Professor Webster

The best report of Webster’s trial is that edited by Bemis. The following tracts in the British Museum have been consulted by the writer: “Appendix to the Webster Trial,” Boston, 1850: “Thoughts on the Conviction of Webster”; “The Boston Tragedy,” by W. E. Bigelow.

It is not often that the gaunt spectre of murder invades the cloistered calm of academic life. Yet such a strange and unwonted tragedy befell Harvard University in the year 1849, when John W. Webster, Professor of Chemistry, took the life of Dr. George Parkman, a distinguished citizen of Boston. The scene of the crime, the old Medical School, now a Dental Hospital, is still standing, or was when the present writer visited Boston in 1907. It is a large and rather dreary red-brick, three-storied building, situated in the lower part of the city, flanked on its west side by the mud flats leading down to the Charles River. The first floor consists of two large rooms, separated from each other by the main entrance hall, which is approached by a flight of steps leading up from the street level. Of these two rooms, the left, as you face the building, is fitted up as a lecture-room. In the year 1849 it was the lecture-room of Professor Webster. Behind the lecture-room is a laboratory, known as the upper laboratory, communicating by a private staircase with the lower laboratory, which occupies the left wing of the ground floor. A small passage, entered by a door on the left-hand side of the front of the building, separated this lower laboratory from the dissecting-room, an out-house built on to the west wall of the college, but now demolished. From this description it will be seen that any person, provided with the necessary keys, could enter the college by the side-door near the dissecting room on the ground floor, and pass up through the lower and upper laboratory into Professor Webster’s lecture-room without entering any other part of the building. The Professor of Chemistry, by locking the doors of his lecture-rooms and the lower laboratory, could, if he wished, make himself perfectly secure against intrusion, and come and go by the side-door without attracting much attention. These rooms are little altered at the present time from their arrangement in 1849. The lecture-room and laboratory are used for the same purposes to-day; the lower laboratory, a dismal chamber, now disused and somewhat rearranged, is still recognisable as the scene of the Professor’s chemical experiments.

On the second floor of the hospital is a museum, once anatomical, now dental. One of the principal objects of interest in this museum is a plaster cast of the jaws of Dr. George Parkman, made by a well-known dentist of Boston, Dr. Keep, in the year 1846. In that year the new medical college was formally opened. Dr. Parkman, a wealthy and public-spirited citizen of Boston, had given the piece of land, on which the college had been erected. He had been invited to be present at the opening ceremony. In anticipation of being asked to make a speech on this occasion Dr. Parkman, whose teeth were few and far between, had himself fitted by Dr. Keep with a complete set of false teeth. Oliver Wendell Holmes, then Professor of Anatomy at Harvard, who was present at the opening of the college, noticed how very nice and white the doctor’s teeth appeared to be. It was the discovery of the remains of these same admirable teeth three years later in the furnace in Professor Webster’s lower laboratory that led to the conviction of Dr. Parkman’s murderer. By a strange coincidence the doctor met his death in the very college which his generosity had helped to build. Though to-day the state of the college has declined from the medical to the dental, his memory still lives within its walls by the cast of his jaws preserved in the dental museum as a relic of a case, in which the art of dentistry did signal service to the cause of justice.

In his lifetime Dr. Parkman was a well-known figure in the streets of Boston. His peculiar personal appearance and eccentric habits combined to make him something of a character. As he walked through the streets he presented a remarkable appearance. He was exceptionally tall, longer in the body than the legs; his lower jaw protruded some half an inch beyond the upper; he carried his body bent forward from the small of his back. He seemed to be always in a hurry; so impetuous was he that, if his horse did not travel fast enough to please him, he would get off its back, and, leaving the steed in the middle of the street, hasten on his way on foot. A just and generous man, he was extremely punctilious in matters of business, and uncompromising in his resentment of any form of falsehood or deceit. It was the force of his resentment in such a case that cost him his life.

