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Murder at Harvard | Article

Ephraim Littlefield

Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society

Few details are known about Ephraim Littlefield, the character on whom the Parkman murder case turned. Littlefield's testimony sent a man to the gallows for the murder that shocked Boston — and the nation.

Working Man
Littlefield had come to Boston from a northern New England farm, searching for a better life. He was the janitor of the new Harvard Medical College, built in 1846, and had also been the janitor at the previous one. He and his wife, Caroline, lived in the basement of the medical college, right next to professor John Webster's laboratory. So he knew Webster and the other Harvard doctors well, and observed their study of medicine, including the dissection of cadavers for the study of human anatomy. In fact, Littlefield was a "resurrection man," one who obtained bodies for dissection at a price of about twenty-five dollars a body. Grave robbing was the most common way bodies were obtained, though we don't know whether Littlefield used this method. As janitor, he cleaned the doctors' rooms and laboratories, started their fires, and did whatever else they asked. He would certainly have been aware of the social distinctions that made him a working-class man, while they were gentlemen.

A Watchful Eye
Littlefield testified that he saw Dr. George Parkman enter Dr. Webster's rooms on the afternoon of Parkman's disappearance, but never saw him leave. Littlefield said that a half an hour later he went to Dr. Webster's laboratory to clean the stove, and found the doors bolted. He said that later he met Dr. Webster on the back stairs, looking flustered.

Critical Testimony
In the days following Dr. Parkman's disappearance, Littlefield became increasingly suspicious of Webster. With great personal effort, he chiseled through the stone wall under Dr. Webster's privy and found bones that were ultimately presented at trial as those of Dr. Parkman. Littlefield described his discovery this way. "I took the crowbar and knocked the bigness of the hole right through. There are five courses of brick in the wall. I managed to get in ... and to get the light and my head into the hole, and then ... I held my light forward, and the first thing I saw was the pelvis of a man and two parts of a leg."

Monetary Reward
Littlefield immediately reported his findings. His testimony and the evidence he discovered became the damning strikes against Dr. Webster. Ultimately, Littlefield collected the $3,000 reward offered by Robert Gould Shaw for information about Dr. Parkman's disappearance. He retired a wealthy man.

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