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 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!