The doctor was unfailingly punctual in taking his meals. Dr. Kingsley, during the fourteen years he had acted as his agent, had always been able to make sure of finding him at home at his dinner hour, half-past two o’clock. But on Friday, November 23, 1849, to his surprise and that of his family, Dr. Parkman did not come home to dinner; and their anxiety was increased when the day passed, and there was still no sign of the doctor’s return. Inquiries were made. From these it appeared that Dr. Parkman had been last seen alive between one and two o’clock on the Friday afternoon. About half-past one he had visited a grocer’s shop in Bridge Street, made some purchases, and left behind him a paper bag containing a lettuce, which, he said, he would call for on his way home. Shortly before two o’clock he was seen by a workman, at a distance of forty or fifty feet from the Medical College, going in that direction. From that moment all certain trace of him was lost. His family knew that he had made an appointment for half-past one that day, but where and with whom they did not know. As a matter of fact, Professor John W. Webster had appointed that hour to receive Dr. Parkman in his lecture-room in the Medical College.

John W. Webster was at this time Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy in Harvard University, a Doctor of Medicine and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the London Geological Society and the St. Petersburg Mineralogical Society. He was the author of several works on geology and chemistry, a man now close on sixty years of age. His countenance was genial, his manner mild and unassuming; he was clean shaven, wore spectacles, and looked younger than his years.

Professor Webster was popular with a large circle of friends. To those who liked him he was a man of pleasing and attractive manners, artistic in his tastes—he was especially fond of music—not a very profound or remarkable chemist, but a pleasant social companion. His temper was hasty and irritable. Spoilt in his boyhood as an only child, he was self-willed and self-indulgent. His wife and daughters were better liked than he. By unfriendly critics the Professor was thought to be selfish, fonder of the good things of the table and a good cigar than was consistent with his duty to his family or the smallness of his income. His father, a successful apothecary at Boston, had died in 1833, leaving John, his only son, a fortune of some L10,000. In rather less than ten years Webster had run through the whole of his inheritance. He had built himself a costly mansion in Cambridge, spent a large sum of money in collecting minerals, and delighted to exercise lavish hospitality. By living consistently beyond his means he found himself at length entirely dependent on his professional earnings. These were small. His salary as Professor was fixed at L240 a year; the rest of his income he derived from the sale of tickets for his lectures at the Medical College. That income was insufficient to meet his wants.

[I have given these sums of money in their English equivalents in order to give the reader an idea of the smallness of the sum which brought about the tragedy.]

As early as 1842 he had borrowed L80 from his friend Dr. Parkman. It was to Parkman’s good offices that he owed his appointment as a Professor at Harvard; they had entered the University as under-graduates in the same year. Up to 1847 Webster had repaid Parkman twenty pounds of his debt; but, in that year he found it necessary to raise a further loan of L490, which was subscribed by a few friends, among them Parkman himself. As a security for the repayment of this loan, the professor executed a mortgage on his valuable collection of minerals in favour of Parkman. In the April of 1848 the Professor’s financial difficulties became so serious that he was threatened with an execution in his house. In this predicament he went to a Mr. Shaw, Dr. Parkman’s brother-in-law, and begged a loan of L240, offering him as security a bill of sale on the collection of minerals, which he had already mortgaged to Parkman. Shaw accepted the security, and lent the money. Shaw would seem to have had a good deal of sympathy with Webster’s embarrassments; he considered the Professor’s income very inadequate to his position, and showed himself quite ready at a later period to waive his debt altogether.

Dr. Parkman was a less easy-going creditor. Forbearing and patient as long as he was dealt with fairly, he was merciless where he thought he detected trickery or evasion. His forbearance and his patience were utterly exhausted, his anger and indignation strongly aroused, when he learnt from Shaw that Webster had given him as security for his debt a bill of sale on the collection of minerals, already mortgaged to himself. From the moment of the discovery of this act of dishonesty on the part of Webster, Parkman pursued his debtor with unrelenting severity.

He threatened him with an action at law; he said openly that he was neither an honourable, honest, nor upright man; he tried to appropriate to the payment of his debt the fees for lectures which Mr. Pettee, Webster’s agent, collected on the Professor’s behalf. He even visited Webster in his lecture-room and sat glaring at him in the front row of seats, while the Professor was striving under these somewhat unfavourable conditions to impart instruction to his pupils—a proceeding which the Doctor’s odd cast of features must have aggravated in no small degree.

