Harvard Professor Webster: His Execution for Murder

The execution of Harvard Professor Webster happened in 1850 on 30 August. (It occurred the same year that the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud died.) John W. Webster was a professor of chemistry and geology at Harvard Medical College and found guilty of murdering Dr. George Parkman. To learn more about the case click here.

Harvard Professor Webster

John Webster. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The trial of Harvard Professor Webster murdering Parkman began on 19 March and lasted twelve days before he was convicted on 23 November 1849. Webster was sentenced to death for “felonious” and “willful” murder of Parkman and because of great interest in the case Webster’s journey to the scaffold was chronicled by various newspapers. For instance, it was noted by the Lancaster Examiner the day before Webster’s execution his “amiable wife” and “three intelligent daughters” visited him in the afternoon one last time:

“They were with him the usual time, from two until about half-past six o’clock. … Singular as it may appear, we were assured by the officers of the prison that they parted with that husband and father, ignorant of the fact that they would never see him again alive! We saw them as they passed out of the prison and we are fully satisfied that such was the case.”[1]

On the morning before Webster’s execution, Reverend Putnam also spent time with him and Edward D. Shoier, one of Webster’s defense lawyers, was summoned by the prisoner. Shoier arrived immediately after the departure of Webster’s family. Later that night, as was usual, a special watch guard was called to watch over the convicted man. Webster never objected to the watchmen, but he did ask if the clerk of the jail, J.C. Leighton, and the officer who had overseen him during his trial, Edward J. Jones, might be selected to perform this duty. His request was granted, and these two men remained with him until the morning of his execution.

As Harvard Professor Webster waited to die, he read the Bible and confined most his conversations with Leighton and Jones to moral and religious subjects. He also talked about his family and their religious inclinations, and he repeated the scriptural passage, “If it be possible let this cup pass from me, yet, not my will but Thine, O Lord, be done.” These activities lasted until midnight, which is when he took off his coat, spread it across his iron bedstead. He then relaxed and slept without a care until 4:30am.

After waking, he prayed and then once again read the Bible’s scriptures. Those with him noted that he was “as calm as the sunny and almost breezeless morning.”[2] In addition, as Webster waited in his cell, the building of the scaffold occurred and he must have heard the sounds. It happened around 5:30am because Luther Dunbar, along with at least six other workers, began erecting it in the center of the prison yard. It was completed around 7:45am.

The same scaffold prepared for Webster had been erected and used once before. Washington Goode* was executed on it. He was an African American sailor who in 1849 (the same year that the famous French socialite Madame Récamier died from cholera in Paris) was convicted of murder. He was hanged May 1849 and at the time of his execution the scaffold was described in the following fashion:

“[It] consists of a platform of about fifteen feet square, raised a little higher than one’s head, and single beam over it is much higher. In the centre of the platform was a trap door, surrounded with a raised joist frame. A rope was run through two holes in the beam and fastened on the post. The noose was suspended over the trap, which was so adjusted that the executioner might let it fall by simply placing his foot upon a spring fixed in the floor immediately in front of the victim.”[3]

Washington Goode’s execution. Author’s collection.

Unlike Washington Goode’s execution only 125 spectators were allowed to enter the yard to view the execution of Harvard Professor Webster. Interest was intense just like it would be for the upcoming executions in 1862 and 1873 of British poisoners and serial killers Catherine Wilson and Mary Ann Cotton, respectively. Moreover, just like British newspapers reported on the deaths of these women, American papers highlighted the intense interest being demonstrated by the American public in regard to Webster’s execution. One of the papers was the Vermont Journal which stated:

“As early as 7 o’clock, groups of persons collected about the jail walls, and as morning advanced, blinds would be opened, curtains drawn aside, and house-tops and sheds commanding a view of the scene of Death filled with anxious spectators.”[4]

The Lancaster Examiner noted the great curiosity that existed around the professor’s upcoming death:

“The scene around the jail, upon the top of private dwellings were most revolting. From the windows and tops of about thirty houses on Lowell, Causeway and Leverett sts, the horrid spectacle was witnessed by men, women, and children.

On top of house No 3 Lowell st. planks were arranged to accommodate about 100 persons. The windows of all the other houses north, except Mr. Andrews, the jailor, Mr. Lovejoy’s, and two others, were filled principally with women.”[5]

Likewise, the Bee Extra reported on the great lengths some of Boston’s curious citizens adopted to get the best view of the execution:

“We noticed that the top of Mr. Noah Wyeth’s house 52 Leverett st. was … guarded by a police officer. One man said, ‘I will give a dollar to go up, if I can see the execution.’ The officer opened his blind door and let him pass in.  … We learn that one of the houses closed was broken into by the mob, so great was the anxiety to view the slaughter. They did great damage to the furniture. While in the house it was surrounded with a posse of police, who denied any of the party the privilege of coming out. How the matter will end we cannot say.”[6]

Because of all the interest and to ensure that execution of Harvard Professor Webster went off without a hitch, High Sheriff Eveleth and a force of 126 men, comprised of 100 policemen and 25 constables arrived to maintain order. Their main duty was to function as guards and so of the 125 men, 25 constables and 25 policemen were stationed inside the jail’s yard while the remaining 75 policemen guarded the jail on the outside.

