A skull.
A skull.

The Murder of Dr. George Parkman

A friend of his later remarked that Webster, as a younger man living in London, had formed the unsavory habit of attending public executions. These outings were fueled by his morbid fascination with the body. Even the horror of death could not quell his interest in human anatomy.
By Walter N. Paiva

George Parkman first met John Webster around 1810, when they were both students at the Harvard Medical College.

It’s a mild surprise they hadn’t met earlier. As reported by research done by the Public Broadcasting Service, both men came from wealthy Boston families, had fathers who were merchants, and, from an early age, planned to pursue medicine.

Their personalities, however, could not have been more dissimilar. Parkman was tall and reserved, and carried himself with a regal disposition. Despite being a famously hard worker, he also had a warm heart. Fanny Longfellow, the wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once referred to him as “the good-natured Don Quixote.”

Webster was much more of a Sancho Panza. Sociable yet modest, he was well-connected in the world of Boston aristocrats. He was unfortunately cursed with a lack of skill in handling money, which he attributed to his father’s strict regulation of his allowance growing up.

After graduation, their paths diverged. Parkman spent time in France, where he was captivated by the efforts of his fellow doctors to develop more humane mental health facilities. Webster went to Europe, too, and furthered his medical studies in England.

Both men returned to Boston a few years later. Parkman, inspired by his time abroad, attempted to establish a modern metnal hospital in the United States. When the project fell through, he followed in his father’s footsteps and assume control of the family real estate empire. Webster became a chemistry lecturer at his alma mater after attempting to run his own medical practice. Harvard gave him his own personal lab and free reign to pursue medical research. In a way, Webster had everything Parkman ever wanted.

What Parkman did have, though, was money. Though it may not have been his passion, Parkman was a natural in the real estate business and amassed countless properties in the Boston area. Webster and his family barely survived on his meager professor salary. He often raised money by selling tickets to his chemistry lectures.

Webster’s financial difficulties were further compounded by his capricious spending habits. He became known for his impulsive purchases of artifacts, usually financed by loans taken out from friends. The mastodon skeleton he once bought on credit for the sum of $3000 still sits in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology today.

The list of scientific specimens Webster had acquired for the College was exceeded only by that of the people to whom he owed money. One of his many creditors: his old friend Parkman.

On November 23, 1849, Parkman, usually a patient man, was incensed. Upon hearing news that Webster had re-mortgaged a mineral cabinet with another creditor, he left his house and strode angrily over to his old classmate’s lab to collect on his debts.

A colleague of Parkman, Charles Kingsley, had plans to discuss business with the real estate magnate that afternoon.

“His usual hour was half-past two o’clock,” Kingsley later recounted, according to a New York Daily Globe article in 1850. “He was usually very punctual in his arrangements.”

But Parkman was more than late that. He never arrived at all. News of the disappearance reverberated among Boston elites, and newspapers offered a sizable reward for any information on his whereabouts.

No update came until a week later when Ephraim Littlefield, a janitor at the Medical College who worked in the same building as Webster, decided to investigate. On the day of Parkman’s disappearance, he had witnessed a confrontation between the two men, and had felt uneasy ever since.

Littlefield began to search the lab. The door to Webster’s restroom, however, was locked, and the doctor had the sole key. Armed with a tool for chiseling, Littlefield made his way down into the cellar where the restroom resided, and began to dig.

After hours of chiseling, Littlefield finally broke through to the sound of water splashing. He was confroned with a man’s leg and parts of a pelvis. Later, after a search of the furnace room, Littlefield discovered more bones and a set of fake teeth.

These body parts, along with several others, including a vertebrae and a thoracic cavity partially charred by nitric acid, were later identified as Parkman’s. They had been strewn across the lab, dismembered with a certain cold precision that only a doctor of medicine could wield.

Webster eventually confessed that an argument over debts had escalated when Parkman threatened to use his influence to have the professor fired. Webster remembered lunging, striking at Parkman with a wooden stick. After 10 minutes of trying to revive him, he determined his old friend to be “absolutely dead,” as he admitted in his confessional statement. One deft hit to the temple was all it took.

After a 12 day trial, the professor was unanimously convicted.

A friend of his later remarked that Webster, as a younger man living in London, had formed the unsavory habit of attending public executions. These outings were fueled by his morbid fascination with the body. Even the horror of death could not quell his interest in human anatomy.

It came as an ironic turn, if a somewhat fitting one, that he should meet his end at the gallows: Webster was hanged on August 30, 1850.

Harvard Medical SchoolScienceMedicineRetrospection