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Episode 149: Dr. Parkman is Missing

2020-10-09 | 🔗

In the mid-1800s, Harvard Medical School had a reputation for being a “den of body snatchers.” And then, in November 1849, the school’s most prominent supporter, Dr. George Parkman, went missing. He was last seen walking into the medical school building. Several days later, a janitor, named Ephraim Littlefield found something strange in the lab of faculty member Dr. John Webster.

Paul Collins’ book is Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Support for criminal comes from progressive saving. Money on your car insurance is easy with progressive. It's an average saving. Of over seven hundred and fifty dollars for customers who switch and safe. In fact, customers can qualify for an average of six discounts on their auto policy with progressive this counts just for starting a quote online or having multiple vehicles on their policy, get your quote online at progressive dot com and see how much you could be saving national annual Average auto insurance savings by new customers surveyed in two thousand nineteen potential savings will vary, discounts very and are not available in all states and situation, On Friday November, twenty three rd eighteen, forty nine a doctor named George Parkman, walked into a grocery store on Fruit Street in Boston. Here's one the richest man in town, a graduate of Harvard medical schools singled out Just donor, the ordered, Thirty two pounds of sugar and sixpence of butter to be done:
to his house, a neighbor came into the store, and but something about the weather, Doktor Parkman said to his neighbor. We not find fault with such weather. Is this and then he turned to leave but before he left the store, he turned after the grocer and asked It could leave something with him behind. The counter it was a closed paper bag, Dr Parkman, said he would come right back for it and then he walked away, Many hours later, the grocery store clerk opened the paper bag inside He found one head of letters that was actually one of the first noticeable signs of his disappearance, which was he never came back for his lettuce. We about Dr Park Man's disappearance from Paul Collins he's an author and per I serve English at Portland State University.
initially when Parkman didn't come home. His absence was noticed, but it wasn't particularly remarked upon some not immediately coming home, is not quite the same cause for alarm that it would be today for the simple reason that, if you're out and about in the field- and you gets duck somewhere, there's an issue with the roads or with a railway or whatever, it's actually quite difficult to get back in touch with your house and so it wasn't until the following morning, when he still not showing up that's when they knew that something was was really wrong to the police were were sent out. They were sent to interview people at railway stations. They began to drag harbor and the Charles River. It was really an all out effort to find him police determined that after Dr Parkman left first restore? He was seen one more time walking.
The front steps of his alma Mater Harvard Medical School. and at that point he basically seems to disappear. We this he had seen Doktor Parkman walk into the medical school building, but no one had seen him come back out. One of the challenges of one going missing and perhaps having and killed in a medical school building. Is that A building is literally full of cadavers, police viewed the janitor, a mandate from little field who lived in the basement of the building with his wife and children, he is also more quietly the person that helps procure bodies for the dissecting room and that's actually a touchy subject. For the medical school, because many schools. Schools are very reliant on having cadavers for their to to work on, but there's only few legitimate ways to get a hold of them, and they need many more than
they can actually get Harvard like a lot of medical schools and the United States struggled to find enough cadavers for decades in the other cities in the country. Medical schools would bribe cemetery workers for bodies, but Paul Collins says that people in Boston, many of whom were Irish Catholic frowned on these, so called body snatchers, also known as well directions, and so Harvard Medical School had to look somewhere else for their cadavers, often quietly purchasing them from New York, cemeteries, and so little field is also planned of responsible for for that for fighting right people to bribe. Basically, medical students had to pay a five dollars fee to offset the expense of supplying the cadavers Paul Collins. Does it wasn't an explicit grave robbing
and but it might as well have been. The illegal practice became very public in eighteen, forty eight, when young woman from New Hampshire named Sarah Ferber, Missing as well, New Hampshire newspaper reported quote her body. Was Boston where been found in a dissecting room. Sarah Ferber had traveled from New Hampshire to New York to have an abortion, she died during the procedure and the doktor pact, her body and strong, charcoal and travelled with it to Boston. He arranged a visit with the Dean Harvard Medical School, the dean told the janitor f from little field to inspect the body and if it was in good condition, little field was to buy it and that's what he did, but when Sarah herbers body was on the dissecting table Harvard Faculty,
realized how how the woman had died and how recently and they called the police. It was a scandal there, a trial and his Paw Collins says Harvard was firm established in the public. As a den of body snatchers. It was John over a year. Later the Doktor George Parkman was seen walking into the medical college, but was not seen walking out police from confronted with trying to find one man's body in a building for the bodies were so called. Skeleton Bach, were available for check out and were faculty often place their orders for pints of blood. I'm Phoebe judge. This is correct, What was Harvard like in the MID fifties
Harvard was inextricably tied with the power structure of Boston and of Massachusetts. More brought any politician, any judge, any major business figure in the state. It was sort of the the the finishing school so to speak, for entering the elite state and of the city, also even among the undergraduates, the families that they were coming from and the fields that they were going into we're becoming kind of increasingly mercantile. If you look at the estate sizes of both the students and oddly enough, the faculty at Harvard, they start getting bigger and bigger in this era and with the faculty, that's certainly not because of what they were be.
