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New Book 'Blood And Ivy' Discusses 1849 Murder At Harvard Medical College

"Blood & Ivy," by Paul Collins (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Blood & Ivy," by Paul Collins (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Long before the infamous murder trials of OJ Simpson and Scott Peterson, there was the trial of John Webster, who killed Dr. George Parkman, one of Boston's wealthiest people, in 1849 in Cambridge.

Paul Collins, author of a book about the case, "Blood and Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized  Harvard," was on Morning Edition to talk about it.

Interview Highlights

On the murder trial of John Webster

"There's a certain aspect of local color and infamy to the idea that the person behind this case would have been a Harvard professor, but I think there were a couple of other aspects that lingered. One was that for then, I think, it was a pretty revolutionary use of forensic evidence. It was the first real attempt in a capital trial in the U.S. to use dental evidence. The other was what became known as the "Webster Charge," which was that the Chief Justice in the case, Lemuel Shaw, gave an explanation of reasonable doubt to the jurors in the case. And that explanation remained kind of the standard until just a few years ago in Massachusetts in terms of the standard instruction for reasonable doubt."

On Harvard professor Dr. George Parkman

"Parkman had a reputation for being a fairly unforgiving type of personality. So he was known as a great benefactor to Harvard Medical School, which he was an alumnus of, but I think for many people, he was better known as a landlord who went around personally collecting rents and was pretty sharp about it. ... He was feared and respected, but 'liked' or 'loved' was not a term that seemed to come up much."

On Ephraim Littlefield, a Harvard Medical College janitor, and his obsession with the murder case

"There was a very large reward offered by the family. At on point, they were offering $3,000, which for many Bostonians might have been what they earned in five years. A number of people, not least Webster himself, charged that Littlefield was motivated by the reward money perhaps to the point of actually planting the body there. Littlefield himself, though, seems to have been motivated by a bit more than that. He knew that the building was the last place that Parkman had been seen entering. So Littlefield's motives were, in some ways, were very much at the center of the defense of the case to the point where I think Webster actually actively tried to frame him."

On why Boston divided into two parties: anti-Webster and anti-Littlefield

"Part of that clearly seems to have been kind of your classic 'town and gown' type of division, and there were certainly aspects of social class involved too. I think a number of people around the university couldn't really believe not only that Webster would bring himself to do this, but that his motives would be something as base as a bad debt. Also, a lot of the initial suspicion in the first days of Parkman's disappearance fell on Bostonians, and in particular on immigrants. And a number of Irish immigrants in the area took particular umbrage at that, particularly when it was discovered that it was a member of the faculty that had done this and not one of them."

On Webster's eventual confession

"He confessed to the Rev. George Putnam. He always contended that he had not planned to murder Parkman, that he had just had a sudden moment of anger and struck Parkman and then panicked over what to do with the body. One thing that really struck me about Webster was that he, almost until the very end, he did deny it. And when he initially went to find a defense attorney, they advised him right off the bat to confess to the crime but not to the motive. They said, 'We can get you off on a self defense or an insanity defense' — a 'visitation from god,' as they put it — 'but you need to confess that you killed Parkman.'

"And Webster absolutely refused to do it and his family wouldn't hear of it. It was going to be all or nothing — he was going to be proven innocent. And right until the very end, he and particularly his family seems to have been convinced that he wouldn't be convicted. And that was a fatal misjudgment."

This segment aired on July 26, 2018.

Bob Oakes Twitter Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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