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ON THE TRIAL OF JOHN F. KNAPP, FOR THE MURDER OF JOSEPH
WHITE, ESQ. OF SALEM, IN THE COUNTY OF ESSEX, MASSA-
Mr. White, a highly respectable and wealthy citizen of Salem, about eighty years of age, was found on the morning of the 7th of April, 1830, in his bed murdered, under such circumstances as to create a strong sensation in that town, and throughout the community.
Richard Crowninshield, George Crowninshield, Joseph J. Knapp, and John F. Knapp, were a few weeks after arrested on a charge of having perpetrated the murder, and committed for trial. Joseph J. Knapp, soon after, under the promise of favor from government, made a full confession of the crime, and the circumstances attending it. In a few days after this disclosure was made, Richard Crowninshield, who was supposed to have been the principal assassin, committed suicide.
A special session of the Supreme Court was ordered by the Legislature, for the trial of the Prisoners at Salem, in July. At that time, John F. Knapp was indicted as principal in the murder, and George Crowninshield and Joseph J. Knapp as accessories
On account of the death of Chief Justice PARKER, whieh oecurred on the 28th of July, the Court adjourned to Tuesday, the 31 day of August, when it proceeded in the trial of John F. Knapp. 'Joseph J. Knapp, being called upon, refused to testify, and the pledge of the Government was withdrawn.
At the request of the prosecuting officers of the Government, Mr. WEBSTER appeared as counsel and assisted in the trial.
Mr. DEXTER addressed the Jury on behalf of the Prisoner, and was succeeded by Mr. WEBSTER, in the following Specch-
I am little accustomed, gentlemen, to the part which I am now attempting to perform. Hardly more than once or twice, has it happened to me to be concerned, on the side of the government, in any criminal prosecution whatever; and never, until the present occasion, in any case affecting life.
But I very much regret that it should have been thought necessary to suggest to you, that I am brought here to “ hurry you against the law, and beyond the evidence.” I hope I have too much regard for justice, and too much respect for my own character, to attempt either; and were I to make such attempt, I am sure, that in this court, nothing can be carried against the law, and that gentlemen, intelligent and just as you are, are not, by any power, to be hurried beyond the evidence. Though I could well have wished to shun
this occasion, I have not felt at liberty to withhold my professional assistance, when it is supposed that I might be in some degree useful, in investigating and discovering the truth, respecting this most extraordinary murder. It has seemed to be a duty, incumbent on me, as on every other citizen, to do my best, and my utmost, to bring to light the perpetrators of this crime. Against the prisoner at the bar, as an individual, I cannot have the slightest prejudice. I would not do him the smallest injury or injustice. But I do not affect to be indifferent to the discovery, and the punishment of this deep guilt. I cheerfully share in the opprobrium, how much soever it may be, which is cast on those who feel and manifest an anxious concern that all who had a part in planning, or a hand in executing this deed of midnight assassination, may be brought to answer for their enormous crime, at the bar of public justice. Gentlemen, it is a most extraordinary case. In some respects, it has hardly a precedent anywhere; certainly none in our New England history. This bloody drama exhibited no suddenly excited ungovernable rage. The actors in it were not surprised by any lion-like temptation springing upon their virtue, and overcoming it, before resistance could begin. Nor did they do the deed to glut savage vengeance, or satiate long settled and deadly hate. It was a cool, calculating, money-making murder. It was all“ hire and salary, not revenge. It was the weighing of money against life; the counting out of so many pieces of silver, against so many ounces of blood.
An aged man, without an enemy in the world, in his own house, and in his own bed, is made the victim of a butcherly murder, for mere pay.-Truly, here is a new lesson for painters and poets. Whoever shall hereafter draw the portrait of murder, if he will show it as it has been exhibited in an example, where such example was last to have been looked for, in the very bosom of our New England society, let him not give it the grim visage of Moloch, the brow knitted by revenge, the face black with settled hate, and the bloodshot eye emitting livid fires of malice. Let him draw, rather, a decorous, smoothfaced, bloodless demon; a picture in repose,
rather than in action; not so much an example of human nature, in its depravity, and in its paroxysms of crime, as an infernal nature, a fiend, in the ordinary display and developement of his character.
The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness, equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances, now clearly in evidence, spread out the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment.— 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 roɔm was uncommonly open to the admission of light. The face of the innocent sleeper was turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon, resting on the gray locks of his aged temple,
showed him where to strike. The fatal blow is given! and the victim passes, without a struggle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death! It is the assassin's purpose to make sure work; and he yet plies the dagger, though it was obvious that life had been destroyed by the blow of the bludgeon.—He even raises the aged arm, that he may not fail in his aim at the heart, and replaces it again over the wounds of the poniard! To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse! He feels for it, and ascertains that it beats no longer! It is accomplished. The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window, passes out through it as he came in, and escapes. He has done the murder—no eye has seen him, no
has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe! Ah! gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner, where the guilty can bestow it, and say it is safe. Not to speak of that eye which glances through all disguises, and beholds everything, as in the splendor of noon,—such secrets of guilt are never safe from detection, even by men. True it is, generally speaking, that “murder will out." True it is, that Providence hath so ordained, and doth so govern things, that those who break the great law of heaven, by shedding man's blood, seldom succeed in avoiding discovery. Especially, in a case exciting so much attention as this, discovery must come, and will come, sooner or later. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, everything, every circumstance, connected with the time and place; a thousand ears ·catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slightest circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime, the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or rather it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labors under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torment, which it dares not acknowledge to God nor man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance, either from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him; and, like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions, from without, begin to embarrass him, and the net of circumstance to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed, it will be confessed, there is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.
