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Murder at Harvard | Article

The Murder of Dr. Parkman

Harvard University Archives

The Parkman murder has been called the O. J. Simpson trial of the nineteenth century. It had everything a good murder story needs: a rich, well-known victim; a well-respected suspect; gruesome evidence; and a possible underdog hero.

Shocking Story
In November 1849, a sensational murder shook the city of Boston to its core. It all began when Dr. George Parkman, a scion of one of Boston's richest families, suddenly vanished. One week later, the janitor of the Harvard Medical College discovered body parts hidden in the laboratory of a mild-mannered professor of chemistry named John Webster. Though his influential friends supported his innocence, Webster was convicted of murdering Dr. Parkman. The trial created a spectacle, drawing crowds in the tens of thousands.

Sad Suspense
The members of the Brahmin social circles of both Dr. Parkman and Dr. Webster were first distraught at the news of Parkman's disappearance, and then horrified at the suggestion of Webster's guilt. Fanny Longfellow, wife of the renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote:

"Boston is at this moment in sad suspense about the fate of poor Dr. Parkman... You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks.... Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman's body. He could make things appear against the doctor, having bodies under his control. I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually. I went to see poor Mrs. Webster on Saturday, the day after her husband's arrest, but of course was not admitted. What a terrible blight upon her life and that of the girls! The mere suspicion, for I cannot believe anything can be proved."

Similarly, on Saturday, December 1, 1849, Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley wrote in his journal:

"The standing of Dr. Webster, his uniform tenor of conduct since the disappearance of Dr. Parkman, his artlessness & unfamiliarity with crime of any kind have been such that the excitement , the melancholy, the aghastness of every body are indescribable. The professors poh! at the mere suspicion he is guilty... People cannot eat; they feel sick."

A Fateful Meeting
Webster owed Parkman money. He had borrowed from him for years to cover a lifestyle he could not afford. He had recently attempted to pledge his mineral collection as collateral on a loan ⁠— the same mineral collection which already stood as collateral for a Parkman loan. This spurious business practice enraged Parkman, who considered himself an upright businessman. He began to hound Webster for repayment of his loan. This is what brought about their meeting on November 23, 1849. Several days later, Webster was arrested under suspicion that he had killed Parkman at this meeting. Webster stood trial in March 1850, was found guilty, and was sentenced to hang. Despite an outpouring of mail from across the nation urging clemency, Massachusetts governor George Briggs refused to commute the sentence. Webster was publicly hanged in Boston's Leverett Square on August 30, 1850.

Murder Timeline, 1849

Thursday, November 22:
Parkman seeks Webster in Cambridge. Parkman asks Mr. Pettee, the Harvard cashier, to give him the money from the sale of Webster's lecture tickets to repay Webster's debt.

Friday, November 23:
Webster visits Parkman's home to propose a meeting at the Medical College that afternoon at 1:30pm;
Parkman is seen entering the college, presumably to settle the debt of $2,432.
Later in the afternoon, Littlefield finds Webster's rooms locked from the inside, and hears water running;
Webster is home by 6:00 pm and attends a party at the house of friends, the Treadwells. He is his usual affable self.

Saturday, November 24:
Littlefield sees Webster with a bundle. Webster tells him to make a fire.

Sunday, November 25:
Webster is asked if he has seen Dr. Parkman.

Tuesday, November 27:
Webster works at the College in the evening; the police make their first search of his rooms.

Wednesday, November 28:
Webster is at the College early; Littlefield watches him from under the door.

Thursday, November 29, Thanksgiving:
Littlefield begins chiseling away the wall under Webster's private privy.

Friday, November 30:
Littlefield discovers human bones under Webster's privy, and reports his discovery. The police take Webster from his home in Cambridge. Without initially telling him he is under arrest, they take him to jail.

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