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Monday, January 30, 2017

The Webster-Parkman Murder Case: Bones in the Furnace

     Over the past 100 years, science has played a vital role in tens of thousands of criminal cases. The publicity associated with some of these investigations and trials has advanced the cause of forensic science. In many of these cases a clever criminal is outfoxed by a well-trained, dedicated investigator relying on physical clues and expert analysis. This is the image that has helped advance forensic science and criminalistics by sparking public interest and court acceptance of physical evidence and expert testimony. (Ironically, it was the O. J. Simpson double murder, a case that involved poor police work, and a criminal who was not clever, that popularized DNA.)

      Celebrated cases remind us that good police work can triumph over bad criminals and that justice can be achieved. Cases that have captured and held the attention of the media and the imagination of the public have tended to involved heinous crimes, cases involving diabolical or unlikely suspects, circumstantial evidence in the form of physical clues, defendants who vigorously maintain their innocence, inspired detective work, and satisfying and/or dramatic verdicts.

     In America, science first played a vital and dramatic role in a celebrated criminal investigation and trial that took place more than 160 years ago.

The Historic Webster-Parkman Case

     On Friday afternoon November 23, 1849, Dr. George Parkman, a 60-year-old physician and former anatomy professor at Harvard's Massachusetts Medical College in Boston, paid a visit to Dr. John Webster, a highly respected professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the institution. Dr. Parkman, having given up the practice of medicine to engage in real estate and other business ventures, came from a prominent New England family and was quite wealthy. The purpose of Dr. Parkman's visit that day to Dr. Webster's college laboratory was to collect on a series of loans he had made to the chemistry professor. It seemed that Dr. Webster enjoyed a rather extravagant life-style that kept him in debt to Dr. Parkman and other creditors.

     Dr. Parkman was seen entering the little building that housed Dr. Webster's laboratory at 1:45 that afternoon, the last time anyone saw Dr. Parkman alive. Dr. Parkman's mysterious disappearance created a lot of attention and concern among his family, friends, and colleagues. The college posted a $3,000 reward for information leading to the identify and apprehension of the doctor's abductor or abductors.

     The following Saturday, Dr. Webster appeared at the home of Dr. Parkman's brother, Reverend Francis Parkman, and informed him that he had last seen his missing brother in his (Webster's) chemistry lab the previous Friday. Dr. Webster even acknowledged that Dr. Parkman had come to see him about a debt.

     On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, Dr. Webster, who had been acting rather strangely since Dr. Parkman's disappearance, gave the college janitor, a man named Ephraim Littlefield, a turkey. Littlefield had been helping Professor Webster in his laboratory the day Dr. Parkman went missing. Although the janitor was not in the room during Dr. Parkman's visit, he had overheard bits of their heated conversation. When Littlefield learned of Parkman's disappearance he became suspicious.

    After receiving the turkey from Dr. Webster, the janitor felt certain the chemistry professor had something to do with his creditor's disappearance. The next day, Littlefield snuck into Webster's chemistry lab to search for Parkman's body. When he touched the brick wall of the assay oven it was still warm. (The oven was built inside a vault that was locked.) To see what was inside, Littlefield, with his wife standing guard as a lookout, broke through the wall with a chisel and crowbar. Inside, he saw what looked like a human pelvis and two parts of a leg. He notified the authorities.

     When told he was under arrest for the murder of Dr. Parkman, Dr. Webster denied any knowledge of the crime. When one of the arresting constables informed him of the discovery in his assay furnace, Dr. Webster, referring to the janitor, said, "That villain! I am a ruined man!"

     Shortly after being placed into his jail cell Dr. Webster tried to kill himself by taking a strychnine pill.

     On December 13, 1849, the coroner's jury announced its verdict: "All the remains have been demonstrated to be parts of one and the same person; and those parts of the human frame have been identified and proven to be the remains and parts of the body and limbs of Dr. George Parkman...that he was killed...by blows and wounds inflicted upon him by the hands of Dr. John W. Webster."

     A grand jury indicted Dr. Webster for first-degree murder on January 26, 1850. He trial was scheduled for March 19 at the Supreme Judicial Court House in Boston.  Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw would preside. The case would be prosecuted by George Bemis, the assistant attorney general of Massachusetts.

     Dr. Webster tried to retain the legal services of two prominent defense attorneys of the day, Daniel Webster (no relation) and Rufus Choate. Both lawyers declined to take the assignment. As a result, Webster retained the services of a less well-known but competent attorney named Pliny Merrich.

     The Parkman murder case had made headline news in American for nine months. On the opening day of the trial, thousands of people gathered outside the Boston court house. Many had been standing outside the building all night in hopes of getting a courtroom seat. During the twelve-day trial 60,000 courtroom spectators witnessed the proceeding.

     The heart of the prosecution's case consisted of the medical and dental testimony pertaining to the identity of the remains in Dr. Webster's assay furnace. In order to convict the defendant of murder, the state would have to establish the corpus delecti, which in this case consisted of the victim's skeletal and dental remains.

