Skip To Content
Murder at Harvard poster image
Aired July 14, 2003

Murder at Harvard

A brutal murder, a sensational trial —and a lingering mystery.

Film Description

On Thanksgiving weekend in 1849, Dr. George Parkman, one of Boston's richest citizens, suddenly disappeared. The physician had last been seen walking towards the Harvard Medical College. Many suspected Parkman had been robbed and murdered by a poor Irish immigrant, but the Harvard Medical School's janitor Ephraim Littlefield thought differently. He spent two grueling nights tunneling beneath a basement laboratory looking for clues. What he claimed to have discovered horrified and scandalized Boston. In chemistry professor John White Webster's privy vault were, according to Littlefield, cut-up pieces of a human being.

The following March Webster went on trial for murder. His was one of the most notorious trials ever conducted in the United States and it played out to standing room-only crowds. The city marshal ordered a chain wrapped around the courthouse to control the thousands of spectators who were rotated through in ten-minute shifts. Webster maintained his innocence throughout, but the jury was persuaded by the janitor's testimony — and Webster was hanged.

That should have been the end to a sad story, but instead of putting events to rest, Webster's execution left the mystery of what really happened to George Parkman forever unresolved. Why would a respected Harvard professor have murdered a prominent physician? And if he didn't, what did the janitor have to gain by framing him?

Inspired by a book by acclaimed historian Simon Schama, Murder at Harvard uses a combination of film-noir drama and present-day documentary footage to tell the true tale of one of the most notorious American crimes of the 19th century. Grappling with frustrating gaps in the historical record, Schama assumes the role of a time-travelling detective who takes an unusual step for an historian and imagines how certain scenes and encounters might have played out. "Maybe I thought what I was after was not a literal documentary truth," Schama tells us, "but a poetic truth — an imaginative truth — and for that I was going to have to become my own Resurrection man. I was going to have to make these characters live again."

By weighing and sifting the evidence, and putting himself in the place of the story's central characters, Schama is able to show how the story of Parkman's disappearance is "much bigger and much sadder even than this extraordinary notorious crime." It is, Schama says, "the story of a whole community in the process of losing its innocence and the cast of characters was caught up in this grim rite of passage."


Produced by
Melissa Banta & Eric Stange

Presented by
Simon Schama

Directed by
Eric Stange

Amy Geller

Peter Rhodes

Written by
Eric Stange
Melissa Banta
Simon Schama

Director of Photography
Boyd Estus

Production Designer
Katha Seidman

Music by
John Kusiak

John Demos
Steve Fayer
Jim Goodman
Karen Halttunen
Stephen Nissenbaum
Nancy Partner
Calvin Skaggs
Ronald Story

Tim Sawyer -- John White Webster
Stephen Benson -- Ephraim Littlefield
Sean McGuirk -- Dr. George Parkman
Marc Carver -- Derastus Clapp
Sean Fitzgerald -- Charles B. Starkweather
Robert Murphy -- Marshall Francis Tukey
Kenneth Cheeseman -- Robert Gould Shaw
James Devon -- Doctor
Dan Dowling -- Dr. Nathan Keep
Richard McElvain -- Dr. Woodbridge Strong
David Morrow -- Dr. Winslow Lewis

Sound Recording
G. John Garrett, C.A.S.
Francis X. Coakley

Production Coordinator
Christina Hunt

Unit Production Manager
Amy Geller

Assistant Directors
Benjamin Dewey
Lucia Small
Arda Collins
Evelyn Carrigan

Assistant Camera
Mary Anne Janke
Joe Christofori

Guy Holt

Darrell Temple
Brian Johnson
Karine Albano

Jeff King
Bruno Fantini
Scott Masterson

Boom Operator
Kelly Doran

Art Department
Shane Murray
Danica Chipman
Jane O'Hara

Set Construction
Dan Barrette
Jon Roll
Hannah Zwart

Ann Yoost Brecke
Deb Newhall
Hillary Derby

Anna Brecke
Joe Rossi
Sherryn Smith

Production Secretaries
Rosanna Tullio
Jennifer Pearce

Production Assistants
Rachel Abbott
Monica Aufrecht
Jesse Barboza
Robert Burnett
Matt Fisher
Amy Glynn
Megan Hessenthaler
Jeremy Hines
Michael Kaplan
Jonathan Lee
Allison McBratney
Madelyn Medeiros
Runal Mehta
Jared Pruett
Tom Skowron
Valerie Spain
Emily Mabey Swensen
Tyrone Tanous
Kevin Vargiss
Zoie OmegaRizzuto
Robert Veltkamp
Tommy Upshaw

Featured Extras
Kirk Avery -- Juror
Rena Baskin -- Woman on Street
David Bouvier -- Juror
Forry Buckingham -- Juror
Michael Dalby -- Policeman
Alan Francis -- Juror
Ted Garland -- Lawyer 1
Robert Gilke -- Lawyer 2
Martin Hanley-- Jailer
Richard Hill -- Spectator
Edsel Hughes -- Juror
Bob Jolly -- Clerk
John Meaney -- Spectator
Erik Parillo -- Official
Barry Press -- Foreman
Michele Proude -- Caroline Littlefield
Duncan Putney -- Juror
Jerome Quinn -- Judge 1
Ellen Stone -- Harriet Webster
Guy Strauss -- Lawyer 3
Peter Tyson -- Reverend George Putnam
Donald Watson -- Judge 2
Barry Zaslove -- Juror
Leonard Zola -- Judge Lemuel Shaw

