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John White WEBSTER






The Harvard Murder Case / The Parkman-Webster murder case
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Professor of chemistry and geology at Harvard Medical College - Debt - Dismemberment
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 23, 1849
Date of birth: May 20, 1793
Victim profile: Dr. George Parkman, 59
Method of murder: Beating with a stick of wood
Location: Harvard, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on August 30, 1850

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Trial of Prof. John W. Webster (8,4 Mb)


John White Webster (May 20, 1793–August 30, 1850), born in Boston, Massachusetts, was a professor of chemistry and geology at Harvard Medical College. In 1849-1850, he was involved in the infamous Parkman–Webster murder case.


Webster was from a well-connected family: his grandfather had earned a fortune as a merchant; his mother Hannah (White) Webster was a Leverett; his wife's sister married into the Prescotts; he was friends with the Shaws; and his Unitarian pastor was the Reverend Francis Parkman Sr. (brother of George). However, as he grew up, his father Redford Webster, an apothecary, offered him only a small allowance, which later caused him to claim that he never understood money.

He graduated from Harvard College in 1811 and Harvard Medical College in 1815. In 1814 he was among the founders of the Linnaean Society of New England, and was appointed cabinet-keeper of the society's quickly growing collection of specimens in Joy's Buildings in Boston.

Around 1815 he went to London for further study. At Guy’s Hospital he was a surgeon’s pupil, a physician’s pupil, and a surgeon’s dresser. He then went to São Miguel Island in the Azores (1817–18). There he practiced medicine, published his first book, and met the daughter of the American vice-consul on the island, Harriet Fredrica Hickling, whom he married on May 16, 1818. She would give him four daughters.

Once he returned to Boston, he entered private medical practice, but a lack of success prompted him to change careers. In 1824, Webster was appointed a lecturer of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at the Harvard Medical College, and three years later he was promoted to the Erving professorship. In Boston he lived on Common Street.

He wrote A Description of the Island of St. Michael (1821), was associate editor of the Boston Journal of Philosophy and the Arts (1824–26), compiled A Manual of Chemistry (1826), and brought out editions of Andrew Fyfe's Elements of Chemistry (1827) and Justus von Liebig's Animal Chemistry or Organic Chemistry (1841).

Parkman–Webster murder case

The Parkman-Webster murder case was a highly publicized crime, investigation, and trial that shook the American city of Boston, Massachusetts to its core in 1849–1850, due to the crime's gruesome nature and the high social station of the victim and murderer.

Main participants

George Parkman

Dr. George Parkman, (February 19, 1790–November 23, 1849), a Boston Brahmin (a term coined by Parkman contemporary Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in 1860, after Parkman’s death), belonged to one of the moneyed city’s richest families.

Parkman was a well-known figure in the streets of Boston, which he walked daily, collecting his rents (a thrifty man, he did not own a horse). He was tall, lean, had a protruding chin, and wore a top hat. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. said that "he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept." Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, called him "the lean doctor... the good-natured Don-Quixote." He was worth some half a million dollars in 1849.

John Webster

Webster, a short, stocky man with dark hair and glasses, taught at Harvard Medical College, publishing chemistry books, lecturing to students, and seeing his annual pay rise from $800 to $1200, with a few hundred dollars more coming from lecture ticket sales at the Massachusetts Medical College. Some reports criticized his teaching ability: for instance, The Boston Daily Bee described him as "tolerated rather than respected, and has only retained his position on account of its comparative insignificance. As a lecturer he was dull and common-place and while the students took tickets to his lectures, they did not generally attend them." The Yarmouth Register also hinted at this defect: "his reputation in his profession is respectable but not brilliant", but noted that "With a mild, kind and unassuming disposition, with eminently social feelings and manners of uncommon affability, he probably had not any enemy." Still, it referred to his poor "management of pecuniary affairs."

Indeed, debt was Webster's great problem. With two daughters of debutante age (one of them married) by the late 1840s, he tried desperately to keep up appearances and provide lavishly for his family. The family had been forced to give up a mansion he had built in Cambridge, although they were leasing a respectable but not grand house in 1849. He was in debt to a number of friends, as his salary and meager lecture earnings could not cover his expenses.

Webster, indulged as a child and pampered in youth, had a petulant and fussy disposition but was known for his kindly nature. Longfellow attests to his macabre streak in an anecdote relating how at one dinner at the Webster home, the host amazed his guests by lowering the lights, fitting a noose around his own neck, and lolling his head forward, tongue protruding, over a bowl of blazing chemicals, to give a ghastly imitation of a man being hanged.

Ephraim Littlefield

A Swamp Yankee of rural origins, Littlefield was the janitor of the new Harvard Medical College, built in 1846, and had also been the janitor at the previous one since 1842. He and his wife Caroline lived in the basement of the medical college, right next to professor John Webster's laboratory. He knew Webster and the other Harvard doctors well, and observed their study of medicine, including the dissection of cadavers for the study of human anatomy. To supplement his income, he obtained cadavers for dissection at a price of about twenty-five dollars a body, selling them to students and professors. As janitor, he cleaned the doctors' rooms and laboratories, started their fires, generally set up the specimens for their lectures, and did whatever else they asked. Littlefield was hostile toward his social betters the Brahmins, but also felt his job threatened by the Irish immigrants then pouring into Boston. He secretly loathed Webster. After the latter's trial, he collected a $3000 reward for providing information about Parkman's disappearance and was able to retire comfortably.

Crime and investigation

Webster first borrowed $400 from Parkman in 1842. In 1847, with little of this repaid, he gave Parkman a note for $2432, which represented the unpaid balance and a further loan. This was secured by a mortgage of Webster’s personal property, including a cabinet of minerals. In 1848, still in distress, he borrowed $1200 from Robert G. Shaw, making over to him as collateral the minerals that already stood as collateral for a Parkman loan. This enraged Parkman and caused him to seek out Webster for a confrontation. On November 22, 1849, a week before Thanksgiving, he went to Cambridge to look for Webster and asked Mr. Pettee, the Harvard cashier, to give him the money from the sale of Webster's lecture tickets to repay Webster's debt.

On November 23, Parkman was out collecting debts as usual; later, one woman who owed him money recalled fleeing from him when he demanded the dollar he had seen in her hand as she tried to pay for food. He placed a grocery order for the approaching holiday and had it sent up to his house. He offered Thanksgiving greetings to several people. He left some lettuce with one man, expecting to return for it soon and to have lunch with his wife at 2:00 pm, as he had done each day of their 33-year marriage. That day, Webster visited Parkman's home, suggesting that they meet at the Medical College that afternoon at 1:30 pm. At 1:45 pm, the last confirmed sighting of Parkman had him entering the college on North Grove Street, wearing a dark frock coat, dark trousers, a purple satin vest, and a stovepipe hat. Later that afternoon, Littlefield found Webster's rooms locked from the inside, and heard water running. Webster was home by 6:00 pm and attended a party at the house of friends, the Treadwells, showing no outward signs of distress.

On November 24, the Parkman family made anxious inquiries and contacted the police. Also that day, Littlefield saw Webster with a bundle; Webster told him to make a fire.