Paid by harboured. It's the faculty were also increasingly coming from money. So is the elite teaching the elite? That's exactly at this presented. problem for one faculty. Member Doktor John Webster Webster had been teaching for four decades at Harvard and was sort of part of the year, the old, the old power structure of the city and the the faculty there, but he was having a difficult time, keeping up fine,
kind of keeping up appearances and keeping up his finances. You mean because the Harvard professor didn't really get paid much and to keep the lifestyle up. They had to have their own money. Yes, and no. So in Webster's case he actually came from some money, but he squandered it. He basically built a very expensive house. He was fond of sort of small luxuries but kind of having a constant flow of them and was constantly buying the latest books sheet, music, little statues, Knick knacks, going in and travelling with his family, and so he managed Run through his inheritance and once he was down to just one The actual salary was for a Harvard professor, that indeed not enough to maintain the kind of life that people seem to expect of Harvard professors they just didn't didn't pay very well.
On Webster, along with all of his colleagues at Harvard Medical School, fully cooperated with the police. In there, Sir for George Parkman police search, the building from top to bottom. They repeatedly search the apartment of the janitor and little field. Looking under his bed, even looking in his bed and then a few days before Thanksgiving the police officers pause their search and went home to be with their families, most of them faculty left to little field. Wisting on campus and John Webster gave him a gift of Turkey. From the best shop in town. He could pick it up the day before Thanksgiving that morning little field woke up early and went to work. He was trying to get into Webster's lab just do the usual sweeping up
cleaning, the laboratory glassware emptying out the furnace that kind of stuff and he couldn't get in the door, was locked, which was very unusual and he found himself almost the whole afternoon, not able to get in, and really not able to get a response from their either and then even after Webster left Webster left the lab locked safe? He couldn't go into clean it up, and that was the first sign that something odd was happening simply because he couldn't get The room little field carried a small utility knife which he slid into George until it cracked he turned around to find his wife and in the stairs behind him. She called to come back down stairs. They fear, in town for the holiday. She wanted him
stop working, they needed to go shopping and to pick up the Turkey John Webster had given them. So that meant that little field was going to have to leave the building for some time for a couple hours to go and get his turkey. Which he did and when he came back to the building. When he found TAT, the lad was still locked, but that One of the walls by the lab was very hot to the touch he actually initially thought that the building must be on fire boosted himself up to look through the window, known was actually in there. It was at that point that he finally basically broke into the lad he climbed up through a window and what he found was that all the kindling had been used up as the furnace was extremely hot and that some barrels of water had been gone through, as if as if the furnace have been stoked really too hot, and that the water had to be used to cool down.
So it was all rather mysterious. This lab was getting used and the spread their small furnace was being heated up intensely, hot and he didn't know why. So what did you decide to? Do? I mean He got a sense that Webster was hiding something yeah, so the medical school building was actually searched a couple times by the police and, I think, really by a kind of a process of elimination. What little field figured out was that there was one place that they absolutely hadn't loved and that was the toilet. There was a privy connected to Webster's lad and it was really just a crude seat that drop down to a basement. Speed
that was partly exposed to the river. The building was built right by the Charles River, and so the tide would actually it was like a title, rivers and the type of kind of come in and sort of clean out the space abet and little I began to wonder if that was where Dr Parkman was and he actually quietly told a couple of the other professors faculty this and they said, go look what he decided to do. I think cleverly was to try to break in on Thanksgiving, because that was the one you could be pretty sure. Could be nobody else in the building these, to burrow into a toilet right, yeah, there's, basically a brick wall kind of around the bottom of this privy. And unfortunately, for handed, it turns out to be.
