The Harvard Chemistry Professor Who Was Also a Murderer
By Bess Lovejoy
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.