The Murder of a Wealthy Boston Physician by a Harvard Professor, 1849
Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
“Celebrated Criminal Cases of America”
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast
On Friday, November 23, 1849, one of the most prominent physicians in Boston, Dr. George Parkman, mysteriously disappeared. Being very methodical in his habits, his family immediately suspected foul play.
He was the owner of many tenement houses and was rather exacting in his attitude toward his tenants, many of whom were of the rougher class. As he collected the rents himself, the authorities proceeded on the theory that he had antagonized some of these tenants to such an extent that they murdered him for the double purpose of revenge and robbery, and then concealed his body.
The river was dredged and the doctor’s tenements and the buildings adjacent thereto were thoroughly searched, but no trace was found of the missing man, although large rewards were offered.
When the doctor left home, about noon on November 23, he stated that he had an appointment with a person at 2:30 p. m., but did not divulge the name of the person.
About 1:30 p. m. he entered the grocery store conducted by Paul Holland, at Vine and Blossom Streets, and after leaving an order, he asked permission to leave a paper bag containing a head of lettuce at the store for a few moments, but he never returned for it. This grocery store was but a short distance from one of the leading medical colleges in Boston, the college being located on Grove Street. Elias Fuller, who conducted an iron foundry adjacent to the medical college, and his brother, Albert, saw Dr. Parkman in front of the college about 2 p. m. on the date of his disappearance.
Dr. John Webster was the professor of chemistry at this college and also at Harvard College. His standing in the social and professional world was equal to that of Dr. Parkman, and their families were on terms of considerable intimacy.
Notwithstanding the fact that Dr. Parkman called on Dr. Webster at the college at 2 p. m. on Friday, the 23rd, and his subsequent disappearance was the principal topic of conversation in Boston the next day and for some time afterward, Dr. Webster did not inform the almost distracted members of the Parkman family of this visit until the Sunday evening following, although it was proven that he saw an account of the doctor’s disappearance in the Boston Transcript on Saturday afternoon.
Dr. Webster then stated that Dr. Parkman called on him for the purpose of collecting $450 which Webster had previously borrowed, giving as security a mortgage on a piece of real estate.
He claimed that he paid Dr. Parkman the full amount due, from the proceeds of the sale of tickets to his course of lectures in the college.
Dr. Parkman held a note for this amount, which he had in his possession when he called on Dr. Webster and which the latter subsequently produced to prove that he had paid the money. He added that Dr. Parkman stated that he would proceed forthwith to Cambridge and cancel the mortgage.
Dr. Webster also claimed that he saw Dr. Parkman go down stairs and leave the college after this transaction.
Webster made many conflicting statements as to the denomination of the money paid and as to the circumstances under which it was paid, but his standing in the community was such that it was difficult to believe him guilty of any wrongdoing and it would have been considered preposterous at that time to even suspect him of being implicated in the murder of his friend and benefactor.
Merely as a matter of form, the authorities decided to search the medical college, but before proceeding with the formal search an apology was made to Dr. Webster for the intrusion.
When Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor of the building, observed the farcical search, he looked on with disapproving eyes, and intimated that a more thorough search would result in sensational discoveries.
The authorities then questioned Littlefield closely, and he made the following statement:
I have known Dr. Parkman for many years. On Monday evening, November 19, 1849, I was assisting Dr. Webster when Dr. Parkman entered the room. He appeared to be angry at Dr. Webster and without any preliminary conversation, abruptly said: “Dr. Webster, are you ready for me tonight?”
Webster replied, “No, I am not, doctor.”
I then moved away, but I heard Dr. Parkman reprimand him for selling mortgaged property, and in a final burst of anger said: “Something must be done tomorrow,” and he then left.
On the morning of Friday, November 23, I saw a sledge hammer which belonged in the laboratory, behind Dr. Webster’s door. I had never seen it there before and have been unable to find it since.
At 2:15 p. m. I was at the front door and saw Dr. Parkman approaching the college, but I went inside and did not see him enter the building. About one hour afterward I went to Dr. Webster’s laboratory to clean up, but found the door bolted from the inside.
I knocked loudly but received no response, although I heard someone walking inside who, I supposed, was Dr. Webster. I then tried all the different doors leading to his laboratory, but they were all locked from the inside—a most unusual occurrence.
At 4 o’clock I tried the doors again, with the same result. At 5 p.m. I saw Dr. Webster leave the building from the back exit.
I went to a party that night, and at 11 p. m. returned to the college, where my wife and I are domiciled. I again tried Dr. Webster’s door and again found it locked.
On the next day, Saturday, Dr. Webster was in his laboratory all day, but I did not go near him. That evening I met him on the street, and we discussed the article in the evening paper about the disappearance of Dr. Parkman.
Formerly he would look me in the face when talking, but on this occasion, he hung his head and was pale and agitated. On Sunday and Monday the doors to the laboratory were still locked. On Tuesday, I found the doctor’s room open and mentioned the fact to my wife.
On this day, he was exceptionally friendly toward me and gave me an order for a Thanksgiving turkey. This was remarkable, as I had known him for eight years, and it was the first time I ever knew of him giving anything away.
