1903, by J. G. Mumford, M. D.
THE WEBSTER MURDER TRIAL,
THE WEBSTER MURDER TRIAL 639
THE WEBSTER MURDER TRIAL.
The Corporation records of December 29th, 1849, contain
the statement that "Professor Horsford is appointed Lecturer
on Chemistry at the Medical School in the absence of the
Erving Professor during the present term." The same records
say, July 10, 1850, that "Professor Webster resigns." Be-
hind these commonplace announcements stands a remarkable
story of crime. The principals in the tragedy as well as the
events concerned are so intimately connected with the Harvard
Medical School that they warrant some discussion.*
George Parkman, a well known physician of Boston, and
donor of the land upon which the North Grove Street
Medical School building was erected, disappeared on Friday,
the twenty-third day of November, 1849. He was last seen
alive at 1-45 P. M., entering the School. Notices of his dis-
appearance and offers of reward for information leading to
his discovery were sent broadcast on Saturday and Sunday.
On Sunday, John W. Webster, Erving Professor of Chem-
istry, reported to the family of Parkman that on the Friday
previous (the day of the disappearance) Parkman had visited
him at the Medical School at half-past one o'clock. Professor
Webster lectured four times a week to the medical class, in
addition to his duties as Erving Professor at Cambridge. It
will be recalled that each of the seven professors then con-
nected with the School received the money from the sale of
* Taken from " Report of the Webster Case," by George Bemis, Esq.
640 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
tickets for his course of lectures. Webster's course of Lec-
tures began November 7th.
Now it appears that Webster owed money to several per-
sons, including Parkman; Parkman was greatly irritated by
the failure of Webster to keep his promises to pay, and con-
cluded that the opening month of the School term, when the
students were paying for their tickets, would be an opportune
time to collect the debt. The meeting at Webster's laboratory
was in response to a message sent to Parkman to call at the
School at the conclusion of his (Webster's) lecture, Friday,
A diligent and extensive search failed to find any trace of
Parkman until Friday, November 30th, when a pelvis, a right
thigh, and left leg, together with a towel marked "W" were
found in a vault of the privy connected with Webster's pri-
vate laboratory at the Medical School. Further search of the
School revealed a thorax and a left thigh packed in a tea-
chest filled with tan and covered with minerals, in a corner of
the same laboratory. In the furnace of the laboratory was
a large mass of human bones fused in slag and cinders. Here,
too, were found the block of mineral teeth and the gold filling
which proved the connecting link in identifying the remains
as those of Parkman.
Webster had in the meantime (Friday night, the 30th) been
arrested at his house in Cambridge, and brought over to the
Medical School, where the disarticulated portions of the body
of Parkman had been arranged to await his inspection. It
is not necessary to follow the testimony or the scenes con-
nected with the trial of twelve days which ended April 1,
1850. This was a period of grievous mortification and dis-
tress for all Harvard men. Before the ordeal ended, the
President of Harvard College, the Professors of the Medical
School, the Chief Justice, the Associate Justices, the Counsel
for the Commonwealth, and Counsel for the Prisoner all bore
THE WEBSTER MURDER TRIAL 641
their unhappy but honorable share. Nor did the unfortunate
prisoner himself long resist the final evidence, as may be seen
from the following confession of his crime :
" Professor Webster's Confessional Statement, as reported to the Council
by Rev. Dr. Putnam.
" On Tuesday, the 20th of November, I sent the note to Dr. Parkman,
which, it appears, was carried by the boy Maxwell. I handed it to Little-
field unsealed It was to ask Dr. Parkman to call at my rooms on Friday
the 23rd, after my lecture. He had become of late very importunate for
his pay. He had threatened me with a suit, to put an officer into my
house, and to drive me from my professorship, if I did not pay him.
The purport of my note was simply to ask the conference. I did not tell
him in it what I could do, or what I had to say about my payment. I
wished to gain, for those few days, a release from his solicitations, to
which I was liable every day on occasions and in a manner very disagree-
able and alarming to me. and also to avert, for so long a time at least, the
fulfilment of recent threats of severe measures. I did not expect to be
able to pay him when Friday should arrive. My purpose was, if he should
accede to the proposed interview, to state to him my embarrassments and
utter inability to pay him at present, to apologize for those things in my
conduct which had offended him, to throw myself upon his mercy, to beg
for further time and indulgence for the sake of my family, if not for my
own, and to make as good promises to him as I could have any hope of
" I did not hear from him on that day, nor the next (Wednesday) ; but
I found that on Thursday he had been abroad in pursuit of me, though
without finding me. T feared that he had forgotten the appointment, or
else did not mean to wait for it. I feared he would come in upon me at
my lecture hour, or while I was preparing my experiments for it. There-
fore I called at his house on that morning (Friday), between eight and
nine, to remind him of my wish to see him at the College at half-past one,
â€” my lecture closing at one. I did not stop to talk with him then, for I
expected the conversation would be a long one, and I had my lecture to
prepare for. It was necessary for me to save my time, and also to keep
my mind free from other exciting matters. Dr. Parkman agreed to call
on me, as I proposed.
" He came, accordingly, between half-past one and two. He came in
at the lecture-room door. I was engaged in removing some glasses from
my lecture-room table into the room in the rear, called the upper labora-
tory. He came rapidly down the steps and followed me into the labora-
tory. He immediately addressed me with great energy : ' Are you ready
for me, sir? Have you got the money?' I replied, 'No, Dr. Parkman';
and was then beginning to state my condition, and make my appeal to him.
642 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
He would not listen lo me, but interrupted me with much vehemence.
He called me ' scoundrel ' and ' liar,' and went on heaping upon me the
most bitter taunts and opprobrious epithets. While he was talking he
drew a handful of papers from his pocket, and took from among them my
two notes, and also an old letter from Dr. Hosack, written many years
ago, and congratulating him (Dr. P.) on his success in getting me ap-
pointed professor of chemistry. ' You see,' he said, ' I got you into your
office, and now I will get you out of it.' He put back into his pocket all
the papers, except the letter and the notes. I cannot tell how long the
torrent of threats and invectives continued, and I can now recall to mem-
ory but a small portion of what he said. At first I kept interposing, trying
to pacify him, so that I might obtain the object for which I had sought
the interview. But I could not stop him, and soon my temper was up. I
forgot every thing. I felt nothing but the sting of his words. I was ex-
cited to the highest degree of passion ; and while he was speaking and
gesticulating in the most violent and menacing manner, thrusting the letter
and his fist into my face, in my fury I seized whatever thing was handiest,
â€” it was a stick of wood, â€” and dealt him an instantaneous blow with all
the force that passion could give it. I did not know, nor think, nor care,
where I should hit him, nor how hard, nor what the effect would be. It
was on the side of his head, and there was nothing to break the force of
the blow. He fell instantly upon the pavement. There was no second
blew. He did not move. I stooped down over him, and he seemed to be
lifeless. Blood flowed from his mouth, and I got a sponge and wiped it
away. I got some ammonia and applied it to his nose ; but without effect.
Perhaps I spent ten minutes in attempts to resuscitate him; but I found
that he was absolutely dead. In my horror and consternation I ran in-
stinctively to the doors and bolted them, â€” the doors of the lecture room,
and of the laboratory below. And then, what was I to do?
" It never occurred to me to go out and declare what had been done,
and obtain assistance. I saw nothing but the alternative of a successful
removal and concealment of the body, on the one hand, and of infamy and
destruction on the other. The first thing I did, as soon as I could do any-
thing, was to drag the body into the private room adjoining. There I
took off the clothes, and began putting them into the fire which was
burning in the upper laboratory. They were all consumed there that
afternoon, â€” with papers, pocket-book, or whatever else they may have
contained. I did not examine the pockets, nor remove anything except the
watch ; I saw that, or the chain of it, hanging out ; and I took it and
threw it over the bridge as I went to Cambridge.
" The 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
THE WEBSTER MURDER TRIAL 643
and desperate necessity. The only instrument used was the knife found
by the officers in the ten-chest, and which I kept for cutting corks. I made
no use of the Turkish knife, as it was called at the trial. That had long
been kept on my parlor mantel-piece in Cambridge, as a curious orna-
ment. My daughters frequently cleaned it ; hence the marks of oil and
whiting on it. 1 had lately brought it into Boston to get the silver sheath
'' While dismembering the body, a stream of Cochituate was running
through the sink, carrying off the blood in a pipe that passed down through
the lower laboratory. There must have been a leak in the pipe, for the
ceiling below was ? tained immediately round it.
" There was a fire burning in the furnace of the lower laboratory. Lit-
tlefield was mistaken in thinking there had never been a fire there. He
had probably never kindled one, but I had done it myself several times.
I had done it that day for the purpose of making oxygen gas. The head
and viscera were put into that furnace that day, and the fuel heaped on.
I did not examine at night to see to what degree they were consumed.
Some of the extremities, I believe, were put there that day.
" The pelvis and some of the limbs, perhaps all, were put under the
lid of the lecture-room table in what is called the well, â€” a deep sink lined
with lead. A stream of Cochituate was turned into it, and kept running
through it all Friday night. The thorax was put into a similar well in the
lower laboratory, which 1 filled with water, and threw in a quantity of
potash which 1 found there. This disposition of the remains was not
changed till after the visit of the officers on Monday.
" When the body had been thus all disposed of, I cleared away all traces
of what had been done. I took up the slick with which the fatal blow had
been struck. It proved to be the stump of a large grape vine, say two
inches in diameter, and two feet long. It was one of two or more pieces
which I had carried in from Cambridge long before, for the purpose of
showing the effect of certain chemical fluids in coloring wood, by being
absorbed into the pores. The grape vine, being a very porous wood, was
well suited to this purpose. Another longer stick had been used as in
tended, and exhibited to the students This one had not been used. I put
it into the fire.
" I took up the two notes, either from the table or the floor, â€” I think
the table, â€” close by where Dr. P. had fallen. I seized an old metallic pen
lying on the table, dashed it across the face and through the signatures,
and put them in my pocket. I do not know why I did this rather than
put them into the fire ; for I had not considered for a moment what effect
either mode of disposing of them would have on the mortgage, or my
indebtedness to Dr. P. and the other persons interested: and I had not yet
given a single thought to the question as to what account 1 should give
of the objects or resuhs of my interview with Dr. Parkman.
644 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
"I never saw the sledge-hammer spoken of by Littlefield, and never
knew of its existance ; at least, I have no recollection of it.
" I left the College to go home, as late as six o'clock. I collected myself
as well as I could, that I might meet my family and others with com-
posure. On Saturday I visited my rooms at the College, but made no
change in the disposition of the remains, and laid no plans as to my future
" On Saturday evening I read the notice in the Transcript respecting the
disappearance. I was then deeply impressed with the necessity of imme-
diately taking some ground as to the character of my interview with Dr.
P., for I saw that it must become known that I had such an interview,
as I had appointed it, first, by an unsealed note on Tuesday, and on Friday
had myself called at his house in open day and ratified the arrangement,
and had there been seen and probably overheard by the man-servant ; and
I knew not by how many persons Dr. P. might have been seen entering
my rooms, or how many persons he might have told by the way where he
was going. The interview' would in all probability be known, and I must
be ready to explain it. The question exercised me much ; but on Sunday
my course was taken. I would go into Boston, and be the first to declare
myself the person, as yet unknown, with whom Dr. P. had made the ap-
pointment. I would take the ground that I had invited him to the Col-
lege to pay him money, and that I had paid him accordingly. I fixed upon
the sum by taking the small note and adding interest, which, it appears,
1 cast erroneously.
" If I had thought of this course earlier, I should have deposited Pettee's
check for $90 in the Charles River Bank on Saturday, but should have
suppressed it as going so far towards making up the sum which I was to
profess to have paid the day before, and which Pettee knew I had by me
at the hour of the interview. It had not occurred to me that I should
ever show the notes cancelled in proof of the payment; if it had, I should
have destroyed the large note, and let it be inferred that it was gone with
the missing man ; and I should only have kept the small one, which was
all that I could pretend to have paid. My single thought was concealment
and safety. Everything else was incidental to that. I was in no state to
consider my ulterior pecuniary interests. Money, though I needed it so
much, was of no account with me in that condition of mind.
