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Dr. John Webster Trial: 1850

Webster's Trial Rocks Boston Society

The trial opened March 19, 1850. The principal judge was state Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw. Associate Justices Charles A. Dewey, Thomas Metcalf, and Samuel Wilde also sat on the bench. The state's case was handled by Attorney General John H. Clifford, with the assistance of George Bemis. The prosecution, aware of the problem of the missing corpus delicti, wasted no time in bringing forward a series of medical experts to testify that the remains discovered in Webster's lab were those of Dr. Parkman.

The prosecution's medical experts included Dr. Nathan C. Keep, Parkman's dentist. Keep testified that he recognized certain false teeth found among the human remains in Webster's lab as the very ones that Keep had made for Parkman years before. To establish the necessary connection between the experts' identification of Parkman's remains and their presence in Webster's lab, the prosecutors brought in Littlefield.

By this time, the spectators' gallery was packed. By the end of the trial, more than 50,000 people had been present at one time or another. The prosecution knew that Littlefield would make or break their case, and they brought out his testimony slowly but surely, leading eventually to Littlefield's climactic discovery of Parkman's remains in Webster's lab:

I took the crowbar and knocked the bigness of a hole right through.… There are five courses of brick in the wall. I had trouble with my light, as the air drew strongly through the hole. I managed to get the light and my head into the hole, and then I was not disturbed with the draft. I held my light forward. The first thing which I saw was the pelvis of a man and two parts of a leg. The water was running down on these remains from the sink.

Littlefield's next comment was an understatement, to say the least:

I knew that it was no place for these things.

Clifford had put on an excellent case, and Webster's attorneys were hardpressed. They tried to attack the janitor Littlefield's testimony by questioning his motives, including his desire to collect the reward offered by Parkman's family. Unable to succeed with this tack, Merrick and Sohier then presented a series of character witnesses. Although the retinue of socialites who testified on Webster's behalf was impressive, they could not shake the facts set forth by Littlefield's and the medical experts' testimony.

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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