- Parkman-Webster murder case
The Parkman-Webster murder case was a highly-publicized crime, investigation, and trial that shook the American city of Boston,
Massachusettsto its core in 1849–1850, due to the crime's gruesome nature and the high social station of the victim and murderer.
Dr. George Parkman, (
February 19, 1790– November 23, 1849), a Boston Brahmin(a term actually not coined by Parkman contemporary Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. until 1860, after Parkman’s death), [The urbane Holmes defined the term in his article in the January, 1860 Atlantic Monthly, a magazine, according to Elsie Venner in her 1861 "The Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes", that he named: “...not merely a person of good family, but a scholar, or what we would call an intellectual.”] belonged to one of the moneyed city’s richest families. A son of his father Samuel’s second wife, Sarah Rogers, Parkman had three full brothers and one sister—and another six half-siblings, children of Sarah Shaw. [New England Historic Genealogical Society database. Birth Records of Boston, Massachusetts, 1800-1849.] George’s father and family patriarch, Samuel, had bought up low-lying lands and income properties in Boston’s West End. ["The Gentleman in the Purple Waistcoat"; James and Lois Cowan; Smithsonian-HarperCollins. 2009] He owned the towns of Parkman, Maine and Parkman, Ohio. [Both towns are included in Roger Storm’s 1969 University of Maine thesis "History of Parkman, Maine" and in the Dec. 6, 1814 "Parkman, Maine, A Frontier Settlement by Victor McKusick"---in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.] His sons from his first marriage oversaw the Ohio properties; his second set of boys were responsible for the Maine parcel. Samuel’s daughters inherited wealth as well. The most notable was George’s full-sister Elizabeth Parkman whose spouse Robert Gould Shawgrew his wife’s share of the fortune to become the senior partner in the most powerful commercial house in a city glutted with the proceeds of the China Trade. [According to the "Descendants of the Rev. Daniel Rogers of Littleton, Mass." New England Historic and Genealogical Society Register. Vol. 39. David Clapp and Son, 1885, Robert Gould Shaw’s father and Sarah Shaw, Samuel Parkman’s first wife, were brother and sister. Therefore Elizabeth Parkman Shaw’s half-siblings were direct cousins to her husband.] To add to the resources, the eleven Parkman scions united in marriage with the Beacon Hill families of Sturgis, Blake, Tuckerman, Cabot, Mason and Tilden. Of the offspring, it was tightfisted George who his father chose to administer the Parkman estate. [ The 1850 pretrial deposition given by Charles Kingsley, business manager for George Parkman, to John Andrews would convey this picture of his boss’s personality.]
Despite his assured wealth, a lecture by Dr.
Benjamin Rushinspired him to take an interest in the terrible state of asylums for the mentally ill. He graduated from Harvard Collegein 1809, and after finishing Harvard Medical College in 1813, went to Europe, where he observed the pioneering humane treatment methods of Dr. Philippe Pinel. He returned to America that year with a desire to replicate these in his own country, with himself as head of an asylum. He wrote two pamphlets, "Remarks on Insanity" and "The Management of Lunatics", in an effort to convince the trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospitalto appoint him as director of the newly-opened Asylum for the Insane. He also put up some of the $16,000 for an asylum mansion, promising to raise the rest. Although, to his bitter disappointment, he was not appointed head (the trustees feared the taint of corruption), he retained an interest in caring for the mentally ill. He would visit and entertain them, he bought them a piano, and opened up his own mansion for the treatment of a smallpoxepidemic's victims. Periodically, he testified about the insane in court as an expert witness.
For his income, Parkman relied on business. When the elder Parkman died in 1835, George took complete control of the estate and bought vast amounts of land and real estate in Boston, including many poorly maintained tenements. Money lending and real estate augmented his income; he also sold the land for the new
Harvard Medical Schooland the Charles Street jail. His house still stands at 33 Beacon Street.
Parkman was a well-known figure in the streets of Boston, which he walked daily, collecting his rents (a thrifty man, he did not own a horse). He was tall, lean, had a protruding chin, and wore a
top hat. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.said that "he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept." Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, called him "the lean doctor... the good-natured Don-Quixote." He was worth some half a million dollars in 1849.
