There was only one kind of murder in Massachusetts when the sensational Parkman-Webster case caught the world’s attention in 1850: The kind that got you hanged.
The case involved two Brahmins: John Webster, a well-connected Harvard Medical School professor. A third Brahmin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., described Webster as ‘pleasant in the lecture room, rather nervous and excitable.’ He had a problem, though: his family had run through its fortune, and he liked to live large. He borrowed $400 from George Parkman, one of the richest men in Boston. Of Parkman, Holmes wrote, ‘he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.’
The Parkman-Webster Case
On Nov. 23, 1849, witnesses saw Parkman entering Harvard Medical College, presumably to collect the debt from Webster. The next day, Parkman’s family reported him missing.
According to Webster’s confession much later,
Parkman had shouted insults at him and threatened to have him fired if he didn’t pay up. In a fit of passion, Webster picked up a thick wooden stick and struck Parkman once on the head, fracturing his skull.
When he realized he’d killed Parkman, he dismembered him in his laboratory and burned him in the furnace.
Webster’s janitor, Ephraim Littlefield, had become suspicious and noticed a $3,000 reward for information about Parkman’s disappearance. Littlefield snooped around the laboratory and found parts of Parkman’s body.
Police took Webster from his home in Cambridge on Nov. 30, 1849, without telling him why. Webster gave the police information about the murder without knowing why he’d been arrested. He found out when they took him to the Leverett Street jail.
The 1850 trial, from March 19 to April 1, attracted 60,000 people who watched all or part of the proceedings. Journalists came from Europe to cover it.
Trial and Punishment
Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw made a controversial ruling to allow circumstantial evidence in the trial. Parkman’s dentist testified that the jawbone with false teeth found in the furnace was unquestionably Parkman’s.
Rufus Choate and Daniel Webster had refused to defend Webster, and his lawyers didn’t serve him well. The jury then found Webster guilty, though many people believed there was a reasonable doubt that he committed the crime.
Webster said nothing during the trial, but confessed afterward in hopes of winning a pardon. It was too late. The Governor and Council refused to pardon him.
John Webster was hanged in a courtyard of the Leverett Street jail on Aug. 30, 1850.
Eight years later, the Massachusetts Legislature changed the law to restrict the police from using trickery when arresting suspects. And it divided murder into first and second degree.
First-degree murder was committed with “deliberately premeditated malice aforethought.” It could also be committed during any crime punishable with death or imprisonment for life. Finally, first-degree murder could be committed with “extreme atrocity or cruelty.” Murder that didn’t fit that definition was second-degree murder.
Ephraim Littlefield retired comfortably on his $3,000 reward.
With thanks to Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts, by Alan Rogers. This story about the Parkman-Webster murder was updated in 2021.