The Harvard Chemistry Professor Who Was Also a Murderer

iStock.com/RomoloTavani
iStock.com/RomoloTavani

On November 23, 1849, George Parkman mysteriously disappeared. The wealthy lender and landlord, who was in his late 50s, left his well-appointed house a few blocks away from the Harvard Medical College in Boston, intending to make his usual rounds collecting rent and to buy a costly head of lettuce for his ailing daughter. That evening, he failed to return home as expected, sending his family into a panic. 

Parkman was a meticulous, methodical man who always stuck to a schedule. A well-known member of society in 1840s Boston, he cut a memorable figure walking the streets in his stovepipe hat. With his tall, thin physique and reserved demeanor, he cultivated a rather severe image in comparison to the more jovial John White Webster—a Harvard chemistry professor who would soon come under a cloud of suspicion in connection with Parkman’s disappearance. 

Parkman and Webster had known each other for years. Both men circulated in the upper echelons of mid-19th century Boston, and had graduated from Harvard Medical College within a few years of one another. In a sense, each had what the other wanted—Parkman had money, while Webster didn’t (his salary as a Harvard professor was far from remarkable). Webster had been a doctor before becoming a professor, while Parkman’s dreams of a medical career had been dashed. Several decades prior, he’d hoped to open America’s most progressive institute for the treatment of the insane (planned to be part of Massachusetts General Hospital), but after being passed over for a position as the head of the asylum, had bitterly returned to his family business: finance and real estate. Parkman didn’t give up his interests entirely, however—he was known to visit the lunatics at the asylum and play them piano. 

Webster, meanwhile, was also the product of a wealthy, well-connected Boston family.

After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1815, he practiced medicine for a few years before taking up his chemistry teaching post around 1824. His teaching style was reportedly uninspiring, although he was the author of a well-regarded chemistry textbook, and had edited two others. By most accounts, his real talents lay in society rather than the lecture hall—he was said to be sociable, charming, and great at parties, which he attended frequently. The Yarmouth Register described him as having “a mild, kind and unassuming disposition, with eminently social feelings and manners of uncommon affability.” 

Webster did have one fatal flaw, however: His tendency to spend beyond his means. His father had apparently died without leaving him much of an inheritance, and Webster spent what little there was early on. His professor’s salary was meager, and he racked up debt to cover the expenses of his chemistry lectures (professors were required to cover their own supplies), keep his wife and four daughters in luxury, and indulge his scientific curiosity. He acquired a beautiful cabinet of minerals for Harvard, as well as a $3000 mastodon skeleton, which the school still owns. (It’s now on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.) 

In fact, the cabinet of minerals may have been instrumental in Parkman’s disappearance. The moneylender was one of the professor’s primary creditors, and at the time of his disappearance, Parkman held the mortgage on almost everything the professor possessed. But that didn’t stop the professor from promising the cabinet to another creditor—and some historians think that might have been a dangerous mistake.

Although we don’t know exactly how the day progressed, historian and former Harvard professor Simon Schama, who wrote a book on the case, thinks that Parkman’s discovery of the doubly-pledged cabinet set him aflame. And when Parkman visited Webster’s office on November 23, 1849 to collect on his accounts, the two men tussled—violently.

In Webster’s own notes about the meeting, the interaction was brisk, efficient, and ended with the professor settling up his debts. But the version of that afternoon that would eventually lead Webster to the gallows came from a different source: a Harvard janitor named Ephraim Littlefield. 

In the days after Parkman’s disappearance, Littlefield, who lived in the Harvard Medical School basement, became increasingly concerned about the events of that November afternoon. He later testified that he had seen Parkman enter Webster’s rooms but fail to come back out, and that when he went to clean the professor’s stove 30 minutes later, the doors of the office were bolted shut. Later, Littlefield met Dr. Webster on the back stairs looking flustered. According to Littlefield, Webster spent the next few days working unusually long hours, his door always locked. 

A week after Parkman’s disappearance, around Thanksgiving 1849, the janitor took matters into his own hands, literally—he tunneled through the brick wall beneath Webster’s privy. Hammer and crowbar in hand, with his wife posted as a look-out, Littlefield hacked away at five layers of brick and into a dark, sewage-filled hole. At the end of the tunnel was a gruesome surprise: a man’s pelvis, and two parts of a leg. 

