Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dr. George Parkman - "The Pedestrian"

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

Dr. George Parkman was a man of regular habits. Every day he could be seen walking through Beacon Hill and Boston’s West End where he owned a number of rental properties. His daily routine was so predictable that his neighbors said they could set their watches by the sight of his gaunt figure rushing past. Every afternoon at 2:00 pm he met his wife for lunch. When he failed to keep this appointment on Friday, November 23, 1849, and did not return home that evening, his family suspected foul play.

That afternoon he had planned to see Dr. John Webster, a professor of chemistry at the Harvard Medical College, to discuss repayment of a loan. Dr Webster had been borrowing money, putting up his possessions as collateral. He had borrowed money from Robert Gould Shaw, Parkman’s brother-in-law and business partner, using his mineral collection as collateral. Parkman was livid when he learned this because he had already loaned Webster money against the same mineral collection.

George Parkman and John Webster were both members of Boston’s privileged class—the class that would later be called “Boston Brahmans”— and had known each other since childhood. They had been classmates at Harvard, graduating two years apart, and Parkman had helped Webster get his position teaching there. But in appearance and attitude the two could not have been more different. Parkman was tall and slender, while Webster was short and stout. Parkman was energetic, but austere and frugal to the extreme; Webster, though somewhat dull as a professor was amiable and fond of food, drink and good company. Terrible at managing money, Webster was constantly in debt; a growing concern with three daughters approaching marrying age. He owed more than $2400 and his annual salary was $1200.

Parkman had studied medicine in Europe with a particular interest in mental illness. He returned to Boston anxious to implement his ideas on treatment of the mentally ill. Though he helped organize and finance the McLean Hospital, he was passed over for the office of director. Devastated by the rejection, Parkman gave up medicine and took over the family business in real estate and lending.

Dr. Parkman was last seen at the Harvard Medical College that Friday. On Saturday his family printed flyers offering a $3000 reward for information leading to his discovery. Dr. Webster came forward and confirmed that he had met with Dr. Parkman on Friday and had, in fact, paid off one of his loans.

After meeting with Parkman, Dr. Webster had supper at a restaurant and went home. That evening he went with his family to a party where he enjoyed himself with his neighbors, playing whist and discussing the affairs of the day, including the disappearance of Dr. Parkman. In the days following Parkman’s disappearance there was nothing unusual in Dr. Webster’s behavior, with on exception. Webster had a long discussion with the Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor at the medical college, concerning Dr. Parkman’s visit to the college on November 23. It was more than the two men had spoken in the twenty years of working at the same college. He also gave Littlefield a turkey for thanksgiving, something he had never done before.

Littlefield and his wife lived in an apartment next to Dr. Webster’s laboratory. He made a small salary cleaning the professors’ labs and offices, which he augmented by supplying professors and students with corpses for dissection. It was not clear whether he purchased the corpses from “resurrectionists” or dug them up himself.

What Littlefield remembered about November 23 was that Dr. Webster had kept his laboratory door locked all afternoon and that the fire in his furnace was so hot it could be felt through the wall. Littlefield was in the laboratory when the police came to question Dr. Webster and noticed that the door to his privy was locked. When the police asked what was behind the door Webster directed their attention elsewhere.

Access to the privy was shared by the dissecting room next door. It had an opening to brick vault below the basement of the building and was used to dispose of body parts when the students were finished dissecting. Littlefield was convinced that Dr. Webster had murdered Dr. Parkman in his laboratory chopped him up and disposed of the pieces in the privy. Working on Thanksgiving Day and the day after, while his wife kept lookout, Littlefield took borrowed tools into the crawlspace under the basement and chipped through several layers of brick on the privy vault. When he finally broke through the wall and shone a lantern through the hole, he saw a man’s pelvis with genitals still attached and part of a leg. He knew the students had not been dissecting that week; it had to be Dr. Parkman.

Marshal Turkey of the Boston police was notified of the find and the marshal brought a contingent of policemen to the college. They extracted the body parts from the vault and searched Dr. Webster’s laboratory finding charred bones in the doctor’s furnace and more body parts in a tea chest in a room adjoining the laboratory. The body parts were shown to Dr. Parkman’s wife who identified them as her husband’s remains from some markings on the skin and the extreme hairiness of the body.

