“That villain! I am a ruined man!”
John Webster was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Erving
Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy at Harvard. Despite his respected position, Webster lived way beyond his means and borrowed money from innumerable friends and colleagues including several thousand dollars from his fellow academic Dr George Parkman, who had made a large sum of money from real estate.
Dr Parkman became annoyed at Webster’s refusal to repay the money despite several reminders. On 23 November 1849 Dr Parkman disappeared. Originally, it was thought that he was a victim of a kidnapping and a reward was offered for his return. Local rivers were dredged and empty buildings searched for him. Then Webster went to Parkman’s house at 8 Walnut Street and told the family that he had repaid $483, owing credence to a new theory that Parkman had been mugged and murdered.
However, Ephraim Littlefield, a janitor at the college had watched Parkman enter Webster’s laboratory and then noticed that the wall behind the assay oven in Webster’s laboratory was very hot.
On 30 November and with his wife keeping guard, Littlefield broke into a privy adjoining Webster’s lab and discovered part of a human leg and pelvis. He called the police who also found Dr Parkman’s teeth inside the oven. When he was told what Littlefield had done, Webster cried, “That villain! I am a mined man!” When Webster was arrested he tried to commit suicide by swallowing strychnine but still claimed to know nothing of the remains.
Harvard, Massachusetts, USA
Tuesday 23 November 1849
Webster was tried in Boston on 19 March 1850 before Lemuel Shaw, the father-in-law of writer Herman Melville. Webster claimed that the teeth in the oven were those of a medical corpse and not Dr Parkman’s.
Such was the interest in the trial that a shift system was introduced in the public gallery and people changed seats every ten minutes. It was estimated that 60,000 people saw some part of the proceedings, which lasted 11 days. By law, Webster could not give evidence and his lawyer suggested several alternatives for how Parkman ended up in Wester’s oven, to no avail. On 23 May, Webster confessed.
Parkman had come to his room to demand repayment; Webster had lost his temper and killed him with a grapevine trunk before cutting up his body. Webster went to the gallows on 30 August 1850.