It was early in November that Parkman adopted these aggressive tactics. On the 19th of that month Webster and the janitor of the College, Ephraim Littlefield, were working in the upper laboratory. It was dark; they had lit candles. Webster was reading a chemical book. As he looked up from the book he saw Parkman standing in the doorway leading from the lecture-room. “Dr. Webster, are you ready for me to-night?” asked Parkman. “No,” replied the other, “I am not ready to-night.” After a little further conversation in regard to the mortgage, Parkman departed with the ominous remark, “Doctor, something must be done to-morrow.”

Unfortunately the Professor was not in a position to do anything. He had no means sufficient to meet his creditor’s demands; and that creditor was unrelenting. On the 22nd Parkman rode into Cambridge, where Webster lived, to press him further, but failed to find him. Webster’s patience, none too great at any time, was being sorely tried. To whom could he turn? What further resource was open to him? There was none. He determined to see his creditor once more. At 8 o’clock on the morning of Friday the 23rd, Webster called at Dr. Parkman’s house and made the appointment for their meeting at the Medical College at half-past one, to which the Doctor had been seen hastening just before his disappearance. At nine o’clock the same morning Pettee, the agent, had called on the Professor at the College and paid him by cheque a balance of L28 due on his lecture tickets, informing him at the same time that, owing to the trouble with Dr. Parkman, he must decline to receive any further sums of money on his behalf. Webster replied that Parkman was a nervous, excitable man, subject to mental aberrations, but he added, “You will have no further trouble with Dr. Parkman, for I have settled with him.” It is difficult to see how the Professor could have settled, or proposed to settle, with his creditor on that day. A balance of L28 at his bank, and the L18 which Mr. Pettee had paid to him that morning, represented the sum of Professor Webster’s fortune on Friday, November 23, 1849.

Since the afternoon of that day the search for the missing Parkman had been unremitting. On the Saturday his friends communicated with the police. On Sunday hand-bills were issued stating the fact of the Doctor’s disappearance, and on Monday, the 26th, a description and the offer of a considerable reward for the discovery of his body were circulated both in and out of the city. Two days later a further reward was offered. But these efforts were fruitless. The only person who gave any information beyond that afforded by those who had seen the Doctor in the streets on the morning of his disappearance, was Professor Webster. About four o’clock on the Sunday afternoon the Professor called at the house of the Revd. Francis Parkman, the Doctor’s brother. They were intimate friends. Webster had for a time attended Parkman’s chapel; and Mr. Parkman had baptised the Professor’s grand-daughter. On this Sunday afternoon Mr. Parkman could not help remarking Webster’s peculiar manner. With a bare greeting and no expression of condolence with the family’s distress, his visitor entered abruptly and nervously on the object of his errand. He had called, he said, to tell Mr. Parkman that he had seen his brother at the Medical College on Friday afternoon, that he had paid him L90 which he owed him, and that the Doctor had in the course of their interview taken out a paper and dashed his pen through it, presumably as an acknowledgment of the liquidation of the Professor’s debt. Having communicated this intelligence to the somewhat astonished gentleman, Webster left him as abruptly as he had come.

Another relative of Dr. Parkman, his nephew, Mr. Parkman Blake, in the course of inquiries as to his uncle’s fate, thought it right to see Webster. Accordingly he went to the college on Monday, the 26th, about eleven o’clock in the morning. Though not one of his lecture days, the janitor Littlefield informed him that the Professor was in his room. The door of the lecture-room, however, was found to be locked, and it was only after considerable delay that Mr. Blake gained admittance. As he descended the steps to the floor of the lecture-room Webster, dressed in a working suit of blue overalls and wearing on his head a smoking cap, came in from the back door. Instead of advancing to greet his visitor, he stood fixed to the spot, and waited, as if defensively, for Mr. Blake to speak. In answer to Mr. Blake’s questions Webster described his interview with Dr. Parkman on the Friday afternoon. He gave a very similar account of it to that he had already given to Mr. Francis Parkman. He added that at the end of their interview he had asked the Doctor for the return of the mortgage, to which the latter had replied, “I haven’t it with me, but I will see it is properly cancelled.” Mr. Blake asked Webster if he could recollect in what form of money it was that he had paid Dr. Parkman. Webster answered that he could only recollect a bill of L20 on the New Zealand Bank: pressed on this point, he seemed to rather avoid any further inquiries. Mr. Blake left him, dissatisfied with the result of his visit.

