The Parkman Family and the Murder
Boston knew the Parkman family even before George Parkman's high-profile disappearance. The murdered man's father, Samuel Parkman, had made a fortune in real estate, and the family was counted among Boston's social elite.
George Parkman inherited the family wealth and became a prominent benefactor to the community and to his alma mater, Harvard College. An endowed position at Harvard named in his honor, the Parkman Professorship of Anatomy and Physiology, was held by writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes from 1847 until 1882. In addition, his friend John James Audubon, the noted ornithologist and artist, named the Parkman Wren, Troglodytes Parkmanii, after him.
George Parkman's greatest gift to Harvard was a large parcel of land in Boston's West End neighborhood that was used to build the Harvard Medical College. The school opened in 1846 and Parkman's gruesome murder and dismemberment, many believe, took place inside it three years later. Today, only the foundations of the original Harvard Medical College remain, and the site is occupied by New England's largest medical center, the world-renowned Massachusetts General Hospital. Parkman Street borders the property on one side.
In the years following John Webster's murder trial and conviction for the death of George Parkman, another Parkman came to prominence -- George's nephew, Francis. Francis Parkman was born in Boston in 1823, the son of Reverend Francis Parkman. A sickly child, Francis grew up at his family's summer farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, in the care of his grandparents.
Traveler and Historian
Following his father's wishes, young Francis returned to Boston to study law. His health and eyesight continued to decline. Upon graduation from Harvard in 1846, Parkman and his cousin, Quincy Adams Shaw, embarked on a trip to the American West. The compiled notes from Parkman's journal were published as The California and Oregon Trail, the first of many historical works Francis would pen. He is credited with establishing early views of Native Americans and developing a myth of the west.
A Feel for Wilderness
Despite the tragedies of losing both his son and wife, Francis Parkman continued to conduct historical research and write books. He was fascinated by the conflicts between French and British colonizers and North American Indians in the previous century. His feel for the wilderness, bred during his childhood forays into the Middlesex Fells and cultivated in his trips out west, made his writing visceral and dynamic.
One Historian's Method
Parkman wrote of his historical method that he tried, "while scrupulously and rigorously adhering to the truth of facts, to animate them with the life of the past, and, so far as might be, clothe the skeleton with flesh. Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time." Today, the Society for American Historians annually awards the Francis Parkman Prize to the best book in American history.
Even now, Boston has its Parkmans. Descendents of Samuel, George, and Francis Parkman lived on Beacon Hill, a 19th-century neighborhood of brick row houses next to the Massachusetts State House, until the late 20th century. According to S. Parkman Shaw, his ancestor George Parkman's immediate family suffered irreparable damage from the murder:
"Boston in those days was a small town. This event was galvanizing, not only for Boston but throughout the country, and indeed throughout the world. It was an international event... These people, in this narrow congregational and Unitarian town, were mortified. Just mortified. And they never recovered. George's daughter, widow, and son lived as reclusives. The truth is the Parkman family almost disappeared off the face of the earth. They're not thick on the ground in Boston now."