30 August 1850 – John White Webster
Humiliation befell Harvard in the shape of college lecturer John White Webster in mid-19th-century Boston.
The ivy-league chemistry professor bought shame on his faculty after he murdered a moneylender.
Webster was from a well-to-do family, who had made money in trade. But he had an expensive lifestyle to uphold as well as four debutante daughters who needed to be married off.
Luckily, he hadn’t squandered his time as a spoilt young boy growing up. He’d put his time and parents’ money to good use studying at Cambridge and winding up at Harvard as a lecturer, albeit an average one, according to the local Bostonian newspapers.
Nevertheless, in order to keep up appearances he wrote books and papers on his specialist subject – chemistry.
The challenge lay in trying to keep the books balanced on such meagre wages. Needless to say, he didn’t do too well on that front and often borrowed from his mates.
His need for money was eventually to throw him in the path of Parkman, however during his trial1, the prosecution deemed that it would ‘not be necessary to detail their business intercourse from an earlier period that the year 1842’.
It all started off modestly enough, but soon the debts were accumulating until Webster was forced to secure the loans on his personal property, including all his furniture.
By that time he was mortgaged up to the hilt with Parkman, so Webster turned to Parkman’s unsuspecting brother-in-law for more funds. This time he got part of the money in return for the sale of a cabinet, containing minerals – but this same cabinet already formed part of the collateral underpinning other loans and Parkman found him out.
The two men were at loggerheads and it was Webster’s indebtedness that was to motivate him to dispose of his walking, talking cash machine. Of course Parkman’s disappearance drew immediate attention and as he had been seen on Harvard campus, so focus was drawn to the university. Also Webster had been seen skulking around at a time when the Uni was closed – after all it was half-term and Thanksgiving.
Unsurprisingly therefore, on 30 November 1849 a gruesome discovery was made in a holed-up area behind Webster’s Harvard lab. It was originally made by the highly suspicious janitor and the police turned up to investigate further and the deathly remains were unearthed – namely a pelvis, a right thigh and a left leg all turned up prompting closer examination of the area in the following days.
Likewise bones, teeth (more of which later) and evidence of burned body were unearthed, while other bits of body were found down the toilet and Parkman’s chest in a tea-chest. Of course key bits were missing – namely the head, which was found to have been burned until only bone fragments were left. Yet, apparently Parkman’s wife was able to identify what was left of her husband’s remains from distinguishing marks.
Webster was charged with murder – the indictment read that he ‘…then and there feloniously, wilfully and of his malice aforethought did strike, cut, stab and thrust’ a knife that inflicted the fatal wound in George Parkman. And his was a landmark case because it was the first that America allowed dental and scientific details as admissible evidence in a court of law.
Somehow, it seems fitting that science should ultimately convict the man of science, and Webster was indeed found guilty of the murder of Parkman and sentenced to die. Eventually Webster was to ‘confess’ that he’d killed Parkman, but he maintained that he’d used a stick to kill him, which went against forensic evidence. Naturally, any kind of lesser sentence was refused.
So, despite this last-ditch and very desperate attempt to wheedle his way out of the death penalty, Webster was publicly hanged in Leverett Square in Boston, aged about 57. According to ‘Wikipedia’, among other sources, Mrs Parkman was the first to donate money in a collection set up to fund the now destitute widow and daughters who’d been left behind by their murderous dad.
1 This information is based on the first-hand ‘Report of the Case of John W. Webster’ attributed to John Webster himself, but it was actually prosecutor George Bemis who wrote it. According to information accompanying the book, it was written during an appeal for a reduction in the sentence.