One particular in Webster’s statement was unquestionably strange, if not incredible. He had, he said, paid Parkman a sum of L90, which he had given him personally, and represented the Doctor as having at their interview promised to cancel the mortgage on the collection of minerals which Webster had given as security for the loan of L490 that had been subscribed by Parkman and four of his friends. Now L120 of this loan was still owing. If Webster’s statement were true, Parkman had a perfect right to cancel Webster’s personal debt to himself; but he had no right to cancel entirely the mortgage on the minerals, so long as money due to others on that mortgage was yet unpaid. Was it conceivable that one so strict and scrupulous in all monetary transactions as Parkman would have settled his own personal claim, and then sacrificed in so discreditable a manner the claims of others, for the satisfaction of which he had made himself responsible?

There was yet another singular circumstance. On Saturday, the 24th, the day after his settlement with Parkman, Webster paid into his own account at the Charles River Bank the cheque for L18, lecture fees, handed over to him by the agent Pettee just before Dr. Parkman’s visit on the Friday. This sum had not apparently gone towards the making up of the L90, which Webster said that he had paid to Parkman that day. The means by which Webster had been enabled to settle this debt became more mysterious than ever.

On Tuesday, November 27, the Professor received three other visitors in his lecture-room. These were police officers who, in the course of their search for the missing man, felt it their duty to examine, however perfunctorily, the Medical College. With apologies to the Professor, they passed through his lecture room to the laboratory at the back, and from thence, down the private stairs, past a privy, into the lower laboratory. As they passed the privy one of the officers asked what place it was. “Dr. Webster’s private lavatory,” replied the janitor, who was conducting them. At that moment Webster’s voice called them away to examine the store-room in the lower laboratory, and after a cursory examination the officers departed.

The janitor, Ephraim Littlefield, did not take the opportunity afforded him by the visit of the police officers to impart to them the feelings of uneasiness; which the conduct of Professor Webster during the last three days had excited in his breast. There were circumstances in the Professor’s behaviour which could not fail to attract the attention of a man, whose business throughout the day was to dust and sweep the College, light the fires and overlook generally the order and cleanliness of the building.

Littlefield, it will be remembered, had seen Dr. Parkman on the Monday before his disappearance, when he visited Webster at the College, and been present at the interview, in the course of which the Doctor told Webster that “something must be done.” That Monday morning Webster asked Littlefield a number of questions about the dissecting-room vault, which was situated just outside the door of the lower laboratory. He asked how it was built, whether a light could be put into it, and how it was reached for the purpose of repair. On the following Thursday, the day before Parkman’s disappearance, the Professor told Littlefield to get him a pint of blood from the Massachusetts Hospital; he said that he wanted it for an experiment. On the morning of Friday, the day of Parkman’s disappearance, Littlefield informed the Professor that he had been unsuccessful in his efforts to get the blood, as they had not been bleeding anyone lately at the hospital. The same morning Littlefield found to his surprise a sledge-hammer behind the door of the Professor’s back room; he presumed that it had been left there by masons, and took it down to the lower laboratory. This sledge-hammer Littlefield never saw again. About a quarter to two that afternoon Littlefield, standing at the front door, after his dinner, saw Dr. Parkman coming towards the College. At two o’clock Littlefield went up to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ room, immediately above Professor Webster’s, to help the Doctor to clear his table after his lecture, which was the last delivered that day. About a quarter of an hour later he let Dr. Holmes out, locked the front door and began to clear out the stoves in the other lecture-rooms. When he reached Webster’s he was surprised to find that both doors, that of the lecture room and that of the lower laboratory, were either locked or bolted. He could hear nothing but the running of water in one of the sinks. About half-past five Littlefield saw the Professor coming down the back stairs with a lighted candle in his hand. Webster blew out the candle and left the building. Late that night Littlefield again tried the Professor’s doors; they were still fastened. The janitor was surprised at this, as he had never known such a thing to happen before.

