Farrell podcast: Salem, murder, and the press

podcastlogoFor the 14th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with James Farrell, author of  “Pretrial Publicity in 1830 Salem: Daniel Webster, New England News, and the Knapp-White Trial” in the Winter 2019 issue of Journalism History.

Farrell is a Professor of Rhetoric in the Communication Department at the University of New Hampshire, where he teaches classes in argumentation, propaganda, rhetorical theory, rhetorical criticism, and American public address.

This episode is sponsored by Eastern Illinois University.


Teri Finneman: [00:00:07] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew … and the ones you were never told. I’m your host Teri Finneman guiding you through our own drafts of history.

[00:00:21] This episode is sponsored by the ACEJMC-accredited journalism program at Eastern Illinois University, where for more than 100 years our award-winning student media — a daily newspaper and daily 30-minute live newscast on PBS, radio, and yearbook — coupled with a curriculum that adapts to the changing profession — have prepared students for careers in all facets of news media.

[00:00:46] People are familiar with the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. In this episode we jump ahead in time to 1830 and another controversy in this Massachusetts town. This time, the murder of a sea captain in his own bed. The public was fascinated with the trial that followed with more than 500 newspaper stories written about it in a matter of months. The trial, then, is an early study in pretrial publicity. New research examining this trial delves into this time in journalism history and we discuss how a 200-year-old murder can still provide lessons for journalists who cover trials today.

[00:01:25] Welcome to the show. James Farrell is a rhetoric professor at the University of New Hampshire. James, first off, why don’t you tell us: What is it about Salem, Massachusetts, that makes it such a controversial place in history?

James Farrell: [00:01:37] You mean besides demonic possession, right? (laughter)

[00:01:43] Well, you know, in the 1830s, Salem was a prominent Massachusetts town probably second only to Boston as an important trading port, especially for the Pacific trade. Trade with China. In fact, if you go to Salem today, you can still see the magnificent Custom House, which is still standing and is a historical site there. But it was a very wealthy town and it was also a town that had political prominence both in Massachusetts and even nationally. So, for example, one of the marginal characters in the story of Daniel Webster and the murder trial is Joseph Story, who was related actually to the nephew of the murder victim and by marriage, and he was a Supreme Court justice. He was somebody whom Daniel Webster had written to as a consultant about some of the legal peculiarities of this case. There were some other famous people from Salem around that time, of course. Maybe the most famous is Nathaniel Hawthorne who, as far as I know, worked for the Salem Gazette at the time that this murder took place.

Teri Finneman: [00:03:05] That’s fascinating. So, let’s get into that murder trial, which is what your study examines, and the eventual execution of Frank Knapp, a co-conspirator in the murder of 82-year-old Captain Joseph White. So, to start, give us some background on why the captain was murdered.

James Farrell: [00:03:21] Sure. Well, the captain was, I think, 82-years-old. He was widowed. He had no children of his own. And his heirs were his nephew Stephen White, who was a state senator and he was the one, I think, that was married to the sister of the Supreme Court justice, and also Captain White’s niece. Her name was Mrs. [Mary] Beckford and she served as the captain’s housekeeper, but a young man named Joseph Knapp, who was also involved in the sea trade and also from another prominent the family, was married to Mrs. Beckford’s daughter. So the brother of Joe – John Francis Knapp, who went by Frank – and Joe and Frank got it in their heads and I don’t know if it originated with Joe or Frank, but I’m guessing probably Joe – they got it in their heads that if they could steal the will of the captain – if the captain died without a will, then half of the captain’s estate would automatically go to Mrs. Bickford, his wife’s mother. They thought they’d steal the will, murder the captain and eventually Joe would inherit half the captain’s wealth.