a rather well built wall, and he didn't actually have very good tools for it, and it being Thanksgiving Day. It was not a great time friendly to find better tools. What he had actually is. He had a hatchet and he had a chisel. Yes, at a hammer, but what he decided to do, was to give the hammer to his wife and so tells his wife. If you see Webster coming use that hammer to bang on the floor. So I know to get out of there so the only other toys really got in hand is, is a hatchet. He actually he's not able to make it through the wide he gets. Tired gets sick of it, but then the next day he gets back to work again and then he is able to get through the wall and what does he see what he sees as flash
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thanks to square space for their support was square space. You can easily create a beautiful website. Where are you start a blog showcase. Your work or promote your business square space off templates created by world class designers that are easily customized I've. I've made lots of websites with square space and whenever I go strange about what to do there. Twenty four seven Customer service got be sorted out right away to Squarespace dot com for criminal for free trial when you're ready to launch use the offer code criminal to save ten percent off your first purchase of a website or domain the day after things giving in eighteen, forty nine, the janitor of Harvard Medical School. From little field success borrowed his way into the private toilet. A faculty remember John Webster, and he found evidence of a human body, and he knows for whatever reason and whoever it is and why
It is in their it's not supposed to be in there. That is not where that stuff is supposed to go. they literally have a dissecting vault were body parts of supposed to go, so there is no good reason to see that in a privy, and so that's when he knows something gone terribly wrong. What he does is actually goes to one of the professors who lives near by Professor Bigelow and is terribly shaken up when he, when he arrived, There too, the white worthy of the professor, a Bigelow apparently kind of grabbed and by the collar
the third shaking him and say what have you done? How are you involved in us and at that point, Bigelow then also goes to get the city marshal and the police swarm in, and let it be fine what they find in the privy is basically a fire and other parts of the body within the not find a hand, they don't find a torso defining various other extremities, but primarily a human thigh, and one of the first things that the Marshall asks. One of the professors who is also at the scene is it is a place where human remain should be. Now is this: how is this? How Harvard disposes of its cadavers- and he has told no- that is- that- is not how they dispose of them. It's actually kind of difficult because, of course, there's all kinds of cadavers in parts of cadets.
that building, and particularly without a head or without any clothing or anything like that there they really Dont know who it is, but what they do know is that it's not supposed to be there and that this was the last place Department was seen. So they are immediately suspicious that they have in fact found Parkman, and what do they do? Well, it was a little tricky. They had found this body in Boston, but Webster lived in Cambridge and so what they did was they had they had police go to visit him as at his house in Cambridge that evening they didn't arrest them off the bat. What they said was you know, we're doing another search of the of the medical school. Could you come and assist us so that we can
get into some of the rooms and point out stuff and he said sure, and so he got in a carriage they crossed the bridge in the Boston and took what seemed to be a wrong turn. so they were not going in the right direction for the medical school. At that point, the officer told him. Oh, you know what I have to stop off. A quick sure before we go over there, what let's quick, go this building, so they they basically trick into their jurisdiction and literally into I mean almost into the jail itself. What was Webster's reaction when he was told that he was being arrested in charge with with murder. It was shocked and INDIGO and then he became. violently ill he started sweating. He became week. He was unable to pick himself up
when they try to give him some water a kind of trouble down his face. He was essentially a kind of on the verge of of, oceans and then later on his limbs actually stiffened like boards, think they can had to pick him up basically, and I think that the arresting officers there was some discussion of whether they should actually take him to a doctor, and they decided not to. I think they just thought he was in this state of utter panic, What emerged later was that he was aware enough of the possibility of getting arrested that he had put a little bit of strychnine in his vest. and- and he had taken it at the station, he had attempted to kill himself, but he didn't. He didn't give himself the right dose, and so it just just got incredibly instead, and it was actually in that state that they actually took him.
