John Welford: Charles Dickens, Edwin Drood, and a murder in Boston

John White Webster

HARLES Dick­ens’s The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood has posed many mys­ter­ies of its own down the years, not least that of how Dick­ens in­tend­ed to con­clude the book. He died on 9th June 1870 from a stroke, hav­ing writ­ten his final words only a few hours be­fore, with pos­si­bly half of the in­tend­ed text still un­writ­ten.

One pos­si­bil­i­ty of how the plot might have de­vel­oped from that point is sug­gest­ed by an os­ten­si­bly un­like­ly source, name­ly a no­to­ri­ous mur­der case that oc­curred in Boston Mas­sachusetts in 1849.

The Mur­der of Dr Park­man by Pro­fes­sor Web­ster

Dr George Park­man had been a med­i­cal doc­tor, but in his later years he turned to being a land­lord of res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties in Boston and a mon­eylen­der. He also had links with the med­i­cal col­lege of Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, and one of his clients was Pro­fes­sor John Web­ster, who was Pro­fes­sor of Chem­istry at the med­i­cal col­lege.

On Fri­day 23rd Novem­ber 1849, Dr Park­man was seen en­ter­ing the med­i­cal col­lege, but was never seen again alive. One week later, Pro­fes­sor Web­ster was ar­rest­ed for mur­der. The trial took place in March 1850, with Web­ster being found guilty on 1st April and hanged on 30th Au­gust.

Web­ster’s mo­tive for mur­der was clear­ly fi­nan­cial, in that he owed Dr Park­man more than $2,000 which he could not repay. Web­ster was in con­sid­er­able dif­fi­cul­ty, and had even mort­gaged his valu­able col­lec­tion of min­er­als twice, as col­lat­er­al for loans from two dif­fer­ent sources. Park­man knew about this fraud and was threat­en­ing to ex­pose Web­ster and force him from his chair of chem­istry. When Park­man went to the col­lege that day, he was at­tend­ing an ap­point­ment with Web­ster at which Park­man ex­pect­ed to re­ceive a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the money that he was owed.

One of the fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of the case is that Web­ster went to enor­mous trou­ble to dis­pose of Park­man’s body with­in the con­fines of the col­lege. His ac­tiv­i­ties, which in­clud­ed work­ing late at night in his locked lab­o­ra­to­ry, soon ex­cit­ed the sus­pi­cions of the col­lege jan­i­tor, Ephraim Lit­tle­field, who was in­spired to dig through the brick­work on the out­side of the base­ment of Pro­fes­sor Web­ster’s lab­o­ra­to­ry. Human re­mains were found and Web­ster was ar­rest­ed.

Be­fore burn­ing Park­man’s clothes and dis­mem­ber­ing the body, Web­ster had taken his watch and thrown it into the river.

How Charles Dick­ens Learned About the Case

Charles Dick­ens made two vis­its to the Unit­ed States. On the first of these, in 1842, he had met Pro­fes­sor Web­ster in Boston, and it is also pos­si­ble that he met Dr Park­man. He was there­fore in­ter­est­ed to read an ar­ti­cle about the case that was writ­ten by a friend of his, Sir James Ten­nent. Dick­ens ac­cept­ed the ar­ti­cle for his jour­nal, All the Year Round, and it was pub­lished in De­cem­ber 1867.

On Dick­ens’s sec­ond Amer­i­can tour, in 1868, he made a point of vis­it­ing the scene of the crime. He also met Henry Wadsworth Longfel­low, who had known Web­ster and could tes­ti­fy to his strange be­haviour. Dick­ens left Boston know­ing as much about the case as he could glean.

The Park­man Mur­der and Edwin Drood

The con­nec­tions be­tween the Park­man mur­der and Edwin Drood can be traced from 1869, when Dick­ens was mak­ing plans for a new novel. In both cases, the chief sus­pect is an out­ward­ly re­spectable and dis­tin­guished mem­ber of an elite com­mu­ni­ty, but with a dark se­cret and a hid­den, pas­sion­ate na­ture. In both cases, the vic­tim dis­ap­pears. In both cases, the hid­ing place for the body is an un­der­ground room. In both cases, the sus­pect tries to ob­tain quick­lime in order to dis­solve the body. In both cases, a work­ing man is key to the find­ing of the body. In both cases, a watch be­long­ing to the vic­tim is thrown into a river. There are a num­ber of fur­ther par­al­lels.

In the case of Edwin Drood, not all of the above co­in­ci­dences can be found in the text, but they can be de­duced from the notes and let­ters that Dick­ens left be­hind. There is a more com­pli­cat­ed plot to Edwin Drood than the Park­man mur­der, with a num­ber of other char­ac­ters being in­tro­duced – every mur­der mys­tery needs a few red her­rings!

How­ev­er, if the above sce­nario is cor­rect, there would seem to be lit­tle doubt that Dick­ens in­tend­ed to com­plete his novel with the ar­rest and trial of his chief sus­pect, John Jasper (even the first name is the same!). Web­ster wrote a con­fes­sion in his prison cell, which was ap­par­ent­ly what Dick­ens in­tend­ed would hap­pen in the case of Jasper. Al­though not exact par­al­lels, there would seem be enough ev­i­dence to sug­gest that Dick­ens had the Park­man case very much in mind when he wrote The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood.