Every fledgling forensic anthropologist in the U.S. learns about the murder trial of John Webster because of its significance to the history of forensic science. But the trial transcripts are just as fascinating as the facts of the case because they reveal how the medical school prepared its anatomical specimens, how police investigated violent deaths, and the drama surrounding the discovery of the pieces of Dr. George Parkman.
On Friday November 30, 1849 Ephraim Littlefield opened a trap door in the cellar of the school building on North Grove Street and crawled inside with his lantern and tools. This was the second day that he sat hunched in the dirt to chisel away at the wall that stood between him and the cesspool in the privy vault. Littlefield’s back hurt and his hands were raw but he continued to work because he suspected that Dr. John Webster, a chemistry lecturer, had something to do with the disappearance of Dr. George Parkman.
But Littlefield was just as motivated by his suspicions of Webster as the town gossip. He knew that some people suspected that he was responsible for Parkman’s disappearance and he knew that if he found Parkman’s body it would clear his own name.
At about 4:30pm Littlefield punched a hole through the wall and stuck his head and lantern into the darkness. The stench from the raw sewage struck him in the face and made it difficult to breathe. When his eyes adjusted to the dark he could see a human pelvis and two pieces of human leg scattered amongst the filth. He immediately notified university officials who in turn contacted the police.
This was the prelude to the trial of the century.
The witness, the victim, the murderer
Ephraim Littlefield was a janitor for the Harvard Medical School, he also reportedly made extra money as a body snatcher by selling the corpses he harvested to anatomy instructors and students. Littlefield and his wife lived in a basement apartment in the school building so he was aware of all of the comings and goings at the school (Ferllini 2002).
Dr. George Parkman was a physician, real estate investor, and philanthropist. Although he was born into Boston’s upper class, known as the Boston Brahmins, Parkman obtained a medical degree and served as a surgeon in the Massachusetts Militia during the War of 1812. He was an advocate for humane treatment methods for the mentally ill and was passionate about improving asylums. Parkman assumed control over his family’s wealth in 1824 after his father died and expanded his family’s estate by purchasing property in the Boston area. He funded endowments for the McLean Asylum for the Insane and a professorship of anatomy at Harvard. Parkman also endowed Harvard Medical School with the land where the medical school building on North Grove Street was built..and where he was later killed. Dr. Parkman was a familiar figure in the streets of Boston because he walked the city daily to run errands, collect rents, and payments on loans (Ferllini 2002).
Although Dr. John Webster was a trained physician, he became a chemistry instructor at Harvard Medical College when he couldn’t get his medical practice off the ground. At the college he had exclusive access to a lecture room and a connecting laboratory on one of the upper floors of the Medical College as well as another lab in the basement. Webster also had a private privy, or bathroom, in the basement to which only he had the keys (Ferllini 2002).
The timeline and expert testimony
Webster had profound financial troubles and subsidized his income by selling tickets to his chemistry lectures and with loans from friends, including Parkman. To secure a loan from Parkman in 1849, Webster promised him the money he made from a chemistry lecture on November 7th. When Webster didn’t make a payment Parkman scheduled a meeting with Webster the evening of November 19th (pg. 5).
At about noon on Monday, November 19, 1849, Webster approached Littlefield to see if there was a way to get under his private laboratory in the basement or get a light in the privy vaults. Littlefield told the court:
“I told him no. He asked me if I was sure. I told him I was, for I tried two days before to get a light into the vault. I mean a candle or artificial light-the foul air put it right out. I tried it at the request of Dr. Ainsworth [an anatomy professor who prepared medical specimens] to find something which he had lost in the vault. I think it was an African skull that he placed there to macerate. When I got there I found the rope had rotted off, and let the skull down into the vault. I attempted to put the light down, and the foul air put the light out (p. 16).”
Littlefield witnessed a meeting between Dr. Parkman and Dr. Webster the evening of November 19th during which Parkman attempted to collect a payment. They argued and Parkman left empty-handed. They agreed to meet the next day, on Tuesday, but Webster sent a note to Parkman to reschedule and they didn’t meet again until Friday, November 23rd (pg. 16).
Parkman spent the morning of Friday, November 23, 1849 running errands and collecting payments on loans. The last time he was seen alive was between 1:30 and 1:45pm as he walked to the Medical College Building to meet with Dr. Webster. According to Littlefield, Webster remained behind locked doors at the Medical College the rest of the day and most of the night on Friday the 23rd. When he tried to access Webster’s lecture room and laboratories that night to clean them he found the doors were bolted from the inside, which was extremely unusual.
Parkman was a punctual and predictable man, so when he didn’t return home Friday evening his family became alarmed and alerted the police. Over the next few days, police searched Parkman’s properties, dragged the river, and combed neighboring communities. When police searched the Harvard Medical College building on Monday the 26th and Tuesday the 27th Webster was present but seemed anxious to draw police away from the privy. The police came up empty-handed during this first, cursory search. After the police left, Webster went shopping and purchased twine and large fish hooks that could be made into grappling hooks (pg. 32).
Littlefield asked Webster on Tuesday the 27th if he needed any fires that week because of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and Webster told him no. But on Wednesday the 28th, the day before Thanksgiving, Webster locked himself in his basement laboratory and burned a fire so hot that Littlefield could feel it through the walls. Littlefield became suspicious of Webster because it was extremely unusual for him to start his own fires. So he watched Webster under the lab door and saw him making multiple trips to his furnace with a coal bucket.
Littlefield decided to break into the vault under Webster’s private privy on Thanksgiving, (November 29th) because he knew the police didn’t search it earlier in the week. He told his wife to keep watch and to knock on the floor four times if she saw Webster coming, then he opened a trap door and crawled under the building to start chiseling away at the brick wall that separated him from the privy vault. He hammered away at the wall Thursday and Friday. When he broke through around 430pm on Friday he discovered the three dismembered human body parts and notified university officials.
On Friday evening the police went to Webster’s home, arrested him, and took him to the jail for an interview. When they tried to take Webster to the Medical College to continue the search for evidence, the police had to carry him to the carriage.
During the second search of the premises the police uncovered the following remains: a torso, the upper part of a left leg, a knife, and a ball of twine were found in a tea chest; a pelvis, piece of a right upper leg, and a piece from a lower left leg were found in the privy vault; bones and artificial teeth were found in the furnace (pg. 4, 5, 19).
The remains were given a post-mortem examination by several anatomists and physicians. According to them, the body was dismembered by someone familiar with anatomy and the sternum was removed by someone acquainted with post-mortem examinations. But the remains were not anatomical specimens (pg. 10, 14). Dr. Ainsworth, the same instructor who dangled a human skull in a privy vault to macerate it, testified that these were not part of the college’s collection. Ainsworth preserved specimens by injecting veins and arteries with an arsenic solution. The body parts recovered by the police had not been dissected or injected with this fluid. The school also kept meticulous records of all of its specimens and these remains were not in those notes (pg. 12).
According to the post-mortem report, the remains belonged to a man who was between 50 and 60 years old (Parkman was 59 when he died) and the height and build of the body parts were consistent with Dr. Parkman. Webster removed most of the organs and tried (unsuccessfully) to macerate the flesh with a couple of chemical substances (pg. 10 and 11). There was a puncture wound between the 6th and 7th ribs on the left side, but expert witnesses couldn’t agree if that was a stab wound or a post-mortem injury caused by the police when they recovered the body parts (facepalm). The twine that was wrapped around the pelvis and the left upper leg matched the ball of twine found in Webster’s tea chest (pg. 4, 5, 19). Investigators never recovered the arms, hands, feet, lower right leg, or head.
Dr. Jeffries Wyman, professor of anatomy at Harvard, examined the bones from the furnace and testified that all of the bones were from one person because there were no duplicates-although he could not say to whom the bones belonged. Wyman argued that the bones recovered from the furnace likely belonged to the person whose body parts were found in Webster’s lab and the privy vault because the furnace bones corresponded to body parts that were not collected from the lab or the cesspool (pg 11). The bones from the furnace included:
- 30-40 pieces of cranium fragments
- Fragments of a temporal bone
- Coronoid process of the lower jaw (mandible)
- Right side of the lower jaw
- A fragment of the 1st cervical vertebrae
- Fragment of the 2nd or 3rd cervical vertebrae
- Humerus fragment
- Fragments of a leg bone
- Fragments of hand and foot bones
Dr. Keep, Dr. Parkman’s dentist since 1825, examined the dentures retrieved from the furnace and was able to identify them as the set he made in 1846. He regularly saw Parkman to make adjustments to them and had just seen Parkman two weeks before his disappearance. The dentures corresponded to the plaster model Keep made of Parkman’s jaw (pg. 13 and 14). A picture of the casts can be seen here.
This expert testimony was pioneering because it was the first time in the United States that dental and osteological evidence were accepted in a murder trial to identify a body. Although Webster’s attorney tried to convince the jury that Littlefield was responsible for Parkman’s disappearance, the defense did not prove its case and Webster was found guilty on March 30, 1850. In June Webster confessed to killing Parkman and was publicly hanged on August 30, 1850. During his testimony Littlefield renounced the $3000 offered by the Parkman family but he was given the money anyway.
Ferllini, R. (2002). Silent witness: How forensic anthropology is used to solve the world’s toughest crimes. Willowdale, Ontario: Firefly Books.
The Trial of Prof. John W. Webster, Indicted for the Murder of Dr. George Parkman. (1850). Boston, MA: Redding and Company 8, State Street.