Doctor George Parkman had inherited a substantial amount of wealth from his father and was a member of Boston's Brahmins or the "First Families of Boston." He had given Harvard College the very land on which Massachusetts General Hospital is located today. He was a well-known landlord. In short, he was one of Boston's elite. Therefore, when he turned up missing in 1849, the people of Boston were shocked. However, they were to be more shocked when another member of his elite social class was accused of murdering him.
John Webster was a well-liked professor at Harvard. He was also a Boston Brahmin. However, he was not as wealthy as Doctor George Parkman. In fact, he was forced to borrow money from his colleague several times over the years. Finally, the pair had a falling out when John Webster tried to obtain a loan using his mineral collection as collateral. He already had an outstanding loan with Parkman using the very same thing as collateral. This reportedly angered Doctor Parkman, who began seeking repayment immediately.
On November 23, 1849, George Parkman disappeared. He got up that morning, went to buy his daughter a head of lettuce, collected rents and paid John Webster a visit. He was supposedly never seen again, though some people claimed to have seen him after his visit with John. John Webster was questioned, but authorities thought he was too high class to have caused Parkman's disappearance.
That Thanksgiving, John Webster gave the janitor who lived next door to his lab at the college money for a turkey. The janitor–Ephraim Littlefield–found this suspicious, given John's financial problems. This suspicion supposedly led him to search John's lab and even go so far as to chip away a brick wall, where he found some bones and a set of dentures. Here is where things are muddled.
Ephraim Littlefield was rewarded money for finding what the dentures somewhat proved was Doctor George Parkman's body. However, Littlefield also happened to share that wall where it was found with John Webster. Furthermore, he had been caught gambling in George's rooms and was chastised for it. Therefore, he had a small motive and plenty of opportunity himself. In addition, two questions arise from his discovery. Firstly, would a janitor have risked ransacking the lab of an elite Boston resident based on suspicion? Secondly, how did Littlefield know precisely where the body was hidden?
To be certain, none of these questions shows that Littlefield was guilty. Nonetheless, none of the evidence proved that John Webster was guilty either. In fact, modern day courts would not have seen the dentures as proof that the skeleton belonged to George Parkman. DNA testing would be required. All of the evidence in the Doctor George Parkman "murder" case was circumstantial. Without further evidence, the case would not have been successfully tried in Massachusetts today. It was in 1849, however.
John Webster was found guilty of murdering Doctor George Parkman after a 12-day trial. He was hanged for his supposed crime. Interestingly, the widow of George Parkman financially aided Webster's widow after her husband's death. Is it possible that Parkman's wife did not believe the man they hanged was guilty?