On Saturday, the 24th, though not lecturing that day, the Professor came to the College in the morning. He told Littlefield to light the stove in the lower laboratory. When Littlefield made to pass from the lecture-room into the Professor’s private room at the back, and so down by the private stairs to the lower laboratory, the Professor stopped him and told him to go round by the door in front of the building. The whole of that day and Sunday, the Professor’s doors remained fast. On Sunday evening at sunset Littlefield, who was talking with a friend in North Grove Street, the street that faces the College, was accosted by Webster. The Professor asked him if he recollected Parkman’s visit to the College on Friday, the 23rd, and, on his replying in the affirmative, the Professor described to him their interview and the repayment of his debt. Littlefield was struck during their conversation by the uneasiness of the Professor’s bearing; contrary to his habit he seemed unable to look him in the face, his manner was confused, his face pale.

During the whole of Monday, except for a visit from Mr. Parkman Blake, Professor Webster was again locked alone in his laboratory. Neither that night, nor early Tuesday morning, could Littlefield get into the Professor’s rooms to perform his customary duties. On Tuesday the Professor lectured at twelve o’clock, and later received the visit of the police officers that has been described already. At four o’clock that afternoon, the Professor’s bell rang. Littlefield answered it. The Professor asked the janitor whether he had bought his turkey for Thanksgiving Day, which was on the following Thursday. Littlefield said that he had not done so yet. Webster then handed him an order on his provision dealer. “Take that,” he said, “and get a nice turkey; perhaps I shall want you to do some odd jobs for me.” Littlefield thanked him, and said that he would be glad to do anything for him that he could. The janitor was the more surprised at Webster’s generosity on this occasion, as this turkey was the first present he had received at the Professor’s hands during the seven years he had worked in the College. Littlefield saw the Professor again about half-past six that evening as the latter was leaving the College. The janitor asked him if he wanted any more fires lighted in his rooms, because owing to the holidays there were to be no further lectures that week. Webster said that he did not, and asked Littlefield whether he were a freemason. The janitor said “Yes,” and with that they parted.

Littlefield was curious. The mysterious activity of the Professor of Chemistry seemed to him more than unusual. His perplexity was increased on the following day. Though on account of the holidays all work had been suspended at the College for the remainder of the week, Webster was again busy in his room early Wednesday morning. Littlefield could hear him moving about. In vain did the janitor look through the keyhole, bore a hole in the door, peep under it; all he could get was a sight of the Professor’s feet moving about the laboratory. Perplexity gave way to apprehension when in the course of the afternoon Littlefield discovered that the outer wall of the lower laboratory was so hot that he could hardly bear to place his hand on it. On the outer side of this wall was a furnace sometimes used by the Professor in his chemical experiments. How came it to be so heated? The Professor had told Littlefield on Tuesday that he should not be requiring any fires during the remainder of the week.

The janitor determined to resolve his suspicions. He climbed up to the back windows of the lower laboratory, found one of them unfastened, and let himself in. But, beyond evidences of the considerable fires that had been kept burning during the last few days, Littlefield saw nothing to excite peculiar attention. Still he was uneasy. Those he met in the street kept on telling him that Dr. Parkman would be found in the Medical College. He felt that he himself was beginning to be suspected of having some share in the mystery, whilst in his own mind he became more certain every day that the real solution lay within the walls of Professor Webster’s laboratory. His attention had fixed itself particularly on the lavatory at the foot of the stairs connecting the upper and lower laboratories. This room he found to be locked and the key, a large one, had disappeared. He recollected that when the police officers had paid their visit to the college, the Professor had diverted their attention as they were about to inspect this room. The only method by which, unknown to the Professor and without breaking open the door, Littlefield could examine the vault of this retiring room was by going down to the basement floor of the college and digging a hole through the wall into the vault itself. This he determined to do.

