Guilty by Gaslamp: The Real Crime that Inspired Poe’s “Telltale Heart”

I am a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and except for The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart is probably his most famous work. You probably know the story. A man is haunted by the sound of a beating heart beneath the floorboards, the victim of a terrible murder. What you probably didn’t know is that Poe was inspired to pen his tale of dread by actual events.

Salem, MA 1830

As if Salem wasn’t already notorious enough, this small community was rocked by a brutal murder on April 6. The victim was Captain Joseph White, an 82-year-old retired shipmaster. He was equal parts wealthy and miserly, and it led to his demise. He used his will like a weapon, threatening constantly to change it if he didn’t approve of what his family and household was up to. This strategy backfired spectacularly.

White had a grandniece named Mary, who fell in love with a handyman named Joseph Knapp who had worked for White. Mary and Joseph married against White’s wishes, and he cut her out of his will completely. Joseph, who had a sizeable debt, had been counting on the money and became furious when Mary lost it. So he hatched a plan. He figured that if the new will was stolen and White died, Mary would still be able to cash in. (Not totally sure myself that this ever would have worked anyway, but that’s what Knapp at least believed.)

Joseph and his brother John hired a local criminal named Richard Crowninshield to take care of the murder. Joseph stole the will and left a window open for Richard, and the brothers waited outside while old man White was both bludgeoned and stabbed to death. The murderer had no clear connection to the victim, so it looked like they were going to get away with it. But whether Richard or the Knapps somehow let the details slip out while deep in their cups, another petty criminal found out about the plot and attempted to blackmail them. They refused to pay, and he became a witness for the prosecution.

Now, criminal justice and crime scene investigation being what they were in those days, the Knapps probably would have gotten away with it in the end. However, they went up against Daniel Webster. By many accounts, he had a real knack for the dramatic, and they way he described the utter coldness in the hearts of the defendants was enough to sway the jury. Many Poe scholars believe that it was not only these events that inspired the story, but the courtroom records of Webster’s account that informed the style of the prose.



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