over to the medical school and carried out the body parts and put them in front of him. I think in the hope of extracting a confession, just by the shock of seeing the evidence in front of him, that he would confess you know. Ironically, he was in such bad shape that he was barely able to speak anyway, so he didn't, he didn't make any confession: and they just had to kind of dragon back to the jail at that point would imagine that a Harvard professor being with murder would be pretty big news. It was absolutely shocking to people and one of the curious things about the case,
is the way that the reaction to that news broke down geographically, which was that in Cambridge it was. This was treated as simply unthinkable that it couldn't be true and that there had to be some kind of mistake. and in particular the blame immediately started to land on little field, that's who was suspected of having somehow framed Webster and in Boston. The assumption was by and large that Webster had done it so there is a bit of town and gown tension. I think around the case and around how they interpreted the case. The mayor of Cambridge, who had attended Harvard taught at Harvard and whose father was the former president of Harvard felt that it was impossible that anyone
affiliated with the school could ever commit a crime, and although police believed they located, the body of Parkman and they'd already arrested Webster still didn't know exactly when or how the murderer had occurred or why they opened every Bach. Then every closet of Webster's lab trying to find some evidence of murder and in one box beneath some tree, bark and minerals. They eventually found a human torso the torso had been hollowed out and inside was the missing left thigh, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who is a professor, Sir Harvard and John Webster's neighbour wrote that the whole town, is in the greatest excitement. His wife Fanny Longfellow, broken up
better to her sister in law that many people quote suspect the janitor who was known to be a bad man, what sister, who was awaiting trial in jail, said that he had Idea how the body parts ended up in his lab. That is more park man's body than it is mine. He said the Boston, Harold printed, a graphic. illustration of doktor workmen's remains something never been done before. As Paul Collins puts it, nothing the case seem normal anymore. Illustration made copies of the newspaper, so valuable. The people, stealing them off other people's doorsteps, to resell them The trial began four months after Parkman disappeared in March of eighteen fifty, but the police still haven't been able to prove that the body they found was act.
the body of the man who was missing. They still had not found his head. What they found were some teeth and jaw fragments and some bits and pieces of dentures, basically in a furnace in the lab and the prosecution decided on the in some ways, risky and kind of novel approach of basing part of their case on an identification of Parkman from his jaw, his teeth and his dentures. Typically at that time, if you had a lot of bad teeth, eventually, you just get him all uphold and you get a full set of dentures but Parkman his identification in some ways hinges on just a little bit of vanity on his part. He has a few good teeth left in his head and rather than get those pulled and get a cab,
set of dentures. He orders from his dentist a very kind of elaborate sort of triptych: structure of dentures to fit around his few remaining teeth and when pieces of that are found in the furnace, they're, so distinct compared to an ordinary set of dentures that that's one of the things that really high quenched the identification there were. Four judges with chief justice, Lemuel, Shaw, presiding Lemuel Shaw, had gone to Harvard and was on her its board of overseers. He was also Herman Melville Father in law. An astounding number of people in that courtroom were from Harvard both the victim and the accused or Herbert along both of Webster's attorneys were Herbert alarm.
the assistant to the prosecutor was from Harvard many of the witnesses on the forensics were from not only from Harvard they were from Harvard Medical School. They were Webster own colleagues actually coming up to testify about forensics, because they were also the best experts around and just the fact alone. I think that the victim was one of the biggest donors to Harvard and that the judge was on the Board of Harvard in any modern trial. I think, would have guaranteed that you would have to get a different judge, but that's not how it works that that's not how worked in Boston at that time during the trial. Parkman brother in law testified that he Parkman Parkman been walking one day and had bump into John Webster. They both recognised him Parkman had it in the course of a conversely
and with his brother in law, discovered that they had both lent large sums of money to Webster on the same security Webster had a a mineral cabinet that he pledged a security, among other things, and so basically, Webster was engaged in in loan fraud and he actually taken at once from other people. On top of that, using the same cabinet for security over and over again, so he was really up a spiral. He was borrowing one from one person to pay another and Parkman was livid. We found out about this. The prosecution argued that Parkman went to the medical school to confront Webster about the debt, and that Webster had killed Parkman the jury was taken to the medical school to see Webster's lab for themselves and also to see the bathroom
Webster's defense attorneys argued basically that a Harvard doctor wasn't capable of crime like this, and what good would it do? Webster to kill zone. Employers largest donor wanting, and actually in looking at the the defence and looking through the notes that Webster wrote is his team, which they they preserved. He was very critical of it. sense attorneys. He really wanted them to push a lot harder at blaming little field. Turns out. There is a very good reason for that, which was that He had quietly tried to enlist a relative of hers to go into the lab to go into the building and to loosen a ventilation
panel in the door to his lab, and then he went to his lawyers and said: oh you should you should have someone check. That dog is, I think, maybe little field cliff unlocked it by going through the ventilation panel, so he he tried to frame little field. He actually tried to tamper with the crime scene to make it look like a little field could have action, we had access all long so that lab to plant evidence. So what was the first act? You know what was interesting. What the verdict is that I think many people thought initially when the trial started, that he he couldn't be guilty, that he wouldn't be.