On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, Littlefield commenced operations with a hatchet and a chisel. Progress was slow, as that evening he had been invited to attend a festal gathering. On Friday the janitor, before resuming work, acquainted two of the Professors of the college with his proposed investigation, and received their sanction. As Webster, however, was going constantly in and out of his rooms, he could make little further progress that day. The Professor had come into town early in the morning.

Before going to the college he purchased some fish-hooks and gave orders for the making of a strong tin box with firm handles, a foot and a half square and a little more than a foot in depth; during the rest of the day he had been busy in his rooms until he left the college about four o’clock. Not till then was the watchful janitor able to resume his labours. Armed with a crowbar, he worked vigorously until he succeeded in penetrating the wall sufficiently to admit a light into the vault of the lavatory. The first objects which the light revealed to his eyes, were the pelvis of a man and two parts of a human leg.

Leaving his wife in charge of the remains, Littlefield went immediately to the house of Professor Bigelow, and informed him of the result of his search. They returned to the college some twenty minutes later, accompanied by the City Marshal. The human remains—a pelvis, a thigh and a leg—were taken out of the vault, and on a further search some pieces of bone were removed from one of the furnaces in the lower laboratory. The City Marshal at once dispatched three of his officers to Cambridge, to the house of Professor Webster.

To his immediate circle of friends and relations the conduct of the Professor during this eventful week had betrayed no unwonted discomposure or disturbance of mind. His evenings had been spent either at the house of friends, or at his own, playing whist, or reading Milton’s “Allegro” and “Penseroso” to his wife and daughters. On Friday evening, about eight o’clock, as the Professor was saying good-bye to a friend on the steps of his house at Cambridge, the three police officers drove up to the door and asked him to accompany them to the Medical College. It was proposed, they said, to make a further search there that evening, and his presence was considered advisable. Webster assented immediately, put on his boots, his hat and coat, and got into the hired coach. As they drove towards the city, Webster spoke to the officers of Parkman’s disappearance, and suggested that they should stop at the house of a lady who, he said, could give them some peculiar information on that subject. As they entered Boston, he remarked that they were taking the wrong direction for reaching the college. One of the officers replied that the driver might be “green,” but that he would find his way to the college in time. At length the coach stopped. One of the officers alighted, and invited his companions to follow him into the office of the Leverett Street Jail. They obeyed. The Professor asked what it all meant; he was informed that he must consider himself in custody, charged with the murder of Dr. George Parkman. Webster, somewhat taken aback, desired that word should be sent to his family, but was dissuaded from his purpose for the time being. He was searched, and among other articles taken from him was a key some four or five inches long; it was the missing lavatory key. Whilst one of the officers withdrew to make out a mittimus, the Professor asked one of the others if they had found Dr. Parkman. The officer begged him not to question him. “You might tell me something about it,” pleaded Webster. “Where did they find him? Did they find the whole body? Oh, my children! What will they do? What will they think of me? Where did you get the information?” The officers asked him if anybody had access to his apartments but himself. “Nobody,” he replied, “but the porter who makes the fire.” Then, after a pause, he exclaimed: “That villain! I am a ruined man.” He was walking up and down wringing his hands, when one of the officers saw him put one hand into his waistcoat pocket, and raise it to his lips. A few moments later the unhappy man was seized with violent spasms. He was unable to stand, and was laid down in one of the cells. From this distressing state he was roused shortly before eleven, to be taken to the college. He was quite incapable of walking, and had to be supported by two of the officers. He was present there while his rooms were searched; but his state was painful in the extreme. He asked for water, but trembled so convulsively that he could only snap at the tumbler like a dog; his limbs were rigid; tears and sweat poured down his cheeks. On the way back to the jail, one of the officers, moved by his condition, expressed his pity for him. “Do you pity me? Are you sorry for me? What for?” asked Webster. “To see you so excited,” replied the officer. “Oh! that’s it,” said the Professor.

