1966: Sayyid Qutb 1593: Pierre Barrière, undeterringly

1850: Prof. John Webster, for the timeless conflict between donors and academics

August 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.

The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”

Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.

Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.

A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.

Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,

You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.

“Harvard professors do not often commit murder,” or so they say. (This was still a century before Robert McNamara.)

Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.

Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.

In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.

Talk about donor recognition.

While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.

At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.

And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.

According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”

* Bemis, one of the prosecutors, wrote the go-to source on the Webster trial, available from Google Books; another contemporaneous account is here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal,USA

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2 thoughts on “1850: Prof. John Webster, for the timeless conflict between donors and academics”

  1. Sam Hall says:

    Robert McNamara? Bit of a cheap shot, and literally parenthetical.

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