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Exquisite Wickedness: Two Murders and the Making of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”: An Interview with author Andrew Amelinckx
The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous short stories, has inspired artists, filmmakers, and writers since its first publication in 1843. But it was two murders a decade apart that helped inspire Poe to write his macabre masterwork of psychological fiction. In Salem, Massachusetts, in April 1830, the ruthless murder of an old and wealthy sea captain rattled the city’s rich, sullied Salem’s reputation, and helped launch America’s obsession with true crime. A decade later, in December 1840, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a wealthy banker mysteriously disappeared. The discovery of his mangled corpse and the demeanor of his alleged killer made for great headlines in New York’s new Penny Press and planted the seeds for Poe’s masterpiece. Poe’s life during the period of these murders went from idealistic poet to soldier to struggling writer, set adrift by family rifts and his stubborn nature. Exquisite Wickedness examines these two crimes, Poe’s life during this period, the circumstances of the writing of his famous story, and an unbelievable betrayal whose effects have lasted far beyond the grave.
"ANDREW K. AMELINCKX is an award-winning crime reporter, freelance journalist, and visual artist. His work has appeared in Business Insider, Men’s Journal, Smithsonian.com, Modern Farmer, and many other publications. Andrew is the former crime and courts reporter for The Berkshire Eagle newspaper. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and an MFA in painting from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Exquisite Wickedness is his third book. Andrew lives in New York’s Hudson Valley where he’s working on his next book. He is represented by Jeff Ourvan of the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency."
Andrew. Welcome to Crime Capsule. We are so glad to have you here.
[00:00:05.510] - Andrew
Great to be here. Very excited.
[00:00:08.590] - Ben
Before we dive into your book, for those listeners who may not be familiar with your work, will you just tell us a little bit about your background and some of the other projects you've worked on?
[00:00:19.150] - Andrew
Sure. I was a crime reporter for about ten years, on and off. Now I'm currently a freelance writer working on mostly right for this site, Grunge, which is, like all about weird history and old Hollywood and interesting, really interesting stuff. But actually my first book was about the murder, mayhem and the Gilded Age Berkshires. It came out in 2015. That was Arcadia. And then I live in the Hudson Valley, new York. And so the second book I did was all about murderer, mayhem and the Hudson Valley.
[00:01:24.490] - Ben
There you go. Of which there is plenty, apparently.
[00:01:28.120] - Andrew
Yeah. And that one sort of spans from the American Revolution all the way into the book we're talking about. Today is my third exquisite wickedness to mothers and making opposed to telltale heart. And I have another book coming out in March, and that is Satellite Boy, the international manhunt for a master thief that launched the modern communication age. And that's from the counterpoint that one took the longest to write. It was about five year process.
[00:02:15.640] - Ben
Yeah, absolutely. The research is the best part, isn't it?
[00:02:19.470] - Andrew
It is, yeah. I love hanging out in libraries looking at microfilm and, you know, paging through 150 year old manuscripts. I don't know. I find it to be super fascinating and always to page through, especially with this with exquisite wickedness. To be able to page through this 160 year old, 180 year old notes from the Vigilance committee to know that they were unknowingly or maybe knowingly making recording history and just to flip through that is pretty amazing to me.
[00:03:19.240] - Ben
Well, we're going to hear all about that. And it really was remarkable. One of the things that absolutely struck me about this particular book was the level of detail that you had on the sort of day to day, hour to hour, scene to scene sort of basis. It was some of the most granular reporting of sort of historic crimes I've read in a long time.
[00:03:43.010] - Andrew
Thanks. Yeah. The Salem Historical Society has, if nothing else, they have done in a remarkable job of preserving that city's history. It's pretty amazing all the way back to which trials.
[00:04:08.810] - Ben
So this book is a really remarkable project. Andrew, you have written I'm going to see if I can characterize this correctly you have written a biography of a short story which itself is based on two historic crimes committed a decade apart. And it so happens that this particular short story has become more famous than either of the two crimes by a near infinite margin. In fact, were it not for Edgar Allen Pose, The Telltale Heart, we would probably have never remembered these two murders. For the rest of time they would have just been completely lost to history. Is that fair to say?
[00:04:59.550] - Andrew
Yeah, that is very accurate. Exactly. Pretty amazing. The story has just gotten more and more famous as the years have gone by, as the two crimes have obviously faded from the collective memory.