[00:04:46] They didn’t want to do the murder themselves, so they hired Richard Crowninshield to do the murder and promised to pay him a thousand dollars if he did the deed. So Joe, who had easy access to the house because his mother-in-law was the housekeeper, stole the will. And then one night in early April, Richard Crowninshield entered the home facilitated by the fact that Joe had left one of the back windows open and had put a plank up to the window, so it was easy to access. Richard Crowninshield went into the house, murdered the captain in his bed while he slept while Frank waited outside, knowing the murder was happening and ready to assist Richard Crowninshield if he needed it, like for instance if the – if he needed to be warned that someone was coming or if he needed help with escape after the murder.

[00:05:42] What’s interesting about the case is it took a while, about a month or so, before the murderer – the murderer was arrested and the conspiracy was exposed. Then after the arrest of Richard Crowninshield, he committed suicide while in prison and, under Massachusetts law in the 1830s, if the principal in a murder case could not first be convicted, you couldn’t then try accessories to the murder because Crowninshield had committed suicide. He couldn’t be tried. He was already dead. And so the question was: Is there any way or was there any way that Frank and Joe Knapp, who were initially thought to be the accessories or co-conspirators, could they be tried for the murder of Captain White even though they didn’t actually commit the deed themselves? That’s really interesting.

Teri Finneman: [00:06:44] So this is a fascinating case. But what made you want to study this case in the first place?

James Farrell: [00:06:51] Mainly because it was Daniel Webster who was brought in by the attorney general of Massachusetts to serve as a kind of special prosecutor to help actually specifically to help solve this interesting legal puzzle. What do we do about the fact that the murderer has committed suicide? How shall we hold account accountable? Frank and Joe, can we charge especially Frank as a principal in the murder? Frank because he was the one that was standing outside of the house when the murder was committed. This is actually a very famous trial speech I had first read it in graduate school about 35 years ago, and I’ll always find it very interesting. I’ve done other work on Daniel Webster’s oratory: on his famous eulogy to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and on his famous Senate speech, the “Second Reply to Hayne,” and I had recently published another study on this trial speech looking at the classical rhetorical structure and arguments strategy of the case. But in doing the background for that paper, I discovered all these fairly remarkable parallels between what Webster told the jury and what had appeared in the newspapers in the months before the trial. We know that the public was completely fascinated with this trial.

Teri Finneman: [00:08:24] You note that the news reports were very sensational and sometimes written in graphic detail and that the public’s appetite for these stories was just never ending. Why do you think that was? And why do you think the public still is so fascinated with sensational crime stories?

James Farrell: [00:08:39] You know, it’s interesting, isn’t it, because you know in 1830, this was – at least up till that time — the trial of the century. And we’ve seen a lot of those. It reminds me in some ways of course with the OJ Simpson trial and some of the other sensational murder trials that in the same way we just have a fascination with all of the details of the trial the way in which the newspapers covered it and actually quite unusual fashion for the time headlines: atrocious assassin, assassination, a horrid murder, barbarous murder. Those kinds of headlines and the details of the case really shocked the sensibility of the people of New England. I think it in some ways challenged the view that they had of themselves as somehow special or set apart. You know, whether it’s American exceptionalism or whatever, but they think they really believed that because they lived in Salem, in New England, that they were immune to this kind of crime. So initially, the reports about the atrocious assassination of Captain White, it caused confusion and panic. I mean, when I read one account where you could hear all of the work being done as you walked down the street, people putting new locks on their doors because really people feared being killed in their beds. Nobody knew the explanation for why Captain White was killed. There was no obvious motive.

In fact, nothing had actually been stolen from the house. He was just murdered in his bed. So people thought, “Well, if it happened to him, perhaps it could happen to me as well.” And it was not just in Salem. But this kind of panic and fear had extended really throughout. You read about the same kinds of preparations being made in Portsmouth and in Boston as well. There was a vigilance committee that was created, and they tried to investigate every possible clue and every possible lead. There were – the newspapers followed and printed every rumor, every preliminary arrest. There were several people arrested, upon investigation were found not to be involved. All of the details of the crime, descriptions of the crime scene, even the autopsy report that had been sent to Stephen White by the local coroner that was printed in the newspaper, which contained again the graphic details of how many stab wounds, where the stab wounds were. How is – how the captain’s skull was crushed by the blow of the bludgeon. Then of course, the Knapps were arrested and then the details of the conspiracy come out. Then there’s the story of Crowninshield’s suicide and in prison. And then of course, all of the very detailed attention to the trials themselves.

