Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

George Parkman

A Verdict and a Twist

The jury members began their deliberations with prayer and then went over the evidence, piece by piece. Votes were taken, and on the question of whether the remains were Parkman's, the response was unanimous. They all also affirmed that Parkman had been killed by John Webster. They discussed whether it had been a willful act, and finally decided that indeed it had been.

On that very same evening that they went out to deliberate on the matter, the jury said they had returned a verdict. The prisoner was led to the dock and the courtroom filled up. The jury came in and the judge asked them about their finding.

"Guilty!" the foreman said.

John Webster was stunned. He sat down and put his head in his hands. Emotion swept through the courtroom, even among those who believed him guilty.

At a later date, he was sentenced to be hanged.

The lawyers submitted a writ of error against the judge and the manner in which he had charged the jury, which was denied. Webster asked for a full pardon, also denied.

Then he made a surprising move: he admitted to the homicide. Ironically, it was a last-ditch effort to save his own life. He said that he had indeed killed Parkman, but had done so in self-defense when Parkman had become belligerent over the debt. It was an act of passion and provocation, not willful, malicious murder. He said that Parkman had been angered over the fact that the mineral cabinet, which had been mortgaged to him, was then put up for collateral on another loan, so he had come in demanding to be paid. It had scared Webster, who had picked up a stick and beat him off. Webster also pointed out that if he had premeditated the murder, he'd have behaved quite differently in several ways and certainly would not have killed the man at the college. And finally, he admitted to authoring one of the anonymous letters. But only one.

It was a clever gesture and it did earn the sympathies of people willing to sign petitions to commute the death sentence, but it didn't work. That he could conduct his life in so regular a manner for a week, and even enjoy himself and his family while knowing he had committed this deed, looked very bad. His sentence remained the same.

On August 30, 1850, John Webster was marched to the gallows and hanged. He died within four minutes and was later interred at Copp's Hill Burying Ground, disguised to prevent body snatchers from getting at it.

After Webster died, there was a great deal of public protest and hindsight evaluations of the trial strategy. The evidence was highly circumstantial, many insisted, and the reasons for Webster's sudden uncharacteristic aggression lacked credibility. The debate endured, and the case continued to inspire interest for some time as far away as Europe. During that time, crime historians called it "America's Most Celebrated Case," and even Charles Dickens came to see for himself the room where George Parkman was murdered.

Yet for the legal system, the murder trial was a turning point. Ever after, the medical expert became a central figure in the evaluation of deaths and death investigations, and the politicized coroner system inherited from England began to give way to a system using medical examiners. More states than not now employ medical examiners as coroners or in place of coroners, and someday the entire country may yield to a uniform practice. "Legal medicine" became a subspecialty of training in pathology, and even more precision about postmortem details was introduced into criminal testimonies. Despite the complaints in 1850, the Webster trial made important forensic progress.



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