[00:05:21.940] - Ben
So the first murder, we're going to talk about both, we're going to talk about the first murder this week and we're going to talk about the second murder next week. The first one takes place in 1830, the second one takes place in 1840. And PO writes his short story in 43. The question that I have for you is in the 2000s, how did you come to this particular account and when did you know, as you encountered this sort of series of events that it would form the basis for a book?
[00:05:55.090] - Andrew
I've always loved PO and I always wanted to get to write about him in some form or fashion and you know, I've always my niche has become historical true crime and I happen to sort of stumble across this connection in I think it was maybe a Smithsonian from probably 2005 or six or something. There was a brief mention in it about the first murder in Salem being related to it. The more I dug into it, I stumbled onto this second murder that a lot of PO experts believe is also inspired the story. And then the further I dug, the more interesting weird connections throughout sort of just kept showing up. One thing about this book for me is like the subtext is really about how the popularity of true crime sort of emerged during this time and how different artists used those true crimes to inspire their work.
[00:07:47.140] - Ben
It's fascinating that dimension speaks so much to where we are right now with the dissemination across different platforms and different types of media. I mean, I definitely want to ask you how that parallels where we are now and how it diverges as well because that is this kind of thing that when you encounter the formation of that particular type of writing and insanity, you begin to see connections across centuries. And it's fascinating, isn't it?
[00:08:21.180] - Andrew
Yeah, absolutely. What's really interesting is that this murder and Salem sort of helped kick off the true crime fascinations in America through James Gordon Bennett who covered the trial as sort of code reporter for New York Paper. And he would later become a huge newspaper owner in New York. During like about ten years later with the penny papers, which were before the rise of the penny papers, it was sort of more news about the City council, news about what was going on with the stock market or whatever. And these cheaper newspapers that sort of went for more salacious stories at a cheaper price really sort of gave rise to this us whole phenomenon that we are still going through.
[00:09:47.740] - Ben
Absolutely. Well, why don't we get straight into this murder so that we can have the backdrop for Bennett and for Atri and those folks who ended up writing about them a little bit later on. Tell us about we're just going to jump straight in here. Tell us about Captain Joseph White of Salem, Massachusetts. Who was Joseph White and how did he meet his end and why?
[00:10:14.290] - Andrew
So Captain Joseph White was a very rich shipping magnet in Salem, and he was sort of the backbone of the gentry in Salem. He was sort of really well connected. His nephew, Stephen White just become senator for the state of Massachusetts.
[00:10:48.780] - Ben
Oh, my goodness.
[00:10:52.910] - Andrew
But the thing is that, yes, he was involved in shipping regular items that you would associate with shipping, but he was also involved in the legal slave trade. It was illegal in Massachusetts from but it was sort of the unspoken truth was that a lot of the companies and shipping companies in Massachusetts were still even in the 1820s and later were involved with the illegal slave trade.
[00:11:40.020] - Ben
Sort of an open secret among those who knew the industry. Yeah.
[00:11:48.340] - Andrew
The thing about Joseph White was that he was very finicky and controlling and used his money through his he was 82, so he was getting towards the end of his life, and he would often rewrite his will depending on who was in the family, was in or out of favor. And at the heart of it, that's kind of why he ended up being murdered. He was.
[00:12:28.460] - Ben
Sort of a petty tyrant, in a sense, sort of family petty tyrant.
[00:12:31.840] - Andrew
Yeah, for sure. Somebody broke into his house, snuck into his house and bludgeon him to death and then stabbed him to make sure that the job was done. And nobody was really at the time, there was no such thing as, like, police detectives, per se. There's like constable and night watchmen. And it was before the rise of police apparatus that we come to know today. Sure, the sale is immediately, completely up in arms. They don't know what's going on, residents. It doesn't appear that anything's been stolen. So people are even more freaked out. They're just a madman running around Salem.
[00:13:40.160] - Ben
Which Salem, to be fair, was probably somewhat used to, given its sorted history in the 17th century. But something that really did strike me to your account, Andrew, and this comes up several times. I'll probably have to mention it again next week. You know, you've got this amazing scene where the body's been discovered, there's an open window, there's footprints in the snow and boot prints in the mud, you know, that sort of thing. And because there is no police force, because there is no sort of dedicated investigatory apparatus, you have the entire town sort of just chomping all up and down Joseph White's house and yard and everybody's looking for clues and everybody's getting into it. And, oh, look what I found. Over here. And I know it's a little anachronistic to accuse people of this in that day but good Lord, the notion of forensic integrity is just like it's like a wet tissue, man. Anything they hope to learn is immediately obliterated. It's just like anyway, for sure, it's hilarious. It's comical. It's not supposed to be comical, but it is comical.