On Wednesday, Dr. Webster came to the college early and again locked the door.
The flue from his furnace is between the walls near the stairs leading to the demonstrator’s room, and when I passed up the stairs the wall was extremely hot.
The janitor’s statement in regard to the door to the laboratory being constantly locked for several days subsequent to the disappearance of Dr. Parkman was corroborated by several persons who had called during that period.
These disclosures were made on Thursday, November 29, and the officers proceeded at once to Dr. Webster’s laboratory, and after vigorous knocking, the door was unbolted from the inside and the officers were admitted by Dr. Webster, but nothing was said regarding the janitor’s statement.
At this time a bright fire was burning in the furnace. Nothing was found on this date, and the search was resumed on Friday in the absence of Dr. Webster.
In the meantime the furnace had become cool enough to permit of an examination, which resulted in the finding of a fractured skull containing a full set of mineral teeth.
By means of a trap door, the officers descended to the cellar, where they found a right leg.
In a tea chest they found the upper part of a man’s body and the left leg. The shape of the body corresponded with that of Dr. Parkman.
Dr. Winslow Lewis and two other reputable surgeons stated that the manner in which the body was separated indicated that it was done by someone having knowledge of anatomy.
The fact that these remains were found concealed in the chemical laboratory where no such subjects were required, made it apparent that they were the remains of some victim of foul play, and Dr. Ainsworth, the demonstrator of anatomy at the college, stated that they were not parts of any subject used in the college for dissection.
Dr. N. C. Keep, who had made a full set of false teeth for Dr. Parkman, inspected the plate and teeth and identified them as work he had done for Dr. Parkman, because of a peculiarity of the lower jaw, which caused him much trouble. But to be positive, he produced the model, which fitted the plates exactly.
The result of the police investigations were not made public until it was proven beyond all doubt that the remains of Dr. Parkman had been found. Police Officer Clapp was then sent to Dr. Webster’s home at Cambridge to arrest him for murder.
When the public learned of the arrest of the eminent professor, it was at once concluded that a grave mistake had been made and that too much credence had been given to the statement of the janitor, who possibly was attempting to shield himself.
At the trial it was proven that notwithstanding his outward show of prosperity, Dr. Webster was financially embarrassed. It was proven that he had committed a felony by selling the property upon which Dr. Parkman held a mortgage for $450 and that the latter threatened to prosecute him for this offense if he did not immediately pay the principal and interest, amounting to $483.60.
It was proven that it was utterly impossible for Dr. Webster, who saw the state prison and ruin staring him in the face, to raise this small amount of money.
It was proven that he lied when he stated that he paid this amount from the proceeds of the sale of tickets to his course of lectures at the college, as he had received no such amount, and a large portion of what he did receive was paid to others.
It was proven that Dr. Webster called at Dr. Parkman’s house and requested the latter to call at the college at 2:30 p. m. on November 23 for the purpose of making a final settlement.
Dr. Webster could give no reason for keeping a roaring fire in the furnace for several days after Dr. Parkman’s disappearance, and during the Thanksgiving holidays, when all of the other professors were enjoying a week of recreation.
While it was the duty of the janitor to build the fires, the latter was barred from Dr. Webster’s apartments, who personally attended to the building and feeding of the fire.
It was proven that the upper part of the body and left leg found in the tea chest were tied together by a peculiar kind of twine and that Dr. Webster had, on November 27, purchased similar twine and several fish hooks which were found in his apartments.
It was proven that when the officers approached the room in which the tea chest containing a greater part of the body was found, Dr. Webster endeavored to discourage them from searching that room by stating that highly explosive chemicals were stored there.
A pair of trousers belonging to Dr. Webster was found in a closet and subjected to a microscopical examination with the result that human blood was found.
While the search was being made for Dr. Parkman, the City Marshal of Boston received three anonymous letters.
One, supposed to have been written by an illiterate person, suggested that a search be made on “brooklynt heights,” another stated that Dr. Parkman had gone to sea on the ship “Herculian,” and a third, signed “Civis,” stated positively that the missing doctor had been seen at Cambridge.
Handwriting experts swore positively that all three letters were written by Dr. Webster.
The defense produced witnesses to prove the previous good character of Dr. Webster and also introduced testimony to the effect that Dr. Parkman had been seen after the defendant claimed he left the college. After producing medical experts to contradict the medical testimony introduced by the prosecution, the case was submitted.
Chief Justice Shaw then delivered his charge to the jury, and his instructions regarding circumstantial evidence were so able, comprehensive, and discriminating that they have since been regarded as a model by many of the leading jurists of America. When the cause was finally submitted to the jurors, they almost immediately agreed that the defendant was guilty. As Justice Shaw was also officially connected with Harvard College and had been friendly with Dr. Webster for years, he almost collapsed while pronouncing the death penalty on his erstwhile friend.
The date of execution was set for August 30, 1850. Notwithstanding efforts made to obtain executive clemency, Dr. Webster went to the gallows on that day, publicly protesting his innocence, although it was claimed that he confessed his guilt to a clergyman.