Teri Finneman: [00:11:53] So let’s talk more about the reporting of the trials. James Gordon Bennett, one of the nation’s first reporters, ignored a judge’s order to not take notes during the trial. He thought the press was the safeguard of justice and the living jury of the nation, as you quote in your study. What do you think is the correct balance for reporting on trials while still preserving the right to have a fair jury?

James Farrell: [00:12:19] Well, you know, people have a right to know how their government works. And I think that includes how the courts administer justice. But at the same time, defendants have a right to a fair trial and both of these principles are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. So just as it was in 1830 and it still is today, I think it’s a difficult balance. Prosecutors have to be concerned about how much information to release so as not to corrupt a potential jury. And journalists have to have some awareness about whether the facts they report might unjustly prejudice a jury and deny a fair trial to a defendant who still is presumed innocent. So there was undoubtedly a concern about these issues back in 1830. The judges spoke about it.

[00:13:11] And that’s where though the warning came to some of the reporters including James Gordon Bennett taking notes during the trial and publishing preliminary accounts of the trial before the jury had a chance to complete their deliberations. They were concerned, of course, the judges were.

[00:13:31] There was a three-panel – three-judge panel of three judges, but the judges were concerned about whether or not too much reporting on the trial was tainting the verdict but then also there was the question of whether or not defense attorneys – because the defense attorneys in this case, that is the attorneys for Frank Knapp, had also reminded the jury, “Don’t pay any attention to things that you might have read make your decision. Make your decision deliberate only on the evidence that has been introduced in court.” It’s not only James Gordon Bennett that ignored the judges and continued to take notes, and I think most newspapers continue to publish accounts of the trial.

It was Webster, too, who I think is drawing on many of the earlier press accounts of the trial of the murder in the investigation and using that information in constructing the narrative that he presents to the jury so that there is a kind of an ethical question. Here is a question about whether a prosecutor should be doing that – that is, drawing on the existing facts that are known from press reports and whether or not in fact that it goes too far in denying a defendant a fair trial.

Teri Finneman: [00:15:03] So, we’ve talked about Webster a couple of times now. For those who aren’t familiar with him, why don’t you give us just a little bit more background about why he’s important in American history and why you’re so interested in him?

James Farrell: [00:15:14] Sure. Webster was actually born in New Hampshire. He served – He went to Dartmouth College and became a lawyer and then served in Congress first from New Hampshire when he lived in Portsmouth and then moved to Boston and later served in Congress and in the United States Senate from Massachusetts.

[00:15:37] He was also on two different occasions secretary of state. And I think also clearly had ambitions for the presidency though he was never the favorite of the Whig party, usually behind Henry Clay.

[00:15:52] But in any case, Webster is undoubtedly among the most famous orators in American history. At the time of this trial, he was already – he was literally nationally famous. Almost every literate American had read Webster’s speech from January of the same year. In that debate against Robert Hayne about the expansion of slavery into the territories that are – that the United States was encouraging people to move West. But the question was: Would slavery go West as well? So Webster, you know, as a prominent American orator and a central figure in 19th century politics is already interesting, but then he’s sort of recruited into this role as a special prosecutor as a kind of celebrity orator to help convict Frank Knapp. So this is – I guess this is why Webster to me is a fascinating character.

[00:17:01] The only time that he ever serves as a prosecutor in a criminal case was he argued many cases before the United States Supreme Court. And he also argued other criminal cases but always as a defense attorney. This was the only time he was a prosecutor.