John White Webster( May 20, 1793– August 30, 1850), born in Boston, was a professor of chemistry and geology. He too was from a well-connected family: his grandfather had earned a fortune as a merchant; his mother Hannah (White) Webster was a Leverett; his wife's sister married into the Prescotts; he was friends with Robert Gould Shaw's family; and his Unitarian pastor was the Reverend Francis Parkman Sr. (brother of George). However, as he grew up, his father Redford, an apothecary, offered him only a small allowance, which later caused him to claim that he never understood money.
After graduating from Harvard College in 1811 and Harvard Medical College in 1815, he went to
Londonfor further study. At Guy’s Hospital he was a surgeon’s pupil, a physician’s pupil, and a surgeon’s dresser. He then went to São Miguel Islandin the Azores(1817–18). There he practiced medicine, published his first book, and met the daughter of the American vice-consul on the island, Harriet Fredrica Hickling, whom he married on May 16, 1818. She would give him four daughters. Once he returned to Boston, he entered private medical practice, but a lack of success prompted him to change careers. In 1824, he was appointed a lecturer of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at the Harvard Medical College, and three years later he was promoted to the Erving professorship.
Webster, a short, stocky man with dark hair and glasses, continued teaching at Harvard, publishing chemistry books, lecturing to students, and seeing his annual pay rise from $800 to $1200, with a few hundred dollars more coming from lecture ticket sales at the Massachusetts Medical College. Some reports criticized his teaching ability: for instance, "The Boston Daily Bee" described him as "tolerated rather than respected, and has only retained his position on account of its comparative insignificance. As a lecturer he was dull and common-place and while the students took tickets to his lectures, they did not generally attend them." The "Yarmouth Register" also hinted at this defect: "his reputation in his profession is respectable but not brilliant", but noted that "With a mild, kind and unassuming disposition, with eminently social feelings and manners of uncommon affability, he probably had not any enemy." Still, it referred to his poor "management of pecuniary affairs."
Indeed, debt was Webster's great problem. With two daughters of debutante age (one of them married) by the late 1840s, he tried desperately to keep up appearances and provide lavishly for his family. The family had been forced to give up a mansion he had built in Cambridge, although they were leasing a respectable but not grand house in 1849. He was in debt to a number of friends, as his salary and meager lecture earnings could not cover his expenses.
He wrote "A Description of the Island of St. Michael" (1821), was associate editor of the "Boston Journal of Philosophy and the Arts" (1824–26), compiled "A Manual of Chemistry" (1826), and brought out editions of Andrew Fyfe's "Elements of Chemistry" (1827) and
Justus von Liebig's "Animal Chemistry or Organic Chemistry" (1841).
Webster, indulged as a child and pampered in youth, had a petulant and fussy disposition but was known for his kindly nature. ["DAB"] Longfellow attests to his macabre streak in an anecdote relating how at one dinner at the Webster home, the host amazed his guests by lowering the lights, fitting a noose around his own neck, and lolling his head forward, tongue protruding, over a bowl of blazing chemicals, to give a ghastly imitation of a man being hanged. [Annie A. Fields, "Memories of a Hostess", 1922, p. 153]
Swamp Yankeeof rural origins, Littlefield was the janitor of the new Harvard Medical College, built in 1846, and had also been the janitor at the previous one since 1842. He and his wife Caroline lived in the basement of the medical college, right next to professor John Webster's laboratory. He knew Webster and the other Harvard doctors well, and observed their study of medicine, including the dissection of cadavers for the study of human anatomy. To supplement his income, he obtained cadavers for dissection at a price of about twenty-five dollars a body, selling them to students and professors. As janitor, he cleaned the doctors' rooms and laboratories, started their fires, generally set up the specimens for their lectures, and did whatever else they asked. Littlefield was hostile toward his social betters the Brahmins, but also felt his job threatened by the Irish immigrants then pouring into Boston. He secretly loathed Webster. After the latter's trial, he collected a $3000 reward for providing information about Parkman's disappearance and was able to retire comfortably.
