On May 14, 1830 Joseph Knapp, Sr., of Wenham, Mass., received a letter from Charles Grant of Belfast, Maine, demanding $350. Otherwise, he promised, he would ruin the Knapp family. Joseph asked his son, Joseph, Jr., what the letter meant, and the younger Knapp said it must be someone trying to scam them.
The Knapps decided to ignore the letter. In the meantime, nearby Salem, Mass., was in the grip of fear. Joseph White, a wealthy, elderly sea captain had recently been murdered. Salem consequently established a committee of vigilance to keep the peace and solve the murder.
The committee members decided to find out what was behind the letter. So they sent $50 to Charles Grant, care of the post office, and watched to see who collected the money.
A man named John Palmer showed up at the post office to collect his extortion. He quickly found himself under arrest and in a jam. Prosecutors could charge him with trying to extort money from the Knapps under the phony name of Charles Grant. Or he could tell all he knew of the murder of Capt. Joseph White.
Palmer decided to talk,. He explained to the Salem committee of vigilance that he did in fact know who killed Capt. White and why. Joseph Knapp, the younger, planned the murder.
Few people loved or even liked the obstinate, 82-year-old captain. He had made his living as a sea captain in legitimate trade. But he also traded in slaves, and boasted of it.
Though many of the wealthy families of Massachusetts had made money off the Triangle Trade, it was not viewed as a proper way to earn a fortune.
Capt. White's wife had died, and his niece lived with him and cared for his house. Joseph Knapp, Jr., had married the niece's daughter.
Capt. White had written his niece out of his will when Joseph Knapp, Jr., married into the family. He viewed the young man as a fortune hunter and a ne’er-do-well. Though the Knapps were a good family, the old man’s view of Knapp was spot on.
Capt. White had angered not just Joseph Knapp, but his brother Francis as well. They considering stealing his will and killing him so the old man’s estate would pass to Joseph Knapp’s mother-in-law. Ultimately it would come to Joseph.
Neither Joseph nor Francis had the stomach for killing. But they knew a couple of brothers who did.
The Knapps reached out to Richard Crowninshield and his brother George. Though the Crowninshields were a well-respected old Salem family, Richard and George were scoundrels.
Joseph Knapp promised him $1000 when the estate came down to Knapp. So Richard Crowninshield sneaked in to Captain White’s bedroom late one night and bludgeoned and stabbed the old man to death. Joseph Knapp, Jr., had taken the precaution of stealing the old man’s will days earlier.
The crime seemed perfect.
The residents of Salem couldn't understand why the murderer hadn't taken White’s chest containing many of his valuables, which sat right in the room where he'd been killed. They looked first for evidence of revenge or a quarrel, but no clear picture emerged. But then a convicted prisoner said he had overheard the Crowninshields talking of the murder.
With the Crowninshields arrested, the rest of the story came out when Palmer tried his extortion.
But then Richard Crowninshield hanged himself in prison, creating a problem. Under the law, no one could be convicted of being an accessory to murder if the murderer himself had not been first convicted.
Something else muddled the case against the murderers: The Knapps sent a letter implicating another relative of Capt. Joseph White, Stephen White, a relative of the sea captain’s, in the murder.
Under strain in the Salem jail, Joseph Knapp admitted to everything. His confession included the fact that he and his brother had not, as they thought, stolen the correct will from Capt. White. After the murder, Richard Crowninshield approached them at their Wenham estate, demanding his money regardless.
Had he known the will was in the old man’s bedroom, he told the Knapps, he would have taken it the night of the murder. As it was, he told them, he still expected payment, and soon.
Meanwhile, Stephen White and others feared the murderers would go free on the technicality that Crowninshield had killed himself. White and a group of prominent Salem residents raised funds and persuaded Sen. Daniel Webster to come to Salem and help. Webster, by then a well-established defense attorney and statesman, was to prosecute the crime.
The Knapps were convicted and hanged. Webster’s speech to the jury was so powerful it was published afterwards. And the court expressed its outrage and wonderment that such fine families were involved in so heinous a crime.
“If such events had been set forth in a work of fiction, they would have been considered too absurd and unnatural for public endurance. The story would have been treated as a libel upon Man,” the judge concluded in his order of execution.
“Who would have imagined that young, well educated men, having respectable connections and means of living, could have been found in our cultivated society ready to join in such a fearful conspiracy.
“Who that considers these things will fail to discover an overruling providence, which baffles all human devices and contrivances to conceal great and deadly crimes.”
But the judge was wrong about the story's suitability for fiction. Historian E.J. Wagner in writing about the case found that scholars have concluded that the murder helped shape at least two literary classics: Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale-Heart, which features a confession similar to Joseph Knapp’s, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, which features a long-ago relative who was murdered.
This story about Joseph Knapp was updated in 2018.