The whole night through the prisoner lay without moving, and not until the following afternoon were his limbs relaxed sufficiently to allow of his sitting up. As his condition improved, he grew more confident. “That is no more Dr. Parkman’s body,” he said, “than mine. How in the world it came there I don’t know,” and he added: “I never liked the looks of Littlefield the janitor; I opposed his coming there all I could.”

In the meantime a further examination of the Professor’s rooms on Saturday had resulted in the discovery, in a tea-chest in the lower laboratory, of a thorax, the left thigh of a leg, and a hunting knife embedded in tan and covered over with minerals; some portions of bone and teeth were found mixed with the slag and cinders of one of the furnaces; also some fish-hooks and a quantity of twine, the latter identical with a piece of twine that had been tied round the thigh found in the chest.

Two days later the Professor furnished unwittingly some additional evidence against himself. On the Monday evening after his arrest he wrote from prison to one of his daughters the following letter:

“MY DEAREST MARIANNE,—I wrote Mama yesterday; I had a good sleep last night, and dreamt of you all. I got my clothes off, for the first time, and awoke in the morning quite hungry. It was a long time before my first breakfast from Parker’s came; and it was relished, I can assure you. At one o’clock I was notified that I must appear at the court room. All was arranged with great regard to my comfort, and went off better than I had anticipated.

“On my return I had a bit of turkey and rice from Parker’s. They send much more than I can eat, and I have directed the steward to distribute the surplus to any poor ones here.

“If you will send me a small canister of tea, I can make my own. A little pepper I may want some day. I would send the dirty clothes, but they were taken to dry. Tell Mama NOT TO OPEN the little bundle I gave her the other day, but to keep it just as she received it. With many kisses to you all. Good night!—From your affectionate


“P.S.—My tongue troubles me yet very much, and I must have bitten it in my distress the other night; it is painful and swollen, affecting my speech. Had Mama better send for Nancy? I think so; or Aunt Amelia.”

“Couple of coloured neck handkerchiefs, one Madras.”

This letter, which shows an anxiety about his personal comfort singular in one so tragically situated, passed through the hands of the keeper of the jail. He was struck by the words underlined, “NOT TO OPEN,” in regard to the small bundle confided to Mrs. Webster. He called the attention of the police to this phrase. They sent immediately an officer armed with a search warrant to the Professor’s house. He received from Mrs. Webster among other papers a package which, on being opened, was found to contain the two notes given by Webster to Parkman as acknowledgments of his indebtedness to him in 1842 and 1847, and a paper showing the amount of his debts to Parkman in 1847. There were daubs and erasures made across these documents, and across one was written twice over the word “paid.” All these evidences of payments and cancellations appeared on examination to be in the handwriting of the Professor.

After an inquest lasting nine days the coroner’s jury declared the remains found in the college to be those of Dr. George Parkman, and that the deceased had met his death at the hands of Professor J. W. Webster. The prisoner waived his right to a magisterial investigation, and on January 26, 1850, the Grand Jury returned a true bill. But it was not until March 17 that the Professor’s trial opened before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. The proceedings were conducted with that dignity and propriety which we look for in the courts of that State. The principal features in the defence were an attempt to impugn the testimony of the janitor Littlefield, and to question the possibility of the identification of the remains of Parkman’s teeth. There was a further attempt to prove that the deceased had been seen by a number of persons in the streets of Boston on the Friday afternoon, after his visit to the Medical College. The witness Littlefield was unshaken by a severe cross-examination. The very reluctance with which Dr. Keep gave his fatal evidence, and the support given to his conclusions by distinguished testimony told strongly in favour of the absolute trustworthiness of his statements. The evidence called to prove that the murdered man had been seen alive late on Friday afternoon was highly inconclusive.

Contrary to the advice of his counsel, Webster addressed the jury himself. He complained of the conduct of his case, and enumerated various points that his counsel had omitted to make, which he conceived to be in his favour. The value of his statements may be judged by the fact that he called God to witness that he had not written any one of the anonymous letters, purporting to give a true account of the doctor’s fate, which had been received by the police at the time of Parkman’s disappearance. After his condemnation Webster confessed to the authorship of at least one of them.

