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Murder at Harvard | Article

Dr. George Parkman (c. 1790-1849)

Courtesy, Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

Dr. George Parkman cut a sharp figure. Tall, lean, with chin jutting forward, chest puffed, and stovepipe hat worn proudly, he walked the streets of Boston collecting his rents. Oliver Wendell Holmes said he was the perfect Yankee: "he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept." Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a contemporary of Parkman, called him "the lean doctor... the good-natured Don-Quixote." Not everyone thought Dr. Parkman so good-natured. While Boston citizens were the beneficiaries of Parkman's pursuit of his altruistic dream, they also witnessed his cynicism when that dream was not realized.

Healing the Ill
George Parkman was born into a wealthy, elite family around the year 1790. His father, Samuel Parkman, had made his fortune as a merchant, a path considered respectable and legitimate by the Boston Brahmin community. But George was inspired early on with a desire to do more than manage his father's estate; he found his calling in medicine. Parkman completed his studies at Harvard Medical College in 1813, only two years ahead of John Webster.

Helping the Insane
As many wealthy young men of his day, Parkman traveled to Europe after leaving Harvard in search of more education. He spent time in France, where physicians were pioneering a new kind of asylum for the insane, one where patients were treated with kindness rather than brutality. Parkman was forever affected by the plight of the insane, and uplifted by the efforts he saw at better treatment for them. It became his dream to bring this new, improved treatment back home to Boston. Upon his return to Boston in 1813, Dr. Parkman was pleased to find that the authorities of Massachusetts General Hospital were also contemplating a new asylum. He wrote two tracts — Remarks on Insanity and The Management of Lunatics — to publicize his ideas for a humane asylum, and to prove his desire to be the head of such an institution. Ironically, Parkman's words may have foreshadowed the manner of his own death. "The astonishing strength of some lunatics seems analogous to that of some 'sane' persons, under strong affections, and motives, as anger, sense of danger, wish to defend."

Bitter Disappointment
Parkman eagerly found a site for the new asylum, put up some of the $16,000 price for it, and promised to raise the rest from his friends. The Hospital committee took Parkman to mean he would pay the entire price for the mansion. But to do so and then be appointed to head the new hospital would make it appear that Parkman had bought his position. Parkman and the committee soured over their misunderstanding, and the head position at McLean went to someone else.

A Fortune in Real Estate
Parkman's dreams of making his mark on the medical world were dashed. He did not abandon his medical interests entirely, however. He was known to visit and entertain the insane, he bought them a piano, and he opened up his own mansion for the treatment of the ill during an outbreak of smallpox. For his profession, however, Dr. Parkman turned back to the family business. When his father died in 1835, George took complete control and bought vast amounts of land and real estate in Boston, including many poorly maintained tenements. He enhanced his fortune through money lending and real estate. He sold the land for the new Harvard Medical School and the Charles Street jail. He remained an authority on the insane, and periodically testified about them in court.

The Day He Disappeared
Such was the life of Dr. George Parkman when his life history became forever intertwined with that of Dr. John Webster. Parkman had loaned money to Webster over the years. Webster's careless financial habits were anathema to Parkman's parsimonious standards. Webster had recently insulted Parkman by double-crossing him on his loan, attempting to re-mortgage a mineral collection already mortgaged to Parkman. An angry Parkman hounded Webster for his money. On November 23, 1849, the day he disappeared, George Parkman, age 59, left his Beacon Hill mansion to collect his rents, buy an expensive head of lettuce for his sickly daughter, and see Webster about his money.


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