Massachusetts

Doctor murdered, dismembered over debt (1849)

November 23, 1849
Harvard, Massachusetts
Dr. George Parkman is murdered and dismembered by Professor John White Webster

Parkman had lent Webster a considerable sum of money in 1842, and was taking his time repaying, accumulating a large amount of interest. In 1849 he borrowed some money from another lender, using the same collateral he had used to secure his original loan, which angered Parkman. Parkman met with Webster to settle the debt, but was not seen from again.

Suspicion fell on Webster as he had clear motive for Parkman’s disappearance, and was known to be Parkman’s last appointment before the disappearance. However, no body could be found and so little could be done, and Webster had forged documents showing he had repaid Parkman. While the police had their suspicions, a janitor named Ephraim Littlefield had his own. Little field spied on Webster and noticed him moving between a fuel closet and the furnace repeatedly, and, while Webster was away for Thanksgiving, Littlefield tunneled through a wall in Webster’s private lavatory, eventually finding a human pelvis, thigh, and lower leg.

Littlefield went to police who then questioned Webster, and although he denied the claim at first he later confessed to the murder. Police were able to find more pieces of Parkman, including a headless, limbless, partially burned torso stuffed with a thigh; Mrs. Parkman was able to positively identify the remains as Dr. Parkman’s based on birthmarks. Later, a jawbone with false teeth was discovered in Webster’s furnace.

The Parkman-Webster murder case was the first to use forensic anthropology (identifying the victim based on his skeleton and proving the cause of death to be stabbing based on marks left on the skeleton), forensic odontology (identifying the victim based on the false teeth and dental records), and forensic document analysis (proving the papers Webster provided as proof he had repaid his debt had been written by Webster himself). It was a milestone in court proceedings as well as the judge presiding over the case instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty if the prosecution presented his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” rather than the standard of the time of “absolute certainty.”

The jury deliberated for less than 3 hours and found Webster guilty of deliberately murdering Parkman. He was publicly hanged on August 30, 1850.

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