The Webster-Parkman Case
By Jim Fisher
Over the past hundred years science had played a vital role in thousands of criminal cases. The intense publicity associated with some of these investigations and trials has advanced the cause of criminalistics. In many of these cases, a very bad but clever criminal is outfoxed by a well-trained, dedicated investigator relying on physical clues and expert analysis. This is the image that has furthered criminalistics by sparking public support and court acceptance of physical evidence and expert testimony.
Celebrated cases remind us that good police work can triumph over bad criminals and that justice can be done, two satisfying and comforting notions. Cases that have caught and held the attention of the media have tended to involve heinous crimes, diabolical or unlikely suspects, inspired detective work, and pleas of not guilty.
In America, science first played a dramatic role in a celebrated criminal investigation and trial over 130 years ago in the Webster-Parkman murder case.
On Friday afternoon, November 23, 1849, Dr. George Parkman, a sixty-year-old physician and former anatomy professor at Harvard Massachusetts Medical College in Boston, called upon Dr. John Webster, a highly respected professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the institution. Dr. Parkman, having given up the practice of medicine to engage in real estate and other business ventures, was from a prominent New England family and quite wealthy. The purpose of his visit, in Dr. Webster's laboratory at the college, was to collect on a series of loans he had made to the chemistry professor. It seemed that Dr. Webster had a rather extravagant life-style that had kept him in debt to Dr. Parkman and others for years.
Dr. Parkman was seen entering the little building housing Dr. Webster's laboratory, located on North Grove Street, at 1:45 in the afternoon and was never seen again. Dr. Parkman's strange disappearance created quite a stir and the college posted a $3,000 reward for information leading to the identity and apprehension of his abductors.
The following Sunday, Dr. Webster appeared at the home of Dr. Parkman's brother, Reverend Francis Parkman, and informed him that he had last seen the missing Parkman in his lab the previous Friday. Dr. Webster acknowledged that Dr. Parkman had come to see him about a debt.
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, Dr. Webster, who had been acting rather strangely since Dr. Parkman's disappearance, gave the college janitor, a man named Ephraim Littlefield, a turkey. Littlefield had been helping Professor Webster in his laboratory when Dr. Parkman called that day. Although he had left the room, Littlefield had overheard bits of their conversation that had become quite heated. When he learned of Dr. Parkman's disappearance, the janitor became suspicious of Dr. Webster.
After receiving the professor's Thanksgiving turkey, Littlefield felt certain the chemistry professor had something to do with his creditor's sudden departure. So, the next day, the janitor snuck into Webster's chemistry lab to search for Parkman's body. He touched the brick wall of the assay oven and felt that it was warm. The oven was built inside a vault that was locked. To see what was inside, Littlefield, with his wife standing guard as a lookout, broke through the wall with a chisel and crowbar. Inside he saw what looked like a human pelvis and two parts of a leg. Littlefield summoned several officials of the college who inspected the scene. One of the officials then reported the discovery to Boston's town marshal, Francis Tukey who dispatched three constables to Cambridge where they were to arrest Dr. Webster.
When informed that he was under arrest for the murder of Dr. Parkman, Dr. Webster denied any knowledge of the crime, and when told of the janitor's discovery cried, "That villain! I am a ruined man!"
Shortly after being placed into his cell, Dr. Webster tried but failed to kill himself by taking a strychnine pill.
On December 13, 1849, the Coroner's jury announced their final report:
All the remains have been demonstrated to be parts of one and the same person; and those parts of the human frame have been identified and proved to be the remains and parts of the body and limbs of Dr. George Parkman . . .. that he was killed . . .. by blows and wounds inflicted upon him by the hands of Doctor John W. Webster.
Dr. Webster was indicted for murder on January 26, 1850, and his trial was set for March 19 at the Supreme Judician Courthouse in Boston. In 1850, Massachusetts law required that capital cases be tried before at least five judges on the Supreme Judicial Court. The Chief Justice, Judge Lemuel Shaw, would preside. The case was to be prosecuted by George Bemis, the Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts.
Dr. Webster had tried to retain the legal services of two prominent defense attorneys of the day, Daniel Webster and Rufus Choate. Both men refused to touch the case. As a result, Webster was defended by a competent attorney named Pliny Merrich.
The Parkman murder had been headline news in America for nine months, and on the opening day of the trial, thousands of people gathered outside the granite courthouse. Many had been standing there all night in hopes of getting a seat inside. During the twelve-day trial, sixty thousand people would get a glimpse of the trial as spectators.
The heart of the prosecution's case involved the medical and dental testimony geared to identify the remains in Dr. Webster's assay furnace. In order to convict the defendant of murder, the state would have to establish the corpus delicti (establish that the "victim" was actually killed), and to do this, Dr. Parkman's remains had to be positively identified. If this could be done, a guilty verdict was almost guaranteed.
The prosecution's first medical witness was Dr. Woodbridge Strong, an expert in anatomy with experience in burning human flesh. The doctor told how he got rid of used up cadavers by putting them into wood fires. "There is always a difficulty in getting rid of human remains by fire," the doctor said, "on account of attracting suspicion by the smell. I have been called upon by neighbors or the police several times on this account." Doctor Strong said he had looked at the human parts found in Dr. Webster's furnace and "there was nothing dissimilar from what I should have expected to find in Dr. Parkman's body."
Dr. Frederick S. Ainsworth, a professor of anatomy at the college, testified that the remains in question had not been dissected in his department. (Dr. Webster claimed the remains in his furnace belonged to a cadaver.) Dr. Ainsworth said, "All subjects in my department are injected with fluid to preserve them from decomposition. In these remains which were produced by Littlefield I saw no appearance of the use of such fluid. My impression was that the person who cut them up had no anatomical knowledge."
The next medical witness was Dr. Charles T. Jackson who testified that he "knew the late George Parkman very well. He was a tall, slender man of somewhat peculiar figure. I saw nothing in the remains dissimilar from what I should suppose was Dr. Parkman's formation."