Teri Finneman: [00:17:21] Interesting. So we talked a little bit before the show about this. So let’s let our viewers – our listeners know what we were talking about. You mentioned in your study that Webster came to this case very late. And of course, your focus is that he used materials from newspaper reports while addressing the jury during the trial. So how much do you think this was him using the press reports as essentially Spark Notes as cheat sheets because he didn’t have enough time to prepare versus just being absolutely brilliant and knowing how well this would go over?

James Farrell: [00:17:54] Yeah, that’s a really good question and I wish I had a more certain answer. I would love to find something in Webster’s papers that said, you know, I gathered all the newspapers up and I studied it as much as I could about the trial. But really, it’s hard to know with any certainty whether Webster read those newspapers or how much of them he read. He was certainly a great orator perhaps the greatest orator of his day.

[00:18:24] But he also wasn’t up on the details of the case. He had been in Washington attending to his Senate business. He didn’t return to Massachusetts until late June. So that’s almost three months after the murder took place. He wasn’t invited into the case until probably early August. So he had probably only about a week to prepare his address to the jury for the first trial. Frank was actually tried twice. The first time ended in a hung jury. And the second trial began almost immediately and it’s on the second trial that he’s convicted. The text of Webster’s address to the jury is actually probably a combination of the two speeches he gave at the two different trials, but it’s the only record we have of Webster’s speech. But there isn’t any kind of evidence that says for sure this is what Webster did. But I think the parallels between his narrative of the crime, which is kind of the centerpiece of his prosecution speech to the jury, the parallels between that narrative and the story that emerged from the press coverage in the months before the trial it seems to me either the result of a remarkable coincidence or the fact that Webster took his main outline and a lot of details from those accounts that were in the newspapers.

Teri Finneman: [00:20:00] Before we move on to discussing some of your other work, what kind of final thoughts do you want to leave us with as far as what journalists and attorneys today can learn from your study?

James Farrell: [00:20:09] Well, you know, I guess whether it’s in 1830 or today, potential jurors, if they know anything about a case, they’re going to get that information from the news. Today, of course, that would include things like social media, but they get information either from the news directly or from discussions with friends or colleagues who got their information from the news. But the main facts about a crime and when they are reported are usually presented within the context of a sensible narrative. It’s usually pretty early in a story when the news – the journalists who are covering the story – whether it’s the newspapermen of the 1830s or journalists today – they kind of tacitly or implicitly agree on “this is what happened.” These are the basic components of the narrative. So the facts about the case are presented within the context of this narrative, and the structure of that narrative remains consistent and indeed persistent across various press accounts in the time that leads up to the trial. So to understand that common sense narrative that is how the facts of the case go together in a coherent way that resonates with readers especially thinking about the members of the jury as readers of the news as well to understand that narrative is to understand an important constraint on the forensic rhetoric in a trial.

[00:21:46] What I mean by that is if the orators on either side of the case have different challenges –if you’re the prosecutor and you can fit your prosecutorial narrative to the popular narrative that is familiar to everybody from the press reports – then you may have a little easier time in convincing the jury. On the other hand, if you’re a defense attorney or even a prosecutor but you want to offer a different view, that is you want to offer a narrative that challenges an account that has wide circulation and is considered plausible by many of the readers of those – of the stories in the newspaper, then that attorney really has a more difficult time in making his or her rhetorical argument because you not only have to introduce the facts with a new narrative but you also have to discredit that prevailing narrative that may be well known to the jury.

[00:22:49] So I think it’s, you know, this provides an interesting case study from 1830, and I’m sure it’s not the only time in which attorneys especially maybe a prosecuting attorney had drawn upon those existing press accounts for information and a kind of narrative structure to share with the jury. Certainly I think it takes us beyond the question of whether or not jury members may be prejudiced because they’ve read things in the paper before and it takes us to another step and that is whether or not prosecutors can use information that’s published in the news in order to help the case that they’re making against the defendant.

