The Study Abroad Murder: Trial of the Century
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The Committee of Vigilance pounced on the letter. The recipient turned out to be John C. The Committee of Vigilance promptly arrested the Knapp brothers and sent them to the Salem Gaol, their cells not far from those occupied by the Crowninshields. At first, Richard Crowninshield exuded a sense of rectitude, certain that he would be found innocent. The confession was given to the Rev.
Henry Colman, an intimate friend of the White family. Colman also had close connections to the Committee of Vigilance, and in this role had promised Joe immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Joseph White of Salem, was dead. But Joe was unaware of this fact. He hid the document in a box he covered with hay and burned the stolen paper the day after the murder.
Joe and Frank had debated how to commit the murder. They considered ambushing White on a road or attacking him in his house. After several meetings, the Knapps and the Crowninshields gathered at the Salem Common at 8 p. The dirk was about five inches long on the blade Four days later, at 10 p.
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The detailed confession pointed to Richard Crowninshield as the principal perpetrator of the deed: he would surely hang. But Richard learned from defense attorney Franklin Dexter that Massachusetts law did not allow the trial of an accessory to a crime unless the principal had first been tried and convicted. Richard must have seen a way to exercise his ingenuity one last time and perhaps save his brother and friends. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it seemed, had been cheated out of an open-and-shut case, unless the state could find a legal basis for putting the other three men on trial.
Newspaper reporters descended on Salem from as far away as New York City—ostensibly with the lofty goal of ensuring that justice be achieved. The prosecution in the White case faced a quandary. So the prosecution turned to Senator Daniel Webster of Boston, the New Hampshire-born lawyer, lawmaker and future secretary of state, perhaps best remembered for his efforts to hammer out compromises between Northern and Southern states that he believed would forestall civil war. Webster, then 48, had served several terms in the House of Representatives before being elected to the U.
Senate in Asked by Stephen White to aid prosecutors at the murder trial, Webster was torn. Throughout his lengthy legal career, he had always stood for the defense. A large part of his reputation rested on his passionate oratory on behalf of the accused.
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On the other hand, if he stood by his friends, the favor would someday be repaid. The accused men had chosen to be tried separately, and the first to come to trial, in August , was Frank Knapp. Interest ran high. Webster argued that Frank was there to give direct aid to the murderer, and was therefore a prime actor. The jury deliberated for 25 hours before announcing they were deadlocked. The judge declared a mistrial.
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The case was scheduled to be retried two days later. The second trial brought debate over the forensic evidence to the fore.
In the first trial, only Dr. Johnson had testified. But this time the prosecution included the formal testimony of Dr. His dissenting opinion on the autopsy—that there possibly had been two assailants—had been widely read in the Salem Gazette.
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Now Peirson was being used as an expert witness in an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the theory that Richard Crowninshield had acted alone in the lethal assault upon Joseph White. In the interim between the two trials, the new jury had been exposed to newspaper accounts of the first hearing, as well as to heavy criticism leveled at the previous jury for its failure to convict. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared. 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 son and grandson of respected sea captains, he was also a descendant of John Hathorne, one of the infamous hanging judges of the witchcraft trials. The family connection both fascinated and repelled the future novelist, and no doubt informed his lifelong interest in crime and inherited guilt.
At the time of the Knapp trial, Hawthorne was writing short fiction for local papers, including the Salem Gazette , which covered the story assiduously. His brother Joseph, tried and convicted in November, met the same fate three months later.
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George Crowninshield, the remaining conspirator, had spent the night of the murder with two ladies of the evening, who provided him with an alibi. After two trials he was acquitted by a now-exhausted court. The two men who had been in the company of George in the gambling house were discharged without trial. Two decades later, Hawthorne found inspiration in the White murder in writing The Scarlet Letter Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. They follow the shadows, in changeful sport, across his unchanging features.
The White murder also left its mark on Edgar Allan Poe, who at the time of the crime was poised to enter the U. Military Academy at West Point which he left after one year by deliberately getting court-martialed for disobedience. Poe scholar T. I admit the deed!
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The spellbinding summation Daniel Webster delivered at the trial was printed as part of an anthology of speeches later that year and sold to an admiring public. Webster died shortly thereafter from an injury resulting from a carriage accident. The autopsy revealed the cause of death to be a brain hemorrhage, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver.
For its part, Salem would become an important center of antislavery activism. Anthony at antislavery conventions. Salemites would make every effort to put the White murder behind them. Even a century after the trial, the town was reluctant to speak of it. You can also tour the inside of the house—a national historic landmark owned by the Peabody Essex Museum—which has been restored to its condition.
I was allowed to inspect it, standing in a cavernous storage room wearing a pair of bright blue examination gloves. The club is gracefully designed and fits easily in the hand. Crime historian E. Wagner is the author of The Science of Sherlock Holmes. Chris Beatrice is a book and magazine illustrator who lives in Massachusetts.
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Awards Frank Lee Smith Innocence Award — For overcoming the unique circumstances of wrongful conviction abroad and becoming a leader within the innocence community.