Celebrated Criminal Cases of America: The Murder of the Physician Dr. Parkman

On Fri­day, No­vem­ber 23, 1849, one of the most promi­nent physi­cians in Boston, Dr. George Park­man, mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­peared. Being very me­thod­i­cal in his habits, his fam­ily im­me­di­ately sus­pected foul play.

He was the owner of many ten­e­ment houses and was rather ex­act­ing in his at­ti­tude to­ward his ten­ants, many of whom were of the rougher class. As he col­lected the rents him­self, the au­thor­i­ties pro­ceeded on the the­ory that he had an­tag­o­nized some of these ten­ants to such an ex­tent that they mur­dered him for the dou­ble pur­pose of re­venge and rob­bery, and then con­cealed his body.

The river was dredged and the doc­tor’s ten­e­ments and the build­ings ad­ja­cent thereto were thor­oughly searched, but no trace was found of the miss­ing man, al­though large re­wards were of­fered.

When the doc­tor left home, about noon on No­vem­ber 23, he stated that he had an ap­point­ment with a per­son at 2:30 p. m., but did not di­vulge the name of the per­son.

About 1:30 p. m. he en­tered the gro­cery store con­ducted by Paul Hol­land, at Vine and Blos­som streets, and after leav­ing an order, he asked per­mis­sion to leave a paper bag con­tain­ing a head of let­tuce at the store for a few mo­ments, but he never re­turned for it. This gro­cery store was but a short dis­tance from one of the lead­ing med­ical col­leges in Boston, the col­lege being lo­cated on Grove street. Ellas Fuller, who con­ducted an iron foundry ad­ja­cent to the med­ical col­lege, and his brother, Al­bert, saw Dr. Park­man in front of the col­lege about 2 p. m. on the date of his dis­ap­pear­ance.

Dr. John Web­ster was the pro­fes­sor of chem­istry at this col­lege and also at Har­vard Col­lege. His stand­ing in the so­cial and pro­fes­sional world was equal to that of Dr. Parkman, and their fam­i­lies were on terms of con­sid­er­able in­ti­macy.

Notwith­stand­ing the fact that Dr. Park­man called on Dr. Web­ster at the col­lege at 2 p. m. on Fri­day, the 23rd in­stant, and his sub­se­quent dis­ap­pear­ance was the prin­ci­pal topic of con­ver­sa­tion in Boston the next day and for some time af­ter­ward. Dr. Web­ster did not in­form the al­most dis­tracted mem­bers of the Park­man fam­ily of this visit until the Sun­day evening fol­low­ing, al­though it was proven that he saw an ac­count of the doc­tor’s dis­ap­pear­ance in the Boston Tran­script on Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon.

Dr. Web­ster then stated that Dr. Park­man called on him for the pur­pose of col­lect­ing $450 which Web­ster had pre­vi­ously bor­rowed, giv­ing as se­cu­rity a mort­gage on a piece of real es­tate.

He claimed that he paid Dr. Park­man the full amount due, from the pro­ceeds of the sale of tick­ets to his course of lec­tures in the col­lege.

Dr. Park­man held a note for this amount, which he had in his pos­ses­sion when he called on Dr. Web­ster and which the lat­ter sub­se­quently pro­duced to prove that he had paid the money. He added that Dr. Park­man stated that he would pro­ceed forth­with to Cam­bridge and can­cel the mort­gage.

Dr. Web­ster also claimed that he saw Dr. Park­man go down stairs and leave the col­lege after this trans­ac­tion.

Web­ster made many con­flict­ing state­ments as to the de­nom­i­na­tion of the money paid and as to the cir­cum­stances under which it was paid, but his stand­ing in the com­mu­nity was such that it was dif­fi­cult to be­lieve him guilty of any wrong­do­ing and it would have been con­sid­ered pre­pos­ter­ous at that time to even sus­pect him of being im­pli­cated in the mur­der of his friend and bene­fac­tor.

Merely as a mat­ter of form, the au­thor­i­ties de­cided to search the med­ical col­lege, but be­fore pro­ceed­ing with the for­mal search an apol­ogy was made to Dr. Web­ster for the in­tru­sion.

When Ephraim Lit­tle­field, the jan­i­tor of the build­ing, ob­served the far­ci­cal search, he looked on with dis­ap­prov­ing eyes, and in­ti­mated that a more thor­ough search would re­sult in sen­sa­tional dis­cov­er­ies.

The au­thor­i­ties then ques­tioned Lit­tle­field closely, and he made the fol­low­ing state­ment:

“I have known Dr. Park­man for many years. On Mon­day evening, No­vem­ber 19, 1849, I was as­sist­ing Dr. Web­ster when Dr. Park­man en­tered the room. He ap­peared to be angry at Dr. Web­ster and with­out any pre­lim­i­nary con­ver­sa­tion, abruptly said: “Dr. Web­ster, are you ready for me tonight?”

