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Murder at Harvard | Article

John White Webster (1793-1850)

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

Dr. John Webster was "well-connected by family and profession," Simon Schama writes in his book about the murder of Dr. George Parkman. "The professor's mother was a Leverett, [one] of the great Harvard dynasties; his wife's sister married into the Prescotts.... The Robert Gould Shaws were friends enough for them to discuss Spiritualism without embarrassment; the Reverend Francis Parkman Sr. [brother of George] was his Unitarian pastor. In short, not the kind of man one would instinctively place among the criminal classes."

Early Years
John White Webster was born in Boston in 1793. His grandfather had made his fortune as a Boston merchant. But as he grew up, Webster's father kept him on a tight allowance, which Webster later claimed was one of the reasons he never understood money. Webster studied at Harvard Medical College, finishing in 1815, only a few years after George Parkman, and then went to England to expand his medical experience. Eventually he landed on the island of St. Michael in the Azores. There he practiced some medicine, and met and married Harriet Hickling. They began a family of four daughters.

Lecturer in Chemistry
Back in Boston with his new wife, John Webster first entered private medical practice, but he was never able to make a steady success of it. This fact, coupled with the disappointing news upon his father's death that there was little fortune to be left him, prompted Webster to seek another career. In about 1824, he was appointed a lecturer of chemistry at the Harvard Medical College, and in about 1827 he was promoted to professor.

A Professor's Salary
Webster kept his post at Harvard, publishing chemistry books, lecturing to students, and getting a salary increase from $800 to $1200 a year. At the same time, he and his wife created a place for themselves among the elite in Cambridge society. Accounts of Webster's character reveal that he was more talented in society than the lecture room. While he was described by all his friends as affable, well-spoken, charming and entertaining to have at a party, some did not speak so highly of him as a chemistry professor.

A Slur in the Press
The Boston Daily Bee described Professor Webster as "tolerated rather than respected, and has only retained his position on account of its comparative insignificance. As a lecturer he was dull and common-place and while the students took tickets to his lectures, they did not generally attend them."

Without Enemies
The Yarmouth Register admitted Webster's lackluster professorship, though more kindly, writing, "his reputation in his profession is respectable but not brilliant." The Register chose to focus more on Webster the man. "With a mild, kind and unassuming disposition, with eminently social feelings and manners of uncommon affability, he probably had not any enemy." The paper did admit, however, Webster's one fault that may have driven him to murder. They referred to it as his lack of skill in "the management of pecuniary affairs."

Debt Was His Downfall
Webster may have been driven to murder to save himself and his family from embarrassment over their debts. But those debts were no secret. At the time of the murder, Webster and his family lived in a respectable but not grand house in Cambridge, which they leased from Jonas Wyeth. Years earlier, however, the Websters had built a mansion in Cambridge, which they could not afford and eventually lost. Webster had borrowed money from several of his friends besides Parkman. In fact, the money demanded by Parkman on the day of the murder was originally to have been covered by a new loan Webster had garnered from other friends. In a letter to John A. Lowell written from his prison cell, Webster admitted that debt had always been his downfall. He offered several reasons for it, beginning with the fact that his father had never given him enough money to learn to manage it. He cited also the great expenses of his chemistry lectures, which professors were then required to cover themselves, and his great love for his wife and daughters, which precluded him from letting them go without luxuries. He blamed most of his debt on circumstances and the bad influence of others, and was never able to curb its causes.

Whether or not the pressure of this debt was the motive for his act, on November 30, 1849, John W. Webster was arrested for the murder of George Parkman. He was convicted in March and hanged in August 1850.

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