In Murder at Harvard, Helen Thomson describes Boston near the end of 1849it was prosperous and filled with Irish immigrants who carried out most of the manual labor. There was clearly a class consciousness, and among the wealthy "brahmins" was a man named Dr. George Parkman. Nearly 60 years old, he was estimated to be worth some half a million dollars at a time when a dollar meant a lot. He had hobnobbed with the likes of John Adams, second President of the United States, artist John James Audubon, and General Lafayette, hero of the Revolutionary War.
Dr. Parkman owned many tenement buildings on which he collected rents and it was also his habit to lend money, so he kept strict track of his accounts. He would go out walking each day to keep an eye on things and get his earnings. Notoriously thrifty, some say he walked to avoid the expense of keeping a horse. His rushing figure, bent forward from his momentum, was known to everyone in the general vicinity of his home at Number 8 Walnut, and many said they could set a watch by his routines. People wondered how he could carry money around without concern, and that very notion became central in the search for him when he turned up missing one day.
Despite his privileged status, Parkman had been inspired by a lecture given by Dr. Benjamin Rush from Philadelphia to take a keen interest in the miserable state of the mentally ill in asylums. Simon Schama describes his travels for this purpose to Europe in Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations). In 1811, Parkman went to France and met Dr. Philippe Pinel.
Parkman became his student, looking into every aspect of benevolent care for such unfortunates and learning about how early events in the lives of many had precipitated their strange manias. The point, he saw, was to bring order into their lives. He made plans to establish such an asylum just outside Boston and he imagined himself its superintendent. Who better to do it than a student of Pinel's?
When he returned to Boston, Parkman found a receptive committee in the fundraisers for the Massachusetts General Hospital, but they were not as receptive to having him so fully involved. He was enthused, to be sure, and knowledgeable. He had even put down a payment on a mansion suitable for the place and given some indication that he would raise the rest of the money.
Yet in the end, to Parkman's bitter disappointment, the position at the newly established McLean Asylum had gone to someone else. It was a political move for the hospital, and Parkman ultimately accepted it. He even continued to do what he could to ease the condition of the patients who were housed there. His charity to the mentally ill mitigated his reputation as a stingy miser.
On that November morning in 1849, many different people saw or talked with George Parkman, and had reason afterward to remember it. One woman who owed him money fled from him when he demanded the dollar he had seen in her hand as she tried to pay for food. He expected people to live up to their agreements, and he told them so in a sharp voice. At times, he even got aggressive about it. He liked to help people through a crisis, because he could, but he expected to be paid back promptly. He made his money from rents and from what he loaned. He couldn't be expected to ignore that. In order to continue to live as he did, he had to make people pay what they owed.
He placed a grocery order for the approaching holidays and had it sent up to his house. To several people he offered Thanksgiving greetings. He left some lettuce with one man to whom he expected to return for shortly. In 33 years of marriage, he had never missed his 2:00 dinner with his wife and he didn't intend to on that day, either.
But George Parkman never came back for the lettuce and never went home. He was last seen at 1:30 that afternoon in a dark frock coat, dark trousers, a purple satin vest, and a stovepipe hat. He had gone to call on a man at the medical college who he believed had duped him with a bad business deal. Professor John Webster, deeply in debt, had reason to be afraid.