Murder of Dr. George Parkman – Harvard Alumnae – 1849

george parkman promotional_poster_parkman_webster_case



George Parkman Dr from pbs

Dr. George Parkman

At 33 Beacon Street is the George Parkman House, its gracious facade hiding more than a few secrets. One of the first sensational “trials of the century” involved the murder of Dr. George Parkman, a wealthy landlord and Harvard benefactor. He was bludgeoned to death in 1849 by Dr. John Webster, a Harvard medical professor and neighborhood acquaintance who allegedly became enraged by Parkman’s demands that he repay a personal loan. At the conclusion of the trial, the professor was hanged; he’s buried in an unmarked grave on Copp’s Hill in the North End. Parkman’s son lived in seclusion in this house overlooking the Common until he died in 1908. The building is now used for civic functions. PBS TV produced a documentary about this murder that is for sale.


george parkman walking cinema

Parkman Murder on Beacon Hill Walking Cinema (MOVIE):

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george parkman game murderonfoot_pic_game_ja2010_1000px

George Parkman Game:

freedom trail boston

george parkman soliloquy

Soliloquy of Professor John Whit Webster, after the murder of Doctor George Parkman up to the time of his execution… Mary G. Doe.


The Teeth & Cast above of Doctor George Parkman murdered @ Harvard:

Dr. George Parkman – “The Pedestrian”

Called “The Pedestrian” by one Boston newspaper, Dr. George Parkman was famous for his regular daily walks through town to collect rent and loan payments. He did not even own a horse, though he could have easily afforded one, coming from one of the richest families in Boston. His habits were so regular that when he failed to meet his wife for lunch November 23, 1849, it was impossible to imagine anything but foul play. Equally impossible to imagine was that the perpetrator was someone from his own social class. When his killer was found to be a former Harvard classmate and current Harvard professor, it became a society crime with a public following to rival America’s greatest celebrity murders.

george parkman reward $3000 robert g shaw

Date: November 23, 1849

Location: Cambridge, MA

Victim: Dr. George Parkman

Cause of Death: Stabbing

Accused: Dr. John White Webster

Dr. George Parkman was a man of regular habits. Every day he could be seen walking through Beacon Hill and Boston’s West End where he owned a number of rental properties. His daily routine was so predictable that his neighbors said they could set their watches by the sight of his gaunt figure rushing past. Every afternoon at 2:00 pm he met his wife for lunch. When he failed to keep this appointment on Friday, November 23, 1849, and did not return home that evening, his family suspected foul play.

That afternoon he had planned to see Dr. John Webster, a professor of chemistry at the Harvard Medical College, to discuss repayment of a loan. Dr Webster had been borrowing money, putting up his possessions as collateral. He had borrowed money from Robert Gould Shaw, Parkman’s brother-in-law and business partner, using his mineral collection as collateral. Parkman was livid when he learned this because he had already loaned Webster money against the same mineral collection.

george parkman webster evidence

George Parkman and John Webster were both members of Boston’s privileged class—the class that would later be called “Boston Brahmans”— and had known each other since childhood. They had been classmates at Harvard, graduating two years apart, and Parkman had helped Webster get his position teaching there. But in appearance and attitude the two could not have been more different. Parkman was tall and slender, while Webster was short and stout. Parkman was energetic, but austere and frugal to the extreme; Webster, though somewhat dull as a professor was amiable and fond of food, drink and good company. Terrible at managing money, Webster was constantly in debt; a growing concern with three daughters approaching marrying age. He owed more than $2400 and his annual salary was $1200.

george parkman webster newsprint.gif

Parkman had studied medicine in Europe with a particular interest in mental illness. He returned to Boston anxious to implement his ideas on treatment of the mentally ill. Though he helped organize and finance the McLean Hospital, he was passed over for the office of director. Devastated by the rejection, Parkman gave up medicine and took over the family business in real estate and lending.

george parkman harvard medical center

Dr. Parkman was last seen at the Harvard Medical College that Friday. On Saturday his family printed flyers offering a $3000 reward for information leading to his discovery. Dr. Webster came forward and confirmed that he had met with Dr. Parkman on Friday and had, in fact, paid off one of his loans.

george parkman webster laboratory

After meeting with Parkman, Dr. Webster had supper at a restaurant and went home. That evening went with his family to a party where he enjoyed himself with his neighbors, playing whist and discussing the affairs of the day, including the disappearance of Dr. Parkman. In the days following Parkman’s disappearance here was nothing unusual in Dr. Webster’s behavior, with on exception. Webster had a long discussion with the Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor at the medical college, concerning Dr. Parkman’s visit to the college on November 23. It was more than the two men had spoken in the twenty years of working at the same college. He also gave Littlefield a turkey for thanksgiving, something he had never done before.