On November 25, Webster appeared outside the Harvard Medical College where he met Parkman's nephew, James Henry Blake and police officer Trenholm.

They asked him if he had seen Parkman. That afternoon, he also visited George's brother, the Reverend Francis Parkman, and in a stiff, formal manner informed him and his family that he had met the missing man after obtaining $483.64 to pay a debt installment, and that the latter promised that he would go right away to have the payment recorded by the city clerk to clear the debt. Webster then left without inquiring about the search, despite owing his position at Harvard to Parkman.

On November 26, with a $3000 reward settled on for finding Parkman alive, the family had twenty-eight thousand copies of the wanted notice printed up, posted, and distributed; a little later, $1000 was offered for his body.

On November 27, Webster worked at the College in the evening. Officer Derastus Clapp and other police officers from Francis Tukey's newly formed professional police force made their first search of his rooms.

They returned once, each time placing special emphasis on the laboratories and dissecting vaults, but they found nothing to indicate that Parkman had even been there.

Meanwhile, Littlefield began to grow more nervous, as some began to link him to the disappearance, and more suspicious, as Webster was behaving oddly. A few days after the murder, the two men met in the street, and Webster asked the janitor if he had seen Parkman at the College the previous week. When Littlefield said he had, on Friday around 1:30, Webster struck his cane on the ground, then asking him if he had seen Parkman anywhere in the building, had seen him after 1:30, or if Parkman had been in Webster's own lecture room? When Littlefield answered no to these questions, Webster repeated the story about paying off the debt and walked off, having said more to Littlefield than in their entire years together at the College. Littlefield remembered that four days prior to the murder, Webster had asked him a number of questions about the dissecting vault, and after the college had been searched, the professor had surprised him with a turkey for his Thanksgiving dinner – the first gift he had ever given him.

On November 28, Webster was at the College early; Littlefield watched him from under the door, seeing as far as his knees. Webster moved from the furnace to the fuel closet and back, making eight separate trips. Later in the day, his furnace was burning so hard that the wall on the other side was hot to the touch. When Webster was gone, Littlefield let himself into the room through a window, all the doors being bolted. He found that the kindling barrels were nearly empty, though they had recently been filled, and there were wet spots that tasted like acid in odd places.

On November 29 (Thanksgiving), Littlefield borrowed a hatchet, drill, crowbar and mortar chisel, and while his wife stood guard, began chiseling away the wall under Webster's private lab privy. He went down a tunnel into the vault where the wall had felt hot and began to hack at it right where the privy emptied into a pit that the police had not searched. He went through two layers of brick in just over an hour, and then stopped to go to a dance, leaving the remaining layers for the next day.

On November 30, Littlefield resumed chiseling, and worked for some time until he managed to punch a hole into the wall, at which point he felt a strong draft that did not permit his lantern to stay lit inside. Maneuvering it, he looked around, ignoring the foul fumes and letting his eyes adjust to the dark. Finally he saw something out of the ordinary. He narrowed his eyes and looked more sharply until he just made out on top of a dirt mound the shape of a human pelvis. He also saw a dismembered thigh and the lower part of a leg.

Littlefield began to tremble quite violently. The light went out again and he stumbled in the darkness out of the vault and through the tunnel until he came out into the building. He yelled for his wife and told her what he had seen. On his hands there was blood mixed with dirt. Then without waiting to put on his coat, he ran to the home of another professor, Dr. Bigelow, who then found Marshal Tukey. However, the bones were not necessarily Parkman's; the vault where the remains from human dissections were tossed was in that lab. By the time Tukey arrived, word had spread, and a whole party of men was waiting for the official report on the bones' identity. Tukey first had Littlefield go through the dissection room and inventory the specimens to make sure that none was missing. Then several men went into the tunnel and moved toward the vault. They decided upon the man with the longest arms to go into the privy and hand out the remains, one by one. He went in and handed out the pelvis, the right thigh, and the lower left leg, and these were placed on a board to await the arrival of the coroner, Jabez Pratt. After this, Marshal Tukey dispatched Officer Clapp and two other constables to take Webster from his home in Cambridge. Without initially telling him he was under arrest, they took him to jail on a charge of murder.

Webster initially denied knowledge of the crime. When told what Littlefield had found, he exclaimed, "That villain! I am a ruined man", going on to blame the janitor and mentioning that only the two of them had access to the privy. He then fell silent, sitting in his cell, trembling and sweating. He put what he later admitted to be strychnine into his mouth, but it only made him ill.

Meanwhile, investigators wondered where the rest of the body was. Littlefield observed that he had found a bone fragment in a furnace in the laboratory to which Webster had access and showed it to the marshal. A full search of the toilet area was then conducted, with Webster brought in from the jail to observe. While the officers and coroner were searching, Littlefield showed them a piece of the furnace that he had broken off, on which a piece of bone was fused. They insisted he put it back where he found it. Webster watched silently as they laid out the parts they had already found, and then he was brought back to jail.

On December 1, a coroner's jury was assembled to make a judgment about the disposition of the case. Before they were let in, the coroner and marshal's men examined a sink that appeared to be recently gouged in several places, the strange acid stains on the floor and steps, and the contents of the furnace (from which they extracted a button, some coins, and more bone fragments, including a jaw bone with teeth). Then they dumped out a chest from which came a foul odor, and there was an armless, headless, hairy and partly burned torso. Just as they determined that the head had been sawn off, they found a saw nearby. Then they found a thigh stuffed inside the torso, and the heart and other organs missing.

Mrs. Parkman identified the body as her husband's from markings near the penis and on the lower back. His brother-in-law said that he had seen the extreme hairiness of Parkman's body and confirmed that the body was his.

Subsequent searches turned up bloody clothing belonging to Webster, as well as the right kidney. Testing on the stains showed them to be copper nitrate, a substance effective for removing blood, and Dr. Jeffries Wyman arrived to identify the bone fragments.

Since they were already at a medical college with good facilities for the examination of a body, they laid out the parts, tested them, and wrote up thorough descriptions. They conjectured that a hole found underneath the left breast might have been the stab that had killed the victim, although it did not resemble a wound and there was no blood. By the end of the day, they had estimated the man's height to have been 5'10", an exact match to George Parkman.

In the week between the murder and the finding of the bones, the city was abuzz, with speculation fueled by its 120 periodicals. At first, Irish immigrants were blamed. Some believed Parkman had simply left the city; others thought he had been beaten up for the money he always carried with him. Unsigned letters mailed from Boston proposed various scenarios. The energetic Marshal Tukey had the Charles River and Boston Harbor dragged for a body, and sent men to neighboring towns to check. Search parties were formed that went out day and night. The police searched Parkman's buildings, both rented and vacant, and even abandoned buildings that he did not own.

After Webster's arrest, there was reluctance among the Brahmin to believe that one of their own had done the deed. Longfellow's wife 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. 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. He could make things appear against the doctor, having bodies under his control. I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually. I went to see poor Mrs. Webster on Saturday, the day after her husband's arrest, but of course was not admitted. What a terrible blight upon her life and that of the girls! The mere suspicion, for I cannot believe anything can be proved." On December 1, Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley wrote in his journal: "The standing of Dr. Webster, his uniform tenor of conduct since the disappearance of Dr. Parkman, his artlessness & unfamiliarity with crime of any kind have been such that the excitement, the melancholy, the aghastness of every body are indescribable. The professors poh! at the mere suspicion he is guilty... People cannot eat; they feel sick."