"If I had designed and premeditated the homicide of Dr. P. in order
to get possession of the notes and cancel my debt, I not only should not
have deposited Pettee's check the next day. but I should have made some
show of getting and having the money the morning before. I should have
drawn my money from the bank, and taken occasion to mention to the
cashier, that I had a sum to take out that day for Dr. P., and the same to
Henchman, when I borrowed the $10. I should have remarked, that I
THE WEBSTER MURDER TRIAL 645
was so much short of a large sum that I was to pay to Parkman. I bor-
rowed the money of Henchman as mere pocket-money for the day.
" If I had intended the homicide of Dr. P., I should not have made the
appointment with him twice, and each time in so open a manner that other
persons would almost certainly know it. And I should not have invited
him to my room at an hour when the College would have been full of
students and others, and an hour when I was most likely to receive calls
from others; for that was an hour â€” just after the lecture â€” at which per-
sons having business with me. or in my rooms were always directed to call.
"' I looked into my rooms Sunday afternoon, but did nothing.
" After the first visit of the officers, 1 took the pelvis and some of the
limbs from the upper well, and threw them into the vault under the privy.
I took the thorax from the well below, and packed it in the tea-chest, as
found. My own impression has been that this was not done till after the
second visit of the officers, which was on Tuesday ; but Kingsley's testi-
mony shows that it must have been done sooner. The perforation of the
thorax had been made by the knife at the time oj removing the viscera.
" On Wednesday, I put on kindlings and made a fire in the furnace
below, having first poked down the ashes. Some of the limbs â€” I cannot
remember what ones or how many â€” were consumed at that time. This
was the last I had to do with the remains.
" The tin box was designed to receive the thorax, though I had not con-
cluded where I should finally put the box. The fish-hooks, tied up as
grapples, were to be used for drawing up the parts in the vault, whenever
I should determine how to dispose of them. And yet, strange enough, I
had a confused double object in ordering the box and making the grap-
ples. I had before intended to get such things to send to Fayal ; â€” the box
to hold plants and other articles which I wished to protect from salt
water and the sea air, â€” and the hooks to be used there in obtaining coraline
plants from the sea. It was this previously intended use of them that sug-
gested and mixed itself up with the idea of the other application. I doubt,
even now, to which use they would have applied. I had not used the hooks
at the time of the discovery.
" The tan put into the tea-chest was taken from a barrel of it that had
been in the laboratory some time. The bag of tan brought in on Monday
was not used, nor intended to be used. It belonged to a quantity obtained
by me a long time ago for experiments in tanning, and was sent in by the
family to get it out of the way. Its being sent just at that time was acci-
"I was not aware that I had put the knife into the tea-chest.
" The stick found in the saucer of ink was for making coarse diagrams
" The bunch of ' filed ' keys had been long ago picked up by me in Fruit
street, and thrown carelessly into a drawer. I never examined them, and
646 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
do not know whether they would fit any of the locks of the College or
not. If there were other keys fitting doors with which I had nothing to
do, I suppose they must have been duplicates, or keys of former locks,
left there by the mechanic or janitor. I know nothing about them, and
should never be likely to notice them amongst the multitude of articles,
large and small, and of all kinds, collected in my rooms. The janitor had
furnished me a key to the dissecting room for the admission of medical
friends visiting the College : but I had never used it.
' The nitric acid on the stairs was not used to remove spots of blood, but
dropped by accident.
" When the officers called for me Friday, 30th, I was in doubt whether
I was under arrest, or whether a more strict search of my rooms was to
be had; the latter hypothesis being hardly less appalling than the former.
When I found that we went over Craigie's bridge, I thought the arrest
most probable. When I found that the carriage was stopping at the jail,
I was sure of my fate ; and before leaving the carriage, I took a dose of
strychnine from my pocket and swallowed it. I had prepared it in the shape
of a pill before 1 leit my laboratory on the 23rd. I thought I could not
bear to survive detection. I thought it was a large dose. The state of
my nervous system probably defeated its action, partially. The effects of
the poison were terrible beyond description. It was in operation at the
College, and before I went there ; but more severely afterwards.
