Law Life: The most notorious murder trial of the 19th century

By Judge R. Marc Kantrowitz
The Daily Record Newswire

The medical evidence was gruesome.

“The head had been separated from the trunk just below the Adam’s apple by sawing through the upper vertebra. All the bowels and stomach were gone.”

While various parts of the cut-up body were discovered in different locations, the head never was. Attached to the pelvis, recovered from a privy located underneath the building, were male genitalia and six inches of intestines from the rectal area. A leg here, a knee there, pieces of body jammed into gutted larger pieces of body, and dislodged teeth and pieces of bone.

The identities of the victim and defendant fueled the shocking and grisly medical aspects of the case. The deceased, Dr. George Parkman, a non-practicing physician, spent his time overseeing the family’s extensive business holdings. Indeed, he was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, if not America.

The accused, Dr. John Webster, taught chemistry at Harvard Medical School. That Brahmins — a term coined by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a friend of both men and dean of the medical school at the time — would behave in such a manner was unimaginable; or as one member of the upper class opined, “It was the most disgraceful event in our domestic history.”

To the locals, the shock went even farther. For years they had heard dark tales of grave robbers stealing dead bodies and illegally selling them to the medical school for all sorts of imagined frightening experiments. And now the genteel, dignified and respected Dr. Webster was charged with the brutal slaughtering and dismembering of Dr. Parkman.

All highly unnerving and titillating. And as the word spread, the world reacted. In short order, reporters from as far away as London, Paris and Berlin flocked to witness the murder trial of the century.

Twenty years later, upon Charles Dickens’ second visit to Boston, when asked what he wanted to see, his first request was the room in which Webster killed Parkman.

Little did anyone know at the time but what transpired over the course of a nearly two-week trial would have vast legal ramifications to this day, notwithstanding that the factual details, like parts of Parkman’s body at the time, are largely lost.

Dr. George Parkman was as odd as Dr. John Webster was inoffensive. If Parkman weren’t so “quite peculiar in manner and person,” it is conceivable that he would today be considered one of the great innovators for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. His oddity was perhaps the unspoken reason he was not named to the post he coveted and desired, that of headmaster of Boston’s first insane asylum. Rebuffed, he turned to managing the family fortune, part of which involved lending money. Parkman helped secure his friend Webster a position at the medical school at Harvard. Sadly, academic employment afforded Webster far too little money to support the lavish lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. The small fortune he inherited, he squandered, and to support his wife and four daughters, he borrowed.

Parkman was only too happy to lend Webster money. When Parkman discovered, however, that Webster had secured other loans by mortgaging property already pledged to Parkman, the incensed and demanding creditor chased and publicly embarrassed Webster, threatening to go to court and ruin him.

On Nov. 23, 1849, Parkman went to the medical college to retrieve part of the debt owed. He never came out.

Within a week, parts of a body turned up in Webster’s lab and privy. Seeking to put the pieces of the puzzle and body together, the commonwealth turned to experts to prove its identity. More than 60,000 spectators, nearly half of Boston’s population, marched in and out of court in 10-minute intervals to witness the state’s attempt to prove the body was Parkman’s and that Webster murdered him.

And what of Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor who made the grisly discovery by chiseling through a basement brick wall feet thick? Littlefield, the go-between purveyor of corpses, the man who purchased dead bodies from grave robbers for the medical school’s consumption, and, more importantly, the man who was an expert at chopping up bodies.

There are few, if any, cases that have produced or furthered the number of fundamental legal principles used throughout our nation today than the trial of Dr. John Webster and subsequent appeal.

A murder without a body, forensic dental testimony, handwriting experts, proof of character and reputation, malice, murder and manslaughter, consciousness of guilt, alibi, taking a view, juror bias and circumstantial evidence were all highlighted in one manner or another.

Perhaps the greatest contribution to the law was the formulation of a reasonable doubt jury instruction that is still given, often verbatim, in every criminal trial in Massachusetts.