Jonathan Bieluch
Ashley Smith
William Westfall

Principal Casting
Nancy Doyle
Tighe & Doyle Casting

Special Still Photographer
Liane Brandon

Evan Harlan -- Accordion
Sato Knudsen -- Cello
Bill Novick -- Clarinet
Laura Ahlbeck -- Oboe
Beth Cohen -- Violin
John Kusiak -- Keyboards

Nathan DeVore -- Copyist

Costumes provided by:
Boston Costume
Emerson College
Huntington Theatre Company
Kansas City Costume Company, Inc.
Rhode Island Costume

Props & sets provided by:
American Instrument Exchange, Inc.
Barry Bailey
Beaver Brothers
Erikson's Antique Stoves
The Farmhouse Antiques
Green Mountain Soapstone
Mabel Herwig
Scott Kehs
The Old House Parts Co.
Christopher Sawtelle
Yankee Craftsman

Legal Services
Sandra Forman

Catering by Jules

Thanks to the following extras:
Commonwealth Vintage Dancers
Jane Allocca
Kenneth Baclawski
Andy Beal
Catherine & Ben Bishop
Janice Burdick
Stephen Carroll
Lida & William Costa
Cynthia Crosby
Terry Crumb
Laura Eisener
Diana Fischer
Jane Gaughn
Mark Geller
Linda Harrar
Diane Hendrix
Richard Hill
Brian Kaufman
Paul Kentworthy
Lisa Lewis
Brandon MacKinnon
Peter Marron
Maureen McNamara
John O'Brien
Aaron Oppenheimer
Jeffrey Quinken
Alex Rankin
Bernice Schneider
Alex Stange
Mia Stange
Gail Steketee
Peter Tyson
Paul Walsh
Victoria Williams

Special thanks to:

Douglas W. Bryant Fellowship, Harvard University Library

Acorn Street Association
John Alzapiedi
The Banta/Tyson Family
Beacon Hill Civic Association
Lenny Beleveau
Victor Birch
Boston Police Department
Robert Botterio
Brian Bower
Elizabeth Bouvier
Terry Bragg
Budget Rental, Allston
Sgt. Rick Calnan
Christopher Carberry
City of Boston
City of Cambridge
City of Newton
City of Waltham
Laurel Chiten
Lorna Condon
Frederick Correale
Barbara Costa
Joan Debow
Carmine DeMartino & staff
Maureen Devlin
Margaret Drain
Peter Drummey
Jack Ekert
Emerson College
William Fowler
Mayor David Gately
Ralph Gaudet
Patricia Giles
Gerald Gillerman
Tim Graff
Nicholas Graham
Alec Gray
Sharon Grimberg
Francis Herrmann
Frank Keogh
David King
Tom Koch
Patsy Kraemer
Brenda Lawson
Leslie Lewis
Laura Linard
Massachusetts Film Office
Massachusetts Historical Society
Jeff Mifflin
Kahlil Olmstead
Captain Bernard O'Rourke
Patri Pugliese
Gerald Peary
Georgia Peirce
Sally Pierce
Tom Phelps
John Pinzone
Mary Quirk
Nancy Richard
Mark Samels
Screen Actors Guild
Nancy Seashoales
Jerri Shepherd
Brian Sullivan
Aaron Schmidt
Anthony Swain
Terry Trembly
Trial Court, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Town of Arlington
Video Transfer
Susan Walsh
Marilyn Wellington
Whittemore Robbins House

Archival Sources
American Antiquarian Society
Archive Photo
Boston Athenaeum
Boston Police Archives
Boston Public Library
Bostonian Society
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Brown Brothers
Cambridge Historical Commission
City of Boston Archives
Corbis Images
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
The Granger Collection
Harvard Business School
Harvard University Archives
Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts Historical Society
Massachusetts State Archive
McLean Hospital
Minnesota Historical Society
New York Public Library
North Wind Picture Archive
Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
Supreme Judicial Court Archives, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Production equipment provided by:
Boston Camera
PixMix Video Services
Rule Broadcasting Systems
Talamas Company
Screen Light & Grip

Studio Facilities
Heliotrope Studios, Ltd.

Stills Restoration
Jane Gillooly

Photo Animation
Edward T. Joyce
The Frame Shop

Transcription Services
ATM Inc.
Mulberry Studios

Payroll Company
American Residuals & Talent, Inc.

Film Stock

Film Processing

Post-Production Audio
Heart Punch Studio
Greg McCleary
Geof Thurber
Deb Driscoll

On-line Editing
Michael H. Amundson

Produced in association with the Center for Independent Documentary.

