Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

George Parkman

The Corpus Delecti

On December 6, a funeral was held for Parkman, and thousands of spectators lined the streets to watch the procession. Some five thousand had even taken a tour of the medical college to see where the grisly deed had occurred. Just as interesting to everyone was the question of who would defend John Webster, and the discussions over all these details were heard everywhere around town.

The famous orator, Daniel Webster, was approached for the job. Featured in a tale, The Devil and Daniel Webster as the kind of clever man who could take on the devil and even beat him before a jury composed of the notorious dead, he could clearly put up a fight for the accused. However, he was crushed under his own workload. While he was interested in what would happen, he declined to be the star attraction.

Despite the difficulty in finding a willing lawyer, John Webster began to write out his own defense in detailwhat he knew to have happened and how best to approach the jury to prove his innocence. He expected that anyone who defended him would abide by it.

The prosecution had some problems as well. The remains were in such a poor state that it was difficult to determine the identity of the victim. In fact, the inquest jury who was to decide whether a trial should take place wondered how anyone could know for sure that these were not remains from dissection, a normal course of endeavor at a medical school. They also pointed out that the two thighs found were entirely different sizes, and the coroner had to patiently explain to them that one had been exposed to fire and had been left inside a torso, whereas the other one had been waterlogged down in the privy. They could still be from the same person. Yet in the end, all they had were pieces, not a whole body, and to that point, no one had ever been identified by such small bone fragments. It would be a difficult case.

The inquest jury's written decision took up 84 pages, and they decided that the body parts were indeed those of George Parkman, that he had been killed and dismembered at the medical college, and that John Webster was accountable for it. Later, using these findings, the grand jury returned a True Bill and indicted him. According to the actual report, they believed that Webster had assaulted Parkman with a knife, and also had beaten and struck him until he was dead. The exact cause of death was not spelled out.

During this time, the press was looking into every episode of poor behavior on Webster's part and reporting them to the populace. The initial shock and disbelief about an esteemed professor was turning into anger at this unstable, undignified, nasty man. He even abused dogs!

Nevertheless, Webster fully believed that he would be acquitted and he presented himself in good spirits to his visitors in prison. His family fully supported him.

The court gave him a list of attorneys, and he chose Judge Pliney Merrick and Mr. Edward Sohier. Both were Harvard graduates. However, rather than discuss trial strategy with them, Webster handed them his prepared papers. Basically it was the same story he had told to everyone else: he'd asked Parkman to come to the college to collect his money, had paid it in full, and had received assurance that it would be recorded as such. He had no knowledge about the body parts found in his privy.

The trial began late on March 19, 1850. Judge Lemuel Shaw, 68, presided. It was to last 12 days, and according to Thomson, some 60,000 people saw at least part of the proceedings, which made for a somewhat noisy and chaotic atmosphere, not the least of which were the shouts for silence.

It was a large courtroom with a prisoner's dock to the left, surrounded by an iron railing. The judge sat across from the dock. To the right of the bench was the jury box.

The defendant was neatly dressed for his first day in court, carrying gloves. Within an hour, to everyone's surprise, 61 men were questioned and from them 12 were empanelled in the jury box who said that they had not formed an opinion about Webster's guilt or innocence. It seemed impossible to have a jury seated so quickly.

Attorney General John Clifford talked for three hours about the facts of the case and a review of the evidence that would be presented. He used vivid imagery to convey the brutality of the crime, how Parkman had been killed and his skull fractured. How his parts had been burned or dumped into a toilet. Then his junior associate called witnesses who had participated in the investigation, although they admitted that they would not have recognized the remains as George Parkman's. The man had been too damaged.

The next day, the jury visited the Medical College to see the scene of the crime. They even went down to the privy pit to lean in and see where the remains had been found. Then they were shown a model of the college, made by a local dollhouse carpenter, which Marshal Tukey used as a tool for explaining the stages of the investigation.

When the coroner took the stand, he described Webster's behavior upon being arrested for the murder as "mad," which puzzled people. Webster's lawyer made no move to object to this portraiture. No one could understand why.

More enticing to the press was the testimony of a physician who talked about the requirements for burning a corpse - he had once done so - and how bad it would smell. Then someone from the college discussed the differences between the typical specimens they used for dissection and those found after Parkman's disappearance. They were not the same.

Dr. Wyman, in charge of the bones, had drawn a life-size skeleton showing which parts of the body had been recovered. Another doctor described it all to the jury.

The defense attorneys asked enough questions to put into doubt the fact that anyone could actually identify these remains as those of George Parkman. They also sought to establish that the so-called "wound" between the ribs had been inflicted post-mortem in the routine process of dissection. They wondered, if it had killed a man, where all the blood was. No one had yet explained that.

By the third day, it was clear that the prosecution was relying heavily on medical testimony. First, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, dean of the Harvard Medical College, took the stand and said that he believed that the dismembering was done by someone with knowledge about human anatomy and dissection. He also said that a wound between the ribs would not necessarily produce a lot of blood, and that the remains were "not dissimilar" to Parkman's build.

Dr. Wyman again described the bones, saying that in the furnace he had found bones from the head, neck, face, and feet, and he used actual bone fragments to demonstrate how they fit together. Then Dr. Nathan Keep, Parkman's dentist, discussed the fact that the jawbone found in the furnace with the false teeth still fitted into it was in fact that of George Parkman. Dr. Keep recognized his own handiwork. He had made an impression of the jaw, which he still had, and it fit exactly the jawbone found in the furnace. The jury got to see and handle this plaster cast.

In the midst of his testimony, the fire bells rang outside. It turned out to be in the building where the attorney general had his belongings, so he asked to be allowed to go fetch them. Webster chatted happily with friends during this recess.

Then Dr. Keep resumed. When he demonstrated how the loose teeth found in the furnace fit his plates, he burst into tears. Then he pulled himself together as the court waited and proved by an inscription that the mold had been made specifically for Dr. Parkman.

This testimony seemed fairly definitive, but that was not to be the end of the dental evidence. The defense had its own expert.

But first Ephraim Littlefield would tell his story.



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