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Dr. John Webster Trial: 1850

Webster Kills Dr. Parkman

Shortly before Thanksgiving Day, 1849, Parkman confronted Webster in person at Webster's laboratory on the Harvard Medical College grounds. Parkman demanded that Webster pay his debt and threatened to use his influence to have Webster removed from the faculty. What must have gone through Webster's mind is still an open question and is colored by his post-trial confession that suggests temporary insanity. Whether Webster developed an uncontrollable temper or was carrying out a plan of premeditated murder, the fact remains that he savagely struck Parkman on the head with a piece of firewood from the nearby fireplace.

The blow fractured Parkman's skull, and he fell to the floor. Webster's homicidal fury subsided, and he unsuccessfully attempted to revive Parkman. When this effort failed, 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, but the process went slowly.

Ephraim Littlefield, the Medical College's janitor, had seen an earlier confrontation between Webster and Parkman. Littlefield became suspicious when on the day of Parkman's fatal visit to Webster, Littlefield found the lab door bolted shut and the wall by the furnace red-hot. Several days later, the Parkman family began advertising rewards for information leading to the whereabouts of the missing doctor. Littlefield's suspicions deepened, and he took it upon himself to break into Webster's laboratory by patiently chiseling his way through one of the lab's brick walls. After a couple of days Littlefield broke through, and to his horror saw the partial remains of a human body, including portions of the legs and pelvis of a man.

Littlefield quickly informed the police, who searched Webster's lab and found more remains, charred and half-destroyed, in the furnace. The police arrested Webster, who unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by swallowing a poison pill. The authorities charged Webster with Parkman's murder, to which he pleaded not guilty. Webster's well-heeled friends attempted to hire counsel on his behalf, but they were unable to find lawyers willing to represent someone who seemed guilty of a heinous crime. Webster was forced to rely on two courtappointed attorneys, Pliny Merrick and Edward D. Sohier, for his defense.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Dr. John Webster Trial: 1850 - Webster Kills Dr. Parkman, Webster's Trial Rocks Boston Society, Corpus Delicti Issue Decides Webster's Fate