Dr. John Webster Trial: 1850
Webster Kills Dr. Parkman, Webster's Trial Rocks Boston Society, Corpus Delicti Issue Decides Webster's Fate
Defendant: Harvard Professor Dr. John Webster
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Pliny Merrick and Edward D. Sohier
Chief Prosecutors: George Bemis and John H. Clifford
Judges: LemuelShaw, Charles A. Dewey, Thomas Metcalf, and Samuel Wilde
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Dates of Trial: March 19—April 1, 1850
Sentence: Death by hanging
SIGNIFICANCE: Because Dr. John Webster had dismembered his victim's body and disposed of most of the parts, the prosecution had to try Webster without showing the corpus delicti, or proof of the murder, namely the body. Webster's trial was one of the first murder convictions based on the testimony of the medical experts and other evidence produced by the prosecution that established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
By the 1840s Boston, one of America's oldest cities, had become home to many wealthy families with preeminent positions in American society, business, and politics. This East Coast elite were often referred to as "blue bloods." They were active in charitable and social causes, including supporting leading educational institutions such as the venerable Harvard University in nearby Cambridge.
Dr. John Webster, a professor of chemistry and mineralogy at Harvard's Medical College, had also earned his medical degree from Harvard. His fellow professors included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Webster, an educated and intelligent man, soon established a place for himself in Boston society. He socialized with some of America's great cultural and literary figures, including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. However, Webster found his new social prominence expensive to support.
Webster lacked personal wealth. Unlike his peers, he had not inherited a family fortune. Nor did his modest Harvard salary allow for lavish entertaining. He could support his social ambitions only by going into debt. One of his many creditors included Dr. George Parkman, whose family was one of Boston's most prominent. Webster borrowed more than $400 from Parkman, which in the 1840s was a sizable sum. Webster could not repay the debt, and in the fall of 1849 Parkman began to hound Webster to repay him.
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