...in 1850, a sensational murder trial began in Boston. Both the victim and the accused belonged to the city's social elite. The case had been closely followed ever since the dismembered body of Dr. George Parkman was found in a cellar at Harvard Medical School. John Webster, a professor at the medical school, was charged with the grisly crime. The motive? Webster owed Parkman money. After being convicted of the murder, Webster confessed that when Parkman badgered him for payment, he "forgot everything" and in his fury "seized whatever thing was handiest and dealt him an instantaneous blow with all the force that passion could give it." John Webster was hanged in Boston on August 30, 1850.
In the spring of 1850, Boston was the scene of a murder trial so macabre that reporters came from as far away as London, Paris, and Berlin. Visitors pressed for admission to the courtroom in such numbers that groups were rotated through in ten-minute shifts. By the end of the 12-day trial, more than 60,000 people had observed the drama firsthand.
The trial dealt with a grisly murder and dismemberment on the campus of Harvard Medical School. As if that were not sensational enough, it involved men who belonged to the elite of Boston society. Dr. George Parkman, scion of one of the city's oldest and wealthiest families, had disappeared. Within a week, John Webster, a professor at the medical school, was charged with his grisly murder.
When Parkman first disappeared, the leading theory was that he had been robbed and murdered by Irish immigrants, who had been flooding into Boston since the potato famine devastated Ireland in the mid-1840s. Several thousand broadsides were distributed seeking information on his whereabouts, but no one reported having seen him since the day after Thanksgiving.
While the police and press looked for leads, Ephraim Littlefield went underground literally in search of Dr. Parkman. A janitor at Harvard Medical School, Littlefield later said that he had reasons to suspect Professor Webster, who taught chemistry at the medical school. Parkman was last seen entering Harvard Medical School, where it was presumed he went to collect money Webster owed him.
Littlefield had witnessed an argument between the two, and he noticed Webster's odd behavior after Parkman's disappearance. The professor had begun to keep his doors locked and a fire constantly burning in his laboratory. Littlefield decided to take his investigation further. Working from a crawl space under Webster's rooms, he spent several evenings digging and then chiseling his way into Webster's private privy. There, he made a gruesome discovery: parts of a body that he surmised belonged to George Parkman.
Littlefield took his discovery to the police, who proceeded to arrest John Webster for the murder of George Parkman. When the story broke, the city was horrified and fascinated. The press reported every gory detail.
The motive appeared to be money. Webster owed many people money, including Parkman, who had recently been publicly hounding the professor for payment. George Parkman was known as a charitable man, but he was also known to be intolerant of men who did not pay their debts. Webster, on the other hand, was a genial, affable soul, who habitually overspent his small teaching salary. The police, press, and public opinion all came to the same conclusion: Webster had killed Parkman out of a desire to be free of his humiliating debt.
George Parkman's murder was tragic, and the fact that a Harvard doctor of previously unblemished character was the leading suspect caused further anguish among the Boston elite. Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet, wrote to a friend, "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. . . . I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually."
The trial began on March 19, 1850. Prosecutors established the victim's identity with dental records, one of the first times forensic evidence was used in a criminal trial. The jury heard a graphic description of the dismembered corpse. The defense suggested that Littlefield was untrustworthy, but the janitor's testimony was straightforward and convincing.
In the end, the evidence was largely circumstantial. The presiding judge set a legal precedent when he instructed the jury that to render a guilty verdict based on circumstantial evidence it needed to be certain "beyond a reasonable doubt." The jury found John Webster guilty, and he was sentenced to hang.
As Webster awaited his execution, he prepared a full confession, insisting that he struck Parkman in an unpremeditated rage when the doctor verbally abused and defamed him. In spite of an outpouring of mail from across the country begging the governor to pardon him, John Webster was hanged.
"An Aristocrat's Killing," by Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine. July-August, 2003.
Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), by Simon Schama (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
"Murder at Harvard: Medical College Case Riveted 19th century Boston," Harvard University Gazette.