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Primary Sources: The Defendant's Confession

Professor Webster's Confessional Statement, as Reported to the Council by Rev. Dr. Putnam.

On Tuesday the 20th of November, I sent the note to Dr. Parkman, which, it appears, was carried by the boy Maxwell. I handed it to Littlefield unsealed. It was to ask Dr. Parkman to call at my rooms on Friday the 23rd, after my lecture. He had become of late very importunate for his pay. He threatened me with a suit, to put an officer into my house, and to drive me from my professorship, if I did not pay him. The purport of my note was simply to ask the conference. I did not tell him in it what I could do, or what I had to say about the payment. I wished to gain, for those few days, a release from his solicitations, to which I was liable every day on occasions and in a manner very disagreeable and alarming to me, and also to avert, for so long a time at least, the fulfillment of recent threats of severe measures. I did not expect to be able to pay him when Friday should arrive. My purpose was, if he should accede to the proposed interview, to state him my embarrassments and utter inability to pay him at present, to apologize for those things in my conduct which had offended him, to throw myself upon his mercy, to beg for further time and indulgence for the sake of my family, if not for my own, and to make as good promises to him as I could have any hope of keeping.

I did not hear from him on that day, nor the next (Wednesday); but I found that on Thursday he had been abroad in pursuit of me, though without finding me. I feared that he had forgotten the appointment, or else did not mean to wait for it. I feared he would come in upon my lecture hour, or while I was preparing my experiments for it. Therefore I called at his house on that morning (Friday), between eight and nine, to remind him of my wish to see him at the College at half-past one, -- my lecture closing at one. I did not stop to talk with him then; for I was expected the conversation would be a long one, and I had my lecture to prepare for. It was necessary for me to save my time, and also to keep my mind free from other exciting matters. Dr. Parkman agreed to call on me, as I proposed.

He came, accordingly, between half-past one and two. He came in at the lecture-room door. I was engaged in removing some glasses from my lecture-room table into the rear, called the upper laboratory. He came rapidly down the steps and followed me into the laboratory. He immediately addressed me with great energy: "Are you ready for me, sir? Have you got the money?" I replied, "No, Dr. Parkman;" and was then beginning to state my condition, and make my appeal to him. He would not listen to me, but interrupted me with much vehemence. He called me "scoundrel" and "liar," and went on heaping upon me the most bitter taunts and opprobrious epithets. While he was talking, he drew a handful of papers from his pocket, and took from among them my two notes, and also an old letter from Dr. Hosack, written many years ago, and congratulating him (Dr. P.) on his success in getting me appointed professor of chemistry. "You see," he said, "I got you into your office, and now I will get you out of it." He put back into his pocket all of the papers, except the letter and the notes. I cannot tell how long the torrent of threats and invectives continued, and I can now recall to memory but a small portion of what he said. At first I kept interposing, trying to pacify him, so that I might obtain the object for which I had sought the interview. But I could not stop him, and soon my own temper was up. I forgot everything. I felt nothing but the string of his words. I was excited to the highest degree of passion; and while he was speaking and gesticulating in the most violent and menacing manner, thrusting the letter and his fist into my face, in my fury I seized whatever thing was handiest, -- it was a stick of wood, -- and dealt him an instantaneous blow with all the force that passion could give it. I did not know, nor think, nor care where I should hit him, nor how hard, nor to what the effort would be. It was on the side of his head, and there was nothing to break the force of the blow. He fell instantly upon the pavement. There was no second blow. He did not move. I stooped down over him, and he seemed to be lifeless. Blood flowed from his mouth, and I got a sponge and wiped it away. I got some ammonia and applied it to his nose; but without effect. Perhaps I spent ten minutes in attempts to resuscitate him; but I found that he was absolutely dead. In my horror and consternation I ran instinctively to the doors and bolted them, -- the doors of the lecture room, and the laboratory below. And then, what was I to do?

It never occurred to me to go out and declare what had been done, and obtain assistance. I saw nothing but the alternative of a successful removal and concealment of the body, on the one hand, and of infamy and destruction on the other. The first thing I did, as soon as I could do anything, was to drag the body into the private room adjoining. There I took off the clothes, and began putting them into the fire which was burning in the upper laboratory. They were all consumed there that afternoon,--with papers, pocket-book, or whatever else they may have contained. I did not examine the pockets, nor remove anything except the watch. I saw that, or the chain of it, hanging out; and I took it and threw it over the bridge as I went to Cambridge.