[00:14:51.110] - Andrew
It really is just sort of a freeforall so in order to sort of the town decides to create this vigilance committee that is sort of put in charge of the investigation. And it's made up of the elite who all have connections to Joseph White and or Stephen White, his nephew, who sort of stephen White puts himself squarely into the center of this investigation. He provides money to search for the criminal thing. He provides his county house as the headquarters for these guys. And later it comes up that perhaps Stephen White could have been involved. He stood to gain quite a lot from this from the death of his uncle.
I wanted to ask you this early investigation, it doesn't turn up very much evidence. But what it does turn up is it's kind of like when you kick over a log in the woods or when you turn over a rock and you get all these little creepy crawlies and Squirmies kind of like wriggling around in the dirt. There's this sort of series of chapters where one after another, you just start introducing us to this absolute circus of criminals, of lowlifes, of robbers, of bandits, of kind of, as you write, not very intelligent, kind of ruffians and hulu. And I've got names like Joseph Hatch, the Crown and Shields. John Palmer, Aka. Charles Grant, the Nap family. And it's just sort of like I actually had trouble keeping track of them all because there were so many possible coconspirators for this particular crime. So maybe you can untangle that web a little bit for us. But I mean, what they don't find in evidence, they absolutely find in suspects. So that's kind of fun.
[00:17:49.600] - Andrew
Yeah. And not just in suspects, but in people, in sort of these thug criminals coming out of the woodwork to say I know who did it. I know we did. They all want a little piece of the reward money. The thing about very fascinating with this was that Salem presented itself as I mean, it was a huge shipping center. It was really wealthy sort of in the years after the American Revolution. And it presented itself as this perfect little city where everything was great. And as soon as this murder happened, all of a sudden the doors flung open and you find all these things that had been going on and the Crown and Shields, George and Dick, these two brothers from a very well respected family with Ship and Shipping. Everybody in this sort of can generally tied to shipping the shipping industry in some way or another. And their relatives who were in the federal government, they're the sort of black sheep of this very well respected family. And they were involved in they had like a little robbery gang going on. They had this illegal tavern that they'd set up where all the young scalleywags from Boston would come to Carouse.
[00:20:02.490] - Ben
And it got me, andrew was realizing that these guys, we talk all day, all day long about like oh, this business is price gouging, it's highway robbery and that kind of stuff. We still use that phrase all the time in the modern age. And as I read your account of what the Crown and Shields were up to in Massachusetts in the 1820s and so forth, I realized, no, these guys are actually committing highway robbery. They're actually out there on the highways as bandits, robbing people of their possessions. Well, that's a nice little way to close the loop, you know, we'll take that for sure.
[00:20:47.890] - Andrew
As you mentioned that the committee hadn't really gotten very far and then they stumble onto this guy named Joseph Hatch, who had, you know, he was known criminal. I think he was in jail outside of Boston at the time. But there was sort of rumors that he had been around at the time of the murder. And so he the committee sends somebody to interrogate him at the jail and he is the first one that sort of says, well, I wasn't involved, but I know maybe who was. And based on this kind of flimsy evidence, the Vigilance Committee arrest the Crime and Shield brothers. Even though the Crime and Shields were from a respective family, they felt like we need to get some closure to get the city back and sort of back to where it was before the murder. And then the dick crown and Shield especially, is this just kind of double may care? Probably a sociopath guy in his 20s who they put him in jail and he just starts he sets himself up, he's registered. They provide him with whatever he wants and he sits around, has his friends come to chat him up and writes poetry while he sits in jail thinking that he is safe.
[00:22:48.490] - Andrew
And then another sort of scout Lewig from related to this whole thing. John Palmer says this mysterious letter, basically an extortion letter to the Nap family.
[00:23:16.010] - Ben
It's funny, we talk on crime capsule a lot because it seems to come up a lot about the looky lose. We always talk about the folks who want the piece of the story. They have no connection to it whatsoever, but they think they heard something they dreamed they saw something or whatever it is and it's like they just reach out to law enforcement with all of their bad leads, right? And it's like in about every other case we get, we get the cranks coming out of the woodwork and bless you Andrew, because here comes John Paulmer with his letter and his like, oh, I know who did it, you better meet me here with this kind of money and I'll tell you. And it's just like PlusA Shawns, right? PlusA Shawns.