Much has been said, on this occasion, of the excitement which has existed, and still exists, and of the extraordinary measures taken to discover and punish the guilty. No doubt there has been, and is, much excitement, and strange indeed were it, had it been otherwise. Should not all the peaceable and well disposed naturally feel con
cerned, and naturally exert themselves
to bring to punishment the authors of this secret assassination? Was it a thing to be slept upon or forgotten? Did you, gentlemen, sleep quite as quietly in your beds after this murder as before? Was it not a case for rewards, for meetings, for committees, for the united efforts of all the good. to find out a band of murderous conspirators, of midnight ruffians, and to bring them to the bar of justice and law? If this be excitement, is it an unnatural, or an improper excitement? • It seems to me, gentlemen, that there are appearances of another feeling, of a very different nature and character, not very extensive I would hope, but still there is too much evidence of its existence. Such is human nature, that some persons lose their abhorrence of crime, in their admiration of its magnificent exhibitions. Ordinary vice is reprobated by them, but extraordinary guilt, exquisite wickedness, the high flights and poetry of crime, seize on the imagination, and lead them to forget the depths of the guilt, in admiration of the excellence of the performance, or the unequalled atrocity of the purpose. There are those in our day, who have made great use of this infirmity of our nature; and by means of it done infinite injury to the cause of good morals. They have affected not only the taste, but I fear also the principles, of the young, the heedless, and the imaginative, by the exhibition of interesting and beautiful monsters. They render depravity attractive, sometimes by the polish of its manners, and sometimes by its very extravagance; and study to show off crime under all the advantages of cleverness and dexterity. Gentlemen, this is an extraordinary murder—but it is still a murder. We are not to lose ourselves in wonder at its origin, or in gazing on its cool and skilful execution. We are to detect and to punish it; and while we proceed with caution against the prisoner, and are to be sure that we do not visit on his head the offences of others, we are yet to consider that we are dealing with a case of most atrocious crime, which has not the slightest circumstance about it to soften its enormity. It is murder, deliberate, concerted, malicious murder.
Although the interest in this case may have diminished by the repeated investigation of the facts; still, the additional labor which it imposes upon all concerned is not to be regretted, if it should result in removing all doubts of the guilt of the prisoner,
The learned counsel for the prisoner has said truly, that it is your individual duty to judge the prisoner,—that it is your individual duty to determine his guilt or innocence--and that you are to weigh the testimony with candor and fairness. But much at the same time has been said, which, although it would seem to have no distinct bearing on the trial, cannot be passed over without some notice.
A tone of complaint so peculiar has been indulged, as would almost lead us to doubt whether the prisoner at the bar, or the managers of this prosecution, are now on trial. Great pains have been taken to complain of the manner of the prosecution. We hear of getting up a case; -of setting in motion trains of machinery ;-of foul testimony; of combinations to overwhelm the prisoner;—of private prosecutors;—that the prisoner is hunted, persecuted, driven to his trial;—that everybody is against him;-and various other com
plaints, as if those who would bring to punishment the authors of this murder were almost as bad as they who committed it.
In the course of my whole life, I have never heard before, so much said about the particular counsel who happen to be employed; as if it were extraordinary, that other counsel than the usual officers of the government should be assisting in the conducting of a case on the part of the government. In one of the last capital trials in this county, that of Jackman for “the Goodridge robbery,” (so called,) I remember that the learned head of the Suffolk Bar, Mr. Prescott, came down in aid of the officers of the government. This was regarded as neither strange nor improper. The counsel for the prisoner, in that case, contented themselves with answering his arguments, as far as they were able, instead of carping at his presence.
Complaint is made that rewards were offered, in this case, and temptations held out to obtain testimony. Are not rewards always offered, when great and secret offences are committed ? Rewards were offered in the case to which I have alluded; and every other means taken to discover the offenders, that ingenuity, or the most persevering vigilance could suggest. The learned counsel have suffered their zeal to lead them into a strain of complaint, at the manner in which the perpetrators of this crime were detected, almost indicating that they regard it as a positive injury, to them, to have found out their guilt. Since no man witnessed it, since they do not now consess it, attempts to discover it are half esteemed as officious intermeddling, and impertinent inquiry.
It is said, that here even a committee of vigilance was appointed. This is a subject of reiterated remark. This committee are pointed at, as though they had been ofliciously intermeddling with the administration of justice. They are said to have been “aboring for months” against the prisoner. Gentlemen, what must we do in such a case? Are people to be dumb and still, through fear of overdoing? Is it come to this, that an effort cannot be made, a hand cannot be listed to discover the guilty, without its being said, there is a combination to overwhelm innocence? Has the community lost all moral sense? Certainly, a community that would not be roused to action, upon an occasion such as this was, a community which should not deny sleep to their eyes, and slumber to their eyelids, till they had exhausted all the means of discovery and detection, must, indeed, be lost to all moral sense, and would scarcely deserve protection from the laws. The learned counsel have endeavoured to persuade you, that there exists a prejudice against the persons accused of this murder. They would have you understand that it is not confined to this vicinity alone;-but that even the Legislature have caught this spirit. That through the procurement of the gentleman, here styled private prosecutor, who is a member of the Senate, a special session of this court was appointed for the trial of these offenders. That the ordinary movements of the wheels of justice were too slow for the purposes devised.—But does not everybody see and know that it was matter of absolute necessity to have a special session of the court? When, or how could the prisoners have been tried without a special session? In the ordinary arrange