Littlefield reported his discovery immediately, and Webster was arrested (in keeping with Bostonian social niceties of the time, he wasn’t informed of his arrest until his arrival at the police station). The arrest shocked Boston, and the nation—it seemed unthinkable that such a horrific crime could have occurred among the Boston Brahmins, who prided themselves on their impeccable morals and manners. Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Webster’s neighbor, wrote, Boston is at this moment in sad suspense about the fate of poor Dr. Parkman ... You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse.” On Saturday, December 1, 1849, Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley wrote in his journal, "People cannot eat; they feel sick." 

Littlefield’s testimony put Webster behind bars, and eventually sent him to hang. But some historians, including Dr. Francis Moore of Harvard Medical School, have suggested that Littlefield himself could have been the murderer. After all, how did he know exactly where to look for the body?

In fact, Littlefield was initially a suspect in the case—this was a man who knew his way around corpses—and could have planted the body to deflect attention. 

Suspicion had gathered around Littlefield because of his unusual role at the college, although it wasn’t so unusual for the time. In addition to being a janitor, Littlefield was most likely a “Resurrection Man,” a person who procured bodies for dissection during anatomy lectures. (Until the rules around donating one’s body to science were well solidified in the 20th century, the cadavers dissected in medical schools often came from shady sources, and not infrequently grave-robbing.) Dissection itself was still seen as ungodly by much of the populace, and men like Littlefield were viewed with great alarm. Concerns about dissection sparked more than a dozen “anatomy riots” around the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, in which groups of concerned citizens attacked medical schools and often tried to burn them to the ground. Sometimes, they were successful. 

The Parkman-Webster trial made news around the country, and 60,000 people came to witness the proceedings—so many that the spectators had to be rotated through the courthouse in 10-minute shifts. Reporters came from around the nation and abroad to write dramatic stories that played on the public’s growing appetite for murder mysteries. One enterprising entrepreneur even hawked wax statues of both Webster and Parkman. The trial is also notable for being the first time forensic dental evidence was used in the United States (Parkman was identified by his false teeth, which were found in the furnace), and for being one of the first trials to use forensics at all. Today, its gruesomeness, the wealthy setting of its main characters, and air of mystery remind some of the O.J. Simpson case. 

Webster confessed during the trial, saying that in a fit of passion—and after Parkman had threatened to get him fired—he had grabbed a stick of wood and struck Webster on the side of the head. As he recounted that fateful afternoon:

[Parkman] fell instantly upon the pavement. There was no second blow. He did not move. I stooped down over him, and he seemed to be lifeless … Perhaps I spent 10 minutes in attempts to resuscitate him; but I found that he was absolutely dead.

According to his confession, Webster dragged Parkman's lifeless body to the next room, stripped it, and dismembered the corpse—"a work of terrible and desperate necessity”—with a knife he kept around for cutting corks. The head and viscera he disposed of in the furnace, and the pelvis and limbs he put into a deep sink beneath the lecture room table. Later, after being visited by the police, he took the pelvis and some of the limbs and threw them into a vault beneath his privy.

After the verdict sentencing Webster to death, mail begging for clemency poured in to the office of Massachusetts governor George Briggs. He refused be moved. Webster was hanged in August 1850; in proper Boston Brahmin style, the sheriff sent engraved invitations to the city's VIPs. The precise location of his grave in the Copps Hill cemetery has been lost.

Littlefield, meanwhile, collected a $3000 reward offered for information about the disappearance. He retired a wealthy man.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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Cracking Open the History of Unsolved Mysteries

Robert Stack hosts the original Unsolved Mysteries.
Robert Stack hosts the original Unsolved Mysteries.
NBC

With his steely glare and trademark trench coat, Robert Stack took viewers on a journey through tales of true crime, alien abductions, amnesia, and lost loves. It was Unsolved Mysteries, and on this week’s episode of "Throwback," host Erin McCarthy is taking us down some dark alleys to discover the origin of this classic 1990s series that’s being rebooted on Netflix. Join us.

Be sure to head here and subscribe so you don't miss an episode of "Throwback," where we explore the fascinating stories behind some of the greatest toys and trends from your childhood.