A brutal crime in Salem, Massachusetts inspired author Edgar Allan Poe to write his famous psychological murder mystery, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” On the evening of April 6, 1830, the murder of 82-year-old Captain Joseph White, a wealthy retired shipmaster and trader, shocked the residents of the small town of Salem.
White lived in a distinguished landmark house in Salem with Benjamin White, a distant relative and house handyman; Lydia Kimball, a domestic servant; and Mary Beckford, his housekeeper niece. Mrs. Beckford’s daughter, also named Mary, lived a short distance away in the town of Wenham and was married to Captain White's grandnephew, Joseph J. Knapp.
Captain White had recently told Mrs. Beckford that he had changed his will, which was not a surprise. The captain was not a beloved elderly family member. He was a tyrant to his family, given to changing his will and using the prospect of inheriting his large fortune as a weapon to keep family members in line. He despised Joseph Knapp, who had worked for him, labeling him a “lazy, cowardly, fortune hunter.” When his young grandniece Mary married Knapp without White’s consent, she was disinherited and Knapp was fired from his position.
This angered Joseph Knapp, who had expected a sizable amount of money on the death of his great uncle, which he hoped would be sooner than later as he was in a great deal of debt. However, he concluded that if the will was stolen and the captain died intestate, Mary Joseph would inherit almost all of his fortune.
In conjunction with his brother John Francis Knapp, they hired local criminal Richard Crowninshield—a man known for his violence—to murder Captain White. The murder was planned for the night of April 6, 1830 since Joseph knew Mrs. Beckford would be staying with her daughter in Wenham and both Mary Kimball and Benjamin White had the night off.
Because of his mother-in-law, Joseph had easy access to Captain White’s home. He entered the house, stole a newly completed will, and exited, leaving the back parlor window unlatched.
That night, Joseph and John Knapp waited outside as Richard Crowninshield entered the house through the window. Going to the bedroom where Captain White was sleeping, he struck him on the head with a heavy club, fracturing his skull. He then proceeded to stab him thirteen times with a long dagger, known as a dirk.
The mystery of the murder remained unsolved until a series of events led to a scheme to blackmail the father of the Knapp brothers concerning the murder. It seems the Knapp brothers' plot to kill White, and their exchange of money to Crowninshield to commit the act, had been discovered by a petty criminal who testified for the prosecution.
The brothers Knapp and Richard Crowninshield probably would have gotten away with the murder had they not the misfortune of being prosecuted by the great Daniel Webster. His oratory and mesmerizing manner of speaking in describing this “horrific crime against an old man by (those) self-possessed and with utter coolness” sealed their fate.
Many Poe scholars believe that Edgar Allan Poe relied heavily on Webster’s courtroom summation in writing “The Tell-Tale Heart,” most especially shown in the slow, dramatic, and deliberate speech of the narrator of Poe’s classic story.
Fictional murder mysteries are often based on real murders, written with a certain twist from the author to make it their own. Poe’s fascination with death and murder was heavily nourished through the his readings concerning actual, brutal crimes.
Kristen Houghton is the author of nine top-selling novels, including For I Have Sinned and Grave Misgivings. She is hard at work on a new series that features a paranormal investigator with distinct powers of her own. Houghton is also the author of two non-fiction books and numerous short stories which appear in popular horror anthologies