Crime and investigation
Webster first borrowed $400 from Parkman in 1842. In 1847, with little of this repaid, he gave Parkman a note for $2432, which represented the unpaid balance and a further loan. This was secured by a mortgage of Webster’s personal property, including a cabinet of minerals. In 1848, still in distress, he borrowed $1200 from
Robert Gould Shaw, Sr., making over to him as collateral the minerals that already stood as collateral for a Parkman loan. This enraged Parkman and caused him to seek out Webster for a confrontation. On November 22, 1849, a week before Thanksgiving, he went to Cambridge to look for Webster and asked Mr. Pettee, the Harvard cashier, to give him the money from the sale of Webster's lecture tickets to repay Webster's debt.On November 23, Parkman was out collecting debts as usual; later, one woman who owed him money recalled fleeing from him when he demanded the dollar he had seen in her hand as she tried to pay for food. He placed a grocery order for the approaching holiday and had it sent up to his house. He offered Thanksgiving greetings to several people. He left some lettuce with one man, expecting to return for it soon and to have lunch with his wife at 2:00 pm, as he had done each day of their 33-year marriage. That day, Webster visited Parkman's home, suggesting that they meet at the Medical College that afternoon at 1:30 pm. At 1:45 pm, the last confirmed sighting of Parkman had him entering the college on North Grove Street, wearing a dark frock coat, dark trousers, a purple satin vest, and a stovepipe hat. Later that afternoon, Littlefield found Webster's rooms locked from the inside, and heard water running. Webster was home by 6:00 pm and attended a party at the house of friends, the Treadwells, showing no outward signs of distress.
On November 24, the Parkman family made anxious inquiries and contacted the police. Also that day, Littlefield saw Webster with a bundle; Webster told him to make a fire.
On November 25, Webster was asked if he had seen Parkman. That afternoon, he also visited George's brother, the Reverend Francis Parkman, and in a stiff, formal manner informed him and his family that he had met the missing man after obtaining $483.64 to pay a debt installment, and that the latter promised that he would go right away to have the payment recorded by the
city clerkto clear the debt. Webster then left without inquiring about the search, despite owing his position at Harvard to Parkman.
On November 26, with a $3000 reward settled on for finding Parkman alive, the family had twenty-eight thousand copies of the wanted notice printed up, posted, and distributed; a little later, $1000 was offered for his body.
On November 27, Webster worked at the College in the evening, and officers from Boston's newly formed professional police force made their first search of his rooms. They returned once, each time placing special emphasis on the laboratories and dissecting vaults, but they found nothing to indicate that Parkman had even been there.
Meanwhile, Littlefield began to grow more nervous, as some began to link him to the disappearance, and more suspicious, as Webster was behaving oddly. A few days after the murder, the two men met in the street, and Webster asked the janitor if he had seen Parkman at the College the previous week. When Littlefield said he had, on Friday around 1:30, Webster struck his cane on the ground, then asking him if he had seen Parkman anywhere in the building, had seen him after 1:30, or if Parkman had been in Webster's own lecture room? When Littlefield answered no to these questions, Webster repeated the story about paying off the debt and walked off, having said more to Littlefield than in their entire years together at the College. Littlefield remembered that four days prior to the murder, Webster had asked him a number of questions about the dissecting vault, and after the college had been searched, the professor had surprised him with a turkey for his Thanksgiving dinner – the first gift he had ever given him.
On November 28, Webster was at the College early; Littlefield watched him from under the door, seeing as far as his knees. Webster moved from the furnace to the fuel closet and back, making eight separate trips. Later in the day, his furnace was burning so hard that the wall on the other side was hot to the touch. When Webster was gone, Littlefield let himself into the room through a window, all the doors being bolted. He found that the kindling barrels were nearly empty, though they had recently been filled, and there were wet spots that tasted like acid in odd places.
On November 29 (Thanksgiving), Littlefield borrowed a hatchet, drill, crowbar and mortar chisel, and while his wife stood guard, began chiseling away the wall under Webster's private lab privy. He went down a tunnel into the vault where the wall had felt hot and began to hack at it right where the privy emptied into a pit that the police had not searched. He went through two layers of brick in just over an hour, and then stopped to go to a dance, leaving the remaining layers for the next day.
On November 30, Littlefield resumed chiseling, and worked for some time until he managed to punch a hole into the wall, at which point he felt a strong draft that did not permit his lantern to stay lit inside. Maneuvering it, he looked around, ignoring the foul fumes and letting his eyes adjust to the dark. Finally he saw something out of the ordinary. He narrowed his eyes and looked more sharply until he just made out on top of a dirt mound the shape of a human pelvis. He also saw a dismembered thigh and the lower part of a leg.