A Spy Pond Productions Film

© 2003 Eric Stange & Melissa Banta


James E. Dunford
Rose M. Compagine
Gregory Shea

Alison Kennedy

Mark Steele

John Jenkins

Mark Adler

John Van Hagen

Nancy Farrell
Vanessa Ruiz
Helen R. Russell
Rebekah Suggs

Jay Fialkov
Maureen Jordan

Maria Daniels

Ravi Jain

Daphne B. Noyes
Johanna Baker

Susan Mottau

Sharon Grimberg

Mark Samels

Margaret Drain

A Spy Pond Productions film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
This program was produced by WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.

© 2003 WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.


REENACTMENT - WITNESS DR. WINSLOW LEWIS: I am a practicing physician in this city. I was called on the Saturday succeeding the arrest of Dr. Webster to the Medical College.

SIMON SCHAMA, Historian: History is drama and nothing is more dramatic than a trial. On trial this time was not just a man but a city and its most cherished values.

REENACTMENT - LEWIS: ... I found that the head had been separated from the torso just below the Adam's apple by sawing through the upper vertebra...

SIMON SCHAMA: The case was so sensational that more than 60,000 people came to witness the trial of Harvard Professor of Chemistry John White Webster... accused of the gruesome murder of Dr. George Parkman. But what really happened is still debated today.

DR. FRANCIS MOORE, Harvard Medical School: I and many other people I'm not alone in this view looking at this case believe that he was innocent.

S. PARKMAN SHAW, descendent of George Parkman: There's no question in my mind that Dr. Parkman was killed by Professor Webster. The overwhelming weight of the evidence indicates that.

REENACTMENT - LEWIS: All the bowels and stomach were gone...

SCHAMA: Some years ago when I was teaching at Harvard I stumbled over this riveting story. I immediately wanted to know a lot more. As a historian, I thought I could untangle the web of myths, passions, and uncertainties that had surrounded this case for 150 years. But what intrigued me most wasn't the whodunit. It was the real mystery, how we know for certain what happened in the past. So when I set out to write a book about the Webster-Parkman case I knew it couldn't be a straight-forward narrative. I crossed a line I wasn't supposed to cross. I'd be tempted to go beyond conventional history and write in a way I'd never dared before.

SCHAMA: Three men are at the center of this story. The first is John Webster -- the 56-year-old Harvard Medical College professor of chemistry. He was the author of a highly regarded textbook, a friend and neighbor of the distinguished poet Longfellow. 

MOORE: He was a work-a-day professor in chemistry of those days, which was rather simple but very important. It was the beginning of much of present day chemistry. And he worked hard at that. But curiously enough, he moved amongst the upper social classes of Boston too. 

SCHAMA: John Webster wasn't rich, but he was famously affable, model husband and father; the life and soul of any party. A few blocks away from the Harvard Medical College lived one of its most generous benefactors, Dr. George Parkman The son of a wealthy Boston merchant, Parkman had begun his medical career dedicated to helping humankind. But now middle-aged, he'd given up practicing medicine to be a landlord and a money lender, collecting his rents on a schedule that ran like clockwork.

SHAW: Dr. George Parkman was . . . compulsive. Every little detail was important. He got up at the same time; he went to bed at the same time. I can't imagine that he cut a very appealing vision.

SCHAMA: In the small village of Boston's upper class, Parkman and Webster had known each other all their lives. In fact, Parkman was going to visit Webster at his laboratory in the Harvard Medical College on the day this story begins -- November the 23, 1849. The day George Parkman disappeared. 



SCHAMA: The third person in this mystery is Ephraim Littlefield, janitor at the Medical College. There's not much information about Littlefield. But we do know that he didn't just clean the medical school and run the professors' errands. Littlefield made extra money from one of the most ghoulish black market enterprises of the day -- doing business with grave robbers -- so-called Resurrection Men -- on behalf of his Harvard employers. The authorities turned a blind eye on this night-time traffic in corpses

MOORE: Every anatomy department . . .has to have some person or persons who obtains the human bodies for dissection. And Littlefield's job was to procure corpses, which as nearly as we know he did by buying them. He helped to do the dissections and if the body had to be taken apart later he did that and he did it hundreds of times a year -- he was an expert at dismemberment.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: My name is Ephraim Littlefield . . .

SCHAMA:It was Littlefield's testimony that put Webster into the prisoner's dock - - though there are those who believe he ought to have been there himself.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: My duties include attending to the professors at the college, including Professor John Webster.

SCHAMA: What do we know for certain about the day Dr. Parkman disappeared? Professor Webster never denied that Parkman came to visit him at the Medical College that afternoon. He was coming to collect a debt. This is how I imagined their encounter.

REENACTMENT - JOHN WEBSTER: Ah, Dr. Parkman. Good afternoon. Please come in.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Are you ready for me, Dr. Webster? Have you got the money?

SCHAMA: But hold on ... perhaps this is a step too far. 

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Are you ready for me, Dr. Webster? Have you got the money?

SCHAMA:That furtive look I'm attributing to Webster. Well, I don't really know if that happened.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Have you got the money?

SCHAMA: I'm supposed to be sticking to hard and fast facts, but actually we have no way of knowing what Webster was feeling at this particular moment. And perhaps we shall never know what really did happen behind this door.

