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John White Webster was known as something of a hot-head. And, as a professor of chemistry at Harvard College, he certainly liked to blow things up. But he could not seriously be considered a suspect in the case of Dr. George Parkman’s death. After all, as Harvard’s President Jared Sparks said, “Our professors do not often commit murder.”

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Dr. Parkman was a very prominent Bostonian, famous for, among other things, his false teeth. He was the benefactor of Harvard’s Medical College and had endowed the chair of anatomy occupied by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. His nephew, Francis Parkman, would grow up to be America’s first great historian. One more solid fact about the doctor: he was last seen on this Earth walking towards the Medical College on the afternoon of November 23, 1849.

Two days after Dr. Parkman was last seen, Professor Webster admitted that he’d had an interview with him that afternoon and paid him several hundred dollars. So, his pockets full of money, Parkman must have been robbed on the way home. Had the desperate cutpurses done something even worse?

An eminent Bostonian’s disappearance was real news. A reward was posted. Enter the Medical College’s janitor, Ephriam Littlefield, who testified that he heard Webster and Parkman arguing. On his own, Littlefield began excavating the privy vault under Webster’s rooms. Dr. Parkman, one presumes? Yes, or at least parts of him. Constable Derastus Clapp promptly arrested Webster. More bodily remains were found in Webster’s laboratory, in the stove and in a tin box, including those famous false teeth. The teeth were identified by Dr. Nathan C. Keep, who had made them for Parkman. This was one of the earliest uses of forensic evidence in the American courtroom.

Stewart Holbrook gives a fine précis of the scandal and trial. John Webster didn’t make enough money to pay for his famously lavish entertainments. He had gone deeper and deeper into debt with Parkman, a real estate tycoon known for extracting every penny he was owed. Webster had even sold his rock collection to help pay off his debt, though it had already been mortgaged to Parkman. Unfortunately, he sold it to Parkman’s friend Robert Gould Shaw, grandfather of the Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the first all-black regiment in the Civil War.

Defense attorneys, including Pliny Merrick, were later sharply criticized for not vigorously cross-examining Littlefield. Webster claimed that Littlefield moonlighted as a resurrectionist, one of that infamous crew who illegally supplied bodies to medical colleges for anatomy lessons. Albert I. Borowitz details the charges laid out against the defense by A. Oakey Hall, later a Mayor of New York (and another Harvard man, obviously). But as Borowitz notes, Hall’s points were blunted by the fact that he hadn’t actually attended the trial.

Capital crimes in Massachusetts where presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Lemuel Shaw (Harvard, Class of 1800), who was also Herman Melville’s father-in-law. Shaw’s three-hour charge to the jury in the Webster case is considered “one of the greatest expositions of the law of circumstantial evidence ever delivered.” The jury found Webster guilty after three hours of deliberation. He appealed, to no avail. Just before swinging from the hangman’s rope in 1850, he confessed to the crime.

The case was long remembered. Twenty years later, Charles Dickens named the murder room as the one place he really wanted to visit in Boston, much to the chagrin of locals. And attorney Ben Butler, who was not a Harvard man, was soon admonished by a judge to tread lightly with a witness.

“Don’t you know he’s a Harvard man?”

“Yes, I know, your honor; we hanged one the other day.”


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The American Scholar, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Autumn 1945), pp. 425-434
The Phi Beta Kappa Society
American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 66, No. 12 (December, 1980), pp. 1540-1545
American Bar Association