The police went to Dr. Webster’s home and he agreed to accompany them to the Harvard Medical School to answer some more questions. They took him instead to the Boston jail where he was arrested for the murder of Dr. Parkman.

Trial:  March 19, 1850
The trial of Dr. Webster received national and even international coverage, taking on the characteristics of the celebrity trials of the 20th Century. 60,000 Bostonians came to the courthouse to view the trial and they were admitted to the courtroom in ten minute shifts.

The prosecution had the daunting task of proving that the remains found at the medical college were, in fact, those of Dr. Parkman. A number of doctors testified that the remains were consistent with a man of Dr. Parkman’s age, height and build, and that they were not the remains of a dissected corpse. Dr. Nathan Keep, Parkman’s dentist, testified that a piece of dental work in the jawbone found in Webster’s furnace was, without a doubt, made by him for Dr. Parkman. The first time human remains were identified in court by dental work.

The defense countered with doctors and dentists of their own who testified that the body could not be conclusively identified and that there was nothing unique in Dr. Parkman’s dental work.

The most damaging witness for the prosecution was Ephraim Littlefield who told of overhearing Dr. Parkman angrily demand payment from Dr. Webster. He testified that Webster had later asked about the privy vault, whether it was possible to shine a light on what was in it. Littlefield responded that it was not, because the gasses put out the flame. And Littlefield related all of the events and suspicions that led him to investigate the vault.

At 8:00pm on March 30, 1850 the jury began deliberation; shortly after 10:00 they returned with a verdict. Dr. Webster was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Verdict:  Guilty

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.


This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century

George Parkman
Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill
Schama, Simon. Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Sullivan, Robert. Disappearance of Dr. Parkman, the. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
Thomson, Helen. Murder at Harvard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.


Harold Fowler says:
March 14, 2010 at 12:26 PM

Wow, that dude is kinda crazy man!


Anonymous says:
March 15, 2010 at 9:17 AM

Harvard professor John Webster bludgeons and dismembers his tightfisted moneylender George Parkman, a generous benefactor of the medical college, within the school itself in November of 1849?

Fascinating, but not true. Every decisive point of this mistake-laden case, one that has captivated the imaginations of researchers, attorneys, historians and the general public for 160 years, is wrong.

The bones of deceit first were promulgated by a quick-witted swamp Yankee—the medical school’s maintenance man. The meat to pad out that skeleton was laid down by a politicized judiciary, the airy fairy perceptions of Romanticist America, and an antislavery and pro-suffragette citizenry overwhelmed by an Irish immigrant population.

Although change was imminent in antebellum America, the story of the George Parkman carnage became frozen in time. The question of John Webster’s involvement never underwent the serious second look it deserved, void of pressures and prejudice. Those timeworn and ill-considered perceptions survive to this day in pieces like the Autumn 2009 Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin:

"George Parkman’s prominent chin had always given him an air of determination. But as the gaunt, nearly skeletal physician climbed the steps of Harvard’s medical college on the morning of November 23, 1849, the thrust of his jaw was more pronounced than usual: He was hellbent on collecting a long-standing debt from Professor John White Webster. Sadly, Parkman failed in his mission. He also failed to leave the building alive…. For weeks Boston’s citizens scoured the neighborhood for signs of the missing doctor. Finally, at the prompting of a suspicious janitor, authorities recovered Parkman’s remains from Webster’s chemistry laboratory. Upon his arrest, Webster, a member of the Class of 1815, swallowed a strychnine pill. He went on to survive his suicide attempt only to endure, in March 1850, one of the more sensational murder trials of the nineteenth century. His fellow professors provided the forensic evidence needed to convict him…. In the weeks before his death by hanging, Webster confessed, at the urging of a local minister, to having fatally struck Parkman during a heated quarrel over the debt….”