PAULINE MAIER, Historian: He's not writing a whodunit. He's trying to deal with a more philosophical issue, and that is how do we know about the past. What he is struggling with is the chasm between the present and the past, and the challenge for contemporary people to overcome their anachronisms to try to get a sense of what happened in times in which they have not lived and the inevitable degree of failure that that enterprise involves.

SCHAMA: This book with its faded blue paper and brown ink is the trial transcript, the actual testimony of those who said they'd witnessed the events. And as soon as I started to read it the complexities and contradictions seemed to overwhelm any easy road to the truth.And one contradiction stood out glaringly right from the start . . . Prof. Webster told one story about that Friday afternoon ... while Ephraim Littlefield's trial testimony gives a very different version of events.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: On Friday after I had eaten my dinner, I was standing near the front entry and I saw Dr. Parkman coming towards the college . . . 

SCHAMA: Littlefield first noticed irregularities that Friday afternoon when he arrived for his daily cleaning of Webster's laboratory.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: I found the doors bolted on the inside. I thought that I heard Webster in there walking. I could hear the water running. On Friday evening at about half past five I was coming out of my kitchen and I heard someone walking on the stairs . . . 

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER:: Oh! It's you Littlefield. 

SCHAMA: Though we have Littlefield's account of that afternoon from the trial transcript, we don't have John Webster's because under the law of the day, defendants were not allowed to testify on their own behalf. So I had to rely on Webster's letters and other evidence he left behind, which paint a different picture. Professor Webster's notes suggest he had been analyzing the wood of a grapevine for chemical properties.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: Ah, Good day Dr. Parkman. Please come in.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Are you ready for me Dr. Webster, have you got the money?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER:: Yes, Yes I indeed I do. I have the partial payment as I promised. 

SCHAMA: According to Webster's account it was a brisk and businesslike meeting. In his notes Webster maintained he paid Dr. Parkman the money he owed him.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: I've crossed out the debt. I'll go to the courthouse later today and I have it cancelled. I wish there were more that I could do.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: Oh George, no. You've done so much already. Harriet and I are most grateful.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Have a good day.

SCHAMA: Webster claims he then left the laboratory and was home in Cambridge by 3 -- well before Littlefield says he saw him on the stairs.

SCHAMA: Whose version was I going to believe? Webster -- the Harvard professor or Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor, a man who trafficked in dead bodies? One thing was for sure. Something happened here in John Webster's laboratory on that day in November 1849 . . . and it was part of a much larger story. The Boston Brahmins -- the rich and powerful elite to which George Parkman and in a more precarious way John Webster belonged - - these were the men who made this city what it was.

RONALD STORY, Historian: One of the interesting things about the Boston upper-class that distinguishes it from other places is that there was this appreciation of culture and intellect and learning that really made Boston kind of special.

KAREN HALTTUNEN, Historian: Bostonians like to call their city the hub of the universe and the Athens of America. They were proud of their cultural institutions. They were proud of their social reforms such as temperance, and anti-slavery, and women's rights. And they believed themselves to be the most morally pure city in America.

SCHAMA: But by 1849 deep cracks were appearing in Boston's smooth facade. Irish immigrants were flooding in by the tens of thousands. The Brahmins peered at them nervously as though they were a lower order of human. In the words of one rich Bostonian, the Athens of America was becoming the Dublin of America.

SHAW: These Brahmins discussed the immigrants; they discussed the poverty; they discussed frightening occurrences which were taking place in the city, the necessity of the bigger police force, the filth-- all the problems that a little city has when it becomes a big city. And so, there was a tension in town.

SCHAMA: So when the prominent George Parkman vanished from the streets -- it shook a city already on edge. As days passed Parkman's family grew desperate for information. They plastered the city with posters offering a huge reward, the equivalent of $200,000 today. And they alerted the brand new Boston police.

REENACTMENT - WITNESS FRANCIS TUKEY:: My name is Francis Tukey. I am the city marshal. I was first made acquainted with the disappearance of Dr. George Parkman on Saturday, November 24 . . . I sent word to police officers at the West End of the city and told them to make such inquiries for him as they could without making unnecessary publicity . . . 

SCHAMA: Marshal Francis Tukey had been appointed by the Boston Brahmins to keep an eye on the unruly new immigrant population. The first place that Tukey went was to the Irish - the usual scapegoats whenever anything went wrong. When no clues came to light the police dredged the Charles River and Boston Harbor.... They found nothing. The police came back to the Harvard Medical College -- the last place Parkman had been seen -- a building of mixed reputation...

HALTUNNEN: The Brahmins and the people of Harvard were, of course, extremely proud of the Harvard Medical College, proud of the contributions that medicine was making to Boston.

SCHAMA: But the general public saw it differently. To them the Medical College was a sinister place where dissection was performed -- a terrifying, ungodly practice.

MOORE: A lot of the citizens of Boston thought of the Medical School as a dirty, foul, stinking, smelly place where they had dead bodies and threw them into the river and the less they had to do with it the better.

