ancestor.  He died in 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Works such as The Scarlet Letter (1850)  and The Blithedale Romance (1852) have earned Nathaniel Hawthorne a secure spot in literary history but he is probably best-known locally for The House of the Seven Gables (1851), a fictional novel inspired by his cousin’s, Susannah Ingersoll’s, home in Salem.

“[T]hey . . . hinted that he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. . . . The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.”

(The House of the Seven Gables (1851))

The house is now a museum which offers daily tours.  Also on the property, among other historical homes, is the home in which Hawthorne himself was born.  For more information, visit http://www.7gables.org/index.htm

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Robert Frost. Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jb_modern_frost_2_e.jpg

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.”

(“Nothing Gold Can Stay”)

One of the most popular poets of the twentieth century, Robert Frost was born in California, but spent the majority of his life in New England.  A childhood resident of Lawrence, Frost graduated from Lawrence High School in 1892.  He died in 1963 in Boston.

Frost’s contribution to Massachusetts was not only though his poems, many reminiscent of local scenes, but also through his indirect naming of this region – the North of Boston takes its name from Frost’s 1914 poetry collection of the same name.

“My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree 
Toward heaven still. 
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill 
Beside it, and there may be two or three 
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough. 
But I am done with apple-picking now. 
Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off. 
I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight 
I got from looking through a pane of glass 
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough, 
And held against the world of hoary grass. 
It melted, and I let it fall and break. 
But I was well 
Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 
And I could tell 
What form my dreaming was about to take. 
Magnified apples appear and reappear, 
Stem end and blossom end, 
And every fleck of russet showing clear. 
My instep arch not only keeps the ache, 
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. 
And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin 
That rumbling sound 
Of load on load of apples coming in. 
For I have had too much 
Of apple-picking; I am overtired 
Of the great harvest I myself desired. 
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall, 
For all 
That struck the earth, 
No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble, 
Went surely to the cider-apple heap 
As of no worth. 
One can see what will trouble 
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 
Were he not gone, 
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 
Or just some human sleep. “

(“After Apple Picking” from “North of Boston” (1914))