found guilty and that even if he was found guilty, they would surely not give the death penalty to Harvard Professor and that assumption turned out to be complete the cherry came back, they pronounced him guilty and he was sentenced by the judge, Lemuel Shaw to death, and so at that point I think to the great shock of many people that July of eighteen fifty he confessed. He confessed to a felony George George, Putnam Putnam was a very respected, he's actually actually been considered. The
Ward of Harvard and they'd offered him the Hollis Chair of the olive tree there. So he was a very well regarded figure and Webster made a full confession Tom it. What he told him was Parkman, went to Webster after a lecture and though he would have gone through kind of of a small lobby. There was a lecture hall that Webster used for his chemistry lectures, Lohala, probably taken a bit of damage, because Webster was fond of pyrotechnic exhibitions that didn't always work out very well, and so he occasionally caused a bit of damage to the room. That way, there was a small set of stairs by that lecture room and that kind of led into a little a little back area where he would prepare his notes right before lecture and he a coat hang up there and then down into a lab where he would do.
the research work, so Parkman actually comes to confront him in his lab. That Webster owes him money that he's been defrauding, other other creditors and what Parkman dead and the seems to have been his his fatal error was, he said. Ah I'm going to you, I can get your job taken
Why I can get you fired. He actually had, apparently a copy of a letter of recommendation that he had written decade's earlier for Webster to get his job at Harvard any any, essentially told them. I hoped you get your job. I can get your job taken away too, and so he was threatening to reveal Webster as insolvent and make him lose everything, because at that time, at Harvard, if you were revealed to be a debtor to be revealed as bankrupt, you could in fact lose your job as Webster confess quote soon. My own temper was up. I forgot everything in my fury I seized whatever thing was handiest. It was a stick of wood and dealt him and instantaneous blow with all the force. The passion could give it. Webster said he grab. Some ammonia then tried to revive partner
by putting an under his nose when that didn't work, he panicked and design. You spoke of the body and water might have been perhaps a a manslaughter case by virtue of his trying to hide. It really then became a murder case and he was killed. Yes, so there was actually wait. A bit of opposition already in Massachusetts to the death penalty. Young people were very upset about the prospect of a sentence being carried out. One really striking thing from all this is that George Parkman had a brother reverent. Francis Parkman was a very prominent figure in that and that time- and he was also prominent as
opponent to the death penalty? He was part of a death penalty group and he fell mysteriously silent during this pure hid among all the here, all the uproar over the death penalty being given to two Webster Francis Parkman was conspicuously absent, so it was. It was a very surprising fate for Webster and it meant a lot of opposition and some cool but it was indeed carried out before his execution whips are asked to see the janitor from field little field around. I have two Webster Cell and Webster said to him Mister little field. I have done you a great injustice. Little field said I forgive. you- and I pity and sympathise with you the knot George Thompson wrote that the fiction and execution of John Webster was shockingly fair,
money, influential friends, able, council petitions and prestige failed to save him from that faint, which he merited is he had been the most obscure individual in existence really with any murder case and in particular one has a very lengthy and kind of contested trial. It gives you kind of a cross section of society, the others, a wholesome of kind of literary and philosophical figures in Boston at this time that are at the centre of the intellectual life of the country in some ways, you're what gets described and literature sometimes as the American renaissance. You have Emerson there, you have throw you have Longfellow, you have Melville, you have Emily Dickinson and they also knew the people involved. In the case Longfellow actually visited Webster in jail
One of my favorite moments was actually looking through long fellows journals where on one page he's describing visiting Webster in jail and then another he's describing being at a meeting with Emerson a bunch of other people telling a dinner or something and that they start passing on the hat for Hawthorne, because half morn is short of money and he notes in passing that offer and has a book about the comment that that book is the scarlet letter in these kind of he's going to do tells this pop up in passing. So they have this case landing in the middle of all that Really it was a sort of fascinating for me. Did you go to Harvard you mean as a student war as a student now makes you one if you'd, want to go to Harvard
I mean I didn't go to Harvard either, but I don't know I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing, I Criminal is created by Lauren, spore and me needy? Wilson? Is our senior producer? Our producers are Zander Robertson. Anyone Wade, audio mix by raw buyers Julian Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of criminal. You can see them at this criminal dot com. Where you can learn more about the case and find out more about Paul Collins Book, it's called what an ivy we'll have a link in the show notes, we're on Facebook and twitter at criminal show is recording studio of North Carolina public radio. To be you and see were proud. Member of reading utopia from corrects a clutch
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Transcript generated on 2020-10-13.