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Murder at Harvard | Article

Boston Brahmins

American Antiquarian Society

The term "Boston Brahmins" refers to a class of wealthy, educated, elite members of Boston society in the nineteenth century. Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the term in a novel in 1861, calling Boston's elite families "the Brahmin Caste of New England." The Boston Brahmins have long held the interest of casual and professional historians because of their unique place in nineteenth-century American culture. They were mostly the descendants of Puritans, having made their fortunes as American merchants, and they could not be described as egalitarian. Rather, they were the closest thing the United States has ever had to a true aristocracy.

At Odds with Democracy
In her book Elite Families, Betty G. Farrell writes, "Visiting Boston for the first time in the 1830s, Harriet Martineau noted that it was 'perhaps as aristocratic, vain, and vulgar a city, as described by its own "first people," as any in the world.' What particularly distressed Martineau was the evidence of an aristocracy of wealth amid a new republic, a group whose cultural pretensions and social exclusivity she saw as particularly at odds with the democratic ideals of egalitarianism and inclusive citizenship."

Socially Exclusive
Several factors, besides wealth, made Boston's Brahmins stand out as an aristocracy even from the wealthy of other cities. With waves of immigration to America's cities in the middle of the nineteenth century, the position of the wealthy and elite in every city was threatened. But in New York and Chicago, despite prejudice, the influence of immigrants quickly took root. In Boston, the Brahmins fought fiercely to close immigrants out. While they may have prided themselves on being the champions of abolitionism, they did not actually want black Americans, or any other non-Brahmin group, encroaching on their power or society.

Peninsula City
It was not difficult for upper class Bostonians to shut out their poorer counterparts. The unique geography of Boston, a peninsula city, made expansion possible only by landfill. All of Boston's new neighborhoods in the mid-nineteenth century were created by leveling off hills and using the dirt to fill areas of water to create new land. These new landfill areas were generally small and largely bordered by water, so it was easy to keep them exclusive. When immigrants did move in to the newly fashionable Old South End, the Brahmins moved out.

Athens of America
Besides money and the right real estate, a self-conscious set of shared values defined Boston's aristocracy. Boston Brahmins prized culture and education. Boston's elite liked to think of their city as the "Athens of America." For Boston Brahmins, Harvard College helped define this atmosphere. The Brahmins who didn't live in the prestigious Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston lived in Cambridge, near the college. By the 1830s, an elite corporation governed Harvard, and students of elite families filled its halls. Through Harvard, these families were able to teach the next generation the educational and the moral values they held dear.

Puritan Values
The Boston Brahmins' adherence to the Puritanical values of their forefathers made them unique. It is possible to imagine that John Webster, a Brahmin by birth but lacking in wealth, may have been so desperate to hide his debts that he killed his social peer, George Parkman.

Shock and Disgust
Boston Brahmins were horrified at the murder of one of their own, but they were even more upset that one of their own might be the killer. Most responded initially with shock, disgust and insistence on Webster's innocence. As the trial wore on, many Bostonians came to believe Webster had done the unthinkable. Most of those in Cambridge who knew him, however, remained sympathetic defenders of Webster to the end.

Propriety and Medical Work
Webster was respected by his friends as a Harvard professor, but many of them may have been suspicious about his actual laboratory work. In 1840s America, chemistry and anatomy were still viewed as the periphery of medicine. Americans may have had a sense of the necessity of dissecting bodies, but would have cringed at the thought of how it was done, or how bodies were procured. This was a time in which proper etiquette and morality so strongly proscribed the personal touch of the human body that some doctors actually diagnosed by mail, upon only a description of symptoms.

Doomed by His Social Standing
In the end, Webster's social standing as a Boston Brahmin may have actually been detrimental to his chance for life. Not only Brahmins, but letter-writers from all over the country thought his sentence of death overly harsh. There was little chance that George Briggs, Massachusetts' governor and a well-known lay preacher, would commute it, however, because to do so would appear to be a bow to Brahmin pressure. With the memory of Washington Goode, a black Bostonian who had recently been hanged for a crime without clear evidence of his guilt, Governor Briggs was in a tight position. The Fall River Weekly Newssummed it up this way:

"If any delays, misgivings or symptoms of mercy are manifested, the gibbeted body of Washington Goode will be paraded before the mind's eye of his Excellency. If he relents in this case, though the entire population of the State petition for a remission of sentence, Governor Briggs will forfeit all claim to public respect as a high minded, honorable and impartial chief magistrate. He can do one of two things and retain his character as a man and a public servant: resign his office, or let the law take its course."


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