John Webster: Harvard Lecturer and Convicted Murderer

John Webster was born on 20 May 1793 and was from a well-connected family where his grandfather achieved success as a merchant. Indulged as a child and pampered in his youth, he enjoyed the best education and graduated from Harvard College. However, for all his advantages he learned nothing about money or how to be thrifty.

John Webster

John Webster. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Still Webster appeared to be on a good path. He helped found the Linnaean Society of New England in 1814 and graduated from Harvard’s Medical College in 1815. Soon after, he left for London and conducted further medical studies at Guy’s Hospital. He then traveled to São Miguel Island in the Azores and practiced medicine. While there he met Harriet Fredrica Hickling, the daughter of American vice-consul Thomas Hickling, and Harriet and Webster married on 16 May 1818.

The newlyweds returned to Boston and set up housekeeping. Webster also established a private medical practice but, unfortunately, he did not achieve success and therefore decided to switch careers. In 1824, he found a job as a lecturer of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at Harvard Medical College and was promoted three years later to the Erving professorship.

John Webster was friendly, charming, and affable. As a Harvard lecturer he was described as “pleasant … rather nervous, and excitable.”[1] Although students thought him a not-so-talented chemistry professor, friends who knew him thought highly of him. They claimed he occupied a responsible position for upwards of twenty years and also reported:

“He has a wide circle of acquaintance, and has maintained throughout life an unblemished reputation. He has paid a strict attention to the duties of his profession, and his conduct has been marked by uniform sobriety and steadiness. His disposition as frank and open, his manner lively and social, he was esteemed by all who knew him as a good citizen, a peaceable neighbor, and a kind and affectionate husband and father. In every moral and intellectual characteristic, he might be regarded as one who was placed beyond the suspicion of a tendency to the commission of crime.”[2]

John Webster soon incurred debts for a variety of reasons. His prior lack of medical success did not help and neither did his inability to manage money. He spent unwisely and lived well above his means never wanting to tell his wife and four daughters they could not have something they wanted. The death of his father added to his financial woes. His father had spent most his fortune and left little behind and that meant Webster was soon having even a tougher time with money.

To alleviate his financial problems, John Webster borrowed $400* in 1842. He borrowed the money from a fellow Bostonian named George Parkman, who was close in age to Webster, having been born on 19 February 1790. Parkman was also fortunate to be born into Boston’s traditional upper class, called the Boston Brahmins, and he came from wealth, but unlike Webster Parkman’s family was among Boston’s richest families.

Like Webster, Parkman became a physician but unlike Webster, Parkman received a considerable inheritance when his father died. Despite his inheritance he wanted to improve upon his fortune and did so through property ownership and money lending activities. In fact, he did so well financially, by 1849, it was estimated that he was worth about a half a million dollars.

For all his financial skills, Parkman was a different sort of chap. He became well-known for his eccentricities, just like the eccentric dog-loving Earl of Bridgewater. Parkman was also known for his thriftiness to the point it was noteworthy. He walked instead of taking a carriage and was a regular sight on Boston streets wearing a stovepipe hat and going door-to-door to collect his rents from his tenants.

Although finances were going extremely well for Parkman, financially things got worse for John Webster. He continued to suffer money problems and repaid little of what he owed to Parkman. In 1847, he therefore took out another loan with Parkman for $2,432.** The second note represented the unpaid balance from his first loan and a second additional loan, which he obtained by mortgaging his personal property including a cabinet of minerals.

In 1848, the same year that Madame Récamier’s lover, Chateaubriand died, was the same year that John Webster was in need of money again. This time he borrowed $1,200 from Robert G. Shaw. He secured this note with same cabinet of minerals that were part of the collateral for what he owed Parkman. Unfortunately for Webster, Parkman soon learned about Shaw’s loan and Webster’s collateral and Parkman became so enraged he sought Webster out planning to confront him.

The confrontation happened a week before Thanksgiving on 22 November 1849. That is when Parkman went looking for John Webster at Harvard. He also asked the cashier to give him money from the sale of Websters lecture to help offset his debt, but whether he got it or not is unknown. However, the following day, 23 November, Webster was known to have sent a note to Parkman offering to meet him that afternoon at the Medical College.

