Dr. John Webster Trial: 1850

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Dr. John Webster Trial: 1850

Defendant: Harvard Professor Dr. John Webster
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Pliny Merrick and Edward D. Sohier
Chief Prosecutors: George Bemis and John H. Clifford
Judges: LemuelShaw, Charles A. Dewey, Thomas Metcalf, and Samuel Wilde
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Dates of Trial: March 19April 1, 1850
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: Because Dr. John Webster had dismembered his victim's body and disposed of most of the parts, the prosecution had to try Webster without showing the corpus delicti, or proof of the murder, namely the body. Webster's trial was one of the first murder convictions based on the testimony of the medical experts and other evidence produced by the prosecution that established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

By the 1840s Boston, one of America's oldest cities, had become home to many wealthy families with preeminent positions in American society, business, and politics. This East Coast elite were often referred to as "blue bloods." They were active in charitable and social causes, including supporting leading educational institutions such as the venerable Harvard University in nearby Cambridge.

Dr. John Webster, a professor of chemistry and mineralogy at Harvard's Medical College, had also earned his medical degree from Harvard. His fellow professors included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Webster, an educated and intelligent man, soon established a place for himself in Boston society. He socialized with some of America's great cultural and literary figures, including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. However, Webster found his new social prominence expensive to support.

Webster lacked personal wealth. Unlike his peers, he had not inherited a family fortune. Nor did his modest Harvard salary allow for lavish entertaining. He could support his social ambitions only by going into debt. One of his many creditors included Dr. George Parkman, whose family was one of Boston's most prominent. Webster borrowed more than $400 from Parkman, which in the 1840s was a sizable sum. Webster could not repay the debt, and in the fall of 1849 Parkman began to hound Webster to repay him.

Webster Kills Dr. Parkman

Shortly before Thanksgiving Day, 1849, Parkman confronted Webster in person at Webster's laboratory on the Harvard Medical College grounds. Parkman demanded that Webster pay his debt and threatened to use his influence to have Webster removed from the faculty. What must have gone through Webster's mind is still an open question and is colored by his post-trial confession that suggests temporary insanity. Whether Webster developed an uncontrollable temper or was carrying out a plan of premeditated murder, the fact remains that he savagely struck Parkman on the head with a piece of firewood from the nearby fireplace.

The blow fractured Parkman's skull, and he fell to the floor. Webster's homicidal fury subsided, and he unsuccessfully attempted to revive Parkman. When this effort failed, Webster bolted his lab door shut and used his medical instruments to dismember Parkman's body. He burnt most of Parkman's body in the lab furnace, but the process went slowly.

Ephraim Littlefield, the Medical College's janitor, had seen an earlier confrontation between Webster and Parkman. Littlefield became suspicious when on the day of Parkman's fatal visit to Webster, Littlefield found the lab door bolted shut and the wall by the furnace red-hot. Several days later, the Parkman family began advertising rewards for information leading to the whereabouts of the missing doctor. Littlefield's suspicions deepened, and he took it upon himself to break into Webster's laboratory by patiently chiseling his way through one of the lab's brick walls. After a couple of days Littlefield broke through, and to his horror saw the partial remains of a human body, including portions of the legs and pelvis of a man.

Littlefield quickly informed the police, who searched Webster's lab and found more remains, charred and half-destroyed, in the furnace. The police arrested Webster, who unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by swallowing a poison pill. The authorities charged Webster with Parkman's murder, to which he pleaded not guilty. Webster's well-heeled friends attempted to hire counsel on his behalf, but they were unable to find lawyers willing to represent someone who seemed guilty of a heinous crime. Webster was forced to rely on two courtappointed attorneys, Pliny Merrick and Edward D. Sohier, for his defense.

Webster's Trial Rocks Boston Society

The trial opened March 19, 1850. The principal judge was state Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw. Associate Justices Charles A. Dewey, Thomas Metcalf, and Samuel Wilde also sat on the bench. The state's case was handled by Attorney General John H. Clifford, with the assistance of George Bemis. The prosecution, aware of the problem of the missing corpus delicti,wasted no time in bringing forward a series of medical experts to testify that the remains discovered in Webster's lab were those of Dr. Parkman.

