Posts Tagged ‘Salem’

The Gloriously Gothic Murder at Salem

October 20, 2010

The gloriously gothic murder of sea captain Joseph White in Salem Massachusetts and the ensuing trials excited avid attention in 1830, but have since slipped into oblivion, much to the relief of the embarrassed relations of the participants.

I wrote an article about this case, “A Murder in Salem,” which will appear in the November 2010 issue of Smithsonian magazine – and is currently available on-line at  (The links included with that on-line article omitted one to my web site, which may not be familiar to new readers.)

Since I came across a partial account of the crime, it had piqued my imagination. The striking similarity of Daniel Webster’s summation for the prosecution and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” wouldn’t let me go. As the author of The Science of Sherlock Holmes, I knew it was precisely the sort of case Sherlock Holmes would have collected in his “record of old cases,” but I had no access to the Great Detective’s library, and every account of the murder and the trial I found was riddled with inconsistencies, errors, or considered only one small part of an unusually complicated case.

Researching the case for Smithsonian magazine, I delved into legal documents, ancient letters, and crumbling newspapers and broadsides. I walked the scene of the crime, the Gaol, and the cemetery where the victim lies comfortably near the perpetrator.

I was fortunate to receive incisive advice from many scholars, including Professor Richard Kopley, author of The Threads of the Scarlet Letter, and Professor Peter West, author of The Arbiters of Reality. The librarians at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), curator Dean Lahikainen and Salem expert Jim McAllister were exceedingly helpful, as was my long suffering editor at Smithsonian, Mark Strauss.

Professor Kopley told me that the case had too many facets to fit in an article, and that whether I wanted to face it or not, I was most likely harboring a book. I think he was right—there are too many intriguing twists I had to leave out.

So a book it shall be—but I will share some nicely ghastly tidbits on EJDissectingroom. In the next day or so.  In the meantime, see the  article on the Smithsonian web site.

As always, pursuing verity,

EJ Wagner

Pursuing Verity