The jury retired at eight o’clock on the eleventh day of the trial. They would seem to have approached their duty in a most solemn and devout spirit, and it was with the greatest reluctance and after some searching of heart that they brought themselves to find the prisoner guilty of wilful murder. On hearing their verdict, the Professor sank into a seat, and, dropping his head, rubbed his eyes behind his spectacles as if wiping away tears. On the following morning the Chief Justice sentenced him to death after a well-meaning speech of quite unnecessary length and elaboration, at the conclusion of which the condemned man wept freely.

A petition for a writ of error having been dismissed, the Professor in July addressed a petition for clemency to the Council of the State. Dr. Putnam, who had been attending Webster in the jail, read to the Council a confession which he had persuaded the prisoner to make. According to this statement Webster had, on the Friday afternoon, struck Parkman on the head with a heavy wooden stick in a wild moment of rage, induced by the violent taunts and threats of his creditor. Appalled by his deed, he had in panic locked himself in his room, and proceeded with desperate haste to dismember the body; he had placed it for that purpose in the sink in his back room, through which was running a constant stream of water that carried away the blood. Some portions of the body he had burnt in the furnace; those in the lavatory and the tea-chest he had concealed there, until he should have had an opportunity of getting rid of them.

In this statement Professor Webster denied all premeditation. Dr. Putnam asked him solemnly whether he had not, immediately before the crime, meditated at any time on the advantages that would accrue to him from Parkman’s death. Webster replied “Never, before God!” He had, he protested, no idea of doing Parkman an injury until the bitter tongue of the latter provoked him. “I am irritable and violent,” he said, “a quickness and brief violence of temper has been the besetting sin of my life. I was an only child, much indulged, and I have never secured the control over my passions that I ought to have acquired early; and the consequence is—all this!” He denied having told Parkman that he was going to settle with him that afternoon, and said that he had asked him to come to the college with the sole object of pleading with him for further indulgence. He explained his convulsive seizure at the time of his arrest by his having taken a dose of strychnine, which he had carried in his pocket since the crime. In spite of these statements and the prayers of the unfortunate man’s wife and daughters, who, until his confession to Dr. Putnam, had believed implicity in his innocence, the Council decided that the law must take its course, and fixed August 30 as the day of execution.

The Professor resigned himself to his fate. He sent for Littlefield and his wife, and expressed his regret for any injustice he had done them: “All you said was true. You have misrepresented nothing.” Asked by the sheriff whether he was to understand from some of his expressions that he contemplated an attempt at suicide, “Why should I?” he replied, “all the proceedings in my case have been just… and it is just that I should die upon the scaffold in accordance with that sentence.” “Everybody is right,” he said to the keeper of the jail, “and I am wrong. And I feel that, if the yielding up of my life to the injured law will atone, even in part, for the crime I have committed, that is a consolation.”

In a letter to the Reverend Francis Parkman he expressed deep contrition for his guilt. He added one sentence which may perhaps fairly express the measure of premeditation that accompanied his crime. “I had never,” he wrote, “until the two or three last interviews with your brother, felt towards him anything but gratitude for his many acts of kindness and friendship.”

Professor Webster met his death with fortitude and resignation. That he deserved his fate few will be inclined to deny. The attempt to procure blood, the questions about the dissecting-room vault, the appointment made with Parkman at the college, the statement to Pettee, all point to some degree of premeditation, or at least would make it appear that the murder of Parkman had been considered by him as a possible eventuality. His accusation of Littlefield deprives him of a good deal of sympathy. On the other hand, the age and position of Webster, the aggravating persistency of Parkman, his threats and denunciations, coupled with his own shortness of temper, make it conceivable that he may have killed his victim on a sudden and overmastering provocation, in which case he had better at once have acknowledged his crime instead of making a repulsive attempt to conceal it. But for the evidence of Dr. Keep he would possibly have escaped punishment altogether. Save for the portions of his false teeth, there was not sufficient evidence to identify the remains found in the college as those of Parkman. Without these teeth the proof of the corpus delicti would have been incomplete, and so afforded Webster a fair chance of acquittal.


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