On December 6, thousands lined the streets for Parkman's funeral. Some 5,000 had even toured the crime scene.


On January 26, 1850, Webster was indicted for murder. Leading lawyers Daniel Webster and Rufus Choate both declined to serve as John Webster's counsel. Then, while awaiting trial, the latter wrote out a detailed, 194-page defense.

The prosecution was faced with the problem of a severely deteriorated corpse that could plausibly have come from a dissection. Still, the inquest jury, in an 84-page decision, decided that the body parts were indeed those of Parkman, that he had been killed and dismembered at the medical college, and that Webster was accountable for it. Later, using these findings, the grand jury returned a True Bill and indicted him. According to their report, they believed that Webster had assaulted Parkman with a knife, and also had beaten and struck him until he was dead.

Webster chose two attorneys from a list provided for him. They were Harvard graduates Edward Dexter Sohier and Pliny T. Merrick. Sohier had handled Webster's civil (mostly financial) matters in the past. Inexperienced in criminal law, he provided a second-rate defense for Webster. Merrick, more experienced in criminal law, held a secondary position during the trial. Webster did not discuss strategy with them, instead handing them his papers, which contained the same story he had been telling

The trial began on March 19, 1850, with Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw {Harvard class of 1800} of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court presiding.

Associate Justices Samuel Wilde, Charles A. Dewey, and Theron Metcalf were also present; one of them was incompetent, and another, nearly senile. It would run for twelve days: March 19–23, March 25–30, and April 1. 60,000 people witnessed at least part of the trial (with tickets handed out to the waiting crowds and spectators quickly rotated through); journalists came from as far as London, Paris, and Berlin. The courtroom was large and noisy; Webster sat in the prisoner's dock on the left, surrounded by an iron railing. The judge sat across from the dock, while the jury sat to his right. On the first day, Webster carried gloves, and he pleaded not guilty.

Within an hour, 42 prospective jurors were questioned and a dozen impanelled. They were:

  • Robert J. Byram, Locksmith, foreman

  • Thomas Barrett, Printer

  • John Borrowscale, Slater

  • James Crosby, Clerk

  • John E. Davenport, Painter

  • Albert Day, Merchant

  • Joseph Eustis, Merchant

  • Daniel T. Fuller of North Chelsea, Wheelwright

  • Benjamin H. Greene, Bookseller

  • Arnold Hayward, Carpenter

  • Frederick A. Henderson, Furnisher

  • Stephen A. Stackpole, Clerk

Leading the prosecution were the politically ambitious Massachusetts Attorney General John Clifford (later Governor), who mainly confined his role to opening and closing statements, and George Bemis, Esq., the son of a prosperous manufacturer and a Harvard Law School graduate. Bemis, a legal scholar and respected, rigorous prosecutor, later wrote a Report of the trial that came to be received as the official version. The two men's styles complemented each other.

On the first day, Clifford made a three-hour opening statement presenting facts and evidence; Bemis then began his cross-examination of witnesses, who conceded that they would not have recognized the body as belonging to Parkman.

The next day, the jury visited the scene of the crime, even entering the privy pit. Back in the courtroom, the coroner described Webster as "mad" after his arrest (possibly due to the strychnine); his lawyers made no objection. Dr. Woodbridge Strong then talked about what was needed to burn a corpse and the odor it would produce, after which anatomy professor Dr. Frederick S. Ainsworth pointed out that his department's dissection specimens differed from the body in question. Dr. Jeffries Wyman described which bones had been found. The defense created doubt that the body was Parkman's, and questioned whether the wound on his body had killed him, as there was little blood near it.

On the third day, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the dean of Harvard Medical College, who held a post endowed by Parkman, took the stand. He testified his belief that the body had been dismembered by someone with a knowledge of dissection and anatomy, that a wound between the ribs would not necessarily cause a large amount of blood loss, and that the corpse's build was "not dissimilar" to that of George Parkman. Dr. Wyman again described the bones and showed how they fit together. Then Dr. Nathan Keep, Parkman's dentist, swore that the jawbone with false teeth found in the furnace belonged to Parkman, recognizing it as the work he had done in the fall of 1846. He showed the jury how the discovered jawbone fit exactly into a plaster impression that he had made of Parkman's jaw. A fire alarm then rang from the building where Clifford had his belongings, so the court recessed while he went to retrieve them. When court resumed, Dr. Keep burst into tears as he showed how the loose teeth from the furnace fit into his plates. Composing himself, he showed through an inscription that the mold had been made specifically for Parkman.

On Friday and Saturday, Ephraim Littlefield, the chief witness (who had known both Webster and Parkman for years), took the stand. He told how the latter had demanded payment on November 19, how Webster had asked if one could use a light inside the dissecting room vault (to which Littlefield said no), how Webster began locking his rooms, about the turkey and then about the heat on the walls that had led him to dig into the privy. The defense accused Littlefield of being after the reward, which he denied, though they did not accuse him of the murder, as Webster had indicated they should. Overall, the janitor made a good impression – confident, honest, and unflappable. His wife Caroline also testified.

After a Sunday recess, on Monday the court heard about Webster's debt problem and doubt was cast on his story (that he had managed to repay Parkman). A police officer then told how he had found the torso in a tea chest, which was then displayed, complete with blood stains. He also said that it was possible to fit the other parts into the privy hole, but not the torso. More witnesses were brought forth to testify about Webster's unusual behavior after Parkman's disappearance, and three unsigned letters meant to throw the police off the track were shown. A man familiar with Webster's hand testified to his belief that Webster had written the letters. A witness then confirmed that Parkman was on the steps of the College early on Friday afternoon, before the prosecution rested.

The defense then spent two days refuting the prosecution's case. Sohier gave a long speech, inter alia complaining that Webster could not defend himself (at the time in Massachusetts, capital murder defendants could only make one unsworn speech to the jury right at the end of the trial). Sohier explained the difference between murder and manslaughter, which left the impression that he believed a homicide had occurred. He asserted that the prosecution had failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Webster was the killer, or even how Parkman had died. Hoping to dent the case against Webster through a cumulative effect, he brought forth 23 character witnesses and seven others who claimed to have seen Parkman after his supposed time of disappearance. Following the judge's instructions, the jury ignored testimony of those defense witnesses---who knew Parkman and swore they had seen the missing man after he was supposedly murdered. The state's rationale was that those sightings were instead of a Springfield man named George Bliss who the prosecution suggested---with no testimony from Bliss or anyone else---was in Boston on the day in question.

In 2007-2008, researchers re-examining the case from Webster's perspective have located an image of Bliss for comparative forensic analysis with the distinctive, odd-looking Parkman.

Sohier then called medical experts (some of whom had testified for the prosecution) who conceded that it was difficult to identify the body or how the man had died. Dr. William T.G. Morton, inventor of ether, said that if the jawbone found in the furnace "were placed among a dozen others which I can produce, I should not be led to pick it out from any peculiarity." He placed several false teeth of his own into Dr. Keep's mold, and they fit smoothly. Sohier called the prosecution's case "indirect, presumptive, and circumstantial"; the defense then rested and the rebuttal started. Three dentists stated that an artist would recognize his own handiwork, and a physician estimated the condition of the remains to match up with the time for which Parkman had disappeared.

