Called “The Pedestrian” by one Boston newspaper, Dr. George Parkman was famous for his regular daily walks through town to collect rent and loan payments. He did not even own a horse, though he could have easily afforded one, coming from one of the richest families in Boston. His habits were so regular that when he failed to meet his wife for lunch November 23, 1849, it was impossible to imagine anything but foul play. Equally impossible to imagine was that the perpetrator was someone from his own social class. When his killer was found to be a former Harvard classmate and current Harvard professor, it became a society crime with a public following to rival America’s greatest celebrity murders.
Date: November 23, 1849
Location: Cambridge, MA
Victim: Dr. George Parkman
Cause of Death: Stabbing
Accused: Dr. John White Webster
The defense filed a writ of error, claiming the judge’s instructions to the jury were biased. The writ was denied. Webster asked for a full pardon and that was denied as well.
As the date of Dr. Webster’s execution approached, the community – in Boston and beyond – was still divided as to his guilt. Boston authorities received letters from around the country from people opposed to hanging a man on circumstantial evidence and those generally opposed to capital punishment.
In a bid for clemency, Dr. Webster admitted to killing Dr. Parkman but in self-defense, not premeditation. Parkman, he said, had become violently angry over the loan on the mineral collection and Webster picked up a stick and fought him off. Had he intended to commit murder, Wagner said, he certainly would not have done it at the college.
Though petitions were circulated to commute his sentence, the request was refused. On August 30, 1850, Dr. Webster was publically hanged. The fall broke his neck and he was dead within four minutes. He was buried in Copp's Hill Burying Ground, in an unmarked grave to discourage grave robbers.
The case had such notoriety that when Charles Dickens came to America, one of his requests was to visit the room where George Parkman was murdered.