Classic American Horror

E.J. Wagner recounts the eerie Salem, Massachusetts murder that captivated the nation and likely influenced the literature of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Nobody knows if Poe followed the trial as it occurred, but by 1843, when he published “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he had clearly read about it. Poe scholar T. O. Mabbott has written that Poe relied critically on Webster’s summation in writing the story. At the trial, Webster spoke of the murderer’s “self-possession” and “utmost coolness.” The perpetrator, he added, ultimately was driven to confession because he believed the “whole world” saw the crime in his face and the fatal secret “burst forth.” Likewise, Poe’s fictional murderer boasts of “how wisely” and “with what caution” he killed an old man in his bedchamber. But the perfect crime comes undone when Poe’s murdererconvinced that the investigating police officers know his secret and are mocking himdeclares, “I felt that I must scream or die!...I admit the deed!”