The defense then gave a six-hour speech on four key points that the prosecution had to prove: that the body was Parkman's, that a homicide had occurred, that Webster had perpetrated it, and that he had done so with malice aforethought. The defense contended that since Parkman had been seen leaving the College on Friday afternoon, the prosecution's case was in tatters. Moreover, they said, even if the body was definitely Parkman's, anyone could have killed him and disposed of his body where it was found; this assertion weakened their case as it seemed fanciful.

Clifford made his own closing argument lasting more than a day. He repeated what he saw as the facts and emphasized that strong medical testimony had been presented. He said that, beyond a reasonable doubt, Parkman was dead, found cut up inside the lab. He reminded the jury of Webster's financial situation and actions prior to Parkman's disappearance.

Webster himself then took the stand, against his attorneys' strong advice. In a fifteen-minute speech, he criticized his attorneys and presented his own version of the evidence, after which he called on the author of the anonymous letters to reveal himself; none did so.

Shaw then made a historic statement, replete with bias against the defendant, in which he made a precedent-setting ruling. He said that the jury only needed to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the corpus delicti was Parkman's; at the time, the standard in murder cases was proof "to an absolute certainty" that the dead body was that of the victim. Just before 8 pm on March 30, he charged the jury with producing a verdict on the defendant's guilt or innocence.

The jury began deliberations with a prayer and then reviewed the evidence. They voted unanimously that the remains were Parkman's, that Webster had killed him, and that he had done so deliberately. They returned at 10:45 pm, stating that they had reached a verdict. The crowd filtered back in and Webster was led inside. The clerk asked for their finding. The foreman replied, "Guilty!" Then, as Bemis writes, "The prisoner, who upon the sentence of the jury had turned deadly pale, but who had stood up with a firm bearing to receive the verdict of the jury, immediately upon its announcement, grasped the rail in front of him, and slowly sank down into his seat. Dropping his head, he rubbed his eyes beneath his spectacles with a trembling and convulsed motion as if to wipe away tears, and remained in that position a few moments."

On April 1, Judge Shaw directed "that you, John W. Webster, be removed from this place, and detained in close custody in the prison of this county; and thence the place of execution, and there be hung by the neck until you are dead. And may God, of His infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!"

Reactions were sharply divided. For instance, the Evening Bulletin wrote on April 2 that "Scarcely one man in ten thousand can be found who does not agree with us in the opinion that the evidence for the defence was sufficient to create a doubt of the unhappy man's guilt", while four days later, the Massachusetts Ploughman claimed that "We have scarcely met a man of intelligence, since the evidence has all come out, who did not profess to believe in Webster's guilt."


On May 4, Webster's lawyers submitted a petition for a writ of error against Judge Shaw and his instructions to the jury. The hearing was held before Shaw and his four associates on June 12, and the writ denied. Webster appealed to Governor George N. Briggs for a pardon, asserting his entire innocence. Unfortunately for him, Briggs was a lay preacher who did not wish to be seen bowing to Brahmin pressure (which strongly favored a commutation). Moreover, the year before, Washington Goode, a black sailor, had been hanged for the murder of a fellow black sailor based on circumstantial evidence. To have pardoned Webster after sending Goode to the gallows would have undermined his reputation. As The Fall River Weekly News put it: "If any delays, misgivings or symptoms of mercy are manifested, the gibbeted body of Washington Goode will be paraded before the mind's eye of his Excellency. If he relents in this case, though the entire population of the State petition for a remission of sentence, Governor Briggs will forfeit all claim to public respect as a high minded, honorable and impartial chief magistrate. He can do one of two things and retain his character as a man and a public servant: resign his office, or let the law take its course." Thus, he signed the death warrant.

In June, Webster, in a desperate bid to save his neck, wrote a confession. He admitted to killing Parkman in self-defense when the latter had become aggressive over the debt. He said that it was an unpremeditated rage, an act of passion and provocation, not a malicious murder. He said that Parkman "was speaking and gesticulating in the most violent and menacing manner" about the mineral cabinet being put up to cover another loan, and that in his fury he, Webster, "seized whatever thing was handiest - it was a stick of wood - and dealt him an instantaneous blow with all the force that passion could give it. It was on the side of his head, and there was nothing to break the force of the blow. He fell instantly upon the pavement. There was no second blow. He did not move." He also admitted to authoring an anonymous letter.

Despite renewed calls for a commutation, the Governor and Council remained unmoved, the sentence remained final, and the Brahmins sent engraved invitations to it. Webster was taken to Boston's Leverett Street Jail on August 30, 1850, and publicly hanged. He died within four minutes and was buried in the decidedly lowbrow Copp's Hill Burying Ground. After the hanging, Parkman's widow was the first contributor to a fund created for Webster's impoverished widow and daughters.

Less known about the murder was the intrigue after the sensational Webster Trial. An article in the November 23, 1884 Boston Globe discussed the possibility that Webster was placed in a harness, and was never hanged. A story is re-told about a sailor seeing Dr. Webster in Fayal (or Faial), Azores, long after his death sentence. Other witnesses describe how Webster's body was moved from the gallows site, and was going to be brought to a neighbor's house. There was a concern his body would be stolen and security precautions were taken. The article also asserted Webster's body was placed in Copp's Hill Burying Ground in his father's tomb.


The case proved enduring in its impact as the first in the United States where dental evidence and scientific testimony were accepted in a murder trial. Debate continued for years about a number of its facets. When Charles Dickens visited Boston in 1867, among his first requests was to see the room where Dr. Parkman had been murdered.

The trial has been controversial. A century after the fact, one author observed, "the Parkman murder case stands as a classic example of how a jury can reach a sound verdict despite an unfair trial."

Sohier lacked experience in criminal law; neither attorney exposed the fact (pointed out in Webster's notes) that Littlefield may have perjured himself in several key areas of his testimony, and neither cross-examined him about his corpse-stealing activity. They failed to emphasize that the janitor lived near the lab, giving him an opportunity to plant the body parts and collect the reward. As well, their inconsistent reference to the possibility of manslaughter and their admission that Webster could not account for the $483.64 he said he had paid Parkman were signs of incompetence.

Attorney General Clifford, his sights on higher office, ignored evidence implicating Littlefield and let Bemis, a private attorney hired by the Parkmans, do most of the prosecuting. Judge Shaw showed bias against Webster, and labored hard to rework his charge before it appeared in Bemis' Report so that it would read less like an indictment and more like a faithful statement of the law; he may have reworked it again before it was published in Cushing's Reports. Then there was the Reverend George Putnam, a close friend of Clifford's who advised him on ways to strengthen his case before becoming a self-appointed father confessor and confidant to the condemned Webster. Finally, the Report was somewhat of a whitewash, issued to counteract a spate of negative publicity.


