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The case of the dismembered doctor

North Grove and Fruit streets at Charles Circle

Today, this is part of the vast Massachusetts General Hospital complex, hard by Storrow Drive. In 1849, however, it was home to the Harvard Medical School - and on the shores of the Charles River.

The crime
Pow! Webster does Parkman in. Click on image for more detail (then scroll down a couple pages).

George Parkman, prominent physician and member of the Boston Brahmin elite, had donated the land for the school a few years earlier. Unfortunately for him, he had loaned some money to John White Webster, a professor of chemistry at the school who had no way to pay it back. Even more unfortunately, Parkman began to get cranky about the money. He went to Webster's lab on Nov. 23, 1849 to demand the money. They got into a fight and Webster knocked him out. Webster then dismembered him and shoved his body parts into a vault under his office.

Boston police, deferential to Webster as another Boston Brahmin, at first believed his story that he didn't know anything about the doctor's disappearance (instead, one of the first people they picked up was an Irishman who tried to use a $20 bill to pay a bridge toll; the theory being that no Irishman could possibly have earned such a bill by honest labor).

But Ephraim Littlefield, a janitor at the school, suspected Webster from the beginning - even more so after Webster gave him money to buy himself and his wife a turkey for Thanksgiving (Littlefield had worked at the school for seven years, and Webster had never given him anything). So while the turkey cooked, Littlefield broke into the sealed-off vault, where he found what was left of Parkman.

Webster's trial made the Louise Woodward trial look like a misdemeanor hearing - more than 60,000 people from across the country attended (they were rotated in and out of the courtroom in ten-minute shifts). The trial marked the first time dental work was introduced as evidence (Parkman had an unusual set of false teeth due to the way his lower jaw jutted out; for many years after his death, the falsies were kept on exhibit on the floor above Webster's lab). William Morton, better known for the discovery of ether, testified for Webster. Webster was found guilty and, shortly before he was hanged, confessed.

Note: Parkman's house still stands at 8 Walnut St. on Beacon Hill.

More info:

Detailed maps of the murder scene - To orient yourself, Cambridge Street is still in the same location; Vine Street has been renamed Parkman Street and North Grove Street is now basically the onramp to Storrow Drive and Leverett Circle.

Divine Providence and Dr. Parkman's Jawbone: The Cultural Construction of Murder as Mystery - A loooong piece on mystery writing that finally gets around to the Parkman case about two-thirds of the way down.



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