In the meantime, people saw Parkman on the streets collecting his rents as usual. The last sighting of Parkman was at 1:45pm. That is when he entered the college from North Grove Street. At the time he was reportedly wearing a black frock coat, a purple satin vest, dark trousers, and his usual stovepipe hat.

Later that day, Ephraim Littlefield, a janitor at Harvard Medical College found Webster’s rooms locked from the inside. He also reported that he heard water running for a long period of time. However, by 6:00pm Webster was home. He then attended a party at his friends, the Treadwells. Those present reported there was nothing suspicious. He showed no outward signs of distress, and no one thought anything wrong.

Ephraim LIttlefield. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 24 November, the day after Parkman’s disappearance, his family grew anxious. Parkman had not come home, they were worried, and they began making inquiries. When they turned up nothing, they went to police. As the Parkman family was busy looking for him, Littlefield saw Webster on campus with a bundle and he reported that Webster also told him to start a fire in his lab.

The next day, 25 November, Webster was back on campus and ran into Parkman’s nephew, James Henry Blake. A police officer named Trenholm was with him. They asked Webster if he had seen Parkman. He told them he had paid Parkman on 23 November and that after receiving the money he left immediately. Later that same day Webster repeated the same story to Parkman’s brother stating that he had seen Parkman and had given him $483.64 as an installment on his debt. Webster claimed that after receiving the money Parkman agreed to go right away to the city clerk, get it recorded, and clear the debt.

On 26 November Parkman still had not been located. The Parkman family now offered a hefty $3,000 reward for any information that would lead to his whereabouts. They also printed and distributed 28,000 copies of a wanted notice in the hopes that someone saw something and would come forward so that he could be found.***

As news spread throughout Boston that Parkman was missing wild rumors began to circulate. Numerous stories emerged as to his whereabouts. Some people claimed that Irish immigrants were to blame. Conjecture also swirled that Parkman had just up and left Boston for no good reason, and there was also gossip that he had been beaten up for the money he always carried on his person.

There was so much concern over Parkman’s disappearance search parties began going out day and night searching everywhere. Authorities dragged the Boston Harbor for his body. There were searches of Parkman’s vacant and rented buildings, and when that turned up nothing searches were conducted of all the abandoned buildings in the city. As Parkman was last seen at Harvard, a search of the Medical College, including its laboratories and dissecting vaults were also undertaken. In addition, Vermont’s Brattleboro’ Eagle reported on other searches:

“The police were despatched with handbills on the various railroads, while others were sent in other directions, to trace the source of sundry rumors that had come to town of a ‘person that had been seen’ wandering in the woods … acting strangely in another, and a raving maniac in another.”[3]

All the searches were to no avail. No sign of Parkman was found. The last time anyone had seen Parkman was at the Medical College where it appeared he had disappeared by magic. With everyone concerned about Parkman’s disappearance, rumors began to swirl about who might be responsible. Because of Littlefield’s connection to the Medical College some people began to suspect he was the culprit.

While certain people thought Littlefield might be responsible for Parkman’s disappearance, he was noticing that John Webster was behaving suspiciously. For instance, four days prior to Parkman coming up missing, Webster had asked him questions about the dissecting vault. It was odd because he had barely talked to Littlefield in all the years he had worked there. Then after authorities searched the dissecting vaults Webster suddenly surprised him with a turkey for his Thanksgiving dinner.

Littlefield also noticed other suspicious behavior by John Webster. A few days after Parkman’s murder, Littlefield met Webster on the street. He asked if he had seen Parkman at the college on the day he disappeared. Littlefield said he had seen him about 1:30pm and Webster reacted by striking his cane in a forceful manner on the ground. He then asked Littlefield if he had seen Parkman in the building or if he had seen him in Webster’s lecture room. When Littlefield answered no, Webster repeated his story about paying off his debt to Parkman and then abruptly walked off.

