A Book of Remarkable Criminals HTML version

Professor Webster
The best report of Webster's trial is that edited by Bemis. The following tracts in
the British Museum have been consulted by the writer: "Appendix to the Webster
Trial," Boston, 1850: "Thoughts on the Conviction of Webster"; "The Boston
Tragedy," by W. E. Bigelow.
It is not often that the gaunt spectre of murder invades the cloistered calm of
academic life. Yet such a strange and unwonted tragedy befell Harvard
University in the year 1849, when John W. Webster, Professor of Chemistry, took
the life of Dr. George Parkman, a distinguished citizen of Boston. The scene of
the crime, the old Medical School, now a Dental Hospital, is still standing, or was
when the present writer visited Boston in 1907. It is a large and rather dreary red-
brick, three-storied building, situated in the lower part of the city, flanked on its
west side by the mud flats leading down to the Charles River. The first floor
consists of two large rooms, separated from each other by the main entrance
hall, which is approached by a flight of steps leading up from the street level. Of
these two rooms, the left, as you face the building, is fitted up as a lecture- room.
In the year 1849 it was the lecture-room of Professor Webster. Behind the
lecture-room is a laboratory, known as the upper laboratory, communicating by a
private staircase with the lower laboratory, which occupies the left wing of the
ground floor. A small passage, entered by a door on the left-hand side of the
front of the building, separated this lower laboratory from the dissecting-room, an
out-house built on to the west wall of the college, but now demolished. From this
description it will be seen that any person, provided with the necessary keys,
could enter the college by the side-door near the dissecting room on the ground
floor, and pass up through the lower and upper laboratory into Professor
Webster's lecture-room without entering any other part of the building. The
Professor of Chemistry, by locking the doors of his lecture-rooms and the lower
laboratory, could, if he wished, make himself perfectly secure against intrusion,
and come and go by the side-door without attracting much attention. These
rooms are little altered at the present time from their arrangement in 1849. The
lecture-room and laboratory are used for the same purposes to- day; the lower
laboratory, a dismal chamber, now disused and somewhat rearranged, is still
recognisable as the scene of the Professor's chemical experiments.
On the second floor of the hospital is a museum, once anatomical, now dental.
One of the principal objects of interest in this museum is a plaster cast of the
jaws of Dr. George Parkman, made by a well-known dentist of Boston, Dr. Keep,
in the year 1846. In that year the new medical college was formally opened. Dr.
Parkman, a wealthy and public-spirited citizen of Boston, had given the piece of
land, on which the college had been erected. He had been invited to be present
at the opening ceremony. In anticipation of being asked to make a speech on this
occasion Dr. Parkman, whose teeth were few and far between, had himself fitted
by Dr. Keep with a complete set of false teeth. Oliver Wendell Holmes, then
Professor of Anatomy at Harvard, who was present at the opening of the college,