"' I wrote but onÂ£ of the anonymous letters produced at the trial, â€” the
one mailed at East Cambridge.
" The ' little bundle,' referred to in the letter detained by the jailor, con-
tained only a bottle of citric acid, for domestic use. I had seen it stated
in a newspaper that I had purchased a quantity of oxalic acid, which it
was presumed was to be used in removing blood-stains. I wished the
parcel to be kept untouched, that it might be shown, if there should be
occasion, what it really was that 1 had purchased.
" I have drawn up in separate papers an explanation of the use I in-
tended to make of the blood sent for on Thursday, the 22d, and of the
conversation with Littlefield about the dissecting vault.
" I think that Pettee, in his testimony at the trial, put too strongly my
words about having settled with Dr. Parkman. Whatever I did say, of
the kind, was predicated on the hope I entertained that I should be able to
pacify Dr. Parkman and make souk- arrangement with him ; and was said
in order to quiet Pettee, who was becoming restive under the solicitation
of Dr. Parkman."
This confession was sent with several petitions for a par-
don, or, at least, a commutation of the sentence, and was
submitted to the Governor's Council. That body spent much
THE WEBSTER MURDER TRIAL 647
time on the subject, and finally reported that "the palliating
facts and circumstances set forth in the confession have not
been so confirmed by other evidence and circumstances as to
form a proper and sufficient basis for Executive interference."
Webster was hanged on August 30th, 1850.
The interest in the trial may be judged by the fact that more than 60,000
persons attended it. The Medical School was opened for public inspection
of the scene of the murder, and more than 5,000 persons visited it during
BODY SNATCHING AND ANATOMY LAWS.
BODY-SNATCHINGâ€” ANATOMY LAWS C51
BODY SNATCHING AND ANATOMY LAWS.
There is no more self-evident truth than that the basis of
all medical knowledge is anatomy. No rational medicine, no
safe surgery, can possibly exist without that knowledge; and
the obvious corollary is that a knowledge of anatomy can be
acquired only by dissection. That is the subject of this chap-
The former prejudice, superstition, opposition, and open
violence against a pursuit of this study are little appreciated
to-day. Yet such antagonism is an affair of comparatively
recent date. Body-snatching and the rise of modern anatomy
went together. No recent age, country, or school has been
altogether free from this difficulty, â€” though a broader popular
intelligence has brought its remedies. Even to-day we find
the political demagogue appealing to popular prejudice with
arguments mediaeval and unjust. No medical school has
escaped the evils, and Harvard has suffered with the rest.
Let us then review the question through its various stages.
In modern times it is possible to trace dissection back to< the
fourteenth century. As early as 13 19 a teacher and his pupils
were tried in Bologna for body-snatching. In 1405 the Uni-
versity of Bologna decreed that " no doctor or student or any-
one else shall appropriate a corpse without the permission of the
Rector." With Vesalius (1514-1564) modern anatomy took
on new life, and so one is not surprised to learn of the people of
* An admirable presentation of the Anatomy laws and Body-snatching is
given by Thomas Dwight, M. D., Parkman Professor of Anatomy at
Harvard University, "Forum," December, 1896.
652 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
Padua demanding in 1550 that the laws against the practice
of body-snatching be more strictly enforced. Vesalius's fame
as an anatomist makes it evident enough that he was favored
with necessary although unlawful "material." The rise of
the French school in the sixteenth century shows that Paris
was a good centre for "material." In fact, Moliere suggests
that public dissections became as fashionable in France as are
bull fights in Spain. Whether the custom ever gained much
of a foot-hold in Germany is not clear, yet it is a fact that
Rolfink was directed by his sovereign to perform a dissection
for the entertainment of distinguished guests at court. Body-
snatching became known as "Rolfinked."
In Great Britain the bodies of a limited number of criminals
were assigned by law for dissection, but it is needless to say
that the demand far exceeded the lawful supply, and that the