|Dr. John White
Webster was a professor of chemistry and geology at Harvard Medical
College in the mid 19th
century. He aspired to a lifestyle that
his modest salary could not support and he borrowed heavily from
associates, including one Dr. George Parkman.
On November 23, 1849, as Parkman was attempting to collect payment from
Webster, Webster struck Parkman on the head with a piece of firewood
nearby fireplace. The blow fractured
Parkman's skull, and Webster’s efforts to revive him were
At that point, Webster bolted his lab door
shut and used his medical instruments to dismember Parkman's body. He
most of Parkman's body in the lab furnace.
There was no eye witness to this event, but Webster’s own suspicious
behavior led to his arrest on November 30, 1849.
Trial began in March of
1850. The prosecution had to try Webster
without showing the corpus delicti, or proof of the murder, namely the
body. Nevertheless, on March 30th the jury unanimously found him
guilty, and he was hanged on August 30th.
Webster's trial was one of the first murder convictions based on the
testimony of the medical experts and other evidence produced by the
that established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
For overviews of the crime, the
issues and the parties involved:
John Webster’s notes to his trial attorneys have been
preserved and may be accessed via the following URL, courtesy of the
Massachusetts Historical Society.
Stone, James W. Report of the Trial of Prof. John W.
Indicted for the Murder of Dr. George Parkman, before the Supreme
Court of Massachusetts.
(Boston: Phillips, Sampson &
Bemis, George. Report
of the Case of John W. Webster … Including the Hearing on the Petition
Writ of Error, the Prisoner’s Confessional Statements and Application
Commutation of Sentence (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown,