Daniel Webster's skill and power as a trial lawyer are legendary, and his summation in the case against John Francis Knapp is one of his most celebrated. John Francis Knapp was charged with the murder of Captain Joseph White, a rich merchant of Salem, Massachusetts. White was 82 at the time of his death. One evening in April, 1830, shortly after he retired, Mr. White was struck with a blunt instrument and then stabbed to death.
The murder was committed by Richard Crowninshield, but it was committed at the instance of Joseph Knapp, Jr., whose mother-in-law, Mrs. Beckford, was the victim's niece and one of his principal heirs. Shortly before his death, White had drawn a will reducing the amount bequeathed to Mrs. Beckford. Joseph Jr. hoped, by killing White and destroying his will, to expedite and enlarge Mrs. Beckford's inheritance.
The people of the area were greatly excited and alarmed by the news of the crime. A Committee of Vigilance was formed to apprehend the murderer, and rewards were offered for his arrest and conviction. During the period of the investigation, Joseph Knapp, Sr., a respected shipmaster who knew nothing of his sons' part in the crime, received a letter addressed to "Joseph Knapp," but intended for Joseph Knapp, Jr. The letter, bearing the forged signature "Charles Grant," was sent from Belfast, Mass., by a man named Palmer. The letter requested a loan of $300, and threatened Knapp with ruin if the money was not advanced. Palmer was a friend of Richard Crowninshield, and had learned the particulars of the murder from him. After Joseph Knapp, Sr., received the letter, he showed it to his son Joseph Jr. who denied that it was intended for him. The shipmaster then turned the letter over to the Vigilance Committee.