Captain Joseph White

While Salem, Massachusetts is most remembered for being the setting of the witch trials of 1692-1693 – less known is its role in a more obscure murder/trial – that of Captain Joseph White. An important event in the town’s history, it also led to significant changes in Massachusetts law.

At the time of Captain White’s murder in April, 1830, Salem Massachusetts was one of the largest ports in the United States. The town’s maritime trade was booming and had endowed Salem merchants with a great deal of wealth. Here is an example:

“E. Hasket Derby, of Salem, Massachusetts, was America’s first millionaire. As a pioneer of his nation’s commerce with the Orient, he accumulated property on a scale so vast that at his death in 1799, he was the wealthiest man on earth; and to this day he remains one of ‘the seventy-five richest people in human history,’ rated at 31.4 billion in adjusted net worth”

Death of an Empire, page xi

Captain Joseph White was one such citizen. He had made a large fortune in maritime trade – and according to the Diary of Reverend William Bentley, some of that wealth he accumulated via participation in the slave trade.

“May 29: News of the death of Captain William Fairfield, who commanded the Schooner which sailed in Capt. Jo White’s employ in the African Slave Trade. He was killed by negroes on board”

Diary of Reverend William Bentley, Vol. 1, p. 123

In the year of his death, Captain White was eighty-two years old had retired from this lucrative career; his adopted son, Stephen White, maintained the family’s wealth.

Figure Portrait of Captain Joseph White, Peabody Essex Museum #2987

On November 6th, 1827 Mary White Beckford, a favorite niece of Captain White, married Joseph Jenkins Knapp, Jr. against her uncle’s consent. Captain White felt that Joseph Knapp, Jr. was a fortune hunter. When Mary married him anyway, Captain White disinherited her. This decision set in motion all that was to follow.

Joseph Knapp came to believe that if he caused Captain White to die without a living will, his wife would inherit half of Captain White’s fortune. However, if he did nothing, his wife would be subject to Captain White’s wishes. Due to the offence they had given him by marrying – Joseph Knapp took matters into his own hands.

One must understand a little about estate law to see why Joseph believed this to be true. By 1830, Captain White had five potential heirs – all children of his siblings. His brother, Henry, had four children and his sister, Mary, had only one (Joseph Knapp’s wife). There were two ways to inherit the estate of a relative if there is no living will for the deceased: per stirpes (meaning “by branch”) and per capita (meaning “by the head”).

Per capita means the estate is divided amongst all those equally related to the decedent, each taking an equal share without regard to the number of lines of descent. Therefore, if Captain White’s fortune was divided per capita, each niece/nephew receives an equal 1/5 of the total fortune.

Alternatively, per stirpes means the estate is divided equally to each branch of the family. If Captain White’s fortune was divided per stirpes, the children of Captain White’s siblings inherit the portion of his fortune that their parent would have been entitled to. In other words, Mary White’s offspring would receive 50% and Henry’s would receive the other 50%. Since Mary had only one living child – Joseph’s wife – 50% of the fortune would go directly to him.

Massachusetts, as a rule, used per stirpes to settle estate issues. It appears that Joseph knew this. However, it seems he was unaware of an exception to the rule:

“If all those entitled to share bore the same degree of kindred to the deceased, they were to take equally. This was the situation in the present case. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Joseph had been aware of the general rule but not of the exception”

Walker Lewis, The Murder of Captain Joseph White: Salem, Massachusetts, 1830. p. 462

With this motive to commit murder, Joseph approached his brother, Francis, to help him plan it. Richard Crowninshield, a member of another powerful and wealthy Salem family, had been a violent presence in Essex County for years. The Knapp brothers approached him with their plan and Richard agreed to commit the murder. Days before the murder, Joseph Knapp, Jr. went into Captain White’s bedchamber and found a written will. Believing this to be the current will and the only extant copy, he stole it and unlatched a window on the ground floor of the White mansion. He had successfully destroyed the will, the next step was to deprive Captain White of life.

Crowninshield entered the White mansion through the window to the left of this door.

Late on April 6, 1830, Richard Crowninshield met with the Knapp brothers outside of the White mansion. The Knapp brothers stayed outside as lookouts while Richard Crowninshield entered the mansion through the unlatched window (seen above) and committed the murder. He hit Captain White over the head with a lead-encased bludgeon (seen below), and then stabbed him repeatedly in the heart with a long dirk. He exited the mansion and the Knapp brothers helped him get away unseen.

A newspaper drawing of the murder weapon. The murder weapon is stored at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. But it is not on display.

In truth, the will that Joseph Knapp had stolen was not the most up to date will. Even if it had been, as previously mentioned, his assumption about the prevailing rules of estate law had been incorrect. So Captain White had been murdered and Joseph Knapp hadn’t even secured the goal he had sought out. However, although it didn’t happen right away, Joseph Knapp would inherit even bigger problems. The law was going to catch up with him.

What follows is an incredibly well documented search for the murderer(s), documentation of the trials, and the executions that followed. It is possible for an interested party to search the 1830 Salem newspapers and study how this event/its aftermath unfolded step-by-step. Not all historical events are so rich with primary source material. Reviewing these articles also becomes a case study on the nature of how the media and the general public relate to one another.