Except for Parkman’s mandible, these accepted facts and conclusions of this retelling are incorrect. We’re going to show you what really did happen. And why. Watch for a soon to be published book "The Fiend in the Cellar."

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 15, 2010 at 12:19 PM

Looking forward to the book!

Contemporary references treat Webster’s guilt as given, but in 1850 there was considerable doubt. The janitor, Ephraim Littlefield, was an early suspect. It was one reason he hurried to find Parkman’s remains. But if Littlefield killed Parkman, what was his motive?

Webster’s confession to killing Parkman in self-defense seemed to settle the matter. But in the 19th century, criminals sentenced to death were pressured to confess before execution. Even advocates of capital punishment were uneasy about executing a man on circumstantial evidence. And Webster might have confessed as a last ditch attempt for clemency.

If "The Fiend in the Cellar” has an alternative theory, we will certainly add it to our post.

Anonymous says:
March 15, 2010 at 12:40 PM

Littlefield didn't murder Parkman. The custodian had a brisk illegal custom in cadavers in a town where the favorite hobby seemed to be homicide. Everyone knew Parkman's pockets were stuffed with cash; he must have been mugged and killed in the rough West End. The body then would have been picked up by law enforcement who did what they were known to do with unidentified bodies—transport in a canvas bag to Littlefield at the medical college for cash.

The panicked janitor with the closest person Boston had to royalty at his feet tried to dispose of a body that was Boston's closest thing to royalty. His efforts didn't work so he hung the crime on Webster.

The professor's brief lays out the bones of such a scenario. Newly-uncovered witness depositions support it. Webster owed Parkman no money, was in fact paying off a loan in advance to avoid the following year's interest payment. Why would HE kill him?

(We need to get back to our writing!)

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 15, 2010 at 5:03 PM

Sounds plausible. Sounds like the book is going to shake things up. Please let us know when it is available.

Daniel M. Parkman, Sr. says:
March 24, 2012 at 2:57 PM

Dr. George Parkman was Boston kinfolk:

Anonymous says:
July 7, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Why am I reading about Dr. Webster which then changes to Dr. Wagner??? Is this a typo? AND if so why has it not been corrected? The final paragraphs indicate that the name is WAGNER. Please correct me if I am wrong. Who was the murderer--Webster or Wagner?

Robert Wilhelm says:
July 9, 2012 at 12:11 PM

Typos have been corrected. I guess no one noticed until now.

Anonymous says:
October 7, 2012 at 9:21 AM

The main article is well written, but in serious need of competent proofreading prior to publication. There are several typos and punctuation errors! You can't count on "spell check," you know.

Robert Wilhelm says:
October 7, 2012 at 11:17 AM

You are right of course, one should always strive for perfection. However, since I am giving it away free, I do not consider blogging to be “publication.” When I do write for publication my work is always thoroughly edited by someone more attuned to spelling and punctuation than I am.

To me, blogging, even history blogging, is a more personal form of expression than writing for print. It’s more along the lines of a personal letter. If you send someone a letter, they may be perfectly correct to point out its errors but you would probably not send them another.

Anonymous says:
October 29, 2012 at 3:59 AM

More information is needed about the privy. For instance, it seems as if it were similar to an indoor toilet, but the smell created by decomposing flesh is vastly different from that of fecal matter and would have been unbearable. I know first-hand the odor of a modern day refrigerated morgue can be quite overpowering, so I could only imagine how much worse it would have been without such efforts. Also, were the contents of the privy ever removed, and if so, how was the task accomplished? According to the article, it would seem burning of the contents would not have been possible, possibly causing disastrous results from the built up gases.

Then there is the question as to why one would suddenly become suspicious of a repository that was specifically designed for the disposal of cadaver parts. And if Webster had use of such a disposal system, why would he burn certain parts of Parkman's body? Given the fact that Littlefield had informed him that one could not see into the privy to identify its contents, it seems pointless to exert the effort of dismemberment.

Further expansion on this topic would be greatly appreciated.

Robert Wilhelm says:
October 29, 2012 at 1:06 PM

I suggest that you read _Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations_ by Simon Schama. It includes much more detail on this case.

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