The November 2010 issue of Smithsonian magazine, available online, has a feature article, “A Murder in Salem” by E.J. Wagner, on the notorious 1830 murder-for-hire of Captain Joseph White in Salem, Massachusetts and the several trials of its alleged perpetrators. The case spawned a slew of pamphlets and broadsides, and is cited as an inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (Thanks to PhiloBiblos, the blog of my colleague Jeremy Dibell, for bringing the article to my attention.)
Earlier this year the Rare Book Collection more than doubled its holdings on the Joseph White case with the acquisition of a collection formed by the Hon. Raymond S. Wilkins (1891-1972), a Salem native who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts from 1956 to 1970. As a result, we now have ten of the twelve items on the White case listed in McDade’s Annals of Murder, and eleven of the fifteen items in Morris Cohen’s Bibliography of Early American Law (BEAL). Six of the titles in Wilkins’ collection are not in either McDade or BEAL:
- Wild achievements and romantic voyages of Captain John Francis Knapp, (one of the Salem murderers) while commander of the ship General Endicott: with an account of his seeing the celebrated Magellan clouds, and visit to Buonaparte on St. Helena / by his supercargo (Boston, 1830).
- Two different editions of Henry C. Wright’s Dick Crowninshield, the assassin, and Zachary Taylor, the soldier: the difference between them (1848): an edition published at Hopedale, Mass. by the Non-Resistant and Practical Christian Office (with the name misspelled “Crowningshield”), and another dated in type at the end, “Framingham, Railway Station, Friday, Jan. 24, 1848”.
- Explanation, or, Eighteen hundred and thirty: being a series of facts connected with the life of the author, from eighteen hundred and twenty-five to the present day (Boston, 1831) by John C.R. Palmer, Jr., who was acquainted with the accused.
- The August 28, 1830 issue of the Brattleboro (Vt.) Messenger, containing a lengthy account of the Knapp trial.
- A broadside, Murder of Joseph White: the following lines were written on the death of Mr. Joseph White of Salem, who was found murdered in his bed on the morning of the 7th April 1830, aged 82 years (Boston, ca. 1830), accompanied by a contemporary manuscript transcription that supplies text missing from the torn broadside.
In addition, there is a collection of 26 letters, clippings, and other ephemera on the Joseph White case collected by Wilkins, some of it dealing with Wilkins’ unsuccessful effort to get a book on the case published by the Harvard University Press.
You can view the records for most of the Joseph White items by searching our online catalog, Morris, for the subject “White, Joseph, 1747 or 8-1830”.
Altogether, the collection provides rich and varied sources for research on the Joseph White murder.
Stay tuned for more “Research Opportunities.”
Rare Book Librarian