On Thanksgiving weekend in 1849, Dr. George Parkman, one of Boston's richest citizens, suddenly disappeared. The physician had last been seen walking towards the Harvard Medical College. Many suspected Parkman had been robbed and murdered by a poor Irish immigrant, but the Harvard Medical School's janitor Ephraim Littlefield thought differently. He spent two grueling nights tunneling beneath a basement laboratory looking for clues. What he claimed to have discovered horrified and scandalized Boston. In chemistry professor John White Webster's privy vault were, according to Littlefield, cut-up pieces of a human being.
The following March Webster went on trial for murder. His was one of the most notorious trials ever conducted in the United States and it played out to standing room-only crowds. The city marshal ordered a chain wrapped around the courthouse to control the thousands of spectators who were rotated through in ten-minute shifts. Webster maintained his innocence throughout, but the jury was persuaded by the janitor's testimony -- and Webster was hanged.
That should have been the end to a sad story, but instead of putting events to rest, Webster's execution left the mystery of what really happened to George Parkman forever unresolved. Why would a respected Harvard professor have murdered a prominent physician? And if he didn't, what did the janitor have to gain by framing him?
Inspired by a book by acclaimed historian Simon Schama, Murder at Harvard uses a combination of film-noir drama and present-day documentary footage to tell the true tale of one of the most notorious American crimes of the 19th century. Grappling with frustrating gaps in the historical record, Schama assumes the role of a time-travelling detective who takes an unusual step for an historian and imagines how certain scenes and encounters might have played out. "Maybe I thought what I was after was not a literal documentary truth," Schama tells us, "but a poetic truth -- an imaginative truth -- and for that I was going to have to become my own Resurrection man. I was going to have to make these characters live again."
By weighing and sifting the evidence, and putting himself in the place of the story's central characters, Schama is able to show how the story of Parkman's disappearance is "much bigger and much sadder even than this extraordinary notorious crime." It is, Schama says, "the story of a whole community in the process of losing its innocence and the cast of characters was caught up in this grim rite of passage."