People & Events: Newspaper Coverage of the Webster Trial
One of the greatest remaining sources of contemporary information about the Parkman murder and the Webster trial are the newspapers of Boston and its surroundings in 1849 and 1850. The newspapers created the sort of media blitz about the trial that television would create about a celebrity trial today. Like media outlets today, Boston's newspapers were everywhere in 1850, and they reflected the liberal or conservative biases of their owners and reporters.
Thousands of Pages of News
As everything else in nineteenth-century America, the newspaper business was dramatically altered by the Industrial Revolution. The number of periodicals and their circulation rose, so that the 1850 census counted 2,526 titles in the United States. There were over 100 in Boston. The new printing presses were able to print ten thousand pages per hour. People often read several different newspapers a day, and used the papers to help form their opinions. New "pictorial" weekly newspapers attracted readers by featuring illustrations made from woodcut engravings of reporters' sketches. Since the Webster trial occurred before photography, these engravings constitute many of the existing trial images.
Opposite Views of the Same Events
The standards for news gathering and journalistic ethics were not as stringent in 1850 as they are today. Papers then were not concerned about backing every fact or implication with a source. Add a trial that all Bostonians felt very strongly about, and newspapers often gave opposite views of the same events. In Murder at Harvard, historian Simon Schama speaks of the mixed perspective historical newspapers offered him in his research of the Webster trial:
"I read the voluminous newspaper reports from as far away as London, Paris, and Berlin. In those days there was no one official trial transcript -- Boston and New York papers each published their own transcripts which were snapped up hot off the press. As one contemporary put it, 'The newspapers are filled with details, truths, and falsehoods. Column after column is printed and the public is gorged.' What am I to make of this mass, this mess of materials, in which there are multiple stories and pieces of stories?"
Following are excerpts from 1850 newspapers about the Webster trial.
[Read more in the Primary Sources section of this site.]
"Scarcely one man in ten thousand can be found who does not agree with us in the opinion that the evidence for the defence was sufficient to create a doubt of the unhappy man's guilt."
-- Evening Bulletin, April 2, 1850
"We have scarcely met a man of intelligence, since the evidence has all come out, who did not profess to believe in Webster's guilt."
-- Massachusetts Ploughman, April 6, 1850
"We have yet to find the first legal gentleman of our city, and with a single exception, the first well informed private gentleman of our acquaintance, who believes that Dr. Webster's sentence was a correct one, under the law and the evidence. There are serious doubts whether Dr. Parkman is dead; doubts whether, if dead, his remains have been found; doubts whether Webster committed the murder; and doubts, strong doubts whether the prisoner at the bar and one of the principal witnesses against him, should not have changed places!"
-- The Daily Sun, April 3, 1850
"Prof. Webster suffered the extreme penalty of the law, and the public voice pronounces the execution of the sentence just. He had committed one of the most terrible crimes on record, and the most terrible punishment which human laws can inflict was deemed to be his due. Such was the voice of public sentiment, and the prisoner himself acknowledged his doom to be right."
-- Hampshire Gazette, September 3, 1850
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