In 1842 the high-society of Boston was taken by storm via one of the most high-profile murders ever to have occurred in the city. To begin let’s introduce the players in this tale.
We start with the tragic victim, Dr. George Parkman. Dr. Parkman was a tall lanky man whose picture may conjure up images of Abraham Lincoln. He often walked the streets of Beacon Hill and the West End in his top hat to collect rents for his multiple properties. The Parkman family was one of the richest and well known in the city of Boston.
The second individual in our story is John White Webster. John, a short and stocky man, was a chemistry and geology professor at Harvard Medical College, although not one which commanded much respect from his students. His lectures were often described as rather long and dull. But John’s biggest vice was money management. Trying to live the perceived lifestyle of a Harvard professor and lavishly supporting two daughters, he tended to out spend his means. He was in debt to a number of friends and even had to sell his Cambridge mansion for a more moderate home.
And lastly, let us introduce Ephraim Littlefield. Ephraim was a janitor for the Harvard Medical College who lived with his wife next door to Webster’s laboratory.
Our story begins in 1842 with Mr. Webster, always short on funds, requesting a $400 loan from his good friend Dr. Parkman. Dr. Parkman, a loyal friend, agreed to do so. Fast forward five years, Webster reverted back to Parkman for an additional sum, this time for a bit over $2,400. Once again Dr. Parkman complied, however, required collateral for the loan. In exchange, Webster promised over a handful of personal valuables most noteworthy being a valuable cabinet of minerals.
After a further two years passes (leading us into 1849), with his loan still unpaid, Parkman decided to confront Webster over his outstanding debt. Parkman’s rage was further fueled after recently learning that Webster, whilst continuing to borrow from friends, had provided the same cabinet of minerals as collateral on another loan.
On November 23, 1849 Dr. Parkman left his home in Beacon Hill to confront Webster and was last seen outside of the Harvard Medical College at approximately 1:45pm. It was here, at the former College, within the basement laboratory of John Webster where the murder of Dr. Parkman occurred.
While obviously no one knows what exactly transpired during this incident, we do know that Ephraim tried to enter Webster’s lab that afternoon and found the door locked with sounds of water running inside. After Parkman’s disappearance had been going on for almost a week, his family began literally postering the city with 28,000 notices of a $3000 reward for any information leading to the discovery of Parkman’s whereabouts.
While the rest of the city was in an uproar over Dr. Parkman’s disappearance, the Harvard Medical College janitor, Mr. Littlefield began to note some mysterious occurrences next door in Mr. Webster’s lab. For instance, on November 28 (some five days after Parkman’s disappearance), Ephraim noted that the furnace was stoked so profusely next door that he could not even touch the adjoining wall. In addition, the usually unsocial Mr. Webster was suddenly overly cordial towards his neighbor and even bought him a turkey for Thanksgiving. The first time any such gesture had ever occurred.
Over the next few days, with growing concern, Ephraim decided to take matters into his own hands and began to dig a hole through the adjoining wall to investigate the odd occurrences in his neighbor’s lab. What he found both surprised and appalled him. Whilst digging into the lab’s basement he unearthed pieces of blood-stained and dismembered body parts including a portion of a pelvis, leg and thigh. Police later opened a trunk in the lab and also uncovered a partially burnt and armless torso inside of a trunk.
Family members of Dr. Parkman were brought in to identify the body. Mrs. Parkman and her brother confirmed that the remains belonged to the late George Parkman via the hairy torso and birth marks on the penis (the latter assumingly identified solely via Mrs. Parkman).
Webster was officially arrested on suspicion of murder on November 30, 1849. During his trial a stream of circumstantial evidence was used to link Webster to the murder, including testimony by Littlefield and the body found in his lab. The city was aghast at the developments and fellow professors at Harvard vehemently denied the plausibility of one of their fellow instructors capable of murder. The trial so captivated the city that is said that over 60,000 people viewed a portion of the trial.
The trial lasted just twelve days and at the conclusion John Webster was found guilty of murder. Sentenced to hang on August 30, 1850, Webster eventually confessed that he had in fact killed Dr. Parkman with a single blow to the head with a stick during a heated moment of rage. For all of his discoveries, the janitor, Ephraim Littlefield was awarded the $3,000 reward which he applied towards an immediate retirement.
Eighteen years after the hanging of John Webster, still awestruck by the infamous high society murder a visiting Charles Dickens toured the lab of Webster to view the site of the grisly murder himself. In response to his tour, Dickens described the site as stating that the room was “smelling… as if the body was still there.”
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