“Web­ster replied, ‘No, I am not, doc­tor.’”

“I then moved away, but I heard Dr. Park­man rep­ri­mand him for sell­ing mort­gaged prop­erty, and in a final burst of anger said: ‘Some­thing must be done to-mor­row,’ and he then left.

“On the morn­ing of Fri­day, No­vem­ber 23, I saw a sledge ham­mer which be­longed in the lab­o­ra­tory, be­hind Dr. Web­ster’s door. I had never seen it there be­fore and have been un­able to find it since.

“At 2:15 p. m. I was at the front door and saw Dr. Park-man ap­proach­ing the col­lege, but I went in­side and did not see him enter the build­ing. About one hour af­ter­ward I went to Dr. Web­ster’s lab­o­ra­tory to clean up, but found the door bolted from the in­side.

“I knocked loudly but re­ceived no re­sponse, al­though I heard some­one walk­ing in­side who, I sup­posed, was Dr. Web­ster. I then tried all the dif­fer­ent doors lead­ing to his lab­o­ra­tory, but they were all locked from the in­side—a most un­usual oc­cur­rence,

“At 4 o’clock I tried the doors again, with the same result. At 5 p. m. I saw Dr. Web­ster leave the build­ing from the back exit.

“I went to a party that night, and at 11 p. m. re­turned to the col­lege, where my wife and I are domi­ciled. I again tried Dr. Web­ster’s door and again found it locked.

“On the next day, Sat­ur­day, Dr. Web­ster was in his lab­o­ra­tory all day, but I did not go near him. That evening I met him on the street, and we dis­cussed the ar­ti­cle in the evening paper about the dis­ap­pear­ance of Dr. Park­man.

“For­merly he would look me in the face when talk­ing, but on this oc­ca­sion he hung his head and was pale and ag­i­tated. On Sun­day and Mon­day the doors to the lab­o­ra­tory were still locked. On Tues­day I found the doc­tor’s room open and men­tioned the fact to my wife.

“On this day he was ex­cep­tion­ally friendly to­ward me and gave me an order for a Thanks­giv­ing turkey. This was re­mark­able, as I had known him for eight years, and it was the first time I ever knew of him giv­ing any­thing away.

“On Wednes­day, Dr. Web­ster came to the col­lege early and again locked the door.

“The flue from his fur­nace is be­tween the walls near the stairs lead­ing to the demon­stra­tor’s room, and when I passed up the stairs the wall was ex­tremely hot.”

The jan­i­tor’s state­ment in re­gard to the door to the lab­o­ra­tory being con­stantly locked for sev­eral days sub­se­quent to the dis­ap­pear­ance of Dr. Park­man was cor­rob­o­rated by sev­eral per­sons who had called dur­ing that pe­riod.

These dis­clo­sures were made on Thurs­day, No­vem­ber 29, and the of­fi­cers pro­ceeded at once to Dr. Web­ster’s lab­o­ra­tory, and after vig­or­ous knock­ing, the door was un­bolted from the in­side and the of­fi­cers were ad­mit­ted by Dr. Web­ster, but noth­ing was said re­gard­ing the jan­i­tor’s state­ment.

At this time a bright fire was burn­ing in the fur­nace. Noth­ing was found on this date, and the search was re­sumed on Fri­day in the ab­sence of Dr. Web­ster.

In the mean­time the fur­nace had be­come cool enough to per­mit of an ex­am­i­na­tion, which re­sulted in the find­ing of a frac­tured skull con­tain­ing a full set of min­eral teeth.

By means of a trap door, the of­fi­cers de­scended to the cel­lar, where they found a right leg.

In a tea chest they found the upper part of a man’s body and the left leg. The shape of the body cor­re­sponded with that of Dr. Park­man.

Dr. Winslow Lewis and two other rep­utable sur­geons stated that the man­ner in which the body was sep­a­rated in­di­cated that it was done by some­one hav­ing knowl­edge of anatomy.

The fact that these re­mains were found con­cealed in the chem­i­cal lab­o­ra­tory where no such sub­jects were re­quired, made it ap­par­ent that they were the re­mains of some vic­tim of foul play, and Dr. Ainsworth, the demon­stra­tor of anatomy at the col­lege, stated that they were not parts of any sub­ject used in the col­lege for dis­sec­tion.

Dr. N. C. Keep, who had made a full set of false teeth for Dr. Park­man, in­spected the plate and teeth and iden­ti­fied them as work he had done for Dr. Park­man, be­cause of a pe­cu­liar­ity of the lower jaw, which caused him much trou­ble. But to be pos­i­tive, he pro­duced the model, which fit­ted the plates ex­actly.