Teri Finneman: [00:23:38] Okay. So let’s shift to some other historical areas you focus on that are also very relevant today. You teach a class about persuasion and American politics. We’re heading into another presidential election cycle. What can politicians learn from the past as far as what is effective persuasion strategy and what isn’t, and has persuasion strategy changed much throughout history?

James Farrell: [00:24:02] I think it’s – I think unquestionably things have changed a lot. And part of the impetus for the change has been the development, of course, of electronic media. When you first had the radio and then television, both radio and television dramatically changed the way oratory functioned in our political society. But generally, if you go back to the 18th, the 19th century, rhetoric was I think more robust. It was more rational. It was connected more directly and obviously to history. I think it was more substantive. I think, generally speaking, it was better spoken. The language was more literary. It was more stylish. That doesn’t mean we never get speeches like that. For example, no matter what you may have thought about the opinion that she was defending,

[00:24:58] I thought that the speech that Senator Susan Collins gave in defense of her vote on Brett Kavanaugh, that would have been an example of a kind of speech that you would be more likely to have seen let’s say in bygone days rather than typical of the political rhetoric we’re more used to if we’re watching the news or listening to the talking heads on cable TV. You know, the history of public address also gives us a helpful perspective when we study the history of American public address, the speeches of the past.

[00:25:35] We learn that as divided as our country is now and as harsh as the political language seems to be it’s not really by a long measure. It’s not as bad as it’s ever been. And if you go back to, for instance, 1795 when John Jay who was then the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court – he was asked by President Washington to go to Great Britain and negotiate a treaty which was then known as Jay’s treaty. It wasn’t a very popular treaty. When he returned to the United States, there was a debate in the Senate about whether they would ratify the treaty or not. And Jay remarked – I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like, “I could ride from Philadelphia to New York by night and I would be illuminated all the way by the fires of my burning effigies.” And then you know even in the 1830s and 1840s at the time when this murder trial was taking place was also the time when for instance the debate over slavery was going on. And John Quincy Adams also from Massachusetts was introducing petitions in the House of Representatives. He was the former president now serving in the House. He was introducing petitions from abolitionist groups against slavery and because he was doing that he was constantly getting death threats and, you know, being challenged to duels and other congressmen actually were engaged in duels. People carried weapons on the floor of the Senate.

[00:27:11] Charles Sumner, who gave a famous antislavery speech in 1856, so offended a Southern member of the House of Representatives. Preston Brooks [that] Brooks came in and beat Sumner over the head with his cane, beating him senseless. So, you know, I think about these events from history and, seeing how political debates went on then, I don’t think things are as bad as they are, don’t think things are quite as bad as they’ve been in our past. Even for instance just last night, I was watching – it was the court’s 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War 1, and I was watching on PBS The American Experience film about the Great War. But the last episode of that was all about after the – after the United States had gotten into the war about the very restrictive almost totalitarian efforts by the federal government to censor speech to detain people for holding disloyal views, that meant detaining them without charge. And so there have been times in American history when the country has been at least as badly divided as it is now. And frankly when both tone of the rhetoric and the violence between political adversaries has been much worse than it is now. So I think that’s part of the perspective that you get from studying American public address.

Teri Finneman: [00:28:48] Thanks so much for joining us today. You really kind of covered this already, but our final question is always why does journalism history matter?

James Farrell: [00:28:58] I think it’s because history matters, and journalism is one of the chief ways in which we document that history. If you study the newspapers of the past and later of course of radio broadcasts and television broadcasts, these give us not only – certainly not a complete picture of a given age, but they give us tremendously valuable details and insights and complement other historical sources. So don’t think you can be a good historian whether it’s a historian of public address or any other kind of human endeavor, I don’t think you can be a good historian if you’re not familiar with the history of journalism.

Teri Finneman: [00:29:38] Thanks for tuning in. And thanks again to our sponsor, Eastern Illinois University. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good Night and Good Luck.


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