Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

George Parkman

The Search

There were those who believed that the mercurial man had suddenly just left the city; there were also rumors that he'd been beaten up for the money he always carried and taken awaysomeone had actually seen him over the weekend, it was said. There were even rumors that a certain man aspired to take Parkman's place in his home on the Square, comforting the widow and inheriting all the properties. Yet no theory was proven out. Marshal Tukey even had the river and harbor dragged for a body, and sent men to neighboring towns to check, but to no avail. Search parties were formed that went out day and night, yet still there was no news.

The police went into Harvard Medical College twice to look through the place, with special emphasis on the laboratories and dissecting vaults, but they found nothing to indicate that Parkman had even been there. That sent them to Parkman's buildings, both rented and vacant, and even to abandoned buildings that he did not own.

Reports began to trickle in from people who had seen the man on Friday afternoon, as well as letters to the effect that Parkman had been murdered in various places, such as Brooklyn, New York, or taken on board a ship. These missives were not signed, but were mailed from Boston, and no one knew quite what to believe.

But a Mr. Shaw knew that George Parkman had been in a highly emotional state on the day he had disappeared. Parkman had recently learned that the very same collateral that Webster had offered on the loan owed to him had been used to secure another loan of $600. Parkman had flown into a fury over this fraud and betrayal. He, George, was being cheated, and after all he had done for the man! Clearly he was in a temper when he'd gone to his meeting to have it out.

Portrait of Ephraim Littlefield (Massachusetts Historical Society)
Portrait of Ephraim
Historical Society)
But someone else was pondering the matter as well: Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor at Harvard Medical College. He and his wife shared the same floor with John Webster's labshad done so for seven years-and he generally set up the specimens for lectures. He'd seen some peculiar behavior lately and he didn't understand what it meant.

A few days after Parkman disappeared, Littlefield had encountered Professor Webster in the street, he told the marshal, and Webster had confronted him with the question of whether he had seen George Parkman at the school the week before.

He admitted that he had, at around 1:30 on Friday afternoon.

Webster struck his cane on the ground - an odd gesture - and continued to ask questions: had Littlefield seen Parkman anywhere in the building? Had he seen him after 1:30? Had Parkman been in Webster's own lecture room?

Littlefield shook his head to these queries, whereupon Webster repeated the details of his meeting with Parkman in the same manner that he'd recited them to Parkman's family. He was quite precise about the figure he owed and the fact that the debt had been cleared. Then without another word, he walked off.

He had said more in this single encounter than he'd said to Littlefield in their entire association at the college, and the whole exchange was more than a little puzzling to the janitor. In fact, four days prior to Parkman's visit, Littlefield now remembered, Webster had asked him a number of questions about the dissecting vault, and after the college had been searched, Webster had surprised Littlefield with a turkey for his Thanksgiving dinner. Once again, it was suspiciously out of character.

Then on November 27, Webster had come into his office early and Littlefield had watched under a door, seeing Webster's feet as far up as his knees, as the professor moved from the furnace to the fuel closet and back. He made eight separate trips, and later in the day, his furnace was burning so hard that the wall on the other side was hot to the touch.

When Webster was gone, Littlefield let himself into the room through a window, all the doors being bolted, and made a strange discovery. The kindling barrels were nearly empty, though they had recently been filled, and there were wet spots in places where there shouldn't have been. They tasted like acid. All very strange.

The other thing that puzzled Littlefield was how people were beginning to suspect him of some sort of foul play. Parkman had been seen going into the college, said some, but not out. Had the janitor done something?

Almost a week after Parkman's disappearance, Littlefield was suspicious enough of Webster and tired enough of unwarranted suspicions about himself that he put some extra effort into the search. He knew there was one place in the college associated with John Webster that had not been searched, and his clandestine enterprise over the next several days was to turn the case into one of the most grisly and gruesome Boston had ever seen.



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