John Francis Knapp And Joseph Jenkins Knapp Trials: 1830
Defendants: John Francis Knapp and Joseph
Crimes Charged: Accessories to murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: F.Dexter and W.H. Gardiner
Chief Prosecutor: Daniel Webster
Judges: Marcus Morton, Samuel Putnam, and Samuel S. Wilde
Place: Salem, Massachusetts
Dates of Trials: July Term, 1830 for John Francis Knapp;
November Term, 1830 for Joseph Jenkins Knapp
Verdicts: Guilty, both trials
Sentences: Death by hanging, both trials
SIGNIFICANCE: In this prosecution of the
Knapps by the famous lawyer Daniel Webster, the actual murderer was a
hired assassin named Richard Crowninshield, who committed suicide
before the Knapps went to trial. Due to Webster's eloquence, this
became one of the first cases in which accessories to murder were
tried, convicted and executed even though the actual murderer was
Brothers John Francis Knapp (who went by his middle
name) and Joseph Jenkins Knapp had a wealthy uncle, Captain Joseph
White, who lived in Salem, Massachusetts. Captain White was 82 years
old, an extraordinary age for that time, but the Knapps were impatient
to receive their anticipated inheritance and decided that they
couldn't wait for the old man to die naturally. The Knapps hired a hit
man, 28-year-old Richard Crowninshield, to murder Captain White.
On the night of April 6, 1830, Crowninshield
quietly broke into Captain White's house and went into the bedroom
where the old man was asleep. While Francis and Joseph Knapp waited in
the street outside, approximately 300 feet away, Crowninshield clubbed
and stabbed Captain White to death. With the Knapp brothers' help,
Crowninshield fled the house without being seen.
For a while it seemed as if the Knapps' scheme had
succeeded. The citizens of Salem were outraged by the brutal murder of
the prominent Captain White and formed a Committee of Vigilance to
search for the killer. After two months of searching, however, the
Committee had gotten nowhere. Then, the police in New Bedford arrested
a pickpocket, who testified before a grand jury that he was a friend
of Crowninshield and that Crowninshield had told him that he killed
Trail Leads to Knapps
Crowninshield was promptly arrested, but he kept quiet since he could
not implicate Francis or Joseph Knapp without confessing to his role
in the murder. Unfortunately, Crowninshield had told another one of
his criminal acquaintances, John Palmer, about the Knapps' involvement.
Palmer wrote a blackmail letter to the Knapps, but it was received
instead by the Knapps' father. The elder Knapp turned the letter over
to the police, who arrested the Knapp brothers. After Joseph Knapp
confessed, Crowninshield realized that no hope was left and hung
himself in his prison cell.
To prosecute the Knapps, the Massachusetts attorney
general used the distinguished Daniel Webster. Born in 1782, Webster
had practiced law in New Hampshire for a while before coming to
Boston, which he would eventually leave for service in the federal
government. Like many attorneys in private practice at the time,
Webster occasionally worked for the state as a prosecutor.
The Knapps were charged with being accessories to
murder. Both Francis and Joseph Knapp were to be tried before the
Salem division of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The judges
were Marcus Morton, Samuel Putnam, and Samuel S. Wilde. For their
defense, the Knapps were represented by F. Dexter and W.H. Gardiner.
Francis Knapp was to be tried first, and the most important issues
would be addressed in his trial.
Francis Knapp's trial was set for the court's 1830
July Term. Webster knew that his biggest difficulty lay in the fact
that Richard Crowninshield, the actual murderer, had committed suicide
before he could be tried and convicted. Under the ancient common law
of England, which was the primary influence on the legal principles of
all American states, accessories to murder could not be convicted
unless (1) the actual murderer had been convicted, or (2) the
accessories had been present at the time of the murder. Crowninshield
was dead, and the Knapps had been 300 feet away in the street at the
time of the murder.