Littlefield began to tremble quite violently. The light went out again and he stumbled in the darkness out of the vault and through the tunnel until he came out into the building. He yelled for his wife and told her what he had seen. On his hands there was blood mixed with dirt. Then without waiting to put on his coat, he ran to the home of another professor, Dr. Bigelow, who then found Marshal Tukey. However, the bones were not necessarily Parkman's; the vault where the remains from human dissections were tossed was in that lab. By the time Tukey arrived, word had spread, and a whole party of men was waiting for the official report on the bones' identity. Tukey first had Littlefield go through the dissection room and inventory the specimens to make sure that none was missing. Then several men went into the tunnel and moved toward the vault. They decided upon the man with the longest arms to go into the privy and hand out the remains, one by one. He went in and handed out the pelvis, the right thigh, and the lower left leg, and these were placed on a board to await the arrival of the coroner, Jabez Pratt. After this, Marshal Tukey dispatched Officer Clapp and two other constables to take Webster from his home in Cambridge. Without initially telling him he was under arrest, they took him to jail on a charge of murder.
Webster initially denied knowledge of the crime. When told what Littlefield had found, he exclaimed, "That villain! I am a ruined man", going on to blame the janitor and mentioning that only the two of them had access to the privy. He then fell silent, sitting in his cell, trembling and sweating. He put what he later admitted to be
strychnineinto his mouth, but it only made him ill.
Meanwhile, investigators wondered where the rest of the body was. Littlefield observed that he had found a bone fragment in a furnace in the laboratory to which Webster had access and showed it to the marshal. A full search of the toilet area was then conducted, with Webster brought in from the jail to observe. While the officers and coroner were searching, Littlefield showed them a piece of the furnace that he had broken off, on which a piece of bone was fused. They insisted he put it back where he found it. Webster watched silently as they laid out the parts they had already found, and then he was brought back to jail.
On December 1, a coroner's jury was assembled to make a judgment about the disposition of the case. Before they were let in, the coroner and marshal's men examined a sink that appeared to be recently gouged in several places, the strange acid stains on the floor and steps, and the contents of the furnace (from which they extracted a button, some coins, and more bone fragments, including a jaw bone with teeth). Then they dumped out a chest from which came a foul odor, and there was an armless, headless, hairy and partly burned torso. Just as they determined that the head had been sawn off, they found a saw nearby. Then they found a thigh stuffed inside the torso, and the heart and other organs missing.
Mrs. Parkman identified the body as her husband's from markings near the penis and on the lower back. His brother-in-law said that he had seen the extreme hairiness of Parkman's body and confirmed that the body was his.
Subsequent searches turned up bloody clothing belonging to Webster, as well as the right kidney. Testing on the stains showed them to be
copper nitrate, a substance effective for removing blood, and Dr. Jeffries Wyman arrived to identify the bone fragments.
Since they were already at a medical college with good facilities for the examination of a body, they laid out the parts, tested them, and wrote up thorough descriptions. They conjectured that a hole found underneath the left breast might have been the stab that had killed the victim, although it did not resemble a wound and there was no blood. By the end of the day, they had estimated the man's height to have been 5'10", an exact match to George Parkman.
In the week between the murder and the finding of the bones, the city was abuzz, with speculation fueled by its 120 periodicals. At first, Irish immigrants were blamed. Some believed Parkman had simply left the city; others thought he had been beaten up for the money he always carried with him. Unsigned letters mailed from Boston proposed various scenarios. The energetic Marshal Tukey had the
Charles Riverand Boston Harbordragged for a body, and sent men to neighboring towns to check. Search parties were formed that went out day and night. The police searched Parkman's buildings, both rented and vacant, and even abandoned buildings that he did not own.