The prosecution's medical experts included Dr. Nathan C. Keep, Parkman's dentist. Keep testified that he recognized certain false teeth found among the human remains in Webster's lab as the very ones that Keep had made for Parkman years before. To establish the necessary connection between the experts' identification of Parkman's remains and their presence in Webster's lab, the prosecutors brought in Littlefield.

By this time, the spectators' gallery was packed. By the end of the trial, more than 50,000 people had been present at one time or another. The prosecution knew that Littlefield would make or break their case, and they brought out his testimony slowly but surely, leading eventually to Littlefield's climactic discovery of Parkman's remains in Webster's lab:

I took the crowbar and knocked the bigness of a hole right through. There are five courses of brick in the wall. I had trouble with my light, as the air drew strongly through the hole. I managed to get the light and my head into the hole, and then I was not disturbed with the draft. I held my light forward. The first thing which I saw was the pelvis of a man and two parts of a leg. The water was running down on these remains from the sink.

Littlefield's next comment was an understatement, to say the least:

I knew that it was no place for these things.

Clifford had put on an excellent case, and Webster's attorneys were hardpressed. They tried to attack the janitor Littlefield's testimony by questioning his motives, including his desire to collect the reward offered by Parkman's family. Unable to succeed with this tack, Merrick and Sohier then presented a series of character witnesses. Although the retinue of socialites who testified on Webster's behalf was impressive, they could not shake the facts set forth by Littlefield's and the medical experts' testimony.

Corpus Delicti Issue Decides Webster's Fate

Webster's lawyers still had one ace in the hole, however. The law required that the prosecutors prove the existence of a crime, or the corpus delicti. In a murder case, this had always been assumed to mean that the prosecutors must physically produce the corpse of the person allegedly murdered. Therefore, Merrick's closing argument for the defense rested on the assertion that, in the eyes of the law, the state had not proven that the remains found in the lab were Parkman's. Even if the remains were Parkman's, Merrick continued, the state hadn't shown how he was killed.

After the lawyers made their closing arguments, Judge Shaw spoke to the jury on the issue of whether circumstantial evidence could establish the existence of a crime. If so, then the prosecution's evidence would be enough to prove the corpus delicti and convict Webster of murder. Shaw's ruling destroyed the defense's chances for victory:

It has sometimes been said by judges that a jury never ought to convict in a capital case unless the dead body is found. That, as a general proposition, is true. It sometimes happens, however, that it cannot be found, where the proof of death is clear. Sometimes, in a case of murder at sea, the body is thrown overboard on a stormy night. Because the body is not found, can anybody deny that the author of that crime is a murderer?

Therefore, Shaw made it possible for the jury to conclude from the overwhelming evidence presented by the prosecution that Webster had murdered Parkman. The jury took less than three hours of deliberation to find Webster guilty. On April 1, 1850, Shaw sentenced Webster to death by hanging. After an unsuccessful appeal and an equally fruitless petition for leniency from the governor, Webster confessed. Webster admitted that Parkman had visited him in his lab and that when Parkman pressed him for payment of his debts he had killed him, dismembered his body, and attempted to destroy the parts.

Webster's version of the events was that Parkman had provoked him to the point of blind fury, thus causing him to kill Parkman. After seeing what he had done, Webster said he panicked and butchered Parkman's body to conceal the evidence. Webster's confession, if made at trial and believed by the jury, could have led to his receiving a lighter sentence based on a plea of temporary insanity.

But it was too late for Webster to escape the hangman. His confession did not persuade the governor to commute his sentence. On August 30, Webster was executed. Webster's hanging put an end to one of the most sensational scandals to rock Boston society and Victorian America.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cozzens, James Gould. A Rope for Dr. lVebster. Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1976.

Morris, Richard. Fair Trial. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

Schama, Simon. Dead Certainties. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Sullivan, Robert. The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co. 1971.

Thomson, Helen. Murder at Harvard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

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