     The prosecution's first medical witness to take the stand, Dr. Woodbridge Strong, an expert in anatomy and the burning of human flesh, informed the court how he disposed of cadavers by burning them in fires fueled by wood. "There is always a difficulty in getting rid of human remains by fire," he said, "on account of attracting suspicion by the smell. I have been called upon by neighbors or the police several times on this account." Dr. Strong testified that he had looked at the human parts found in Dr. Webster's furnace and "there was nothing dissimilar from what I should have expected to find in Dr. Parkman's body."

     Dr. Frederick S. Ainsworth, a professor of anatomy at Harvard College, testified that the remains in question had not been dissected in his department. (Dr. Webster claimed the remains in his furnace belonged to a cadaver.) Dr. Ainsworth said, "All subjects in my department are injected with fluid to preserve them from decomposition. In these remains which were produced by Littlefield [the janitor] I saw no appearance of the use of such fluid. My impression was that the person who cut them up had no anatomical knowledge."

     The next medical witness, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, testified that he "knew the late George Parkman very well. He was a tall, slender man of somewhat peculiar figure. I saw nothing in the remains dissimilar from what I should suppose was Dr. Parkman's formation."

     The physicians and police officers who had examined Dr. Webster's laboratory had noticed what looked like bloodstains on the wall near a sink and stains on the laboratory floor. In 1850, the ability to scientifically distinguish human from animal blood didn't exist. As one witness put it: "I can distinguish human blood from that of lower animals but not from that of higher animals such as an ox, for instance."

     On the fourth day of the trial, the prosecution put on its most important witness, Dr. Nathan Keep, a surgeon-dentist who had practiced in Boston for 30 years. Dr. Keep testified that he had made teeth for Dr. Parkman and that "Dr. Parkman's mouth was a very peculiar one, so marked in respect to its shape and the relation of the upper and lower jaws that the impression of it on my mind was very distinct." Dr. Keep said that when he saw the teeth that had been found in Dr. Webster's furnace along with the other remains, he "...recognized them as being the same teeth that I had made for Dr. Parkman three years before....On comparing the largest fragment with the model [a plaster cast of Dr. Parkman's dentition] the resemblance was so striking that I could no longer have any doubt they were his." Every so often, in the midst of his testimony, Dr. Keep would break down and cry.

     Oliver Wendell Homes, the famous writer and physician and professor of anatomy and dean of the medical college had examined the fleshy parts found in the assay furnace--the thorax, pelvis, two thighs, and the disarticulated leg--and found them consistent with Dr. Parkman's anatomy.

     Most of the fifth day of the trial was taken up by the testimony of the janitor and his wife. Three days later, the prosecution rested.

     The Webster defense opened with witnesses who said they had seen the defendant in places other than the college on the day of the murder. Next came the character witnesses, then the testimony most vital to the defense. Dr. William T. G. Morton, a dentist who made false teeth took the stand and said: "I see no particular marks about these teeth [the furnace remains] to identify them. I should think nothing should be judged from this material....My impression is that if [the furnace teeth] were placed among a dozen others which I can produce, I should not be led to pick it out from any peculiarity." (The dueling expert problem is as old as forensic science itself.)

     The defense rested without putting Professor Webster on the stand. In Massachusetts at that time, defendants in capital trials were not permitted to take the stand on their own behalf. Murder defendants, because of their self-interest, were considered too biased to make competent witnesses. They were, however, allowed to address the jury directly prior to its deliberation. These speeches were not given under oath or subjected to cross-examination. Professor Webster, in his fifteen minute address, denied his guilt and criticized his own counsel.

     Three hours following Dr. Webster's speech, the jury found the defendant guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to death. Six months later, with his execution just a few days off, the condemned man wrote out a full confession. After killing Dr. Parkman with a stick of wood, Webster dragged the body into an adjoining room and stripped off his clothing which he burned. Then came the dissecting part. "My next move was to get the body into the sink which stands in the small private room. By setting the body partially erect against the corner and getting up into the sink myself, I succeeded in drawing it up. There it was entirely dismembered. It was quickly done as a work of terrible and desperate necessity. The only instrument used was the knife found by the officers in the tea chest and which I kept for cutting corks. While dismembering the body a steady stream of water was running through the sink carrying off the blood in a pipe that passed through the lower laboratory. There must have been a leak in the pipe for the ceiling below was stained immediately around it."

     On August 20, 1850, Dr. Webster was hanged.    


     

4 comments:

  1. I love these old cases! Was this the first case involving identification via expert dentist testimony?

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  2. Thank you. Yes, I believe this was the first or one of the first cases in the U.S. involving forensic dentistry.

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  3. Fascinating case! Mr. Fisher, thank you for such an entertaining blog. I learn something new every day. (P.S.- I am still waiting for your Mammoth books and Crimson Stain to be produced in eBooks for Kindle! Sorry, I'm just a nag!)

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  4. I understand and appreciate your interest. Thanks.

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