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Print to Projector: A Murder in Salem

By  · Published on October 30th, 2010

As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to.

This week, Print to Projector presents the story of an old shipmaster found stabbed to death, a fortune left untouched, and a mystery that would inspire the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

A Murder in Salem

By E.J. Wagner

“On the evening of April 6, 1830, the light of a full moon stole through the windows of 128 Essex Street, one of the grandest houses in Salem, Massachusetts.”


The real world story of Captain White’s stabbing death is the kind of thing that Agatha Christie would write if she were God. It has everything that a good murder mystery demands with the added bonus of the Gothic unease of early 19th century Salem, Mass. ‐ the old West of the New World. Let’s just say that the paranoia that arose during the times of the Witch Trials was still lurking in the shadows, and there are few things scarier than large groups of people motivated by fear.

In his essay for the Smithsonian Institution, E.J. Wagner outlines a detailed account from the body being discovered through the police investigation (in which a mob of amateur law enforcers was given carte blanche to enter and search citizen’s homes), all the way through the trial.

A wealthy man is murdered in a suspicious way, the concept of an accomplice creates terror in a town willing to arm itself with cutlasses, the limitations of early crime investigation hampers progress, and a local thug is eventually charged based on hearsay from a nearby convict. As with any great murder mystery, though, the truth is more complex than what’s on the surface.

Perhaps the town’s fears of conspiracy weren’t unfounded.

And that when they call in Daniel Webster.

Potential Problems

There really are no problems with adapting this story. It’s difficult to find books on the topic, but there are a few articles (including the one written by Wagner, which seems the most thorough), and if movies can be adapted from blogs, they can be adapted from essays.

There is a considerable amount of information to deliver as a murder mystery, and the production would need to decide how to deliver the legal procedural sections, but otherwise this is a straight forward story that really yearns to be told on screen.

The Pitch

Writing: A stirring murder mystery plus a courtroom drama all done in 17th century Salem. The setting alone really cuts the wheat from the chaff here, but even with varied work under his belt, the name that pops up most forcefully is concurrent Oscar/Razzie winner Brian Helgeland. He has no experience with the time period, but the guy does a sickening amount of research and could easily nail it down, and L.A. Confidential and Mystic River are reasons enough to seek him out for a project like this.

Directing: This story has nothing to do with desperate women being crushed by bad marriages or bad fathers, so it might not even interest her, but director Debra Granik would undoubtedly turn this into something interesting. Winter’s Bone continues to gain rightful praise, and while this would be a far less stark film than it or Down to the Bone, and even though it doesn’t have the word “Bone” in the title, she’s an unarguable talent at creating atmosphere and a bit of suspense.


Ian Holm as Captain Joseph White: The role calls for a cranky old man who had formerly been a slave trader, and Ian Holm fits the part better than any other actor of his age.

Daniel Radcliffe as Richard Crowninshield: Admittedly, Richard Crowninshield is a difficult personality to pin down. He was a member of a fairly well-to-do family, but he was also a bit of a scoundrel (and obviously he took money to kill an old man by stabbing him more than a dozen times). Either way, take that clean cut muggle and make him a murderer.

Armie Hammer as Joe Knapp Jr: His recent turn in The Social Network proved his talent and his sqaure-jawed all-American face. Knapp Jr was married to Captain White’s daughter and had a major role to play in the murder. Upper class with a hint of viciousness.

David Tennant as Daniel Webster: Does David Tennant look like Daniel Webster? Sort of. The younger version anyway, kind of, a little bit. Still, he’s a charismatic figure who could take the famous alcoholic lawyer/Senator who swoops in to save the prosecution with a closing argument wherein “one seem[ed] to hear the bones of the victim crack under the grasp of a boa-constrictor.” He’ll probably also want to create a dictionary at some point, unless I’m confusing him with Noah Webster. Which I am.

Who Owns It:

This might be a little tricky, and it’s at least unclear. However, E.J. Wagner wrote the article, so Wagner may retain ownership or The Smithsonian Institution may. However, it’s a real world event, so some family estates may have claims to the life rights still ‐ although over a century later, that may be unlikely.

The Projection:

A murder mystery set in Salem. Does it get any better than that? There are so many opportunities here to create intense characters with flourish and depth. It’s a complicated tale that stained the city’s already estranged reputation in red.

The beauty is that it’s really two stories in one ‐ a dirt-covered mystery followed by a difficult court battle created by what would essentially be a second act shocker. It’s true that sometimes life gives us tales better than the ones we could imagine.

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