SCHAMA: Rumors began to fly that the Medical College held the secret to Parkman's fate ... and Marshal Tukey ordered a search. Though according to Littlefield's account, the police made only a cursory effort.

STORY : Tukey's people did not do a thorough job of investigating Webster's quarters. 

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: The police are here to search the College, Dr. Webster.

REENACTMENT - TUKEY: We're searching whole neighborhood Dr. Webster and reckon we need to do a thorough job of it. Go on men, but be careful about it. We don't want to break any of Dr. Webster's instruments.

STORY : First of all they were not in fact sleuths. Secondly I think it was difficult for people to credit the idea that a Harvard professor actually did this sort of thing. 

REENACTMENT - CLAPP: What would be in here then?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: That's where I keep my valuable and dangerous articles. 

SCHAMA: The way Littlefield told the story, the Harvard professor was unperturbed as the search began. Until the police discovered Webster's locked privy door


SCHAMA: And it appeared to Littlefield that the professor suddenly seemed anxious to divert their attention.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: That's Dr. Webster's private privy...

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: Gentlemen, here's another room . . .

REENACTMENT -TUKEY: Please pardon the inconvenience doctor.

SCHAMA: But once again whom am I to believe. . . because according to other accounts Prof. Webster didn't act as if he had anything to hide.

HALTUNNEN: The afternoon of the disappearance, Webster dropped into his favorite restaurant, Brigham's, to dine on a mutton chop, took the omnibus back to Cambridge, and went to a party that evening with his friends and family as he always did.

MOORE : He looked very neat and clean and calm and collected. Most people saw him as the same old professor Webster. They didn't see any change in his appearance at all.

DR. ANTHONY PATTON, Harvard Medical School: Some one even asked Webster in the course of one of these evenings, "Well, John you were apparently one of the last people to see him. Are you a suspect?" And he came out and said, "Do I look like someone who would be a murderer?" And they all laughed.

SCHAMA: But Ephraim Littlefield couldn't help suspecting Webster. Was he motivated by the reward money -- or did he want to end speculation about his own role in Parkman's disappearance.

HALTUNNEN : Littlefield was becoming the ideal suspect because the spectacle of dissection was so terrifying to people at this time. And because there were always rumors that anyone able to supply the needed bodies for such study had to be a grave robber.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD:Whenever I went out of the college, someone would say, "Dr. Parkman is in the Medical College and will be found there if he is ever found anywhere." I could never go out of the building without hearing such remarks. 

SCHAMA: Littlefield testified that he thought it was Webster who was acting suspiciously -- keeping unusually long hours.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD:. . . I went to his laboratory and tried to look through the keyhole but the catch was over it on the inside, and I could not see through. So I lay on the floor . . . but I could only see him as high up as his knees. I found it curious that Professor Webster kept his laboratory door locked nearly all the time in the days following Dr. Parkman's disappearance . . . 

SCHAMA: When five days had passed with no new information, Ephraim Littlefield took the next step. To solve the mystery he would search the bowels of the Medical College ... beneath John Webster's locked privy.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: All other parts had been searched, and if nothing should be found in the privy, I could convince the public that Dr. Parkman had not met with foul play in the college.

HALTUNNEN : The question for us is why he would undertake such a horrific job. The only way he could get into that privy vault was to descend through a trap door into a very dark and sewage filled area maybe four feet high. And then crawl on his hands and knees sixty feet to reach the privy vault. The air was so bad down there that he had trouble keeping his lantern lit. He had to tunnel his way through five courses of brick work using a hammer and a crow bar. And the entire task took him about a day and a half.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: I put my wife to watch the doors, telling her to let no one in, unless she saw who it was. I told her if Dr. Webster came to the door not to let him in unless she first came into the kitchen and gave four raps on the floor to warn me. 

JAMES GOODMAN, Historian: For a historian interested in a person who left n o record like Littlefield, the trial transcript becomes our way into it. It's a complicated way into it. It's not Littlefield speaking to us. It's Littlefield answering questions that are being posed to him by lawyers with particular agendas, mediated through a court reporter, but we have Littlefield's voice.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: I knocked the bigness of the hole right through. 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 which I saw was the pelvis of a man and two parts of a leg.

SCHAMA: The testimony tells us what Littlefield saw - - or rather what he said he saw. But was he telling everything he knew...

MOORE : He knew just exactly where to break through that brick wall, and as soon as he broke through, there was the body. It rather suggests that he had put it there, and I believe he had. 

SCHAMA: The police, however, thought otherwise. They testified that they took Webster that evening from his Cambridge home across the river to Boston. The officers told him only that he was wanted at the Medical College. But when the police carriage stopped, Webster saw they'd brought him to the City Jail. 

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER:What does all this mean? 

REENACTMENT - CLAPP: Dr. Webster, we have finished looking for the body of Dr. Parkman. We shall not look for his body any more. You are now in custody on a charge of the murder of Dr. Parkman.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: Have they found Dr. Parkman?

REENACTMENT - STARKWEATHER: It's not proper for me to answer that question, sir.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: You might tell me something about it. Where did they find him? How came they suspect me? 

