Local history in interactive, playful formats
About History Alive, Inc.
History Alive, Inc. makes original plays about local history. We choose audience interactive formats so that each show is fresh, surprising and playful. The company also seeks to invigorate the local economy by designing activities which connect the community and its visitors to a distinct, local history. History Alive, Inc. creates work mostly in Salem, MA, but has worked with other municipalities within the Essex National Heritage Area.
Thoughts about Goodnight, Captain White from the Artistic Director:
How to present tragedy for public consumption is not a new question for “Witch City.” For the 20+ years History Alive! has been theatricalizing our area’s past the goal has always been stealthy teaching through a work that's immersive, fun and artistic. Some of our environmental pieces can be quite surreal. Even the play closest to reenactment, Cry Innocent, employs performance poetry and actor doubling. Still, Goodnight, Captain White is a stylistic expansion for us. Mark Stevick has infused his script with double-entendre, literary and Hollywood references. And who knows what will happen between Daniel Webster and the audience, or what they'll say. Timelessly, the characters’ fatal flaws look as ridiculous to others as self-serving motives often do in real life.
We’re letting our hair down—actually twisting it up to absurd and gaudy heights--for the sake of one of Salem’s lesser-known stories. By 1830, Salem was so familiar to foreign traders that the municipality was presumed to be a country. The violent murder of an aged, selfish magnate seems emblematic of Salem’s downfall from prosperous and reputable to distressed--the predictable crash of a superstar municipality navigating her way through the pitfalls that accompany sudden wealth.
Is it right to laugh about terrible behavior? To do so doesn’t mean we endorse murder, adultery, slavery, betrayal. In our laughter we release the tension of recognition. As we watch these extreme fellows careen toward their comeuppance, we’re relieved they are not ourselves and we cringe at the thought that they could be, were our circumstances less privileged or graced. Catharis for the “Committee of Vigilence”? That might be taking it too far. We’ll see. We eagerly anticipate your joining us on this argosy to the past.
About the Historic Murder
In late May of 1830, two sets of brothers, Joseph and Francis Knapp and Richard and George Crowninshield, were jailed in Salem on suspicion of murder. Joe Knapp, a former shipmaster for Captain White, had married Mary White Beckford (Abigail in our play), daughter of Mary Ramsdell Beckford, (Lavinnia in our play), who was the Captain’s niece. After the marriage, Captain White wrote his nieces out of his will and dismissed Joe from his employ. The Knapps calculated that if Captain White were to die intestate (without a will) their side of the family would be back in the money.
Richard Crowninshield, scion of another prominent Salem shipping family and leader of a gang of ruffians who terrorized the citizens of Essex County, agreed to kill the Captain for $1000. (Our “coroner’s report” accurately details the method of killing.) A bungled bribery attempt led the Committee of Vigilance to the Knapps and Crowninshields. Joe Knapp quickly confessed to orchestrating the murder; Richard Crowninshield confessed to administering the mortal blow—and then hanged himself in his jail cell. (Knapp’s lengthy written confession located the club Richard had used—one he’d bragged would crush a man’s skull without breaking the skin—under the steps of the Howard Street meeting house by the Salem
A cloud of fear descended over Salem; people bought weapons and began locking their doors. (As a result of the murder the selectmen drafted plans for a Salem lyceum/lecture series, and that building still exits at 43 Church Street—on land owned by Bridget Bishop in 1692). Daniel Webster was hired by nephew Stephen White to prosecute the four conspirators for the Commonwealth. Webster's first challenge was to convince the court that by standing in Brown Street (near the now Witch Museum) while Richard was bludgeoning and stabbing Captain White, Frank Knapp was not an accessory to the crime but a principal in the second degree. (At the time accessories couldn’t be tried until a principal had been convicted.) Webster’s other challenge was to convince the court to allow Joe Knapp’s confession, given with the promise of clemency, as evidence. Webster prevailed. Two trials were required to convict Joe Knapp; between them some of the witnesses’ memories became clearer.
The brothers were hanged in the Salem jail yard a few months apart with thousands of people attending. Joe’s wife Mary, (referred to as “the most beautiful woman in Essex County”) reportedly skirted with madness over the episode, though she eventually remarried and
moved away to Boston. The Knapp’s devilish plan wouldn’t have succeeded in any event;
another copy of Captain White’s most recent will was found after his murder.
George Crowninshield also went to trial, though Daniel Webster was not involved, and the procedure was brief. Two more Marys (Mary Bassett and Mary Weller)—ladies of ill repute—curtly affirmed that George was with them on the night of the murder, and he was acquitted.
(Penny Muchmore stands for those ladies in our play. Incidentally Captain White’s mother’s maiden name was Abigail Muchmore.) George lived well into his 80s.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe were both aware of the sensational murder and trials, as their fiction (The Scarlet Letter and "The Tell Tale Heart" ) demonstrates.
White and Crowninshield properties are numerous in Salem, especially on Salem Common and Derby Street; even the Knapp’s home still exists, having been moved and preserved when the Hawthorne Hotel was built—a fact I learned from Robert Booth, whose excellent book, Death of an Empire joins David Ferguson’s Cleopatra’s Barge and Bradley and Winan's Daniel Webster and the Salem Murder as a reliable and fascinating account of the events
surrounding the murder of Captain Joseph White in April 6, 1830.
--Mark Stevick, playwright