Immediately, Stephen White offered a $1,000 reward and later a $500 reward was offered by Salem selectmen. Stephen White then approved the publication of autopsy details in The Salem Gazette on April 13, 1830. No detail, no matter how graphic, is omitted:

“…a fracture of the skull bone was discovered…the largest diameter of which was 3 ½ inches…this portion of bone was depressed below the level of the surrounding skull and was somewhat loose and moveable…on examining the heart there were found at its apex 2 wounds…also a little nearer the base of the heart were two long slits…the slits were found connected with the perforations and were evidently produced by the same blows…the posterior and inferior portion of the left lung was likewise perforated in several places”

Apart from the dissemination of factual information there are many articles concerning moral outrage and confusion. On April 9, 1830 the Salem Gazette writes the following:

“The painful duty devolves upon us of announcing that in our peaceful town, which we had hitherto believed to be secure from the midnight assassin, and those crimes of the deepest die which have occasionally stained the annals of European nations, and of some parts of our own country, a MURDER has been perpetrated so horrible and atrocious, that we should in vain search the records of crime in any country for a case exceeding it in enormity…The single purpose of the perpetrator seems to have been the taking of life. No money, and nothing of value, was either taken or sought for, though many valuable articles and a roleau of doubloons were in the chamber.”

At this point, the provocative and inflammatory nature of the media’s relationship to the public becomes evident. News facts are not presented, but commentary on the event is plentiful. The next day, April 10, 1830, the Salem Observer wrote of the climate this created in Salem:

“The deceased was one of our most aged citizens. He was quietly reposing in his bed. The chamber, where he slept, fronted our principal street, which is traversed, at night, by persons living in, or passing through the town…So deep and so general has been the paralyzing effect, produced by this murder, that the usual business of our citizens has been almost entirely suspended. At every corner of our streets, may still be seen groups of people catching the latest rumor, and spreading the innumerable conjectures, which have been formed to explain the mystery in which the transaction continues to be wrapped. The imagination of every one is busy, not only devising possible ways in which the assassin proceeded to execute his hellish purpose, but also in framing adequate motives for his conduct. “

For months it was uncertain who had committed the murder. The community’s panic and fear allowed for the creation of a “Committee of Vigilance” which consisted of 27 members who operated as a neighborhood watch. The committee was sanctioned to search houses without the need of a warrant. This is in direct opposition to the fourth amendment of the Constitution which reads:

“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

However, the public of Salem apparently was unconcerned about the ominous implications of this decision. After the capture of potential suspects in early May of 1830, the Salem Gazette ran an article which stated,

“The public owe a large debt of gratitude to the Committee of Vigilance, for the secrecy, prudence and zeal, with which they have labored to elucidate this horrible mystery. With an energy that has never tired, with a boldness that has never shrunk, and with a sagacity not to be misled, they have pursued their toilsome duties to this result [the capture of suspects]. However the case may terminate, of the individuals now in confinement, it will be allowed by all, that the committee have done every thing that such a body could do, and more than was thought possible at the time of their appointment.”

Online Sources

Salem Links & Lore

The Ballad of Joseph White

A Murder in Salem.” Wagner, E.J. Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 2010.

Lewis, Walker. “The Murder of Captain Joseph White: Salem, Massachusetts, 1830” American Bar Association Journal 54. (May 1968): 460-466. Print.

Available @ the Salem Public Library (Non-fiction Books):

Ghosts of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City. (2014) Baltrusis, Sam

Trials of Capt. Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. and George Crowninshield, Esq. For the Murder of Capt. Joseph White, of Salem. On the Night of the Sixth of April, 1830. (IN LIBRARY USE ONLY)

Murder and Mayhem in Essex County. (2011) Wilhelm, Robert.

The Bloody Century: True Tales of Murder in 19th Century America. (2014) Wilhelm, Robert.

Death of an Empire : the Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City. (2011) Booth, Robert.

Diary of William Bentley, Volume 1 April 1784 – December, 1792. (1905) Bentley, William.

  Available @ the Salem Public Library (Fictional Stories Inspired By the Murder):

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  A Collection of Stories New York, Tor. 1992. pp. 156-161.

The Scarlet Letter : A Romance.  Hawthorne, Nathaniel.

The House of Seven Gables. Hawthorne, Nathaniel.

Available @ Other Libraries:

Trial and Conviction of John Francis Knapp as Principal in the Second Degree for the Murder of Capt. Joseph White: Before the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, At a Special Session, Commenced at Salem, July 30, 1830. *

*Available for in library use only at Montserrat Library in Beverly, MA.

A report of the evidence and points of law, arising in the trial of John Francis Knapp, for the murder of Joseph White, Esquire : before the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts : together with the charge of His Honor Chief Justice Parker, to the grand jury, at the opening of the court

*Available for in library use only at Peabody Main Branch Library.

Burt, Olive Woolley, ed. American Murder Ballads and Their Stories. NY: Oxford University  Press, 1958. 87-89.  Print. Available at the Worcester Public LibraryPlease ask our reference department if you’re interested in procuring this book.