The Janitor's Story

If we are to believe the Indiana humorist George Ade, patriots can be competitive even about their countrymen's crimes. Ade tells us of the shipboard traveler from Emporia, Kansas who tartly responds to an Englishman's criticism of violence in the United States by observing that "there were fewer Murders in England because good Opportunities were being overlooked." Of course, quantity has never been synonymous with quality, and the well-behaved British may be forgiven for the belief that their murders, relatively few though they may be, include inimitable cases — from the Brides in the Bath to Ten Rillington Place. But for the most intriguing of these cases the American patriot would have a worthy rival to put forward — the Harvard Murder Case of 1849.

The Harvard Murder Case is rightly named because most of the cast of characters were Harvard men: the defendant, the victim, the trial judges, counsel on both sides, and twenty-five of the witnesses (including Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes). The defendant, John White Webster, was a professor of chemistry at Harvard University and at the Harvard Medical College in Boston.

The victim, Dr. George Parkman, was a benefactor of the medical college who drew his wealth from real estate investment and private moneylending. His generosity as a philanthropist was matched (and probably facilitated) by his relentlessness as a creditor; one of his slow-paying debtors was Webster, who had exhausted what little patience Parkman had by fraudulently selling off a mineral collection he had mortgaged as collateral for his borrowing.

On Friday, November 23, 1849, Parkman disappeared. He had stopped off that day at a shop near the medical college to purchase "a quantity of lettuce, a rare plant at that season," for an invalid daughter to whom he was much attached, and was last seen alive entering the medical college between one-thirty and two in the afternoon. When Parkman, a man of regular habits, did not return home, his family and friends became alarmed. The next day the police were notified of his disappearance, and a wide search was undertaken. Handbills were issued offering a reward of $3,000.

On Sunday, Webster informed Dr. Parkman's brother, Francis, that the missing man had called on him by appointment at the medical college at half past one on Friday and that Webster had settled his debt by paying him $483.

The search continued during the course of the following week. Webster's rooms at the medical college were inspected, the river was dredged, and a thorough search was made of the yards, outbuildings, and houses in the western part of Boston, where Dr. Parkman had large real estate investments (and perhaps other defaulting debtors).

The police inquiries extended as far as sixty miles through-out adjacent towns. While the police flailed about without success, an unexpected ally was at work. The janitor of the medical college, Ephraim Littlefield, whose living quarters were adjacent to Webster's laboratory on the upper basement story of the medical college building, suspected that Parkman's body must be hidden somewhere on the premises and concluded that the only place that had not been inspected was the vault under Webster's privy.

On November 29 (the Thursday after the disappearance) he set to work to pierce the privy vault and on the next day completed a breach of the wall. Inside the vault, near the opening he had made, Littlefield found certain remains of a human body — a pelvis, the right thigh and the left leg from knee to ankle — and certain towels marked with Webster's initials and similar to those used by the professor in his laboratory.

On Friday evening and Saturday morning, the police also found in an assay furnace (a furnace used to test metals) in Webster's laboratory, fused with slag and cinders, a great number of fragments of human bones and certain blocks of false teeth. Later on Saturday, they also discovered in a remote corner of the laboratory, in a place they had previously noticed but not examined, a tea-chest that contained, imbedded in tanning material and covered with minerals, the thorax of a human body, a left thigh, and Webster's hunting knife. Around the thigh bone was tied a piece of twine similar to that found in one of Webster's drawers. The various remains were examined and found to be parts of a single body that resembled the body of Parkman. Dr. Keep, Parkman's dentist, identified the false teeth found in the furnace as part of a set that he had prepared for the missing man.

Webster was arrested and charged with the murder of Parkman. From his cell, he accused Littlefield either of committing the murder or conspiring to fix the guilt on him. Webster was represented at his trial by two well-known members of the Massachusetts Bar, Edward D. Sohier, who had been primarily a civil lawyer, and Pliny Merrick, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. Merrick had greater criminal experience than Sohier, having served as district attorney, but Sohier took the role of lead counsel, because he had represented Webster in certain matters in the past.

After an eleven-day trial, the jury deliberated for a little less than three hours and returned a verdict of guilty; Webster was sentenced to be hanged. An appeal was made in his behalf to the governor for commutation of the sentence, and in the course of that appeal, in which Webster had initially asserted his innocence, a confession of the murder was ultimately filed with the Committee on Pardons of the Massachusetts Executive Council. That confession was promptly labelled a "hoax" by much of the press, because it contained some puzzling factual assertions and also was viewed as a last-ditch effort by Webster to save his life. In any event, clemency was denied, and Webster was hanged on August 30, 1850.

Obviously, the key to the case against Webster had been Littlefield's discovery of Parkman's remains, and therefore the centerpiece of the trial was "the janitor's story." Although the presiding judge, Chief Justice Shaw, suggested in his charge to the jury that "the facts and circumstances" that the janitor discovered "constitute the substance of the evidence," the judge cannot have failed to notice from Littlefield's testimony that his search for the body was oddly motivated and spasmodically performed.

Littlefield testified that he had been employed as janitor of the medical college for seven years and had known the defendant during that period; he had been acquainted with Parkman for twenty years. He was present at an interview between Webster and Parkman on the Monday prior to the disappearance. He heard Parkman ask, "Dr. Webster, are you ready for me tonight?" Webster answered, "No, I am not ready tonight, Doctor." Parkman accused Webster of selling or remortgaging collateral, and warned him as he left that "something must be accomplished tomorrow." Littlefield also said that, on the same Monday and before Parkman called, Webster had asked him a number of questions about access to the vault under the dissecting room of the medical college. The following day Webster asked Littlefield to carry a note to Parkman.

On Friday morning, November 23, as Littlefield set his broom behind the door to Webster's back room off the chemistry lecture room, he noticed a sledgehammer that was usually kept in the laboratory below.

The sledgehammer thereafter permanently disappeared, and Littlefield's recollection of its unusual whereabouts on the fatal Friday appeared to contain a gratuitous suggestion of its possible use as the murder weapon. Other signs of hostility to the defendant are scattered through the janitor's testimony, but in view of the accusations Webster had made against him, the witness's irritation is understandable.

The janitor further stated that on the afternoon of Friday, November 23, towards two o'clock, he saw Parkman coming toward the college, "walking very fast" (a not inappropriate gait for a persistent creditor). Later, when he went downstairs to Webster's laboratory-stairs door, which led out into the janitor's cellar, Littlefield found that door and another door to the laboratory bolted on the inside. He thought that he heard Webster walking inside the laboratory and water running. About half past five, as he was coming out of his kitchen, he heard someone coming down the back stairs that led into the janitor's cellar; it was Professor Webster, holding a lighted candle.

On Saturday morning, Littlefield unlocked the door of Webster's lecture room and tried to get into his adjacent back room, but found it locked. Presently, Webster arrived, a small bundle under his arm, and unlocked the door to the back room. He asked the janitor to make him up a fire in the stove.

Littlefield testified that on Sunday evening he had a conversation with Webster that aroused great misgivings in him. Webster asked him whether he had seen Parkman during the latter part of the preceding week, and the janitor told him that he had seen him coming toward the college about half past one on Friday.