Like every good prosecutor, Webster laid the
foundation for his case by appealing to the jury's emotions. He
described Captain White, who had gone to sleep on the night of the
murder unaware of his nephews' plot.
"A healthful old man to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers
of the night held him in their strong embrace."
Webster went on to portray Crowninshield's stolen entry into White's
"With noiseless feet he paces the lonely hall half lighted by the moon;
he winds up the ascent of the stairs … beholds his victim before him …
the moon resting on the grey locks of this aged victim shows him where
As to Crowninshield's suicide, Webster assured the jury that divine
justice was punishing Crowninshield's soul:
"A vulture is devouring it.… It can ask no sympathy from Heaven or
Dexter and Gardiner tried to keep the focus of the trial on the fact
that Webster had not satisfied the legal requirements for conviction:
"Upon this evidence the prisoner cannot be convicted as a principal in
the murder. A principal in the second degree, according to the law of
England, is by our statutes an accessory before the fact, and cannot
be tried until there has been a conviction of the principal."
Verdict Hangs On Legal Definition
Webster, however, raised the question of whether Francis and Joseph
Knapp could be legally considered as "present" during the murder so
that they could be convicted. True, the Knapps had been 300 feet away
in the street, but they had been there to help Crowninshield:
"To constitute a presence, it is sufficient if the accomplice is in a
place, either where he may render aid to the perpetrator of the felony,
or where the perpetrator supposes he may render aid. If they selected
the place to afford assistance, whether it was well or ill chosen for
that purpose is immaterial."
"The perpetrator would derive courage and confidence from the
knowledge that his associate was in the place appointed."
Webster's definition of presence would include Francis Knapp and, by
implication, ultimately anyone involved in a murder who had come near
enough to the scene of the crime to be considered "aiding and abetting"
the actual murderer. Dexter argued strenuously for a conservative
approach, that only physical presence at a murder could mean legal
presence. According to Dexter, Francis Knapp would have to have been
in Captain White's bedroom with Crowninshield to be considered present
and found guilty:
"To make a man a principal by aiding and abetting in a felony, he must
be in such a situation at the moment when the crime is committed, that
he can render actual and immediate assistance to the perpetrator; and
that he must be there by agreement, and with the intent to render such
Faced with these powerful but opposing legal arguments, the jury at
first could not reach a verdict, but ultimately it found Francis Knapp
guilty by the close of the July Term. Knapp was going to hang, and now
it was his brother Joseph's turn to be tried.
Joseph Knapp's trial took place during the Court's November Term of
1830. Joseph Knapp had testified against Crowninshield at the
arraignment, but he refused to testify against his brother Francis at
his trial. Therefore, the state dropped its earlier promise to give
Joseph Knapp immunity and put him before Webster to be prosecuted.
Dexter and Gardiner had lost the debate over the legal definition of
presence at Francis Knapp's trial, so in Joseph Knapp's trial, they
shifted their attack to whether the Knapps had been close enough to
aid and abet Crowninshield. The trial record states:
"The prisoner's counsel now offered evidence in regard to the place at
which the principal … was stationed during the perpetration of the
murder, their object being to show that in that situation it was
impossible for him to aid and abet the person who was actually
striking the blow."
The jury rejected Dexter and Gardiner's last-ditch attempt to save
Joseph Knapp, however, and by the close of the November Term found him
Francis and Joseph Knapp went to the gallows. Having successfully
convicted them of murder, the state of Massachusetts also tried and
convicted George Crowninshield, a brother of Richard's who had a minor
role in the whole affair, of aiding and abetting Captain White's
The whole Francis and Joseph Knapp affair would have gone down in
history as a typical sordid murder if it had not been for Daniel
Webster's eloquence. Webster persuaded the judges and the jury to
expand the boundaries of an accessory's liability for murder. Once
thus expanded, the old common law restrictions that would have
prevented guilty men such as Francis and Joseph Knapp from being
brought to justice were, over time, eventually swept away.
—Stephen G. Chtistianson