Lost however, like parts of Dr. George Parkman’s body, are the factual details of a trial many at the time considered to be a mockery.

When approached, Daniel Webster, Rufus Choate and Charles Sumner, three of the criminal legal giants at the time, all declined the invitation to participate in the most famous murder case in America at the time. While putting forth plausible excuses, the bottom line is that everyone thought Webster guilty and no attorney wished to soil his reputation by representing one who had committed so heinous a crime.

With the assistance of the Supreme Judicial Court, before which the actual trial would be tried, two attorneys were named: Edward Sohier and Pliny Merrick, both highly respected civil lawyers. However, as a hand specialist would not perform heart surgery, a civil attorney should not try a murder case. They did, with disastrous results.

It is clear, in 1849 as today, as to what the defense should have been: Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor who made the grisly discovery of Parkman’s body, did it. He had no great love for Webster, had easy access to Webster’s laboratory, and was skilled not only at hacking up bodies, but purchasing them from grave robbers ($25 for a whole body; $5 for the head only) and selling them to Harvard Medical School. He also would benefit greatly by collecting a reward many times his annual salary.

Counsel ignored nearly 200 pages of notes Webster had prepared, many countering Littlefield’s anticipated testimony. When Littlefield testified about Webster’s movements in the week following Parkman’s disappearance, Webster gave his attorneys the names of those who would contradict the janitor’s testimony. When Littlefield told the jury he was not interested in the reward, Webster identified a professor to whom Littlefield told an opposite story.

Counsel used none of Webster’s notes. Most egregious, the day after a handwriting expert testified, tying Webster to an anonymously penned bogus letter telling of Parkman’s whereabouts, a second letter, obviously written by the same person, arrived. Webster, who was in jail at the time, clearly could not have written it. His attorneys did nothing.

In his closing, as in his opening, defense counsel argued at length that if Webster were to be found guilty, it should be of manslaughter, not murder.

In contrast, the prosecution’s summation, which started at 9 and ended at 5, was, like the presentation of its case, effective.

What truly sealed Webster’s fate, however, were the jury instructions of Judge Shaw, who, inexplicably given the late hour, charged the jury for a little under three additional hours, ending at 8.

In part, Shaw suggested that perhaps Parkman had been drugged, notwithstanding there was no evidence of such an occurrence. Shaw further instructed the jurors to basically disregard the testimony of seven defense witnesses who stated that they had seen Parkman later that Friday afternoon, long after he would have left Webster.

We know what the jury thought given a letter one juror later wrote to a local newspaper. “Was there nothing more that could be said in Dr. Webster’s defense?”

Though more than 120 witnesses testified over 11 days, the jury took but a few hours to render the inevitable verdict of “guilty.”

After Webster was sentenced to death, an earthquake of criticism rocked the judiciary with its chief justice receiving the brunt. From one Philadelphia newspaper: “Judicial Murder in Boston.”

Perhaps in response to the outcry, the two prosecutors, two defense counsel and Shaw sat down and re-wrote the charge (as well as other segments of the trial) from how the jury was actually instructed to what it should have been told. Then-prosecutor George Bemis published the altered account as the official one, and from that version Chief Justice Shaw wrote Commonwealth v. Webster, one of the most noteworthy opinions in our legal history.

As one legal scholar opined, “The charge of Shaw as it appears in the Massachusetts Reports ... is not at all the charge delivered to the jury in March 1850.”

On Aug. 30, 1850, Webster was hanged. Prior to his hanging, he confessed to the murder. He requested that he be buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, but his lawyer, Ned Sohier, and others feared grave robbers and buried him in an unmarked grave in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End instead.

In 1853, Gov. John Clifford, who prior to being elected was one of the two prosecutors on the case, appointed Pliny Merrick, one of the two defense attorneys, to the SJC.

Judge R. Marc Kantrowitz sits on the Appeals Court. The above column, based primarily on books written by Robert Sullivan and Helen Thomson, is discussed in much greater detail in a book the judge is writing about the history of the Supreme Judicial Court.