Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

time he had discovered his own strength. He engaged with a lawyer to write for him during the evenings and by night, while he pursued his regular studies by day; thus defraying his own expenses, whether for education or for living; and evincing in his legal avocations such extraordinary ability and aptness, that by the time he had arrived at the head of his class, his friend the lawyer furnished him with a letter to his own brother, then in high practice in the chief town of the state, assuring him " that the recommendation which that letter contained would secure to him immediate employment, and eventually, with his own powers and perseverance, all that he required for a high success in life.”

Enchanted with his prospects, our adventurer set forth upon a visit to his forest home, to take leave of his parents before the long absence which he anticipated.

On his arrival at the farm, he found the delight and pride which such a career could hardly fail to claim ; but he found also that which he had seen no cause to expect the brother whom he had left behind content with healthful labor sickening and drooping under the same hunger and thirst for mental improvement that he himself had experienced some years before. What was the resolve of that noble heart? How did he act under such a trial ? He laid his letter of introduction aside that letter which was to command fortune! He took his brother with him to the town which he had quitted as he thought forever ; placed him in the college where he himself had studied ; returned to his old friend the lawyer; resumed his labors in the office, and worked calmly on until the brother, whom he wholly supported, aided by his instructions, had overcome all his disadvantages and attained the high place in the classes that he himself had occupied.

This was my visitor's story. I only wish I could tell it to my readers as he told it to me. But even under all the imperfections of my poor narrative, and lacking the crowning name that gives to it such a power of contrast, it still seems to me almost unequaled in its simplicity and grandeur of self-sacrifice. When some powerful monarch, like Charles the Fifth, abdicates the thrones of Germany and Spain and the Indies, it sounds much. But then it is a sickly, aged, disenchanted man, who knows full well the vanity and nothingness of what he resigns; who has felt

for many a year how weary a thing it is to be an Emperor. Besides, he is an Emperor still. The eyes of the world are upon him. He has only put on a new form of royalty. Now here is a young, an ambitious, a self-reliant spirit, who puts aside, not by one grand and solemn abdication, but by the quiet, silent, painful effort of days and months and years, the most precious crown of all the world, the bright crown of Hope.

After some natural exclamations of admiration, came the equally natural question, “Did that favored brother prove himself worthy of such a sacrifice ?"

“Alas !” said my friend, “ he lived only long enough to show how worthy he would have proved. He had already taken his place among the most eminent lawyers of Massachusetts when he was snatched away by death.”

To return to Mr. Webster : I quote (from a fine American edition of his speeches, sent to me by a friend, who gave every promise of following in the same track) part of an “argument on the trial of John F. Knapp, for the murder of Joseph White, Esq., of Salem, in the county of Essex, Massachusetts, on the 6th of April, 1830.”

I choose this thrilling story of a great crime, not merely on account of the fine picture which it presents of an old man murdered in his sleep, and the state of mind of the murderer, but because, as a subject of universal interest, the eloquence bestowed on such a theme will be better appreciated in England, than those speeches which, referring to national policy, demand of the reader a certain acquaintance not only with the internal government, but with the position of conflicting parties in the United States. I might also have another reason for my selection : a desire to adduce the authority of so eminent a statesman trained under the freest of all institutions, and the most sparing of capital punishment, and passing his life in the vindication of individual and national liberty, against the unhealthy and morbid sympathy with crime and criminals, which is one of the crying evils of our day.

Short as my extracts from this magnificent speech must necessarily be, the introductory statement is essential to their comprehension.

" Mr. White, a highly respectable and wealthy citizen of Salem, about eighty years of age, was found on the morning of the 7th of April, 1830, in his bed murdered, under such circumstances as to create a strong sensation in that town and through out the community.

“Richard Crowninshield, George Crowninshield, Joseph J. Knapp and John F. Knapp were, a few weeks after, arrested on a charge of having perpetrated the murder, and committed for trial. Joseph J. Knapp soon after, under the promise of favor from Government made a full confession of the crime and the circumstances attending it. In a few days after this disclosure was made, Richard Crowninshield, who was supposed to have been the principal assassin, committed suicide.

"A Special Session of the Supreme Court was ordered by the Legislature for the trial of the prisoners at Salem in July. At that time, John F. Knapp was indicted as principal in the murder, and George Crowninshield and Joseph J. Knapp as accessories.

