“The Long Agony Is Over”: The Trial of John White Webster
With all the coverage of the Tsarnaev trial here in Boston, I’m reminded of another case that rocked the city 165 years ago: the murder of George Parkman in Nov. 1849. Harvard Medical College lecturer John White Webster, who owed Parkman a significant sum of money, was accused of killing him and attempting to destroy his body by burning it in a furnace. Webster was convicted on 30 Mar. 1850 and sentenced to execution by hanging. The gruesome nature of the crime and the high social standing of both men meant that not just all of Boston, but the entire country, was riveted.
The story has been covered so well and so thoroughly by others that I won’t go into the details of the case, but I was curious about contemporary reactions to the crime and the trial. Manuscript collections at the MHS give us a nice cross-section of opinions. For example, the day after the verdict came down, a young woman named Harriet Hayward wrote in her diary:
Has been a dismal day. Poor Dr Webster is pronounced guilty; the verdict was brought in last night, and we heard of it this morning. I have felt fairly sick today, and totally unfit to take charge of a class at Sunday school. What a barbarous and wicked law! A man taken from his wife and children to be put in prison for a short time, and afterwards hung [sic], while the family is made wretched. When a poor man is once fairly shut up in prison, and not able to say a word for himself, all kinds of stories are circulated about him, that have no foundation. If I were a person of some importance and could say or do any thing to save his life I would do it, but I feel my own insignificance now more than ever. I hope mercy will be shown him in another world.
It’s unclear to me what Hayward thought of Webster’s guilt or innocence, but she certainly objected to the sentence of death, and her reaction was not atypical. Letters started pouring into Massachusetts Governor George N. Briggs’ office from all over the country petitioning for clemency for Webster. Some argued he was innocent, that he had not received a fair trial, or that the evidence against him was circumstantial. (One anonymous letter claims Webster couldn’t possibly have committed the crime because the writer did it himself!) Others accepted his guilt but opposed capital punishment on religious or moral grounds. Many called the murder unpremeditated and believed Webster was sincerely penitent.
The prosecutor in the case, John H. Clifford, was exhausted after the trial. He wrote in a letter on 2 Apr. 1850, “The long agony is over, and I am once more by my own hearth stone, trying to restore the equilibrium which two weeks straining of my entire being has deranged & disturbed. […] I cannot help feeling this trial to have been a great crisis in my life.” He called Webster “almost soulless” and was satisfied with the outcome, but pitied the man’s family.
Webster’s wife Harriet and their four daughters steadfastly maintained his innocence and banished any who doubted it from their Cambridge home, but some extended family members were unconvinced. Harriet’s sister Amelia (Hickling) Chambers Nye had no trouble believing Webster guilty. In letters written between June 1850 and Feb. 1851, Nye made her case against her brother-in-law. In fact, she had suspected him all along:
Is it not strange that when Eliza and I saw the first advertisement about Dr. P’s disappearance and Dr. Webster being the last person who saw him the thought struck us both that he knew more of his disappearance. The same thing struck both sister Prescott and Susan and Emma so that every one who knew him best, suspected him first. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving he went to Mrs. Cunningham’s to a party, a lady said to him so Dr. you were the last person who saw Dr. Parkman what if you should be suspected. He immediately replied, “what do you think I look like a murderer?” and went on talking about something else.
In her long, somewhat rambling letters, Nye described the Websters’ financial problems, her brother-in-law’s “bad qualities,” and other heinous crimes she believed he’d committed years before. She thought Harriet and the children were deluded. Since they refused to read the papers, they were unaware that “one half the people in Boston believe it was a premeditated act.” Much of what Nye wrote was hearsay and rumor, but her animosity toward Webster is unmistakable. His penitence was feigned, she claimed. His family would be better off without him, and even execution would be preferable to the shame of life imprisonment, a fate she described as “a living death to all of them.”
After his conviction, John White Webster confessed to killing George Parkman in a fit of rage over the debt. He also wrote to Francis Parkman, George’s brother, asking for forgiveness. Gov. Briggs, however, did not commute his sentence, and Webster was hanged on 30 Aug. 1850. Boston merchant Frederic Cunningham read a description of the execution in the newspaper and wrote about it in his diary, commending Webster’s self-possession: “He walked firmly to the scaffold & fell 8 feet.” According to Cunningham, the people of Boston were “better disposed towards him” after his death.
Though opinions were sharply divided, the case held an undeniable fascination. Three weeks after the trial, in spite of her horror at the verdict, young Harriet Hayward and some friends visited the Harvard Medical College laboratory where the crime had taken place. Amelia Nye’s friend Miss Jennison told her that “she never saw so many carriages in Cambridge before. They rode round the square purposely to look at the [Websters’] house.” As for Nye, she wrote of John White Webster, “I cannot help shuddering when I think of him.”
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