REENACTMENT - STARKWEATHER: Does anyone but you have access to your private apartments, Professor Webster?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: No, no one had access to my private apartments except the janitor who makes the fire... (Long pause.) That villain. 

SCHAMA: Though Webster did his best to implicate Littlefield, the police took no notice.But I couldn't let it go. There were so many strange things about Ephraim Littlefield's behavior that I felt I'd never get to the bottom of the story until I understood what part the janitor had played in Dr. Parkman's disappearance. Unlike his rich employers, Littlefield left behind scant evidence of how he thought or spoke.

But the voice of men like Littlefield does survive in letters and diaries of the time, and I read enough of them to make me think I could hear him speak.

REENACTMENT - HARVARD DOCTOR Ah is that fresh one then, Littlefield?


SCHAMA: I heard a voice full of resentment toward the Harvard professors -- those lofty men of science...As he cleared their rubbish. . . and got them their cadavers.

And as I searched deeper into how the working class lived I felt myself being pulled toward a different kind of story-telling . . . joining for the first time the many writer who choose fiction, not history, as their instrument to make the past live again. Maybe I thought what I was after was not a literal documentary truth but a poetic truth -- an imaginative truth -- and for that I was going to have to become my own Resurrection man.

I was going to have to make these characters live again and invent what might have run through Littlefield's mind as he crawled toward Webster's privy.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: I never liked it, having to sell cadavers to the students for dissection. . . but how was I and Caroline and the children live on the pittance the College paid me otherwise? You learn a lot tending the professor's stoves, washing their sinks, clearing their trash.

MAIER: The temptation, in dealing with a person like Ephraim Littlefield who is inarticulate, that is, who doesn't leave copious written records, is, I think, to put words into his mouth. And whether they are the kinds of words that he would have spoken is always an issue.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: Webster, he was always at me like some yapping dog. There had always been bad feelings between us. I knew he wanted to be rid of me years ago and had told stories to the Dean but nothing would come of it. But now who was the villain? 

GOODMAN : Most human experience happens inside our heads in what we're thinking. It happens in conversations among people. The huge mass of human experience happens there. Whole realms are inaccessible unless a historian is willing to think about how he or she can use the evidence to get inside people's heads. But once the historian invents, he moves from the genre of history into the genre of fiction. The fiction may still yeield historical understanding but they are two different genres.

SCHAMA: I knew I was crossing a line historians don't usually cross, the line that separates history from fiction. But instinctively I felt I was coming to understand Ephraim Littlefield's motivation. He was not a murderer. It was bitterness towards Webster and towards his own lot in life that drove him to do that dirty job.

MAIER : It's extremely important that historians do not present an account of the past as a work of scholarship if in fact it is fiction. But fiction can convey the past more effectively in some ways than certain kinds of traditional histories because it does create the ambiance of the past.

REENACTMENT - LITTLEFIELD: I knew enough about bodies and bones to recognize what I saw. A pelvis, some pieces of leg. They were so white, you see, so clean and white.

SCHAMA: With Webster's arrest crowds converged on the medical college threatening to burn it to the ground.... 

SHAW : Working class Boston became excited by the notion that ghoulish occurrences that they assumed were taking place in the Medical College were actually taking place there. 

SCHAMA: Rioting swept the city. The mayor called out troops to restore order. As for Webster's fellow Boston Brahmins they found it inconceivable that one of their own could have committed such a heinous crime. A Harvard colleague of Webster's wrote: "The melancholy is indescribable. People cannot eat; they feel sick. If Dr. Webster has committed the murder, it seems as if we are to lose all confidence in the human race."

John Webster's trial began March 19, 1850 and lasted 12 days. Reporters came from London, Paris, and Berlin. The shocking details of the Brahmins' fall from grace kept the public riveted

STORY : There were 120 Boston around 1850. There would be people hawking newspapers all over the place. You couldn't avoid it. It would almost be like the O.J. Simpson trial on television. And this is a perfect example of serious social drama becoming mass entertainment. 

SCHAMA: One entrepreneur advertised wax statues of Webster and Parkman, and newspaper accounts exploited the public's growing appetite for murder mysteries.

HALTTUNEN : Detective fiction was almost brand new at the time of the Parkman murder. And journalists found every possible detective fiction convention that they needed to tell this story. This story begins, of course, with a mysterious disappearance. It then moves to a dramatic revelation. It has a red herring in the form of Ephraim Littlefield. And these are conventions that readers are becoming more and more familiar with based on their reading of fiction.

SCHAMA: The city marshal ordered a chain wrapped around the courthouse to control the thousands of spectators who were rotated through in ten-minute shifts. Professor Webster maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings, despite some damning evidence. 

REENACTMENT - CLAPP TESTIFIES:After we took the body out, we went into the laboratory. I reached into the stove and pulled out a chunk of burnt coal. A piece of bone was sticking to it.

SCHAMA: But before the prosecutors could prove Webster was a murderer, they had to convince the jury that these body parts were indeed those of George Parkman... 

The first days of the trial found Boston's top doctors offering their expertise, including one of the earliest examples of dental forensics in American legal history.

