Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

George Parkman

Murder and the Expert Witness

Murder trials during the nineteenth century were a significant form of entertainment, especially when they involved surprises. Sometimes they involved surprises even when the trial was over and the verdict in. There was no HBO, MTV, or even radio at the time, so the public avidly read newspapers or assembled outside the courthouse, and the journalists catered to prurient interests. Most of the time, crime was fairly mundane and obvious, but occasionally the characters who came onstage were so unexpected that even daily papers could hardly feed the public's hunger to know every salacious detail.

In 1849, such a murder trial took place at Harvard Medical College in Boston, and not only were both the offender and victim from the more prestigious classes, but the details of the killing and body disposal were fairly disgusting. It was difficult to even identify the victim with certainty, and that meant relying on experts.

Harvard Medical College
Harvard Medical College
At that time, the legal process was just beginning to acknowledge that criminal investigation could be approached with some degree of scientific technique. Fingerprints had been used in ancient times, there was some use of physical evidence matching, and Eugene Francois Vidocq had established the worlds first detective agency in Paris. Ink dye had been analyzed on documents, poisons found in body tissues, and blood analyzed on surfaces. Only twenty-one years before this trial, the first polarizing light microscope had been invented. In 1839, Scotland Yard caught a murderer through bullet comparisons with a mold, and the first primitive semen analysis for sexual homicide was underway.

Jessica Synder Sachs' Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Study to Pinpoint Time of Death
Jessica Synder
Sachs' Corpse:
Nature, Forensics,
and the Study to
Pinpoint Time of
However, there had not yet been forensic anthropologists or dentists in American courts, or medical personnel to attempt to establish time of death. According to Jessica Synder Sachs, in Corpse, these early days were filled with pseudo-professionals making unfounded claims about their ability to make accurate determinations. The trial of John Webster for the murder of George Parkman marked a turning point for the use of doctors as expert witnesses. "Over the next twenty-five years," she writes, "the United States moved rapidly to integrate medical experts into its antiquated coroner system, with one state after another authorizing coroners to employ physicians to assist in their investigations of homicides and suicides."

Thus, this was a precedent-setting case that changed the entire process of death investigation in the U.S. and made a significant impact on the trial system.

Let's take a look at what happened.