PBS Documentary Will Revisit 150-Year-Old Med School Murder

In 1849, a doctor was brutally murdered at the Harvard Medical School in a crime that is still remembered by some Boston residents and mystery enthusiasts.

Now, more than 150 years later, the trial surrounding the case has been recreated in a new documentary that will make its PBS debut this coming Monday.

Murder At Harvard is unlike most documentaries in that approximately half of the film is comprised of “film noir” scenes with professional actors who reenact the events that might have transpired in the 19th century, according to co-producer Eric Stange.

One of the film’s sets was located in Harvard Hall, which represented the entrance to the old medical college that once occupied the ground where Massachusetts General Hospital now stands.

The scenes portray the murder of Dr. George Parkman, an upper-class graduate of Harvard Medical School, the discovery of his dismembered body in the laboratory of his acquaintance John White Webster—a Harvard chemistry professor—and the subsequent trial that led to Webster’s exeuction by hanging.

“What we tried to do is not only look at the story itself, but use the story as a way of exploring the larger philosophical question of how historians approach their craft; how the decisions that they make affect how we perceive the past, and how any of us can really know what happens in the past,” said co-producer Melissa Banta.

The documentary is inspired by Dead Certainty, a book by noted historian and former Harvard professor Simon Schama, whose section “Death of a Harvard Man” explores the case from the perspectives of multiple characters.

Schama, who serves as the film’s “presenter,” concocts imaginary scenarios that may or may not have happened in history. These scenes are filmed in black and white, which Stange said lowered production costs and aesthetically reflected the ambivalence surrounding the case.

“In a way, that’s what creating the past is all about—you’re always lifting the lid and trying to go into the shadows, and you never really know. That’s what a lot of film noir movies are about; at the end you never really know who was the good guy and who was the bad guy,” Stange said.

Stange said although he has never worked so extensively with professional actors, the creation of the film was an easier process than he had thought it would be.

“Unlike people in documentaries, [whom directors are] asking to be themselves...actors want you to tell them what you want,” he explained.

“It becomes a matter of giving them a role, a character they can really bite off and do something with.”

For Banta, the factual research was equally compelling.

“It was thrilling to do the research in Boston, to walk the streets where George Parkman and John Webster had lived. Their houses are still standing,” she said.

“It reminded me what a wonderful place Boston and Cambridge are,” Stange said. “So much of the story estill exists here. John Webster’s house is on Garden Street.”

Stange said he hopes the film is “quirky enough” to draw a wide audience.

“That’s why we used the murder—it’s a grisly, juicy murder story...so we’re hoping that will draw people in and keep them entertained,” Stange said of the film.

“It’s a fascinating story, but it’s not a huge and important story...but when you use it as a way to explore these bigger questions, it seems to resonate more meaning.”

—Staff writer Ryan J. Kuo can be reached at kuo@fas.harvard.edu.