Doctor John White Webster always wanted to be remembered. And he succeeded (if not quite the way he planned).
Born into a prominent Boston family, he graduated from Harvard Medical College in 1815. As one of the founders of the Linnaean Society of New England, Webster served as the cabinet-keeper of the Society's collection of specimens which reinforced his fascination with biology and geology. After traveling to Europe for further study, with postings in England and the Azores, he returned to the United States and launched himself into private medical practice in Boston. In 1824, he was appointed as a lecturer in chemistry, mineralogy and geology at Harvard Medical College and earned a full professorship three years later.
Although Harvard Medical College was already using the corpses of executed criminals for anatomy classes, John Webster decided to try something a little more ambitious. Since he was already doing research into galvanic stimulation of nerves and muscles, Webster decided to replicate Giovanni Aldini's famous experiment with the corpse of an executed criminal. With that purpose in mind, Webster took charge of the bodies of Sylvester Colson and Charles Marchant. Both men had been prosecuted for mutiny, piracy and murder although only Colson had been hanged (Marchant committed suicide in his jail cell). Ever the showman, Webester arranged for a public demonstration of his electrical experiments with the two corpses, including coverage from the local press.
According to the newspaper story in the February 3, 1827 edition of the Columbian Centinel, the demonstration was definitely memorable. Colson's body was attached to a battery with wires connected to hs mouth and urethra. Once the current was applied, "convulsive motions ensued. Applied to the eye, the organ opened and rolled wildly". The reporter covering the demonstration also commmented on the various movements of Colson's legs and toes which jerked and convulsed with each electric shock. After the graphic demonstration was finished, Webster declared that it had been "a great success".
Despite his popularity as a medical lecturer and his eminent reputation, John Webster experienced serious money problems as he grew older. With four daughters to support and a lavish lifestyle, debt was a continuing problem for him but he still managed to entertain many of New England's most prominent intellectuals and writers. He also had a reputation for macabre practical jokes. According to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who attended one of his dinners, Webster astonished his guests by lowering the lights and fitting a noose around his neck. Using only a bowl of blazing chemicals for light, Webster then rolled his head forward and stuck out his tongue giving the impression that he had just been hanged. Whatever the impression that he had on his guests, it was a strange foreshadowing of what would come next
Due to his money problems, John Webster borrowed $400.00 from his colleague, Dr. George Parkman in 1842. A member of one of the wealthiest families in Massachusetts, Parkman was a well-known figure in Boston society who owned properties all over Boston and was widely reported to have a net worth of $500,000 (an enormous fortune in those days). Dr. Parkman could often be seen walking the streets of Boston to collect his rents (he was too thrifty to own a horse). Webster had trouble paying back the money he had borrowed from Parkman and even managed to borrow more a few years later. To secure the loan, Webster mortgaged some of his personal property which included his valuable specimen collection. Although Parkman tried to be lenient with his colleague, he was furious when he learned that Webster had borrowed money from another source with the collateral being the same specimen collection that he had already pledged to Parkman. After George Parkman arranged with the university for the receipts to Webster's lecture series to be paid to him directly to repay the debt, John Webster went to the Parkman home on November 23, 1849, and suggested that they meet at the Medical College that same afternoon. Although Dr. Parkman was seen entering Webster's rooms at the Medical College later that day, he was never seen again. As for Webster, he attended a dinner soon after Parkman's disappearance with no signs of distress though he went early to his rooms on the following day.
The disappearance of George Parkman sparked a frantic search by Boston police and the Parkman family. Thousands of missing posters were placed across the city and Parkman's family offered an enormous reward for information. John Webster was questioned about Parkman but all that he told them was that the missing man had left his rooms after receiving a partial payment on the loan. On November 27, Boston police searched Webster's rooms (including the laboratories and dissecting facilities) but no incriminating evidence turned up. All that they could determine was the presence of several odd acid stains and signs that the dissecting vaults had been recently cleaned.
Police also questioned Harvard custodian, Ephraim Littlefield. The custodian, who would later become the star witness in John Webster's trial, grew apprehensive when he realized that he was a suspect in Parkman's disappearance. He told police that he had seen George Parkman enter Webster's rooms on the day of his disappearance and also reported that he had later found those same rooms locked from the inside when he had gone to clean them. While there was no answer when he knocked on Webster's door, he recalled that he had "heard water running" inside.
Based on John Webster's suspicious behaviour, Littlefield decided to investigate further.