[00:24:04.310] - Andrew
Yup. But you know, like I said, the vision committee was desperate to get this thing nailed down and so they push Palmer into a corner and they promise him immunity. But Palmer is a little sort of doesn't want to be involved in it because he knows that all these rich Salem families are involved. And he's just a sailor, a drunken sailor who met one of the Crown Shields in New Orleans like ten years earlier. He sort of points the finger at Frank and Jonap and the Nap brothers. He has a pretty strong connection to the murder victim because he's married to the grand niece of Joseph White and he because Joseph White didn't have any children. These nieces and nephews who sort of have replaced that aspect of the family.
[00:25:57.710] - Ben
And those are the ones who stand to benefit potentially from staying in his good graces and inheriting all of this money he's built up over the years. There's a little extended network of interests there for sure.
[00:26:09.960] - Andrew
Yeah. And Jonath, his family is sort of well respected too, but they're sort of on their fortunes were waning and for whatever reason Joseph White really disliked Joe Nap and Dis inherited his grand niece because she married Joe. So the visual committee is the joint. So it goes either way. Anyway, they arrest the two brothers and then this another character comes in and sort of like inserts himself to the point of being really devious, especially for a reverend. His name was Reverend Henry Coleman. A side note, we learned that the Naps had sent a couple of letters that tried to point the finger at Stephen White. Until they arrest the apps and then he's home free. But the Reverend Henry Coleman is this pastor at Joe's church and he basically tricks Joe into confessing to the murder. And he promises Joe, he's like, anything you tell me is going to be in confidence on your reverend after all. And then immediately goes and tells the members of the committee what Joe said. And then he just keeps hammering on Joe until Joe confesses. And after the Nap brothers are arrested, dick, Crown and Shield, who previously had been acting all dubbed and double may care, then realized they had the Naps and they will directly connect me to the murder. And so he decided. So at the time in Massachusetts, the law was that you couldn't convict or you couldn't try anyone as an accessory until the principal had been tried and convicted.
[00:32:04.090] - Andrew
So Dick comes up with for murder.
[00:32:06.420] - Ben
You mean specifically with respect to murder.
[00:32:17.440] - Andrew
The state had sort of set up the charges was with Dick Cranshield as the principal and his brother and the two nabs as accessories. Dick actually hangs himself thinking that if he's dead, then his brother and the two Naps would be saved.
[00:32:41.660] - Ben
It's such a twist. Nobody saw that coming. I didn't see it coming. As I was reading your book, I thought, surely there's going to be some sort of wangling of influence or some evidentiary matter that's going to clear this guy or he's going to figure out some weasley way to get out of it. And no, he takes his own way out of these charges. That was really kind of shocking. It was shocking, yeah. Which means that the focus immediately shifts. He tries to create this legal loophole for his accomplices, but it doesn't exactly work, does it? The focus immediately shifts to Frank and Joe at that point.
[00:33:28.540] - Andrew
Exactly, yeah. And all these sort of things come together for the maps, the digital committee, they just sort of shift the blame onto Frank Nap because Frank had met up with Dick Crown shield right after the murder. And so they just decide that because it was a stretch of the imagination for this to be lawful. But they say, well, Frank Nap was also the main principle in this crime. He's the one that goes that is now about he goes to trial first. And just to make sure that he is not going to weasel out of anything, they call Daniel Webster as a private prosecutor to come and prosecute this case, which is not a very much used process at the time. And obviously you can't do that now, but at the time, the state could just bring in basically a rigor to come in and prosecute the case.
[00:35:38.660] - Ben
I want to take a quick second for our listeners here because I realize we're throwing a lot of names out there and the sequencing of this trial is it can be a little tricky to follow the threads. But if we pull back the camera lens for just one quick second, daniel Webster's entry is critically important for the larger story of Edgar Allen Poe and his encountering the report of this trial years later. So we've had the murder, we've had the inquest, we've had the committee on vigilance, we've got a suspect, one suspect kills himself, we move to the next suspect. In order to prosecute the next suspect, the state brings in Chief Star, AAA level most famous orator in all of Massachusetts to date, the guy we read about in our history books, Daniel Webster. And that is the moment for our listeners. That is the moment they need to hold on to, to kind of stitch the thread back to PO here in just a little bit. So that's where we're at. And tell us, I mean, there are a couple of hung trials there's sort of the carriage of justice is much more a miscarriage of justice sort of in this moment, despite Webster's influence.