The re­sult of the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions were not made pub­lic until it was proven be­yond all doubt that the re­mains of Dr. Park­man had been found. Po­lice Of­fi­cer Clapp was then sent to Dr. Web­ster’s home at Cam­bridge to ar­rest him for mur­der.

When the pub­lic learned of the ar­rest of the em­i­nent pro­fes­sor, it was at once con­cluded that a grave mis­take had been made and that too much cre­dence had been given to the state­ment of the jan­i­tor, who pos­si­bly was at­tempt­ing to shield him­self.

At the trial it was proven that notwith­stand­ing his out­ward show of pros­per­ity. Dr. Web­ster was fi­nan­cially em­bar­rassed. It was proven that he had com­mit­ted a felony by sell­ing the prop­erty upon which Dr. Park­man held a mort­gage for $450 and that the lat­ter threat­ened to pros­e­cute him for this of­fense if he did not im­me­di­ately pay the prin­ci­pal and in­ter­est, amount­ing to $483.60.

It was proven that it was ut­terly im­pos­si­ble for Dr. Web­ster, who saw the state prison and ruin star­ing him in the face, to raise this small amount of money.

It was proven that he lied when he stated that he paid this amount from the pro­ceeds of the sale of tick­ets to his course of lec­tures at the col­lege, as he had re­ceived no such amount, and a large por­tion of what he did re­ceive was paid to oth­ers.

It was proven that Dr. Web­ster called at Dr. Park­man’s house and re­quested the lat­ter to call at the col­lege at 2:30 p. m. on No­vem­ber 23 for the pur­pose of mak­ing a final set­tle­ment.

Dr. Web­ster could give no rea­son for keep­ing a roar­ing fire in the fur­nace for sev­eral days after Dr. Park­man’s dis­ap­pear­ance, and dur­ing the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­days, when all of the other pro­fes­sors were en­joy­ing a week of recre­ation.

While it was the duty of the jan­i­tor to build the fires, the lat­ter was barred from Dr. Web­ster’s apart­ments, who per­son­ally at­tended to the build­ing and feed­ing of the fire.

It was proven that the upper part of the body and left leg found in the tea chest were tied to­gether by a pe­cu­liar kind of twine and that Dr. Web­ster had, on No­vem­ber 27, pur­chased sim­i­lar twine and sev­eral fish hooks which were found in his apart­ments.

It was proven that when the of­fi­cers ap­proached the room in which the tea chest con­tain­ing a greater part of the body was found. Dr. Web­ster en­deav­ored to dis­cour­age them from search­ing that room by stat­ing that highly ex­plo­sive chem­i­cals were stored there.

A pair of trousers be­long­ing to Dr. Web­ster was found in a closet and sub­jected to a mi­cro­scop­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion with the re­sult that human blood was found.

While the search was being made for Dr. Park­man, the City Mar­shal of Boston re­ceived three anony­mous let­ters.

One, sup­posed to have been writ­ten by an il­lit­er­ate per­son, sug­gested that a search be made on “brook­lynt heights,” an­other stated that Dr. Park­man had gone to sea on the ship “Her­cu­lian,” and a third, signed “Civis,” stated pos­i­tively that the miss­ing doc­tor had been seen at Cam­bridge.

Hand­writ­ing ex­perts swore pos­i­tively that all three let­ters were writ­ten by Dr. Web­ster.

The de­fense pro­duced wit­nesses to prove the pre­vi­ous good char­ac­ter of Dr. Web­ster and also in­tro­duced tes­ti­mony to the ef­fect that Dr. Park­man had been seen after the de­fen­dant claimed he left the col­lege. After pro­duc­ing med­ical ex­perts to con­tra­dict the med­ical tes­ti­mony in­tro­duced by the pros­e­cu­tion, the case was sub­mit­ted.

Chief Jus­tice Shaw then de­liv­ered his charge to the jury, and his in­struc­tions re­gard­ing cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence were so able, com­pre­hen­sive, and dis­crim­i­nat­ing that they have since been re­garded as a model by many of the lead­ing ju­rists of Amer­ica. When the cause was fi­nally sub­mit­ted to the ju­rors, they al­most im­me­di­ately agreed that the de­fen­dant was guilty. As Jus­tice Shaw was also of­fi­cially con­nected with Har­vard Col­lege and had been friendly with Dr. Web­ster for years, he al­most col­lapsed while pro­nounc­ing the death penalty on his erst­while friend.

The date of ex­e­cu­tion was set for Au­gust 30, 1850. Notwith­stand­ing ef­forts made to ob­tain ex­ec­u­tive clemency, Dr. Web­ster went to the gal­lows on that day, pub­licly protest­ing his in­no­cence, al­though it was claimed that he con­fessed his guilt to a cler­gy­man.


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