A dark, cloaked figure walks down a brick sidewalk that runs between two houses and trees.


Haunting Histories of Salem, MA

Salem Maritime

If there is one city where you would expect to find stories of witches and ghosts, it would be Salem, Massachusetts. Are you hoping to experience Salem's spooky side? Join us as we explore histories that inspire some of Salem's most haunting tales!


The Murder of Captain Joseph White


[Begin Transcript 00:00:01] Hello everyone and welcome to the pilot of a true crime podcast hosted by me, Tahmoor Chadury, a Latino Heritage intern at Salem Maritime National Historic Site here in Salem, Massachusetts. While Salem is synonymous with witches, today we will be discussing a crime that has not been talked about too much: the gruesome murder of Captain Joseph White. [00:00:22] It was the morning of April 7, 1830. Light was starting to creep into the grand windows of 128 Essex Street, an enormous home owned by Captain Joseph White, a man who made his money through trading. The 82 year old captain lived with his niece, Mary, who doubled as his housekeeper, a servant named Linda, and Benjamin, a relative who also served as a handyman. As was his daily routine, Benjamin arose at 6 A.M. to begin his daily chores. On the ground floor, he noticed that a window was open and a plank was situated adjacent to it. Benjamin knew of the valuables kept in the house so he promptly notified Linda and the two went on up to Mr. White’s room. Once they reached the top of the stairs, the first thing they noticed was that the door was ajar. Upon entering the room they realized that the captain was dead, his body growing cold, and his pajamas soaked with blood. [00:01:17] Stephen White, the captain’s nephew, quickly sent for Dr. Samuel Johnson, a prominent Salem physician. The doctor noted that Joseph’s skull was fractured but that his skin had not been pierced. Thirteen stab wounds in the chest region were also counted, all concluded to be caused by the same weapon, which Johnson said pointed to a single perpetrator. A more complete autopsy was conducted the next day by Dr. Abel Pierson, a colleague of Johnson’s. The two agreed that the skull fracture was due to a single blow by a cane or club and that at least some of the stab wounds were caused by a short dagger. [00:01:52] News of the grisly murder spread like wildfire in Salem and residents began to arm themselves as well as grow more suspicious of their neighbors. A neighborhood watch-esque band of men called the Committee of Vigilance was established in order to extract information from residents who they felt were being especially cagey. However, their efforts were pretty much fruitless and didn’t lead to much. [00:02:12] Those in charge of the investigation were also left clueless about a motive. The iron chest filled with treasures that White kept in his room was left untouched and nothing else seemed out of place in the expansive mansion. This ruled out robbery. Also, while White’s obituary painted him as a kindly old man, the captain had a great many enemies. Years of covert slave trading and wielding his wealth as a weapon had not endeared him to many. Another issue that plagued authorities was the severe lack of evidence. Authorities had no evidence to go off of other than some muddy footprints leading away from the window that was left open. And in a time before fingerprint or DNA technology, investigators were hoping to get lucky. [00:02:56] A little more than a week after the murder, Stephen White received a letter from a jailor in New Bedford, a town on Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay. The letter stated that a petty thief named Hatch, while at a gambling house in February of that year, had overheard two brothers, Richard and George Crowninshield, discussing ways to open Joseph White’s iron chest. Hatch was immediately brought in to testify before a grand jury in Salem and on May 5, Richard was indicted for the murder while George was charged with abetting the crime. Throughout this time, the press’ sensationalist reporting had whipped Salem residents into a frenzy and the murder made headlines across the country. [00:03:25] Curiously, on May 15, another Salem resident, Captain Joseph J. Knapp, Sr. received a seemingly random letter from a Charles Grant in Belfast, Maine extorting him for three hundred and fifty dollars or else he would divulge some key information about Knapp’s dealings on April 2nd. The captain did not know of anybody named Charles Grant from Belfast and the threatening nature of the letter alarmed him enough to go and talk to his sons, Joseph Jr. and John. Following this, Joseph Sr. delivered the letter to the Vigilance Committee, who immediately hatched a plan to catch this “Charles Grant” in the act by forcing him to retrieve a supposed reply to his demand for money. [00:04:13] When a man calling himself Charles Grant arrived at the Belfast post office, he was apprehended and found to be an ex-convict named Palmer. While under severe scrutiny for his potential involvement in Captain White’s murder, Palmer broke down and gave this statement: [00:04:30] “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 John Knapp and Charles Allen, an associate, drive up. The Crowninshield brothers, Knapp, and Allen then went for a walk. Upon their return, George and Richard informed me that John Knapp had asked them to kill Mr. White, and that Joseph Knapp, Jr. would pay $1000 for the job. Several different modes of execution were discussed but it was finally decided to kill him at night when Mrs. Beckford was not home.” [00:05:03] While both Knapp brothers initially denied having any involvement, they broke down under imprisonment, following the testimony of an associate, Joseph Jr., who confessed: [00:05:15] “I knew that Mr. White had made out a will in which he gave my mother-in-law, Mrs. Beckford [Mary], 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 John negotiated with Richard Crowninshield who agreed to do the deed for $1000. 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 John 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 John 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 onto 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 John 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.” [00:07:06] Following this full and lengthy confession, Richard Crowninshield, who had maintained an air of innocence ever since his indictment, collapsed and later committed suicide on June 15. John was then tried as the principal assassin, along with Joseph Jr. and George Crowninshield as accessories to the murder. The esteemed orator Daniel Webster was brought in to help the prosecution and through a series of arguments managed to convince the jury to convict the two brothers. While George Crowninshield was acquitted due to him providing a sufficient alibi, both John and Joseph Jr. were hanged for their involvement in the murder of Captain Joseph White. [00:07:44] And so that ends the tale of a story seldom told. One that influenced writings of similarly brutal narratives written by Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The house where the murder took place is still standing on 128 Essex Street, and is now known as the Gardner Pingree House. [End Transcript 00:08:02]

Who was Joseph White and why was he murdered? Learn about a crime involving Richard and George Crowninshield, relatives of Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby, that inspired the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.