The professor then volunteered that this was the very time that he had paid Parkman $483 and some odd cents. The janitor was struck with Webster's unusual demeanor: "Usually, when Dr. Webster talks with me, he holds his head up and looks me in the face. At this time, he held his head down, and appeared to be confused, and a good deal agitated. I never saw him so, before; that is, look as he did: My attention was attracted to it. I saw his face, and I thought that he looked pale."

On Monday, the janitor tried twice to get into Webster's room to make up his fires but found the doors bolted. On the same day Littlefield was in Webster's laboratory briefly on three occasions while visitors were calling in connection with the Parkman disappearance. The following day he was present during a police inspection of Webster's rooms; it seemed to him that when one of the police officers, Mr. Clapp, inquired about the privy, the professor "withdrew the attention of the officers from that place."

On Wednesday morning Littlefield saw Webster arrive at the college early and soon heard him moving things around in his laboratory. The janitor went to the laboratory door, tried unsuccessfully to look through the keyhole, and began to cut a hole in the door but gave up because he thought Webster had heard him. Later that day, as he was passing by, he found that the walls near Webster's laboratory were unusually hot. He thought that the fire must be coming from the assay furnace, where he had never known a fire to be and was afraid that the building would take fire. He climbed the wall to the double window of the laboratory, found it unfastened, and went in.

The first place he inspected was the assay furnace, in which he found only a small fire. He then examined two water hogsheads and found that two-thirds of the water was gone from one and that all the water had been drawn from the other. He also noticed that two-thirds of the pitch-pine kindlings in the laboratory were gone. As he went upstairs, his eye was caught by some spots on the stairs he had never seen before. Putting his finger to them, he found that they tasted like acid.

Thursday was Thanksgiving. In the afternoon, about three o'clock, Littlefield set about digging a hole through the wall of the vault under Professor Webster's privy. He testified in explanation of his action:

"I wanted to get under there to see if anything was there, and to satisfy myself and the public; because, whenever I went out of the College, some would say, Dr. Parkman is in the Medical College, and will be found there, if ever found anywhere.' I never could go out of the building without hearing such remarks, All other parts of the building had been searched, and, if nothing should be found in the privy, I could convince the public, that Dr. Parkman had not met with foul play in the College."

Using a hatchet and a chisel, he worked about an hour and a half but found he could not make much progress with these tools and gave up the job for the night. He went out that night and stayed up till four o'clock the next morning at a ball given by a division of the Sons of Temperance. About noon on Friday he had a conversation with Dr. Henry Bigelow of Harvard. He asked Bigelow whether he knew if there was any suspicion of Webster and Bigelow told him there was. Littlefield informed Bigelow that he had commenced digging through the wall and understood him to encourage him to continue with the work.

He testified that he received similar exhortations from Prof. John B.S. Jackson. Armed with this moral support from the Harvard faculty, he asked a foundry worker, Leonard Fuller, to lend him a crowbar, hammer, and chisel. He went back to work and made rapid progress. When he broke through the last of the five courses of brick in the privy vault, he made his grisly discovery.

This testimony by Littlefield was a focal point of a withering attack made in the press and within the ranks of the legal profession on the conduct of the Webster trial. The criticism of the trial spared no one; Chief Justice Shaw, the prosecution, and the defense counsel all were subjected to abuse.

In fact, the conviction of Webster led to a kind of regional warfare between the bars of New York City and Boston, with several New York lawyers leaping into print anonymously to savage the reputation of New England justice, and their Massachusetts colleagues rising against them in stout defense. One of the published diatribes against the Webster trial that won wide notoriety was a pamphlet entitled A Review of the Webster Case, by a Member of the New York Bar (1850).

It is now known that the author was A. Oakey Hall, a colorful Harvard Law School graduate whom Tammany Hall was to elect mayor of New York in 1868. By a stroke of luck that often awaits the compulsive bookbuyer, I recently happened upon a scrapbook of Hall's memorabilia of the Webster trial containing his manually annotated copy of a trial report, a group of pamphlets (including his own Review of the Webster Case), law journal articles, and newspaper clippings. These materials provide a unique insight into the roots of Hall's criticism of the trial.

A principal target of Hall's attack was the "silence and timidity of cross-examination evinced by the counsel for the defense," each of whom, to his mind, perhaps "thought more of playing the polished gentleman than discharging the duty of the enthusiastic advocate; and kept ever in mind that decorum and courtesy were more important than the acquittal of their client."

Hall was particularly sharp in his criticism of deficiencies in the cross-examination of Littlefield. He complained that the defense had not adequately probed the issue of the janitor's access to the scene of the crime. Why did they not press Littlefield about the circumstance that the dissecting-room was found unbolted the morning after Parkman's disappearance when it was bolted the night before? And if Littlefield could gain entry into Webster's laboratory on the famous hot Wednesday, could he not have done so on other occasions as well? Hall also argued that Littlefield's "whole tenor of mind" should have been "almost minute by minute from Friday to Friday brought into confessional." Hall's questions pressed on each other: Why had the janitor neglected to investigate the privy earlier? how did he come to hit upon the exact spot in the privy vault where the body would be found? would he not have found it easier to fit a key to the privy room, unnail the seat and lower a lantern than knock down the wall of the vault?

However, Hall's ultimate criticism was addressed to the failure to mount an all-out attack on Littlefield's credibility: "Why was not his life raked over from beginning to end; his ways of life investigated that his credibility might be securely known? Were the counsel fearful of a libel suit; or of an assault and battery; or a loss of popularity?"

It is not a simple matter to determine the extent to which Hall's denunciation of defense counsel's handling of Littlefield is justified. Hall probably did not attend the trial and appears to have based his judgments on his reading of an unofficial report of the trial by Dr. James W. Stone, which is bound into his scrapbook. Stone's account does not report questions put by counsel, and generally testimony is summarized rather than reproduced verbatim.

However, a fair-minded study of even this inadequate record of the Littlefield cross-examination does not fully bear out Hall's charges. The defense's questioning of the janitor, which was handled mostly by Sohier, occupied virtually an entire day of the eleven-day trial. Chief Justice Shaw, in his charge to the jury, observed that Littlefield had been "much sifted by cross-examination."

Many of the questions Hall would have liked to see pursued seem to have been put by Sohier to the janitor. He dwelt on the apparent inconsistencies in Littlefield's narrative: that he had begun to suspect Webster on the Sunday after Parkman's disappearance; that on the evening of Parkman's disappearance, even before he entertained such suspicion, he had returned from a party and tried the door of Webster's laboratory; but that after he became suspicious of the professor, he had taken no affirmative steps to investigate until he started to chisel away at the privy vault on the following Thursday.

Between Sunday and Thursday, Sohier emphasized, Littlefield had calmly accepted a gift of a Thanksgiving turkey from Webster even though he felt (as he implied in his testimony on direct examination) that this unusual show of generosity was intended to silence him.

Moreover, in this same period, he had foregone opportunities to look around Webster's rooms during four visits there in the course of the week after the disappearance, despite the fact that on two of those occasions he was in the company of police officers and at least once thought Webster was trying to distract their attention.

On the Wednesday when Littlefield entered the laboratory through a window to determine the source of the unusual heat, he did so only because he "thought the building was on fire." He noticed that the assay furnace was pretty hot, but (despite his suspicions) did not uncover the furnace because Dr. Webster had told him "never to touch articles, except placed upon a particular table."