My next move was to get the body into the sink which stands in the small private room. By setting the body partially erect against the corner, and getting up into the sink myself, I succeeded in drawing it up. There it was entirely dismembered. It was quickly done, as a work of terrible and desperate necessity. The only instrument used was the knife found by the officers in the tea chest, and which I kept for cutting corks. I made no use of the Turkish knife, as it was called at the trial. That had long been kept on my parlor mantel-piece in Cambridge, as a curious ornament. My daughters frequently cleaned it: hence the marks of oil and whiting found on it. I had lately brought it into Boston to get the silver sheath repaired.

While dismembering the body, a stream of Cochituate was running through the sink, carrying off the blood in a pipe that passed down through the lower laboratory. There must have been a leak in the pipe, for the ceiling below was stained immediately round it.

There was a fire burning in the furnace of the lower laboratory. Littlefield was mistaken in thinking there had never been a fire there. He had probably never kindled one, but I had done it myself several times. I had done it that day for the purpose of making oxygen gas. The head and viscera were put into the furnace that day, and the fuel heaped on. I did not examine at night to see to what degree they were consumed. Some of the extremities, I believe, were put there on that day.

The pelvis and some of the limbs, perhaps all, were under the lid of the lecture-room table in what is called the well, -- a deep sink lined with lead. A stream of Cochituate was turned into it, and kept running through it all Friday night. The thorax was put into a similar well in the lower laboratory, which I filled with water, and threw in a quantity of potash which I found there. This disposition of the remains was not changed till after the visit of the officers on Monday.

When the body had been thus all disposed of, I cleared away all traces of what had been done. I took up the stick with which the fatal blow had been struck. It proved to be the stump of a large grape vine, say two inches in diameter, and two feet long. It was one of two or more pieces which I carried in from Cambridge long before, for the purpose of showing the effect of certain chemical fluids in coloring wood, by being absorbed into the pores. The grape vine, being a very porous wood, was well suited to this purpose. Another longer stick had been used as intended, and exhibited to the students. This one had not been used. I put it into the fire.

I took up the two notes, either from the table or the floor, -- I think the table, -- close by where Dr. P. had fallen. I seized an old metallic pen lying on the table, dashed it across the face and through the signatures, and put them into my pocket. I do not know why I did this rather than put them into the fire; for I had not considered for a moment what effect either mode of disposing of them would have on the mortgage, or my indebtedness to Dr. P. and the other persons interested; and I had not yet given a single thought to the question as to what account I should give of the objects or results of my interview with Dr. Parkman.

I never saw the sledge-hammer spoken of by Littlefield, and never knew of its existence; at least, I have no recollection of it.

I left the College to go home, as late as six o'clock. I collected myself as well as I could, that I might meet my family and others with composure. On Saturday I visited my rooms at the College, but made no change in the disposition of the remains, and laid no plans as to my future course.

On Saturday evening I read the notice in the Transcript respecting the disappearance. I was then deeply impressed with the necessity of immediately taking some ground as to the character of my interview with Dr. P.: for I saw that it must become known that I had such an interview, as I appointed it, first, by an unsealed note on Tuesday, and on Friday had myself called at his house in open day and ratified the arrangement, and had there been seen and probably overheard by the man-servant; and I knew not by how many persons Dr. P. might have been seen entering my rooms, or how many persons he might have told by the way where he was going. The interview would in all probability be known; and I must be ready to explain it. The question exercised me much; but on Sunday my course was taken. I would go into Boston, and be the first to declare myself the person, as yet unknown, with whom Dr. P. had made the appointment. I would take the ground, that I had invited him to the College to pay him money, and that I had paid him accordingly. I fixed upon the sum by taking the small note and adding interest, which, it appears, I cast erroneously.

If I had thought of this course earlier, I should not have deposited Pettee's check for $90 in the Charles River Bank on Saturday, but should have suppressed it as going far towards making up the sum which I was to profess to have paid the day before, and which Pettee knew I had by me at the hour of the interview. It had not occurred to me that I should ever show the notes cancelled in proof of the payment; if I had, I should have destroyed the large note, and let it be inferred that it was gone with the missing man; and I should only have kept the small one, which was all that I could pretend to have paid. My single thought was concealment and safety. Everything else was incidental to that. I was in no state to consider my ulterior pecuniary interests. Money, though I needed it so much, was of no account with me in that condition of mind.