“On account of the death of Chief Justice Parker, which occurred on the 26th of July, the court adjourned to Tuesday, the 3d of August, when it proceeded in the trial of John F. Knapp. Joseph J. Knapp being called upon refused to testify, and the pledge of the Government was withdrawn.

“At the request of the prosecuting officers of the Government, Mr. Webster appeared as counsel and assisted at the trial.

“Mr. Dexter addressed the jury on behalf of the prisoner, and was succeeded by Mr. Webster in the following speech :

“I am little accustomed, gentlemen, to the part which I am now attempting to perform. Hardly more than once or twice has it happened to me to be concerned, on the side of the Government, in any criminal prosecution whatever; and never, until the present occasion, in any case affecting life.

“But I very much regret that it should have been thought necessary to suggest to you that I am brought here to hurry you against the law and beyond the evidence. I hope I have too much regard for justice, and too much respect for my own character, to attempt either; and were I to make such attempt, I am certain that in this court nothing could be carried against the law, and that gentlemen intelligent and just as you are, are not by any power to be hurried beyond the evidence. Though I could well have wished to shun this occasion, I have not felt at liberty to withhold my professional assistance, when it is supposed that I might be in some degree useful in investigating and discovering the truth, respecting this most extraordinary murder. It has seemed to be a duty incumbent on me, as on every other citizen, to do my best and my utmost to bring to light the perpetrators of this crime. Against the prisoner at the bar I can not have the slightest prejudice. I would not do him the smallest injury or injustice. But I do not affect to be indifferent to the discovery and the punishment of this deep guilt. I cheerfully share in the opprobrium, how much soever it may be, which is cast on those who feel and manifest an anxious concern that all who had a part in planning or a hand in executing this deed of midnight assassi. nation may be brought to answer for their enormous guilt at the bar of public justice. Gentlemen, it is a most extraordinary case. In some respects it has hardly a precedent anywhere; certainly none in our New England history. This bloody drama exhibited no suddenly excited ungovernable rage. The actors in it were not surprised by any lion-like temptation, springing upon their virtue and overcoming it, before resistance could begin. Nor did they do the deed to glut savage vengeance, or satiate long-settled and deadly hate. It was a cool, calculating, money-making murder. It was all hire and salary, not revenge.' It was the weighing of money against life; the counting out of so many pieces of silver against so many ounces of blood.

“An aged man, without an enemy in the world, in his own house, and in his own bed, is made the victim of a butcherly murder for mere pay. Truly, here is a new lesson for painters and poets. Whoever shall hereafter draw the portrait of murder, if he will show it as it has been exhibited in an example where such example was last to have been looked for, in the very bosom of our New England society, let himn not give it the grim visage of Moloch, the brow knitted by revenge, the face black with settled hate, and the blood-shot eye emitting livid fires of malice. Let him draw rather a decorous, smooth-faced, bloodless demon ; a picture in repose rather than in action ; not so much an example of human nature in its depravity and in its paroxysms of crime as an infernal nature, a fiend, in the ordinary display and development of his character.

“The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now clearly in evidence spread out the whole" scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim,

and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft though strong embrace. The assassin enters through the window, already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With noiseless foot he passes the lonely hall, half lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this he moves the lock by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise, and he enters and beholds his victim before him. The room was uncommonly open to the admission of light. The face of the innocent sleeper was turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon resting on the gray locks of the aged temple, showed him where to strike. The fatal blow is given! and the victim passes, without a strug. gle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death! It is the assassin's purpose to make sure work; and he yet plies the dagger, though it was obvious that life had been destroyed by the blow of the bludgeon. He even raises the aged arm, that he may not fail in his aim at the heart, and replaces it again over the wounds of the poniard. To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse. He feels for it, and ascertains that it beats no longer! It is accomplished. The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his step to the window, passes out through it as he came in, and escapes. He has done the murder—no eye has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe.

"Ah! gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner where the guilty can bestow it and say that it is safe. Not to speak of that Eye which glances through all disguises, and beholds every thing as in the splendor of noon, such secrets of guilt are never safe from detection, even by men. True it is, generally speaking, that 'murder will out.' True it is, that Providence hath so ordained, and doth so govern things, that those who break the great law of heaven by shedding man's blood, seldom succeed in avoiding discovery. Especially in a case exciting so much attention as this, discovery must come, and will come sooner or later. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, every thing, every circumstance connected with the time and place; a thousand ears catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slightest circumstance into a

« AnteriorContinuar »