After Webster's arrest, there was reluctance among the Brahmin to believe that one of their own had done the deed. Longfellow's wife wrote, "Boston is at this moment in sad suspense about the fate of poor Dr. Parkman... You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks.... Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman's body. He could make things appear against the doctor, having bodies under his control. I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually. I went to see poor Mrs. Webster on Saturday, the day after her husband's arrest, but of course was not admitted. What a terrible blight upon her life and that of the girls! The mere suspicion, for I cannot believe anything can be proved." On December 1, Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley wrote in his journal: "The standing of Dr. Webster, his uniform tenor of conduct since the disappearance of Dr. Parkman, his artlessness & unfamiliarity with crime of any kind have been such that the excitement, the melancholy, the aghastness of every body are indescribable. The professors poh! at the mere suspicion he is guilty... People cannot eat; they feel sick."
On December 6, thousands lined the streets for Parkman's funeral. Some 5,000 had even toured the crime scene.
On January 26, 1850, Webster was indicted for murder. Leading lawyers
Daniel Websterand Rufus Choateboth declined to serve as John Webster's counsel. Then, while awaiting trial, the latter wrote out a detailed, 194-page defense.
The prosecution was faced with the problem of a severely deteriorated corpse that could plausibly have come from a dissection. Still, the inquest jury, in an 84-page decision, decided that the body parts were indeed those of Parkman, that he had been killed and dismembered at the medical college, and that Webster was accountable for it. Later, using these findings, the
grand juryreturned a True Bill and indicted him. According to their report, they believed that Webster had assaulted Parkman with a knife, and also had beaten and struck him until he was dead.
Webster chose two attorneys from a list provided for him. They were Harvard graduates Edward D. Sohier and Pliney Merrick. Sohier had handled Webster's civil (mostly financial) matters in the past. Inexperienced in criminal law, he provided a second-rate defense for Webster. Merrick, more experienced in criminal law, held a secondary position during the trial. Webster did not discuss strategy with them, instead handing them his papers, which contained the same story he had been telling.The trial began on March 19, 1850, with Chief Justice
Lemuel Shawof the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Courtpresiding. [In 1850, Massachusetts law required that capital cases be tried before several judges on the Supreme Judicial Court.] Associate Justices Samuel Wilde, Charles A. Dewey, and Theron Metcalfwere also present; one of them was incompetent, and another, nearly senile. It would run for twelve days: March 19–23, March 25–30, and April 1. 60,000 people witnessed at least part of the trial (with tickets handed out to the waiting crowds and spectators quickly rotated through); journalists came from as far as London, Paris, and Berlin. The courtroom was large and noisy; Webster sat in the prisoner's dock on the left, surrounded by an iron railing. The judge sat across from the dock, while the jurysat to his right. On the first day, Webster carried gloves, and he pleaded not guilty.
Within an hour, 42 prospective jurors were questioned and a dozen impanelled. They were:
*Robert J. Byram, Locksmith, foreman
*Thomas Barrett, Printer
*John Borrowscale, Slater
*James Crosby, Clerk
*John E. Davenport, Painter
*Albert Day, Merchant
*Joseph Eustis, Merchant
*Daniel T. Fuller of North Chelsea, Wheelwright
*Benjamin H. Greene, Bookseller
*Arnold Hayward, Carpenter
*Frederick A. Henderson, Furnisher
*Stephen A. Stackpole, Clerk. ["Report", p. 8]
Leading the prosecution were the politically ambitious
Massachusetts Attorney General John Clifford(later Governor), who mainly confined his role to opening and closing statements, and George Bemis, the son of a prosperous manufacturer and a Harvard Law Schoolgraduate. Bemis, a legal scholar and respected, rigorous prosecutor, later wrote a "Report" of the trial that came to be received as the official version. The two men's styles complemented each other.
On the first day, Clifford made a three-hour opening statement presenting facts and evidence; Bemis then began his cross-examination of witnesses, who conceded that they would not have recognized the body as belonging to Parkman.
The next day, the jury visited the scene of the crime, even entering the privy pit. Back in the courtroom, the coroner described Webster as "mad" after his arrest (possibly due to the strychnine); his lawyers made no objection. Dr.
Woodbridge Strongthen talked about what was needed to burn a corpse and the odor it would produce, after which anatomy professor Dr. Frederick S. Ainsworthpointed out that his department's dissection specimens differed from the body in question. Another doctor described which bones had been found. The defense created doubt that the body was Parkman's, and questioned whether the wound on his body had killed him, as there was little blood near it.