If I had designed and premeditated the homicide of Dr. P. in order to get possessions of the notes and cancel my debt, I not only should have deposited Pettee's check the next day, but I should have made some show of getting or having the money the morning before. I should have drawn my money from the bank, and taken the occasion to mention to the cashier, that I had a sum to take out that day for Dr. P., and the same to Henchman, when I borrowed the $10. I should have remarked, that I was so much short of a large sum that I was to pay to Parkman. I borrowed the money of Henchman as mere pocket-money for the day.

If I had intended the homicide of Dr. P., I should not have made the appointment with him twice, and each time in so open a manner that other persons would almost certainly know of it. And I should not have invited him to my room at an hour when the College would have been full of students and others; for that was an hour -- just after the lecture -- at which persons having business with me, or in my rooms, were always directed to call.

I looked into my rooms on Sunday afternoon, but did nothing.

After the first visit of the officers, I took the pelvis and some of the limbs from the upper well, and threw them into the vault under the privy. I took the thorax from the well below, and packed it in the tea-chest, as found. My own impression has been, that this was not done till after the second visit of the officers, which was on Tuesday; but Kingsley's testimony shows that it must have been done sooner. The perforation of the thorax had been made by the knife at the time of removing the viscera.

On Wednesday, I put on kindlings and made a fire in the furnace below, having first poked down the ashes. Some of the limbs -- I cannot remember what ones or how many -- were consumed at that time. This was the last I had to do with the remains.

The tin box was designed to receive the thorax, though I had not concluded where I should finally put the box. The fish-hooks, tied up as grapples, were to be used for drawing up the parts in the vault, whenever I should determine how to dispose of them. And yet, strange enough, I had a confused double object in ordering the box and making the grapples. I had before intended to get such things to send Fayal; -- the box to hold plants and other articles which I wished to protect from salt water and sea air, -- and the hooks to be used there in obtaining coraline plants from the sea. It was this previously intended use of them that suggested and mixed itself up with the idea of the other application. I doubt, even now, to which use they would have been applied. I had not used the hooks at the time of the discovery.

The tan put into the tea-chest was taken from a barrel of it that had been in the laboratory some time. The bag of tan brought in on Monday was not used, nor intended to be used. It belonged to a quantity obtained by me a long time ago for experiments in tanning, and was sent by the family to get it out of the way. It being sent just at that time was accidental.

I was not aware that I had put the knife into the tea-chest.

The stick found in the saucer of ink was for making coarse diagrams on cloth.

The bunch of "filed" keys had been long ago picked up by me in Fruit street, and thrown carelessly into a drawer. I never examined them, and do not know whether they would fit any of the locks of the College or not. If there were other keys fitting doors with which I had nothing to do, I suppose they must have been duplicates, or keys of former locks, left there by the mechanics or janitor. I know nothing about them, and should never be likely to notice them amongst the multitude of articles, large and small, and of all kinds, collected in my rooms. The janitor had furnished me a key to the dissecting-room for the admission of medical friends visiting the College; but I had never used it.

The nitric acid on the stairs was not used to remove spots of blood, but dropped by accident.

When the officers called for me no Friday, 30th, I was in doubt whether I was under arrest, or whether a more strict search of my rooms was to be had; the latter hypothesis being hardly less appalling than the former. When I found that we went over Cragie's bridge, I thought arrest was most probable. When I found that the carriage was stopping at the jail, I was sure of my fate; and before leaving the carriage, I took a dose of strychnine from my pocket and swallowed it. I had prepared it in the shape of a pill before I left my laboratory on the 23rd. I thought I could not bear to survive detection. I thought it was a large dose. The state of my nervous system probably defeated its action, partially. The effects of the poison were terrible beyond description. It was in operation at the College, and before I went there; but more severely, afterwards.

I wrote but one of the anonymous letters produced at the trial, -- the one mailed to East Cambridge.

The "little bundle," referred to in the letter detained by the jailer, contained only a bottle of citric acid, for domestic use. I had seen it stated in a newspaper, that I had purchased a quantity of oxalic acid, which is presumed was to be used in removing blood-stains. I wished the parcel to be kept untouched, that it might be shown, if there should be occasion, what it really was that I had purchased.

I have drawn up in separate papers an explanation of the use I intended to make of the blood sent for on Thursday, the 22nd, and of the conversation with Littlefield about the dissecting vault.

I think that Pettee, in his testimony at the trial, put too strongly my words about having settled with Dr. Parkman. Whatever I did say, of the kind, was predicated on the hope I entertained that I should be able to pacify Dr. Parkman and make some arrangement with him; and was said in order to quiet Pettee, who was becoming restive under the solicitation of Dr. Parkman.





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