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The Webster-Parkman Case - Page 2 of 2

The physicians and the police who had examined Dr. Webster's lab had noticed what looked like bloodstains on the wall near the sink and on the floor. In 1850, the technology to distinguish human blood from animal blood did not exist. As one witness put it: "I can distinguish human blood from that of lower animals but not from that of the higher animals, such as an ox, for instance."

On the fourth day of the trial, the prosecution put on its most important witness, Dr. Nathan Keep, a surgeon dentist who had practiced in Boston for thirty years. Dr. Keep said that he had made teeth for Dr. Parkman and that "Dr. Parkman's mouth was a very peculiar one, so marked in respect to its shape and the relation of the upper and lower jaws that the impression of it on my mind was very distinct." Dr. Keep testified that when he saw the teeth that had been found in Dr. Webster's furnace along with the other remains, he:

...recognized them as being the same teeth that I had made for Dr. Parkman three years before. The largest portion that remained, which I now hold in my hand, was that belonging to the lower left jaw. I recognized the shape and the outline as being identical with the impression left on my mind of those that I have labored on so long. On comparing the largest fragment with the model (a plaster cast of Dr. Parkman's dention), the resemblance was so striking that I could no longer have any doubt that they were his.

Every so often, in the midst of his testimony, Dr. Keep would break down and cry. By the time he concluded his testimony, he had some of the jurors and several of the audience sobbing with him. If Dr. Webster wasn't crying, he should have been, because Dr. Keep had put Dr. Parkman's dissected body into his assay furnace, thus lowering the rope around the defendant's pudgy neck.

The next witness to take the stand was the prestigious, indeed famous, writer and physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes. As a professor of anatomy and Dean of the medical college, Holmes had examined the fleshy parts - the thorax, pelvis, two thighs, and the disarticulated leg - in Webster's furnace and found them consistent with Dr. Parkman's anatomy.

Most of the fifth day of the trial was taken up by the testimony of the janitor and his wife, Caroline. Three days later, the prosecution rested.

The defense opened with witnesses who said they had seen Professor Webster away from the college on the day the murder took place. Next came the character witnesses, then the testimony most vital to the defense, that of Dr. William T.G. Morton, a young, handsome dentist of eight years who was in the business of making teeth. Holding the questioned teeth parts in his hand so the jury could see, Dr. Morton said:

I see no particular marks about these teeth by which to identify them. I should think that nothing could be judged from the material. I should say that they have been ground after being finished, but this is by no means an unusual thing. I have used platinum pins and so do others. It is common material with which to attach the teeth to the plate. I see nothing peculiar in the absorption of the lower jaw as indicated in what is said to be the plaster case of Dr. Parkman's lower jaw. My impression is that if it were placed among a dozen others which I can produce, I should not be led to pick it out from any peculiarity.

The defense rested without Professor Webster taking the stand. In Massachusetts at the time, defendants in capital trials were not permitted to take the stand on their own behalf. (Criminal defendants, because of their self-interest, were considered too biased to make competent witnesses.) They were, however, allowed to address the jury prior to its deliberation. These statements were unsworn and not subject to cross-examination.

Professor Webster spoke fifteen minutes to the jury, using his time to deny his guilt and criticize his own counsel. When he finished, the jury filed out of the courtroom. Three hours later they returned with a verdict. They found Professor Webster guilty of murder. On hearing this, the judge sentenced Webster to death.

Almost six months later, with his execution just a few days off, the professor wrote out the following confession:

... I was excited to the highest degree of passion; and while he was speaking and gesticulating in the most violent and menacing manner, I seized whatever thing was handiest - it was a stick of wood - and dealt him an instantaneous blow with all the force that passion could give it. It was on the side of his head, and there was nothing to break the force of the blow. He fell instantly upon the pavement. There was no second blow. He did not move. I stooped down over him, and he seemed to be lifeless. Blood flowed from his mouth and I got a sponge and wiped it away. I got some ammonia and applied it to his nose; but without effect.

The first thing I did, as soon as I could do anything, was to drag the body into the private room adjoining. There I took off his clothes, and began putting them into the fire which was burning in the upper laboratory. They were all consumed there that afternoon - with papers, pocketbook, or whatever else they may have contained.

My next move was to get the body into the sink which stands in the small private room. By setting the body partially erect against the corner, and getting up into the sink myself, I succeeded in drawing it up. There it was entirely dismembered. It was quickly done, as a work of terrible and desperate necessity. The only instrument used was the knife found by the officers in the tea chest, and which I kept for cutting corks.

While dismembering the body, a stream of water was running through the sink, carrying off the blood in a pipe that passed down through the lower laboratory. There must have been a leak in the pipe, for the ceiling below was stained immediately around it.

Professor Webster was hanged on August 20, 1850. His case is significant criminalistically because it was the first time in America a court considered physical evidence and scientific testimony. Had it not been for Dr. Keep's identification of Dr. Parkman's dental remains, Professor Webster would not have been convicted.1

1This account of the Webster-Parkman murder case is based upon the following sources: Sulivan, Robert, The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971); Donelan, Charles A., "The Silent Witness," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (June, 1975) pp22-27; Carlson, Eric T., "The Unfortunate Dr. Parkman," American Journal of Psychiatry, (December, 1966); Pearson, Edmund, Murder at Smutty Nose and Other Murders, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1927) Chapter III, "America's Classic Murder" pp. 94-114; Trial of Professor John W. Webster for the Murder of Doctor George Parkman, (NY: Stringer & Townsend, 1850). This is a 76 page, illustrated account of the Webster trial as reported in the New York Daily Globe.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com