On the third day,
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the dean of Harvard Medical College, who held a post endowed by Parkman, took the stand. He testified his belief that the body had been dismembered by someone with a knowledge of dissection and anatomy, that a wound between the ribs would not necessarily cause a large amount of blood loss, and that the corpse's build was "not dissimilar" to that of George Parkman. Dr. Wyman again described the bones and showed how they fit together. Then Dr. Nathan Keep, Parkman's dentist, swore that the jawbonewith false teethfound in the furnace belonged to Parkman, recognizing it as the work he had done in the fall of 1846. He showed the jury how the discovered jawbone fit exactly into a plaster impression that he had made of Parkman's jaw. A fire alarm then rang from the building where Clifford had his belongings, so the court recessed while he went to retrieve them. When court resumed, Dr. Keep burst into tears as he showed how the loose teeth from the furnace fit into his plates. Composing himself, he showed through an inscription that the mold had been made specifically for Parkman.
On Friday and Saturday, Ephraim Littlefield, the chief witness (who had known both Webster and Parkman for years), took the stand. He told how the latter had demanded payment on November 19, how Webster had asked if one could use a light inside the dissecting room vault (to which Littlefield said no), how Webster began locking his rooms, about the turkey and then about the heat on the walls that had led him to dig into the privy. The defense accused Littlefield of being after the reward, which he denied, though they did not accuse him of the murder, as Webster had indicated they should. Overall, the janitor made a good impression – confident, honest, and unflappable. His wife Caroline also testified.
After a Sunday recess, on Monday the court heard about Webster's debt problem and doubt was cast on his story (that he had managed to repay Parkman). A police officer then told how he had found the torso in a tea chest, which was then displayed, complete with blood stains. He also said that it was possible to fit the other parts into the privy hole, but not the torso. More witnesses were brought forth to testify about Webster's unusual behavior after Parkman's disappearance, and three unsigned letters meant to throw the police off the track were shown. A man familiar with Webster's hand testified to his belief that Webster had written the letters. A witness then confirmed that Parkman was on the steps of the College early on Friday afternoon, before the prosecution rested.
The defense then spent two days refuting the prosecution's case. Sohier gave a long speech, "inter alia" complaining that Webster could not defend himself (at the time in Massachusetts, capital murder defendants could only make one unsworn speech to the jury right at the end of the trial). Sohier explained the difference between murder and manslaughter, which left the impression that he believed a homicide had occurred. He asserted that the prosecution had failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Webster was the killer, or even how Parkman had died. Hoping to dent the case against Webster through a cumulative effect, he brought forth 23 character witnesses and seven others who claimed to have seen Parkman after his supposed time of disappearance. Following the judge's instructions, the jury ignored testimony of those defense witnesses---who knew Parkman and swore they had seen the missing man after he was supposedly murdered. The state's rationale was that those sightings were instead of a Springfield man named George Bliss who the prosecution suggested---with no testimony from Bliss or anyone else---was in Boston on the day in question. [French, John A. Stenographic Report: "Trial of Professor John W. Webster for the Murder of Dr. George Parkman", 1850.] In 2007-2008, researchers re-examining the case from Webster's perspective have [http://www.americanantiquarian.org/vignettes110107.htm located an image] of Bliss for comparative forensic analysis with the distinctive, odd-looking Parkman. [American Antiquarian Society: Vignettes @ AAS, "The Gentleman in the Purple Waistcoat", Nov 1 2007]
Sohier then called medical experts (some of whom had testified for the prosecution) who conceded that it was difficult to identify the body or how the man had died. Dr.
William T.G. Morton, inventor of ether, said that if the jawbone found in the furnace "were placed among a dozen others which I can produce, I should not be led to pick it out from any peculiarity." He placed several false teeth of his own into Dr. Keep's mold, and they fit smoothly. Sohier called the prosecution's case "indirect, presumptive, and circumstantial"; the defense then rested and the rebuttal started. Three dentists stated that an artist would recognize his own handiwork, and a physician estimated the condition of the remains to match up with the time for which Parkman had disappeared.
The defense then gave a six-hour speech on four key points that the prosecution had to prove: that the body was Parkman's, that a homicide had occurred, that Webster had perpetrated it, and that he had done so with
malice aforethought. The defense contended that since Parkman had been seen leaving the College on Friday afternoon, the prosecution's case was in tatters. Moreover, they said, even if the body was definitely Parkman's, anyone could have killed him and disposed of his body where it was found; this assertion weakened their case as it seemed fanciful.
