Littlefield became suspicious of Webster making repeated trips from the fuel closet to the laboratory furnace which he kept burning to the point that the adjoining wall was hot to the touch. After Webster left, Littlefield climbed into his rooms through a window to investigate (all the doors were still bolted). He found nothing suspicious except for odd acid stains though Webster would later ask him a number of unusual questions about the dissecting vaults and Parkman's disappearance. When the police searched his rooms and laboratories, Webster later surprised Littlefield with a Thanksgiving turkey as a gift (which he had never done before).
On Thanksgiving day, Littlefield decided to investigate further and sneaked in to excavate the disposal pit under Webster's private laboratory. After finding human remains, he ran to the home of another professor and police were called. Although there was no way to verify that the remains belonged to George Parkman (it was a dissecting vault, after all), John Webster was arrested and formally charged with Parkman's murder. Webster denied committing murder and tried to place the blame on Littlefield. He then attempted suicide in his cell but the strychnine that he took only made him ill. A search of the furnace turned up other bone fragments and a chest containing an armless, legless, partially burned torso. While a precise identification seemed impossible in that pre-CSI era, Mrs. Parkman confirmed that the body belonged to her husband based on several identifying marks. Parkman's brother-in-law confirmed that the body was his as welldue to the extreme hairiness of the torso. Police also found bloody clothing belonging to Parkman and several members of the Harvard faculty conducted a thorough forensic analysis to determine that the body's height matched Parkman's exactly.
The George Parkman murder was the talk of Boston and numerous murder scenarios were spun out in the local newspapers. While John Webster had already been arrested, his friends and colleagues were reluctant to believe that an eminent academic could have committed murder. Several of the alternative murder theories advanced by Webster's defenders suggested that Ephraim Littlefield was the real murderer, mainly because he had a known dislike for the upper-class, Harvard faculty and John Webster in particular. Since a coroner's jury determined that there was enough evidence to try John Webster for killing and dismembering Parkman, he was held for trial. The stigma overhanging him and his family was enough for most of his former colleagues to distance themselves. Many leading lawyers, including the eminent Daniel Webster, refused to defend him although he eventually received the best defense possible.
After a spectacular twelve-day trial with Ephraim Littlefield being the star witness against him, John White Webster was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Public opinion was sharply divided over whether Webster was guilty and his lawyers attempted to appeal the verdict. Despite arguing that the judge, Lemuel Shaw, had made several errors in his instructions to the jury, the appeal was denied and a plea to the governor for a pardon was denied as well. Finally, desperate to save himself from hanging, John Webster wrote a full confession to killing Parkman but insisted that it had been in self-defense when Parkman became overly aggressive in trying to get him to repay his debt. The point of his confession was to demonstrate that the killing had not been premeditated but was an "act of passion". Despite his plea for mercy, the governor remained unmoved and the execution went ahead as planned.
John White Webster went to the gallows on August 30, 1850. It was a public execution and Webster was buried in Boston's Copps' Hill Burying Ground (Harvard Medical College had no interest in claiming Webster's ody for dissection). Despite lingering rumours that the hanging had been faked at that Dr. Webster escaped to the Azores, his wife and children were left destitute except for money from a fund collected for their benefit, along with a contribution from George Parkman's widow. As for Ephraim Littlefield, he retired comfortably on the hefty reward that the Parkman family gave him for his role in solving the murder and convicting Webster.
The murder of George Parkman fascinated visitors to Boston for years after Webster's hanging and is still a prominent part of Boston's history. The Parkman-Webster murder case has spawned a minor industry including books, television documentaries, and an iPhone app (the first to be accepted by a major film festival). The complex legacy surrounding John White Webster and the trial that convicted him can't be underestimated. As one of the first legal trials to allow scientific evidence as testimony, the case set a legal precedent that demonstrated the value of forensic medicine to solve crimes.
While hardly the sort of legacy that John White Webster would have wanted to leave behind, he is definitely still remembered today.