On 28 November Webster appeared at the Medical College early in the morning. Littlefield thought it unusual and spied on him from under the door. He could only see below Webster’s knees, but he realized that the professor was moving back forth from the furnace to the fuel closet and did so about eight times. Littlefield also noticed later that day Webster’s furnace was burning so hard the wall on the other side was hot to the touch.

When Webster left for the day, Littlefield noticed that he had bolted the doors. This made him more suspicious as to what Webster was doing. He then let himself into the laboratory through a window. What he found inside was curious. There were wet spots and acid stains, and he found the recently filled kindling barrels nearly empty.

On the following day, 29 November, which was also Thanksgiving Day, Littlefield borrowed some tools. He had a plan and wanted to get under Webster’s private privy to see what was there.  It very difficult to access because one side had a sea wall and when the tide was high water flowed under the northwesterly corner of the building. Littlefield also recognized that some of Webster’s rooms were inaccessible to any Medical College staff members and that there was no way to access them from other departments. Furthermore, without Webster’s cooperation there were only two ways to reach the privy “either tear down the sea wall or bore through the brick partitions or supporters in the basement.”[4]

Littlefield began drilling and on the second day he made enough progress that by evening he had created an opening sufficiently large enough for him to enter the vault. However, he still needed to break through the wall to get under the privy. The following day he accomplished drilling a small hole into the privy and when he put his head through it he was hit by a terrible stench. He tried to use his lantern to see what was inside, but a strong unexpected draft would not permit it to stay lit. He then waited, allowed his eyes to adjust to the dark, and saw something horrific and unexpected. On top of a pile of dirt was the shape of a human pelvis, a dismembered right thigh, and the lower part of someone’s left leg.

Littlefield was shocked and ran to the home of another Harvard professor named Henry J. Bigelow, the son of Dr. Jacob Bigelow. The younger Bigelow in turn informed City Marshal Francis Tukey of the discovery. By the time Tukey arrived at the Medical College word had spread and dozens of men were waiting to find out the identity of the person Littlefield had discovered in Websters privy.

John Webster worked at Harvard Medical College

Harvard Medical College. Author’s collection.

To ensure it was not a mistake and that the remains were not one of the specimens in the dissection room, Tukey had Littlefield check. When he reported that none were missing, Tukey ordered the remains removed from the privy. He then instructed officers to investigate the furnace in Webster’s lab that Littlefield reported had been burning hot:

“In …a small furnace … were discovered pieces of human bone ― parts of the skull of a man ― some false teeth ― some coat buttons ― bits of melted gold and silver [with the gold supposed to have been the case of a watch].”[5]

People knew that Parkman carried a gold watch and that he wore false teeth. Thus, with such findings, those present thought it obvious Parkman was dead. It also seemed obvious to those present that Webster was the killer as he was the only person who had access to the rooms where authorities discovered Parkman’s remains. Tukey therefore ordered Officer Clapp and two other police officers to take Webster into custody.

John Webster was found by the officers at his Cambridge home. They convinced him to accompany them to the station and did not tell him he was under arrest until he reached the station. After being accused of Parkman’s murder, he quickly denied any involvement and in fact began blaming Littlefield saying that only he and Littlefield had access to the privy and that it had to be Littlefield who had committed the monstrous deed.

Word soon spread throughout the community that Parkman was dead. As the coroner, Jabez Pratt, inspected the remains, news also spread that authorities had arrested John Webster for Parkman’s murder. It seemed incredulous that a Harvard professor would be arrested for murder. No one could believe the professor was the killer. Newspaper reported on the public’s astonishment:

“On Saturday morning, the city was astounded with the intelligence of his [Parkman’s] presumed murder, and the arrest of Prof. John W. Webster of Cambridge, on suspicion of having committed the deed. The shock which this announcement produced in the public mind, and the excitement consequent upon it, were never before equalled in Boston. The dreadful character of the deed, and the high standing and reputation of the individual charged with it, were such as might well justify incredulity; and even at this moment, when the accumulation of circumstances seems to gather into a fearful mass of testimony against the supposed murderer, we find it hardly possible to bring our mind to a belief in the possibility of his guilt.”[6]

The following day the search resumed. Blood stains discovered on the floor in the anteroom went all the way down to Webster’s laboratory. Someone had made feeble attempts to remove them and had poured acid on the stairs. In addition, authorities found a grisly discovery in an obscure corner of Webster’s lab. It was a human torso and a left thigh packed in hemlock, covered with minerals, and placed inside a box larger than a tin tea chest, about eighteen inches square and thirteen inches deep.