Clifford made his own closing argument lasting more than a day. He repeated what he saw as the facts and emphasized that strong medical testimony had been presented. He said that, beyond a reasonable doubt, Parkman was dead, found cut up inside the lab. He reminded the jury of Webster's financial situation and actions prior to Parkman's disappearance.
Webster himself then took the stand, against his attorneys' strong advice. In a fifteen-minute speech, he criticized his attorneys and presented his own version of the evidence, after which he called on the author of the anonymous letters to reveal himself; none did so.
Shaw then made a historic statement, replete with bias against the defendant, in which he made a precedent-setting ruling. He said that the jury only needed to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the "corpus delicti" was Parkman's; at the time, the standard in murder cases was proof "to an absolute certainty" that the dead body was that of the victim. Just before 8 pm on March 30, he charged the jury with producing a verdict on the defendant's guilt or innocence.
The jury began deliberations with a prayer and then reviewed the evidence. They voted unanimously that the remains were Parkman's, that Webster had killed him, and that he had done so deliberately. They returned at 10:45 pm, stating that they had reached a verdict. The crowd filtered back in and Webster was led inside. The clerk asked for their finding. The foreman replied, "Guilty!" Then, as Bemis writes, "The prisoner, who upon the sentence of the jury had turned deadly pale, but who had stood up with a firm bearing to receive the verdict of the jury, immediately upon its announcement, grasped the rail in front of him, and slowly sank down into his seat. Dropping his head, he rubbed his eyes beneath his spectacles with a trembling and convulsed motion as if to wipe away tears, and remained in that position a few moments." ["Report.", p. 497] [Another report states, "When the Foreman pronounced the word Guilty, the prisoner started, like a person shot; his hand dropped upon the rail in front, his chin drooped upon his breast; and after remaining thus a moment or two, he sank into the chair, covering his eyes with his hands. A death-like silence followed, and all eyes were fixed in silence on him whose hopes had now fled. For nearly five minutes the prisoner remained in this state, apparently unconscious...The prisoner...seemed affected to tears. No one seemed willing to move – to break the spell which kept all fixed in silence...The prisoner remained some time after the Court adjourned, with his handkerchief to his eyes." "Report of the Trial of Prof. John W. Webster", p. 303. Boston: Philips, Sampson, 1850]
On April 1, Judge Shaw directed "that you, John W. Webster, be removed from this place, and detained in close custody in the prison of this county; and thence taken...to the place of execution, and there be hung by the neck until you are dead. And may God, of His infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!" ["Report", pp. 501–2]
Reactions were sharply divided. For instance, the "Evening Bulletin" wrote on April 2 that "Scarcely one man in ten thousand can be found who does not agree with us in the opinion that the evidence for the defence was sufficient to create a doubt of the unhappy man's guilt", while four days later, the "Massachusetts Ploughman" claimed that "We have scarcely met a man of intelligence, since the evidence has all come out, who did not profess to believe in Webster's guilt."
On May 4, Webster's lawyers submitted a petition for a
writ of erroragainst Judge Shaw and his instructions to the jury. The hearing was held before Shaw and his four associates on June 12, and the writ denied. Webster appealed to Governor George N. Briggsfor a pardon, asserting his entire innocence. Unfortunately for him, Briggs was a lay preacher who did not wish to be seen bowing to Brahmin pressure (which strongly favored a commutation). Moreover, the year before, Washington Goode, a black sailor, had been hanged for the murder of a fellow black sailor based on circumstantial evidence. To have pardoned Webster after sending Goode to the gallows would have undermined his reputation. As "The Fall River Weekly News" put it: "If any delays, misgivings or symptoms of mercy are manifested, the gibbeted body of Washington Goode will be paraded before the mind's eye of his Excellency. If he relents in this case, though the entire population of the State petition for a remission of sentence, Governor Briggs will forfeit all claim to public respect as a high minded, honorable and impartial chief magistrate. He can do one of two things and retain his character as a man and a public servant: resign his office, or let the law take its course." Thus, he signed the death warrant.In June, Webster, in a desperate bid to save his neck, wrote a confession. He admitted to killing Parkman in self-defense when the latter had become aggressive over the debt. He said that it was an unpremeditated rage, an act of passion and provocation, not a malicious murder. He said that Parkman "was speaking and gesticulating in the most violent and menacing manner" about the mineral cabinet being put up to cover another loan, and that in his fury he, Webster, "seized whatever thing was handiest - it was a stick of wood - and dealt him an instantaneous blow with all the force that passion could give it. It was on the side of his head, and there was nothing to break the force of the blow. He fell instantly upon the pavement. There was no second blow. He did not move." He also admitted to authoring an anonymous letter.
