The Dr. John Webster Trial: Selected Links
by Kathleen Hall

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 friends and 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 from the nearby fireplace.  The blow fractured Parkman's skull, and Webster’s efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.  At that point, Webster bolted his lab door shut and used his medical instruments to dismember Parkman's body. He burnt 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 prosecution 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. Webster, Indicted for the Murder of Dr. George Parkman, before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.  (Boston:  Phillips, Sampson & Company, 1850).

Google Books Link

Bemis, George.  Report of the Case of John W. Webster … Including the Hearing on the Petition for a Writ of Error, the Prisoner’s Confessional Statements and Application for a Commutation of Sentence (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850).

Famous Trials Website