In addition to highlighting the witness's strange reluctance to investigate the premises whose barred doors had previously aroused his apprehensions, Sohier also asked whether Littlefield could not have obtained access to the privy room; and tested the odd coincidence that Littlefield breached the privy vault at the precise spot where the body lay.

But the cross-examination, taken as a whole, still seems unsatisfactory. At least in the summary of the testimony given in the two principal reports of the trial, Sohier does not seem to have probed Littlefield's state of mind and motivation but to have focused instead on the externals of his behavior, thereby permitting the witness to restate and reinforce the chronological narrative he had given on direct examination. The principal weakness was the failure to make a straightforward attack on Littlefield's credibility.

Littlefield's role in the events at the medical college was, of course, the heart of the problem for the defense. It was certain, as Attorney General Clifford conceded in his closing argument, "that, these remains being there, it must have been known to Littlefield or Webster." If the defense were to maintain that the body's presence was unknown to the defendant, they must attribute its deposit (if not the murder itself) to the janitor. But in the cross-examination only two faint jabs were made at the janitor's integrity.

Early in his questioning, Sohier (probably attempting to establish a good reason for Webster having bolted his doors) asked Littlefield whether the professor had not caught him in his room at night playing cards. Littlefield made a lame attempt to evade the inquiry. "I decline answering that question; but I will say that I have not played any cards, in his rooms, this winter."

The only other direct attack on the witness's character was made by co-counsel Merrick, who established at the end of the cross-examination that Littlefield had seen reward advertisements a few days prior to beginning his assault on the privy wall.

However, it has been recently revealed by Judge Robert Sullivan, in his The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman (1971) that defense counsel rejected a more dramatic avenue of attack suggested by Webster in his voluminous trial notes addressed to Sohier.

Webster asserted that Littlefield had for years been moonlighting as a "resurrectionist" (grave-robber) and had been supplying dead bodies to the Medical College. The professor theorized that Littlefield had bought Parkman's body in a sack (a la Rigoletto) and attempted to obliterate its identity after he discovered to his horror who it was. Perhaps Sohier and Merrick thought that this suggestion smacked more of melodrama than of evidence. In any event, they let the janitor leave the stand with his story essentially unshaken and without any strong indication as to why he would have murdered Parkman, deposited his body, or attempted to implicate Webster falsely in his death.

Merrick later attempted to plug this gap in the defense — by a lengthy attack on Littlefield in his closing argument. When the bluntness and the biting satire of the argument are compared with the apparent restraint of the cross-examination of Littlefield, it is tempting to speculate as to whether there may not have been a disagreement between Sohier and Merrick on the approach to this key prosecution witness.

The possibility of a divergence of views is enhanced by the fact that it was Merrick who intervened towards the end of Sohier's cross-examination to confront Littlefield with the reward handbills and to suggest that they might have motivated his tardy attack on the privy vault. In Oakey Hall's copy of the trial report there are many handwritten marks and angry marginal comments on the Sohier cross-examination, but he made no annotations on the portions of Merrick's closing argument dealing with the janitor's story. Hall's charges of timidity are certainly not borne out by Merrick's onslaught against Littlefield, for Merrick stopped only slightly short of imputing the crime to the janitor:

"I regret Gentlemen, that my duty compels me to allude to the testimony of [Mr. Littlefield]. I regret that I am obliged to do so, because I am confident whatever is said about this has a tendency to point a suspicion toward him as the perpetrator of this crime. Now, Gentlemen of the Jury, you must not misunderstand me. I will not take upon myself the fearful responsibility, in defending one man, to charge another with the same crime. Far be it from me to say that I will charge Ephraim Littlefield with this crime! Far be it, whatever may be the tendency of my comments, if the effect should be to fix it upon him -- far be it from my intention to connect him with this crime! But, Gentlemen of the Jury, it is my duty to examine, and it is your duty to weigh, the testimony of this witness; and if there be anything which tends to affect the testimony of that witness, you must give it weight, whatever the consequences may be."

In addition to making this strong suggestion of Littlefield's guilt, Merrick also attempted to cast a raking light on Littlefield's obscure and conflicting attitudes towards Webster. He noted that, although Littlefield claimed that his suspicions were first aroused by his conversation with Webster on the Sunday after the disappearance, "you will find that his vigilance anticipated his suspicions, while they were followed by an unaccountable apathy and indifference."

In discussing Littlefield's search of the privy vault, Merrick followed the lines of Sohier's cross-examination by noting how odd it was that Littlefield had not first made any effort to gain access to the privy room itself and how it was even stranger that the remains were found exactly in front of the breach he had made but a few feet from a perpendicular line dropped from the hole in the privy seat.

He cast doubt on the prosecution's theory that the remains had been dropped from above: "Could they possibly have been placed there, in that particular spot, by any efforts through the hole in the privy?" But his most effective weapon in treating Littlefield's discovery of the remains was the irony with which he recalled Littlefield's inappropriate moods in the course of his grim search.

On the first night of his labors the janitor broke off his work "to join in the amusements of the festival of the season; and, after actually dancing eighteen out of the twenty cotillons that occupied the night, returned to sleep quietly in his bed, in an apartment beneath which, he professes to have believed, were lying the bones of a murdered human being. . . ."

On the following Friday morning, Merrick noted, Littlefield did not rise early to resume his work but chatted pleasantly with Dr. Webster who came into his room at nine o'clock while the janitor was still at breakfast. Merrick pointed out that, when Littlefield decided to obtain from Mr. Fuller more effective tools to finish the job, he said in jest that he wanted a crowbar to dig a hole in the wall to let in a water-pipe.

Finally, Merrick suggested that Littlefield appeared to take special pains to dismiss all possible witnesses from the scene just before he completed his breach of the privy wall. The defense counsel raised dark suggestions about the significance of this conduct:

"Did not Littlefield too well foreknow the information which he should soon have to communicate? Why else did he rid himself of the presence of all spectators? Why else would he have it that no human eye but his own should look into the vault, until he had first seen these remains there in safe deposit? Were not all things yet ready there for the inspection of others? These are fearful questions, of pregnant suggestion, of momentous import. I leave the answer to your own reflections."

I am left with the impression that Merrick's closing argument was sufficiently effective in its treatment of the janitor that Hall was unjust in passing over it in silence. However, a closing argument can do little to shake the credibility of an opposition witness who has not been successfully discredited on cross-examination. The question then remains why Sohier and Merrick did not make a stronger effort, while Littlefield was on the stand, to raise a substantial question in the jury's mind as to the witness's involvement in the crime or at least in the deposit of the body. By one of the strange quirks of legal history, it is possible that the answer to that riddle is to be found in the influence of another murder case that was tried a decade before in England, the famous Courvoisier case.

A Swiss valet, Francois Bernard Courvoisier, was charged in 1840 with murdering his master Lord William Russell in his bed in the fashionable Park Lane district of London. On the first day of the trial Courvoisier's counsel, Charles Phillips, sharply cross-examined a housemaid, Sarah Mancer, who had testified against her fellow-servant, Courvoisier.

The next morning, prior to the resumption of the trial, Phillips had one of the most chastening experiences a criminal lawyer can have in the midst of a trial: Courvoisier confessed to him that he had committed the murder but in the same breath insisted that Phillips continue the defense.

Phillips had a temporary failure of nerve and informed Baron Parke, one of the judges sitting in the case, of his client's confession and requested his advice. Parke was understandably annoyed with Phillips for breaching his client's confidence and prejudicing the judge's position but according to Phillips, told him that he was bound to continue the defense "and to use all fair arguments arising on the evidence."

On the third day Phillips rose to deliver his closing argument to the jury. The precise words he used on this occasion have been the subject of dispute to this day. It was charged by some, after the news of Courvoisier's confession became public, that Phillips had improperly expressed a belief in his client's innocence. But perhaps a more serious charge was that, despite his knowledge of his client's guilt, Phillips had reinforced his cross-examination of Sarah Mancer by casting a suspicion on her in the closing argument.

The latter complaint was to some extent just, although, in his closing speech, Phillips purported to disown his accusations even as he made them: "I must beg that you will not suppose that I am, in the least degree, seeking to cast the crime upon either of the female servants of the deceased nobleman. It is not at all necessary to my case to do so. I wish not to asperse them. God forbid that any breath of mine should send, tainted into the world, persons perhaps depending for their subsistence upon their character. It is not my duty, nor my interest, nor my policy, to do so."

By chance the controversy over Phillips's conduct, which raged fiercely immediately after the trial, was rekindled in 1849 when Phillips published a belated justification of his actions. A whole range of ancient questions of professional ethics were faced anew in their most intractable form: Is it appropriate for a trial lawyer to express to a jury his belief in the merits of his client's cause? To what extent should a client's confession, or his counsel's knowledge of or belief in his guilt, restrict the scope of cross-examination or argument? How and where does defense counsel strike a balance between his duty to his client and his obligation not to cause wilful harm to witnesses or third parties?

The revived debate over the ethical issues of the Courvoisier case raised strong echoes in America, and Phillips's courtroom conduct and his subsequent disgrace were very much on the minds of the lawyers in the Webster case and of their critics. It is a reasonable hypothesis that the reluctance of Sohier and Merrick to attack Littlefield more zealously in cross-examination and to brand him in the witness box as grave-robber or murderer was influenced by a desire to avoid Phillips's pitfall.

In fact, the controversy over Phillips's professional ethics was explicitly referred to by Attorney General Clifford in his closing argument: he alluded to "the great case of Courvoisier, for the murder of his master, Lord William Russell — that case which has made all Europe ring with strictures upon the conduct of the Counsel, whether just or unjust."

Lawyers who deplored the performance of Webster's defense counsel cited the example of Phillips's aggressiveness amid extreme difficulties as a standard by which Sohier and Merrick must be found wanting. Hall's approval of Phillips's tactics is evidenced by his inclusion in his scrapbook of an article favorable to Phillips. But voices from the Massachusetts bar were heard on the other side of the question. Hall also placed in his scrapbook an article on the Webster case from a Massachusetts journal, Monthly Law Reporter, which, after referring to the renewed uproar over Phillips in the English press, commented:

"Had Dr. Webster's counsel adopted the tactics of the English barrister, they might have saved their client; nor do we believe that the world would have regarded them with less favor on that account. So wanton and unreasonable is that fickle despot, public opinion! For the honor of our bar, we are glad that they did no such thing, and all the lampooners of New York and Philadelphia cannot harm them."

Significantly, Hall underlined only the words that are italicized, the words suggesting a lost opportunity to save Webster from the gallows.

There is something to be said for Hall's selective reading of this passage. The ethical problem faced by Webster's counsel was far different from the dilemma that confronted Charles Phillips when he delivered his final argument for Courvoisier. In weighing their duty to provide a vigorous defense of Webster against their responsibility not to inflict unnecessary harm on a possibly innocent prosecution witness, Sohier and Merrick did not have their consciences burdened with a client's confession.

On the contrary, Webster had himself publicly and privately suggested Littlefield's responsibility for the crime. Moreover, the Webster murder case, unlike the Courvoisier case and perhaps most other criminal trials where guilt has been imputed by the defense to third parties, involved a crime whose physical setting made it reasonably certain that either the defendant or a specific third party (Littlefield) was responsible for the victim's murder or the deposit of his remains: Under these circumstances, the failure of Sohier and Merrick to make an all-out attack on Littlefield in cross-examination could well have been interpreted by the jury as a show of embarrassment with their defense. No evidence of guilt can be more devastating in the eyes of a jury than the uneasiness of defense counsel with their client's cause. In this respect, Sohier and Merrick, while doubtless undeserving of the full measure of Hall's abuse, may have failed to serve Webster adequately.

The witnesses who faced the cross-examination of Charles Phillips and Webster's lawyers were heard of again after the trials in which they had figured passed into history. Sarah Mancer paid a terrible price for her innocent involvement in the Courvoisier case. The Examiner of London reported of her: "The cloud was heavy over her, and it passed so slowly that her life never more escaped from it. She died in a madhouse, driven mad by the sufferings and terrors, . . . the persecutions . . . the harassing interrogations to which she was subjected preceding the providential discovery of the guilt of Courvoisier. . . ." But Littlefield was clearly made of sterner stuff.

A press clipping included in Hall's scrapbook discloses that when an exhibition of waxwork figures of Parkman and Webster opened at Clinton Hall in New York City, "together with a perfect Model of the Medical College, Boston, in which the lamentable tragedy occurred," the celebrated janitor appeared as hired lecturer "to explain to the audience the particulars of the whole affair."

The New York newspaper commentary was scathing. But one report spared Littlefield so that points could be scored against the arch-enemy Boston. Littlefield, readers were told, was "not quite so shameless a fellow as we deemed him to be." After reading the comments of the Sunday press on his announced exhibition, he "had the grace to pack up his disgusting traps' and make himself scarce as quickly as possible."

The newspaper gave him credit for a sense of shame and wished him better profit from his regular profession at the Harvard Medical College. With a salvo of local pride that echoed the line of defense Webster had wished his counsel to take, the writer concluded, "There is a greater demand for dissecting subjects in the Massachusetts medical colleges than for disgusting subjects in New York."


The two principal contemporary accounts of the Harvard Murder case are found in George Bemis, Report of the Case of John W. Webster (Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1850) and James W. Stone, Report of the Trial of Prof. John W. Webster (Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1850).
I thank my friend, Cleveland antiquarian bookseller, Peter Keisogloff, for bringing to my attention the trial scrapbook of A. Oakey Hall, which is now in my collection.
Modern works on the case include: George Dilnot, The Trial of Professor John White Webster (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928); Robert Sullivan, The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971); Helen Thomson, Murder at Harvard (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971).
The political career of A. Oakey Hall is recounted in Croswell Bowen's The Elegant Oakey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956).
For a study of the ethical issues faced by the defense in the Courvoisier case, see David Mellinkoff, The Conscience of a Lawyer (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Pub. Co., 1973).

* This article was previously published in 66 ABAJ 1540-45 (1980), A Gallery of Sinister Perspectives 74-88, and in Jonathan Goodman (ed.), Medical Murders 231-252 (London: Piatkus, 1991).



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