While law enforcement was gathering and positioning themselves, Webster was interviewed and asked if he wanted to make any further confessions. According to England’s The Star of Freedom, Webster replied “that he did not ― that the last confession was true, and that he could not add to nor subtract from it.”[7] Thus, according to the Star, “He died … with the assertion that the killing of Dr. Parkman was not premeditated ― that in a moment of passion he struck him with a piece of grape vine ― that death was the result, and that for the purpose of concealing the act, he attempted to dispose of the body.”[8]

At 9:15am Sheriff Eveleth summoned witnesses to a rear office in the jail and informed them what would follow. These gentlemen had been assembled from an invitation lawfully given to them by Webster, and they understood that they would witness his execution. The sheriff then detailed how the proceedings would take place and “expressed his hope that the utmost quiet and good order be maintained [throughout the entire execution].”[9]

Afterwards the sheriff and his deputies proceeded to Webster’s cell followed by the invited witnesses. Once there, a prayer was given and afterwards, the Lancaster Examiner mentioned how well Webster looked stating that “he was greatly altered for the better. We never saw a more healthy looking man than he appeared to be. His countenance was much more pleasant than when he was upon his trial.”[10]

Around 9:20am, High Sheriff Eveleth and his deputies Coburn, Freeman, Rugg, along with Mr. Andrews, the Jailer, Mr. Holmes, the Turnkey, and the prisoner, accompanied by Dr. Putnam exited the jail and entered the yard. It was said that Webster walked with “a firm step.” They ascended the platform of the scaffold and then Webster, dressed all in black, took his position upon the drop and stood motionless. Then according to the Lancaster Examiner:

“Dr. Putnam immediately entered into earnest conversation with Prof. Webster, and continued to do so through the reading of the Governor’s warrant by the Sheriff, and until Jailer Andrews stepped forward to pinion the legs of the prisoner, then the Doctor shook Rev. Putnam affectionately by the hand, bade him a final earthly farewell, expressing at the same time the hope that they should meet again in Heaven. … Deputy Sheriffs Rugg and Freeman, adjusted the rope at just 25 minutes to ten o’clock.

Before the cap was drawn over his eyes, he [Webster] shook hands with … Andrews, Mr. Holmes, and last with the Sheriff and thanked them for their kind treatment to him.

Sheriff Eveleth then said.

‘In the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and in accordance with the Warrant of the Chief Executive, I now, before these witnesses, proceed to execute the sentence of the law upon John W. Webster, convicted at the March term of the Supreme Judicial Court, of the murder of Dr. George Parkman.’

This said the Sheriff placed his foot upon the fatal spring and in an instant more the victim was launched into eternity. He gave several struggles, and all was over.”[11]

According to Pennsylvania’s Lancaster Examiner, the execution of Harvard Professor Webster meant that “[he] paid the last debt of nature, and the law is now satisfied.”[12] However, despite such a statement, many nineteenth century people were opposed to the death penalty and some of these people sent letters to the Massachusetts Governor, George N. Briggs asking that Webster be given clemency. Their view was like that of Harriet Hayward Wyman, daughter of Lemuel Hayward and Sarah Savage. She mentioned her objections to Webster’s death sentence on the day he received it:

“Has been a dismal day. Poor Dr Webster is pronounced guilty; the verdict was brought in last night, and we heard of it this morning. I have felt fairly sick today, and totally unfit to take charge of a class at Sunday school. What a barbarous and wicked law! A man taken from his wife and children to be put in prison for a short time, and afterwards hung, while the family is made wretched. When a poor man is once fairly shut up in prison, and not able to say a word for himself, all kinds of stories are circulated about him, that have no foundation. If I were a person of some importance and could say or do any thing to save his life I would do it, but I feel my own insignificance now more than ever. I hope mercy will be shown him in another world.”[13]

After Webster’s execution, his dead boy remained hanging for about thirty minutes before two doctors pronounced him lifeless. A few days before his execution he had planned his funeral. He made requested that his body be disposed of in the following manner, with his requests relayed by the Vermont Journal:

“When … cut down from the gallows, … it should be immediately carried to the cell lately occupied by him; that it should there remain unseen by any visitors until night, when he wished that the corpse might be taken out secretly and quietly, and conveyed to the residence of his family in Cambridge; furthermore, he wished his body to be placed in a mahogany coffin, which he supposed his friends would furnish … The funeral ceremonies he desired to take place on Sunday.”[14]

The wishes of Harvard Professor Webster were carried out. After his family received his body, he was buried in the lowbrow four-acre cemetery called Copp’s Hill Cemetery in the North End of Boston. His unmarked grave can still be found there today and despite his infamy, he rests alongside some of America’s famous patriots, such as Robert Newman (sexton of Old North Church who hung the lanterns in the church steeple to tell Paul Revere and William Dawes that the British Regulars were coming) and Captain Daniel Malcolm (an American merchant, sea captain, and patriot whose gravestone is pockmarked by bullets).

John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere. c. 1768–1770. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


*Goode’s case was the subject of considerable attention by those opposed to the death penalty and petitions circulated to grant him clemency, which resulted in over 24,000 signatures requesting that Massachusetts governor George N. Briggs grant it to him. In addition, Goode’s trial was presided over by Justice Lemuel Shaw, the same judge who sentenced Harvard Professor Webster.

References:

  • [1] The Lancaster Examiner, “The Execution of Professor John W. Webster at Boston, for the Murder of Dr. George Parkman, November 23d, 1849,” September 4, 1850, p. 2.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Vermont Journal, “Execution of Prof Webster,” September 6, 1850, p. 3.
  • [5] The Lancaster Examiner, p. 2.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] The Star of Freedom, “United States,” September 21, 1850, p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] The Lancaster Examiner, p. 2.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] H. Wyman, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers (Massachusetts Historical Society), Ms N-2368, https://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0354.
  • [14] Vermont Journal, p. 3.

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