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Those facts alone proved an irresistible magnet to a crime historian like me. But the setting—gloomy, staid Salem, where in the s nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft and hanged—endowed the murder case with another layer of gothic intrigue.
Ward made note of the plank at the open window, and near it he discovered two muddy footprints he believed had been made by the intruder. Decades before footprints were generally recognized as important evidence, Ward carefully covered them with a milk pan to shield them from the fine mist that had begun to fall. Meanwhile, Dr. Though the wounds had oozed, there was no sign of spurting or spraying blood. Johnson interpreted this to mean that the blow to the head had come first, either killing White or stunning him, thereby slowing his circulation.
Uncertain as to which of the many wounds was fatal, Johnson believed that a more complete autopsy was necessary. This was performed on April 8, at in the evening. Abel Peirson, a medical colleague, assisted Johnson.
A Murder in Salem
A second post-mortem as thorough as this one was unusual in early 19th- century criminal investigations. In , forensic science was still largely a footnote in legal and medical texts. But thanks to increasingly rigorous anatomical studies in medical schools, there had been progress in identifying murder instruments based upon the nature of the wounds and determining which had been the most likely cause of death.
The surgeons agreed that the skull fracture was due to a single severe blow from a cane or bludgeon, and that at least some of the chest wounds were caused by a dirk short dagger , the cross-guard of which had struck the ribs with enough force to break them. Stephen White gave the Salem Gazette permission to publish the autopsy findings.
The possibility that more than one assailant might have been involved and that a conspiracy might be afoot fueled unease. Salem residents armed themselves with knives, cutlasses, pistols and watchdogs, and the sound of new locks and bolts being hammered in place was everywhere. Longtime friends grew wary of each other. Town fathers attempted to calm matters by organizing a voluntary watch and appointing a man Committee of Vigilance.
But the investigation went nowhere; the committee was confronted with a scenario of too many suspects and too little evidence. No one had made plaster casts of the incriminating footprints that Ward had carefully covered the morning of the murder. By , scientists and sculptors were using plaster casts for preserving fossil specimens, studying human anatomy and recreating famous sculptures—but the technique was not yet de rigueur in criminal investigations.
But revenge was not out of the question. A bit of a domestic tyrant, he was given to changing his will at a whim and using his large fortune as a weapon to enforce his wishes. When his pretty young grandniece Mary announced her engagement to Joe Knapp, the old man declared Joe a fortune hunter, and when the marriage went forward without his consent, White disinherited Mary and fired Knapp.
The ownership of slaves was abolished in Massachusetts in and the slave trade outlawed five years later. Joseph White was one of the owners of the Felicity. But many had sailed from Salem laden with tools and trinkets, to be traded in Africa for human cargo. Manacled and cramped into ghastly holds, many of the captives did not survive the voyage.
Those who did were traded in the Caribbean for gold—enough to buy property, build a mansion and fill an iron chest. There was an understanding in Salem society that this shameful business was best not spoken of, particularly in Massachusetts, where antislavery sentiments ran high. Felt wrote in A little more than a week after the murder, Stephen White received a letter from a jailer 70 miles away in New Bedford. The letter said an inmate named Hatch, a petty thief, claimed he had crucial information.
The Crowninshield brothers were the disreputable scions of an eminent Salem family. On May 5, , the jury indicted Richard Crowninshield for murder.
His brother George—and two other men who were in his company at the gambling house—were charged with abetting the crime. All were detained in the Salem Gaol, a grim edifice of granite blocks, iron-barred windows and brick-walled cells. Then, on May 14, Joseph Knapp Sr. The senior Knapp could make no sense of the matter and asked his son for advice.
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. 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. In the Shadow of the Moon Original. In the Tall Grass Original. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
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