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Dr. John Webster Trial: 1850

Corpus Delicti Issue Decides Webster's Fate

Webster's lawyers still had one ace in the hole, however. The law required that the prosecutors prove the existence of a crime, or the corpus delicti. In a murder case, this had always been assumed to mean that the prosecutors must physically produce the corpse of the person allegedly murdered. Therefore, Merrick's closing argument for the defense rested on the assertion that, in the eyes of the law, the state had not proven that the remains found in the lab were Parkman's. Even if the remains were Parkman's, Merrick continued, the state hadn't shown how he was killed.

After the lawyers made their closing arguments, Judge Shaw spoke to the jury on the issue of whether circumstantial evidence could establish the existence of a crime. If so, then the prosecution's evidence would be enough to prove the corpus delicti and convict Webster of murder. Shaw's ruling destroyed the defense's chances for victory:

It has sometimes been said by judges that a jury never ought to convict in a capital case unless the dead body is found. That, as a general proposition, is true. It sometimes happens, however, that it cannot be found, where the proof of death is clear. Sometimes, in a case of murder at sea, the body is thrown overboard on a stormy night. Because the body is not found, can anybody deny that the author of that crime is a murderer?

Therefore, Shaw made it possible for the jury to conclude from the overwhelming evidence presented by the prosecution that Webster had murdered Parkman. The jury took less than three hours of deliberation to find Webster guilty. On April 1, 1850, Shaw sentenced Webster to death by hanging. After an unsuccessful appeal and an equally fruitless petition for leniency from the governor, Webster confessed. Webster admitted that Parkman had visited him in his lab and that when Parkman pressed him for payment of his debts he had killed him, dismembered his body, and attempted to destroy the parts.

Webster's version of the events was that Parkman had provoked him to the point of blind fury, thus causing him to kill Parkman. After seeing what he had done, Webster said he panicked and butchered Parkman's body to conceal the evidence. Webster's confession, if made at trial and believed by the jury, could have led to his receiving a lighter sentence based on a plea of temporary insanity.

But it was too late for Webster to escape the hangman. His confession did not persuade the governor to commute his sentence. On August 30, Webster was executed. Webster's hanging put an end to one of the most sensational scandals to rock Boston society and Victorian America.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cozzens, James Gould. A Rope for Dr. lVebster. Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark, 1976.

Morris, Richard. Fair Trial. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

Schama, Simon. Dead Certainties. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Sullivan, Robert. The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co. 1971.

Thomson, Helen. Murder at Harvard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Additional topics

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