REENACTMENT - NATHAN KEEP: I am Nathan C. Keep. I am a surgeon-dentist. Dr. Lewis presented me three portions of mineral teeth, which had been taken from the furnace. I recognized them as being the same teeth that I had made for Dr. Parkman three years before.

I immediately said, "Dr. Parkman is gone; we shall see him no more!"

SCHAMA: George Parkman's dentist testified that remnants of false teeth that were found in Webster's laboratory stove did indeed belong to Parkman. John Webster's lawyers called another dentist who testified that they could have belonged to anyone.

REENACTMENT - WITNESS: There was nothing dissimilar...

SCHAMA:With so many contradictory witnesses, I would have found it very diffcult to judge John Webster guilty or innocent - But one piece of the testimony jumped out at me as very significant. George Parkman's brother-in-law, Robert Gould Shaw, described a fateful encounter on the street some months before Parkman's disappearance.

REENACTMENT - SHAW : I was walking with Dr. Parkman one day in Mt. Vernon Street when we met Dr. Webster. After we passed, I spoke of Dr. Webster's application to me of money and of his sale to me of his minerals. Dr. Parkman thereupon said, "They are not his to sell; I have a mortgage on them. He said he would see Dr. Webster and give him a piece of his mind."

SCHAMA: It suddenly dawned on me that Shaw's description of that brief meeting could begin to explain what had set these men on their fatal collison course. I discovered Webster had squandered his inheritance early on -- and his determination to hang on to his position in society repeatedly got him into financial trouble.

STORY : Professor Webster got in over his head because he couldn't quite afford to live the way some of his fellow professors lived like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who was married to a very wealthy woman. And he had four daughters so he really needed to throw soirees and parties and make sure that the daughters had fancy dresses and so forth.

SCHAMA: His scientific curiosity led him into more extravagant expenditures. He helped Harvard buy a $3,000 mastodon though he couldn't meet his own debts. Soon he was borrowing from wealthy acquaintances to keep up the lavish lifestyle. I also discovered a dark side. Rumors of a rape lingered from his student days in London, and he appeared to have a streak of cruelty.

PATTON : He took a puppy into his class and the story goes that Webster beat this puppy's head in in order to show what happened to a living organism when they were injured in such a way, and then let the puppy die without any help.

SCHAMA: But what secrets in George Parkman's past would explain his intense rage towards Webster?

SHAW : To understand George Parkman, you need to understand a little bit about his father, Samuel Parkman. After all, his father had been the richest man in town. But, he was a bully. His children were shy, retiring. George Parkman his son must have felt under tremendous pressure to perform.

SCHAMA: After getting his degree from Harvard the young Parkman studied medicine abroad. In Paris Parkman was introduced to progressive methods for treating mental illness . . . and he discovered his calling. He came home determined to create the first modern institution for the insane in Massachusetts. He provided family money to help establish an asylum and he assumed the trustees would name him head. But Parkman was passed over. His hopes dashed - he descended into a bitter middle age. 

SHAW : He must have felt small, incapable, and artless compared to his extremely aggressive, successful father. And this led to a personality that was at best rebarbitive. He was quite an unattractive man.

SCHAMA: Parkman left medicine to oversee his tenement buildings throughout Boston's slums, and to become a money lender. By 1849 he had lent John Webster some 2,400 dollars -- and held the mortgage on nearly everything Webster owned. 

SHAW : George Parkman would find a penniless professor really beneath his dignity. But there was also the element of jealousy. Here was a man whom Parkman thought his social inferior succeeding in medicine where Parkman had failed. 

SCHAMA: Finally I had enough information to put words in these characters' mouths. That moment on the street no longer played out in silence. Now their conversation came to me, loud and clear. 

REENACTMENT - ROBERT SHAW: You know he made an application of money to me some time ago . . . I tried to make the money a gift, but he wouldn't hear of it. He insisted on pledgingme his mineral collection . . . Though what I would do with it I have no idea.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Why, the impertinence! I hold a mortgage on everything John Webster owns -- including that mineral collection. It's an affront to right dealing, it's a naive fraud. It's an abuse of friendly generosity and a monstrous outrage. Didn't I use my good services to secure him his appointment at Harvard? Through all his years of slovenly and erratic conduct, haven't I sustained this ridiculous and unworthy man if only for the sake of his wife and children and the college?

Is this how such charity is to be repaid? I'm going to give him a piece of my mind.

REENACTMENT - SHAW: Oh George calm yourself, it's a trivial thing...

NATALIE ZEMON DAVIS, Historian: The historians' fictionalizing can help him or her ask new questions about his evidence, questions that might never have come up before. When you're trying to put yourself fully in the mind of your actors and see them moving through the streets of Boston, for instance, or moving through a trial, you suddenly think about things you never -- had occurred to you before. You might even then be able to go back to the evidence and find the answers. 

SCHAMA: Now I knew why Parkman was so furious - it wasn't the money - it was the burning shame of being fooled by the likes of Webster.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: I will see you in court John Webster. I will have an officer put at your house.

