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.
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…
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.”