Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

George Parkman

Not as Simple as it Seems

Webster was quick to throw the blame on Littlefield. He asked if someone had found Parkman, and when no one responded, he asked again if they had found the whole body. Then when it became clear that they had searched his privy, he mentioned that Littlefield was the only person besides himself with access to it.

Then he lapsed into silence and would say nothing else. He just sat there at the jail, trembling and sweating. He put something into his mouth, which he later admitted was poison, but it only made him ill.

As the investigators wondered about the rest of the body, the obvious answer seemed to be that it had been burned. In fact, Littlefield had found a bone fragment in a furnace in the laboratory to which Webster had access and showed it to the marshal.

That discussion led to a full search of the toilet area, with Webster brought in from the jail to observe, and while the officers and coroner were thus engaged, Littlefield showed them a piece of the furnace that he'd broken off, on which a piece of bone was fused. They insisted he put it back where he found it.

Webster watched in silence as they laid out the parts they had already found, and then he was carted back to jail.

The following day, a coroner's jury was assembled to make a judgment about the disposition of the case. Before they were let in, the coroner and marshal's men examined a sink that appeared to be recently gouged in several places, the strange acid stains on the floor and steps, and the contents of the furnace (from which they extracted a button, some coins, and more bone fragments, including a jaw bone with teeth). Then they dumped out a chest from which came a foul odor, and there was an armless, headless, hairy torso. It was clear that an unsuccessful attempt had been made to burn it. Just as they determined that the head had been sawn off, they found a saw nearby. Then they found a thigh stuffed inside the torso, and the heart and other organs missing.

Drawing of remains found in the medical building (Massachusetts Historical Society)
Drawing of remains found in the
medical building
(Massachusetts Historical Society)
Mrs. Parkman identified the body as her husband's from markings near the penis and on the lower back. His brother-in-law said that he'd seen the extreme hairiness of Parkman's body and confirmed that it was him.

In subsequent searches, they came up with bloody clothing belonging to Webster, and then found the right kidney. Testing on the stains showed them to be copper nitratea substance effective for removing blood, and Dr. Jeffries Wyman arrived to identify the bone fragments.

Since they were already at a medical college with good facilities for the examination of a body, they laid out the parts, tested them, and wrote up thorough descriptions. They conjectured that a hole found underneath the left breast might have been the stab that had killed the victim, although it did not resemble a wound and there was no blood. By the end of the day, they had estimated the man's height to have been five feet ten inchesan exact match to George Parkman.

As much as the evidence appeared to point directly to Dr. John Webster, few could believe he was capable of such a terrible crime. And they all knew that there was another person who had access to all the same areasEphraim Littlefield. In fact, he had a reputation for digging up fresh corpses to supply to anatomists, who paid him $25 each, so he certainly was used to bodies. He also had no compunction, if the rumors were true, about breaking the law. He claimed to have discovered the body parts, but perhaps he had planted them there to frame the good professor.

Which of these menif eithercould be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be a killer? Could they even prove that the body parts belonged to George Parkman?