SCHAMA: So when I learned of Parkman's merciless hounding of Webster, I could put myself in the professor's skin and feel the unbearable humiliation of Dr. Parkman's threats.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: George really is an extremely sharp and disagreeable man. Going so far as to accost me in our home and in front of our friends! Of course you know that that would nothing compared to any kind of ordeal with the law. You do know that now George has threatened to take this to the law? How would we ever bear the mortification? Oh Harriet, what in God's name are we to do?

DAVIS : It is like the experience that novel writers have, when they say I create my characters and then I stop writing them and they write me, and it's as though the historical figure beckons you. But it is not - if you're a good historian - just because you've made it up - it's because you've richly worked on the evidence.

SCHAMA: Now that I felt free to let my imagination work to get me closer to the truth. When I went back to the trial transcript to read about John Webster's fate, the words on paper had much more emotional power.

SCHAMA: It took the jury only two hours to reach its verdict. The clerk asked the foreman: "What say you, is John White Webster guilty or not guilty?"

"Guilty" the foreman answered.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: Take me away! Why have me here to be gazed upon!

SCHAMA: Webster was sentenced to hang for the murder... a fate which immediately struck many people as far too harsh. Like the jury, I now feel sure John Webster did kill George Parkman... Whether or not he committed a pre-meditated murder. Now that's an entirely different question. We're probably never going to know the whole truth but in the end, I do think this is the moparway it all played out on November the 23, 1849.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: Good day Dr. Parkman. Please come in... 

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Are you ready for me sir?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: I'm grateful you've come. I'm hopeful that we can discuss our affairs and I might have a chance to explain my intentions...

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Have you got the money?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: No George, I cannot pay you this week. However, as soon as the tickets are sold to next term's lectures, I assure you...

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: You sent for me Dr. Webster. I presumed because you had the money you owed me. Now you say you merely want to discuss your intentions. 

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: That is correct.

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Here are your promissory notespard -- worthless bits of paper from a liar like you. 

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: George, please, you must understand the tangle of circumstances I find myself in. Now, while I apologize for any slight that you may perceived on my part, I...

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN:I will take these notes to a court officer. You will be under arrest by the day's end.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: No, George, George. For God's sake be reasonable. Now, this is not gentlemanly behavior... REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: You dare to talk to me about proper conduct of a gentleman. Were you acting like a gentleman when you deceived me? When you lied to your friends? Is that how a gentleman like you conducts his affairs?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: I'm telling you, there is a simple explanation for all this...

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Here is a letter from Dr. Hosack congratulating me on getting you your appointment at the Medical College. Do you remember that, Sir?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: Yes, of course, I appreciate everything you've done for... 

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: It was I who put you here . . . and I can have you removed just as easily! And I will, you villainous cheat!

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: George. Surely you understand my situation. As soon as the new term begins I assure you I will make good on the entire debt . . . 

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: Lies and more lies! I am not the fool you take me for, Professor. This time you've gone too far, and I will have your position removed.

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: No, George, my family. My daughters! At the least for the sake of them . . . 

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN : Your family?! Why weren't you thinking of them as pulled them deeper into debt?

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: George, I have never done anything to harm or embarrass them...

REENACTMENT - PARKMAN: You are an embarrassment to your family and to the college. And you are a rogue who doesn't pay his debts. A liar and a cheat!

REENACTMENT - WEBSTER: George...Come on George, come on... George, why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this? Oh, God... George...

SCHAMA: It was 19th-century Boston that was writing the script now -- making these imaginings credible. And the story it was telling was much bigger and much sadder even than this extraordinary notorious crime. Because it was the story of a whole community in the process of losing its innocence and the cast of characters was caught up in this grim rite of passage. Webster who was trying desparately to cling to the gentility into which he was born and which he thought was his due. Parkman thwarted and frustrated at not being able to follow his chosen vocation. Littlefield condemned to be polite to those who were keeping him in his place.

And the great city itself -- the birthplace of America, the hub of the New Republic -- so it liked to think -- shaken to the core by an event which turned upside down what it had always thought was the right order of things.

John Webster was hanged on August the 30th, 1850. In proper Boston style the sheriff sent engraved invitations to the city's VIPs. Later that night Webster was hastily buried in the unfashionable Copps Hill cemetery...

Nothing could have been farther from his hopes of a stylish funeral attended by his peers. But secrecy was paramount; the grave robbers were about . . . and a notorious corpse like Webster's would sell at a premium.

Apparently there once was a flat stone marking John Webster's last resting place. But at some point that vanished so we actually don't really know where his remains lie. That seems altogether appropriate in a story all about disappearances - all about the slipperiness of the truth. 

In any case history is never really about resting places, about arrivals, conclusions . . . it's a long journey through memory, stopping off here and there to break bread with the dead. In the end, history isn't written to arrive at a verdict. It's written like poetry or philosophy or great fiction to help us explore the nature of the human condition. 

To understand what we are through what we think we've done.



Ephraim Littlefield received the $3,000 reward and retired a wealthy man.

Dr. George Parkman's widow was the first contributor to a fund created for John Webster's improverished family after his execution. 

Simon Schama's book Dead Certainties was published in 1991. Its blending of history and fiction sparked much controversy.