[00:37:02.680] - Ben
But Webster, he gives this speech and what is this speech that just takes us into a totally new direction?
[00:37:10.870] - Andrew
Yeah, well, just to give a sort of brief thing on Webster was that he was considered like the greatest orator of his time. He was also a sitting senator from Massachusetts at the time. It's like having Elizabeth Warren come and prosecute case or something. And he just leaves this opening statement for the trial that is sort of this masterful description. I can give you a little brief name. It was a cool, desperate, concerted murder. It was neither the offspring of passion nor revenge. The murderer was seduced by no lionlike temptation, always deliberation, always skillful. He just goes on and sets this very moody tale of a sort of cold blooded killer. And even though the person he's describing has already killed himself, he just sort of transfers it onto Frank Nap. Webster later puts a sort of revised version into one of his own books. This description becomes a fairly famous I think it was described by one of the newspapers as like the best ever description of a crime or whatever. And that's where Poe sort of stumbles on it ten years later.
[00:39:32.590] - Ben
And it's funny because no one at this time has any idea that that will happen. And in fact, as the Nap brothers are hung one after another, I mean, they're both found guilty of conspiracy and they go to the gallows. I mean, their story kind of ends. But what is fascinating about this, Andrew, is that it's almost like the story has really just hitting the pause button, hasn't it? Webster gives his speech, it goes into the newspaper record, the court record. You mentioned this journalist, Barrett, who was taking detailed notes on everything. And all of this is sort of laying the groundwork for something that is going to happen a decade later and nobody has any idea. They think the case is closed. They think it is just open and shut. Now.
[00:40:44.360] - Andrew
It'S interesting because it was PO came across this because he was working on another story, Mystery of Marie Rose, which is another famous one that he direct. He took this directly from an actual murder of Mary Rogers, who was this cigar girl in New York City. And that's where he just happened to come across this other description of Daniel Webster's oratory Skills and the Sale of murder. And that sort of ends up helping inspire Telltale Heart.
[00:41:39.560] - Ben
So I have to ask you, and this is maybe our last question for this week, but it is one that has been sort of consuming me a little bit since I read your book, Andrew. I'm just going to have full confession time. I have been dying to know. You reproduce the Telltale Heart, which is, of course, now in the public domain. You reproduce that in your book and rereading it. It's just as good as it ever was. I mean, that story does not age. But there's this one detail in there which I think must be pertinent to the account of the murder of Joseph White and the Crown and Shields and the Nap brothers. And the whole first part of the story is about the premeditation and the stalking and the relationship between the murderer and the victim, right? Anyone out there in TV land, I mean, just go reread Telltale Heart real quick. You'll see how it's structured. But there's this one kind of key detail which I have to ask you to like, pull back the curtain and tell me where this came from, which is the murderer in post story, obsesses over the victim's eye, right?
[00:43:01.160] - Ben
He sees the single ray of light falling on the victim's eye and the eye follows him everywhere he goes and the eye is sort of like piercing through him at all times. Do we know anything about where that came from or anything about Joseph White and his unusually pronounced sort of ocular vision? I mean, is there anything on this, or was this like, pure sort of like, PO inventing and giving us the willies?
[00:43:33.710] - Andrew
Yeah, I think that what I could determine was sort of harks back to the idea of the evil eye. But as far as I know, Joseph White had his vision was fine if.
[00:43:56.620] - Ben
He been a sailor, if he been a captain.
[00:43:58.470] - Andrew
[00:43:58.650] - Ben
He probably needed pretty good eyesight. Yeah, sure.
[00:44:00.870] - Andrew
Yeah. The description of the cold blooded killer and the sort of stalking him definitely relates to the sale of murder. Apparently there was another when he was a kid, when Poe was a kid, he would often have this sort of waking nightmare of being watched from the shadows. But as far as I think the pro experts that I dove into seem to think it just relates to the idea of the evil eye.
[00:45:06.940] - Ben
I felt haunted. I felt seen again. It was uncomfortable, but it was great. It was great. That's what we come here for. Andrew. Thank you. Let's leave it here for now. We will pick up next week. We're going to put the pause button on the murder, and we're going to unpause it ten years later in New Brunswick, New Jersey. But for now, thank you so much for joining us.