Despite the discovery of these body parts, authorities still had not recovered all of Parkman. Parts of him were still missing, which included his “head, neck, thorax, both arms and hands, left leg and both feet.”[7] Tukey and others believed Webster had burnt these remains in the furnace, and they would never be recovered.

It was a horrible scene yet there are estimates that about 5,000 people toured the crime scene where Parkman was murdered. Many more paid homage to Parkman because thousands of mourners lined the streets on 6 December for his funeral. His remains were taken in a hearse to Trinity Church. The procession of five carriages containing his family and relatives left from his house on Walnut Street and they followed his simple, understated, and thrifty coffin with a silver plate that read:

“George Parkman, Died Nov 23, 1849, Aged 60 years.[8]

With all the evidence indicating that Webster had murdered Parkman, authorities soon indicted Webster for murder. His indictment in part stated:

“John W. Webster, of Cambridge, in the County of Middlesex, gentleman, on the 23d day of November last, past, at Boston, in the County of Suffolk, in and upon one George Parkman feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault … with a certain knife which he then and there in his right hand had and held, … feloniously, willfuly and with malice aforethought did strike, cut, stab and thrust, … upon the left side of the breast of him … one moral wound of the length of one inch, and the depth of three inches, of which said mortal wound … George Parkman … instantly died.”[9]

John Webster attacking George Parkman

Depiction of John Webster attacking George Parkman. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Webster’s trial began on 19 March 1850 and lasted twelve days. Harvard graduates Edward Dexter Sohier and Pliny T. Merrick served as his counsel. At the time, Webster’s trial was considered the “Case of the Century” because it was one of the first where forensic evidence was presented. Wide reporting by newspapers also helped popularize it in the U.S. and the Boston community paid particular attention to it as it involved a Harvard professor:

“The circumstances connected with this mysterious affair now form the all-absorbing theme of discourse in this city and neighborhood. A cloud of obscurity hangs over the whole, and each individual fashions every particular of evidence or rumor into an agreement with some pre-conceived hypothesis of his own. Dr. Webster’s friend are strong in their belief of his innocence. — The supposition that a person could pass through life of more than fifty years unsulted by crime, and plunge in a single instant into the commission of a frightfully atrocity like the supposed murder of Dr. Parkman, is one which the mind stubbornly rejects. Such a moral and metal metamorphosis would be, certainly one of the most extraordinary phenomena yet exhibited by history of the mind.”[10]

To many people it was a case of “metamorphosis” and “extraordinary phenomena.” The jury of twelve thought so and pronounced John Webster guilty, officially declaring him to be the murderer of Parkman. After Webster received a death sentence, he was taken to Boston’s Leverett Street Jail and then as scheduled he was hanged until dead in the jail’s courtyard on the morning of 30 August 1850 at twenty minutes before 10.

__*An amount equivalent to $10,727 in 2020.
**An amount equivalent to $67,549 in 2020.
***Later, $1,000 was offered for Parkman’s body.

References:

  • [1] E. E. Brown, Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes (New York City: Saafield Publishing Company, 1903), p. 251.
  • [2] The Brattleboro’ Eagle, “Dr. Parkman – Astounding Developments,” December 6, 1849, p. 2.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Boston Evening Transcript, “Case of Dr. Parkman – Funeral of the Remains,” December 7, 1849, p. 2.
  • [9] Boston Evening Transcript, “Evening Transcript,” January 22, 1850, p. 1.
  • [10] The Brattleboro’ Eagle, p. 2.

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2 Comments

  1. Don Nitkin on April 12, 2022 at 7:20 pm

    Amazing details. It could have been a movie.

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