Littlefield and his wife lived in an apartment next to Dr. Webster’s laboratory. He made a small salary cleaning the professors’ labs and offices, which he augmented by supplying professors and students with corpses for dissection. It was not clear whether he purchased the corpses from “resurrectionists” or dug them up himself.

george parkman notice webster_011

What Littlefield remembered about November 23 was that Dr. Wagner had kept his laboratory door locked all afternoon and that the fire in his furnace was so hot it could be felt through the wall. Littlefield was in the laboratory when the police came to question Dr. Wagner and noticed that the door to his privy was locked. When the police asked what was behind the door Wagner directed their attention elsewhere.

george parkman the murder of

Access to the privy was shared by the dissecting room next door. It had an opening to brick vault below the basement of the building and was used to dispose of body parts when the students were finished dissecting. Littlefield was convinced that Dr. Wagner had murdered Dr. Parkman in his laboratory chopped him up and disposed of the pieces in the privy. Working on Thanksgiving Day and the day after, while his wife kept lookout, Littlefield took borrowed tools into the crawlspace under the basement and chipped threw several layers of brick on the privy vault. When he finally broke though and shone a lantern through the hole, he saw a man’s pelvis with genitals still attached and part of a leg. He knew the students had not been dissecting that week; it had to be Dr. Parkman.

george parkman trial of murder


Marshal Turkey of the Boston police was notified of the find and the marshal brought a contingent of policemen to the college. They extracted the body parts from the vault and searched Dr. Wagner’s laboratory finding charred bones in the doctor’s furnace and more body parts in a tea chest in a room adjoining the laboratory. The body parts were shown to Dr. Parkman’s wife who identified them as her husband’s remains from some markings on the skin and the extreme hairiness of the body.

The police went to Dr. Wagner’s home and he agreed to accompany them to the Harvard Medical School to answer some more questions. They took him instead to the Boston jail where he was arrested for the murder of Dr. Parkman.

Trial: March 19, 1850
The trial of Dr. Wagner received national and even international coverage, taking on the characteristics of the celebrity trials of the 20th Century. 60,000 Bostonians came to the courthouse to view the trial and they were admitted to the courtroom in ten minute shifts.

The prosecution had the daunting task of proving that the remains found at the medical college were, in fact, those of Dr. Parkman. A number of doctors testified that the remains were consistent with a man of Dr. Parkman’s age, height and build, and that they were not the remains of a dissected corpse. Dr. Nathan Keep, Parkman’s dentist, testified that a piece of dental work in the jawbone found in Wagner’s furnace was, without a doubt, made by him for Dr. Parkman. The first time human remains were identified in court by dental work.

The defense countered with doctors and dentists of their own who testified that the body could not be conclusively identified and that there was nothing unique in Dr. Parkman’s dental work.

The most damaging witness for the prosecution was Ephraim Littlefield who told of overhearing Dr. Parkman angrily demand payment from Dr. Wagner. He testified that Wagner had later asked about the privy vault, whether it was possible to shine a light on what was in it. Littlefield responded that it was not, because the gasses put out the flame. And Littlefield related all of the events and suspicions that led him to investigate the vault.

At 8:00pm on March 30, 1850 the jury began deliberation; shortly after 10:00 they returned with a verdict. Dr. Wagner was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Verdict: Guilty

The defense filed a writ of error, claiming the judge’s instructions to the jury were biased. The writ was denied. Webster asked for a full pardon and that was denied as well.
As the date of Dr. Wagner’s execution approached, the community – in Boston and beyond – was still divided as to his guilt. Boston authorities received letters from around the country from people opposed to hanging a man on circumstantial evidence and those generally opposed to capital punishment.

george parkman murder newspaper drawing

In a bid for clemency, Dr. Wagner admitted to killing Dr. Parkman but in self-defense, not premeditation. Parkman, he said, had become violently angry over the loan on the mineral collection and Wagner picked up a stick and fought him off. Had he intended to commit murder, Wagner said, he certainly would not have done it at the college.

george parkman john-white-webster-granger

Though petitions were circulated to commute his sentence, the request was refused. On August 30, 1850, Dr. Wagner was publically hanged. The fall broke his neck and he was dead within four minutes. He was buried in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, in an unmarked grave to discourage grave robbers.

george parkman correct likeness of

The case had such notoriety that when Charles Dickens came to America, one of his requests was to visit the room where George Parkman was murdered.>



george parkman derastus clapp

Derastus Clapp is most noted for his role in the arrest and prosecution of John White Webster for the murder of George Parkman.  Derastus was America’s first was head of the first city detective bureau in the United States, located in Boston,  Massachusetts.

Bio of George Francis Parkman, Jr. :

George Parkman JR bio


Birth: 1790
Suffolk County
Massachusetts, USA
Death: Nov. 23, 1849
Suffolk County
Massachusetts, USA

George Parkman was Medical Doctor who started the McLaren Asylum in Boston, and sold the land for the Harvard Medical School. He was also a landlord and moneylender. Parkman was killed on November 23, 1849 by Dr. John Webster when he went to collect the 2,432-dollar debt that was owed. This was the first trial in America that used medical evidence.
Dorchester North Burying Ground
Suffolk County
Massachusetts, USA
Edit Virtual Cemetery info [?]
Created by: TR Kromer
Record added: Jul 23, 2003
Find A Grave Memorial# 7703530


One Response to “Murder of Dr. George Parkman – Harvard Alumnae – 1849”

  1. Parkman House 8 Walnut St Boston MA | Parkman Genealogy Says:

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