Robert Sullivan: The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman


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.”