Despite renewed calls for a commutation, the Governor and Council remained unmoved, the sentence remained final, and the Brahmins sent engraved invitations to it. Webster was taken to Boston's Leverett Square on August 30, 1850, and publicly hanged. He died within four minutes and was buried in the decidedly lowbrow
Copp's Hill. After the hanging, Parkman's widow was the first contributor to a fund created for Webster's impoverished widow and daughters.
The case proved enduring in its impact as the first in the United States where dental evidence and scientific testimony were accepted in a murder trial. Debate continued for years about a number of its facets. When
Charles Dickensvisited Boston in 1867, among his first requests was to see the room where Dr. Parkman had been murdered.
The trial has remained as a source of controversy. A century after the fact, one author observed, "the Parkman murder case stands as a classic example of how a jury can reach a sound verdict despite an unfair trial." [Richard B. Morris, "Fair Trial: Fourteen Who Stood Accused", p. 156. New York: 1952] Sohier lacked experience in criminal law; neither attorney exposed the fact (pointed out in Webster's notes) that Littlefield may have perjured himself in several key areas of his testimony, and neither cross-examined him about his corpse-stealing activity. They failed to emphasize that the janitor lived near the lab, giving him an opportunity to plant the body parts and collect the reward. As well, their inconsistent reference to the possibility of manslaughter and their admission that Webster could not account for the $483.64 he said he had paid Parkman were signs of incompetence. Attorney General Clifford, his sights on higher office, ignored evidence implicating Littlefield and let Bemis, a private attorney hired by the Parkmans, do most of the prosecuting. Judge Shaw showed bias against Webster, and labored hard to rework his charge before it appeared in Bemis' "Report" so that it would read less like an indictment and more like a faithful statement of the law; he may have reworked it again before it was published in "Cushing's Reports". Then there was the Reverend George Putnam, a close friend of Clifford's who advised him on ways to strengthen his case before becoming a self-appointed father confessor and confidant to the condemned Webster. Finally, the "Report" was somewhat of a whitewash, issued to counteract a spate of negative publicity. [Review of "Murder at Harvard", Robert M. Ireland, "The American Journal of Legal History", 16, 4, 1972, pp. 373–76]
In 1991, the famous historian
Simon Schamawrote a book, "Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations", based in part on the case, and later participated in the making of a PBS documentary on the subject.
*George Bemis, "Report of the Case of John W. Webster". Boston: Little, Brown, 1850
*Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 19, pp. 592-3. New York,
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936
* [http://www.edinboro.edu/cwis/polisci/jimfisher/forensics/webster1.html Jim Fisher, "The Webster-Parkman Case"]
* [http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us/ideasv41/halttun4.htm Kathleen Halttunen, "Divine Providence and Dr. Parkman's Jawbone: The Cultural Construction of Murder as Mystery"]
* [http://www.harvardmagazine.com/on-line/070383.html Craig Lambert, "An Aristocrat's Killing"] , in "
* [http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious%5Fmurders/classics/george%5Fparkman/ Katherine Ramsland, "All about George Parkman"]
* [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/murder/peopleevents/index.html Official site of the PBS documentary, "Murder at Harvard"]
* [http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/10.03/23-murder.html Beth Potier, "Murder at Harvard"]
* [http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-03/stange/ Eric Strange, "Shooting Back"]
* [http://www.kusiakmusic.com/press/herald2003.html "Murder at Harvard" digs up dirt on 19th century"] , in the "
* [http://www.spypondproductions.com/parkman/ The Murder of Dr. Parkman]
* [http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=85 Professor's Murder Trial Begins]
* [http://www.innovationodyssey.com/bostonStories.htm Using Forensic Evidence]
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