Deliberate Evil: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Webster, and the 1830 Murder of a Salem Slave Trader

Edward J. Renehan Jr. Chicago Review, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-64160-338-6

Renehan (Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt) takes an entertaining look at an 1830 murder case that, while little known today, made national news at the time. On April 6 of that year in Salem, Mass., Capt. Joseph White, an 82-year-old shipping magnate and former slaver, was found in his bed, bludgeoned and stabbed 13 times. Earlier, after White’s grandniece had married his rival’s son, Joe Knapp Jr., he disinherited her and forced his rival into bankruptcy. Ultimately, Joe Jr. and his brother, Frank, were arrested for orchestrating the murder and hiring two locals to do the deed. Frank was tried twice for the murder, the first ending in a hung jury. Daniel Webster was the prosecutor in the second trial, and his summation, considered a masterpiece of modern oratory, persuaded the jury to convict. Frank was hanged, and Nathaniel Hawthorne attended the execution. Joe Jr., who had confessed, was also convicted and hanged. Of the two actual murderers, one died by suicide in the Salem Jail, and the other was acquitted. Renehan argues convincingly that the trial inspired a character in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and influenced several of Edgar Allan Poe’s works. This is a fascinating blend of true crime and American history. (Dec.)
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