Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Webster, John White
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Webster, John White
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|Edition of 1889. See also Parkman-Webster murder case on Wikipedia, and our Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography disclaimer.|
WEBSTER, John White, chemist, b. in Boston, Mass., 20 May, 1793; d. there, 30 Aug., 1850. He was graduated at Harvard in 1811, and at its medical department in 1815. In 1824 he was appointed lecturer in chemistry, mineralogy, and geology in that institution, and in 1827 he was elected to the chair of chemistry and mineralogy, which he then held until the year of his death. In 1842 Prof. Webster borrowed a sum of money from Dr. George Parkman, afterward increased to upward of $2,000, as security for which he gaves notes and mortgages on household property and collections. The mineral cabinets he secretly disposed of, and during an interview with Parkman, to whom he paid considerable money, the latter accused him of dishonesty in selling his collections, and threatened to foreclose the mortgages. An arrangement was made for a meeting on 23 Nov., 1849, at the college laboratory, at which Parkman was murdered. According to the confession made by Webster, at the time appointed Parkman arrived, and at once asked for the money, which not being forthcoming, he “called me a scoundrel and a liar, and went on heaping on me the most bitter taunts and opprobrious epithets.” Seizing a billet of wood, Webster struck Parkman a blow on the side of the head, which killed him. The concealment of the body at once presented itself as the only means of escaping the fatal effects of the crime, and Webster immediately dismembered it, burning such parts with the clothes as he could, and concealing the remaining parts for further treatment. As soon as Parkman's disappearance was noted, efforts were made to find him, and he was traced to the laboratory. Further search revealed parts of the cadaver, and Webster was arrested. On the trial, which lasted eleven days, the chain of circumstantial evidence was perfect in its conclusions as to the identity of the body. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jeffries Wyman, and others testified as to the anatomical proportions of the body. The teeth were identified beyond doubt by the dentist who had made them for Parkman. Webster was defended by John H. Clifford, and 116 witnesses were examined on the trial. Notwithstanding that every effort was made in his behalf, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and he was hanged. During 1823-'6 he was one of the editors with John Ware and Daniel Treadwell, of the “Boston Journal of Philosophy and Arts,” and he published “Description of the Island of St. Michael” (Boston, 1821); “A Manual of Chemistry” (1826); and edited Playfair's “Liebig's Organic Chemistry” (Cambridge, 1841). Several reports of his trial were published, including one by George Bemis, one of the counsel (Boston, 1850).