John White Webster

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Webster during his trial in 1850

John White Webster (May 20, 1793–August 30, 1850), born in Boston, Massachusetts, was an American professor of chemistry and geology at Harvard Medical College. In 1849-1850, he was convicted of murder in the infamous Parkman–Webster murder case.


Webster was from a well-connected family: his grandfather was a successful merchant; his mother Hannah (White) Webster was a Leverett; his wife's sister married into the Prescotts; he was friends with the Shaws; and his Unitarian pastor was the Reverend Francis Parkman Sr. (brother of George). Webster, indulged as a child and pampered in youth, had a petulant and fussy disposition but was known for his kindly nature.[1] As he grew up, his father Redford Webster, an apothecary, offered him only a small allowance, which later caused him to claim that he never understood money.[citation needed]

He graduated from Harvard College in 1811. In 1814 he was among the founders of the Linnaean Society of New England, and was appointed cabinet-keeper of the society's quickly growing collection of specimens in Joy's Buildings in Boston.[2] He graduated from Harvard Medical College in 1815.

Around 1815 he went to London for further study. At Guy’s Hospital he was a surgeon’s pupil, a physician’s pupil, and a surgeon’s dresser. He then went to São Miguel Island in the Azores (1817–18). There he practiced medicine, published his first book, and met the daughter of the American vice-consul on the island, Harriet Fredrica Hickling, whom he married on May 16, 1818; they had four daughters. Once he returned to Boston, he entered private medical practice, but a lack of success prompted him to change careers.

Harvard lecturer[edit]

In 1824, Webster was appointed a lecturer of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at the Harvard Medical College, and three years later he was promoted to the Erving professorship. In Boston he lived on Common Street.[3]

John White Webster was a popular lecturer at Harvard Medical College. Webster was described by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. as "pleasant in the lecture room, rather nervous and excitable." [4] Many of Webster's class-room demonstrations involved some of the latest chemical discoveries. Cohen (1950) particularly noted Webster's demonstrating Michael Faraday's liquefaction of the common gasses and Webster even made solid carbon dioxide among his demonstrations. Edward Everett Hale reminisced about the student-based Davy Club at Harvard: "Dr. Webster...gave us the most good-natured and kindly assistance." [5] George F. Hoar mentioned that Webster's lectures were "tedious", at least for a non-chemistry major, but that: "[Webster] was known to the students by the sobriquet of Sky-rocket jack, owing to his great interest in having some fireworks at the illumination when President Everett, his former classmate, was inaugurated. There was no person less likely to commit such a bloody and cruel crime as that for which he was accused." [6] Many anecdotes suggest his class-room demonstrations were livened by pyrotechnic drama, although on one occasion the President of Harvard warned that some of them were dangerous if an accident occurred.

Reports written after the trial criticized his teaching ability: for instance, The Boston Daily Bee described him as "tolerated rather than respected, and has only retained his position on account of its comparative insignificance. As a lecturer he was dull and common-place and while the students took tickets to his lectures, they did not generally attend them."

Webster had financial problems. The family had been forced to give up a mansion he had built in Cambridge, although they were leasing a respectable but not grand house in 1849. He was in debt to a number of friends, as his salary and meager lecture earnings could not cover his expenses.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow attested to his macabre streak in an anecdote relating how at one dinner at the Webster home, the host amazed his guests by lowering the lights, fitting a noose around his own neck, and lolling his head forward, tongue protruding, over a bowl of blazing chemicals, to give a ghastly imitation of a man being hanged.[7]

He wrote A Description of the Island of St. Michael (1821), was associate editor of the Boston Journal of Philosophy and the Arts (1824–26), compiled A Manual of Chemistry (1826), and brought out editions of Andrew Fyfe's Elements of Chemistry (1827) and Justus von Liebig's Animal Chemistry or Organic Chemistry (1841). Noted mineralogist and Harvard Professor, Clifford Frondel appraised Webster's books as "creditable" and had praise for them. [8]

Parkman–Webster murder case[edit]

Webster's lawyers had advised Webster to confess so that he would avoid being hanged. The jury was told by the judges that they "Must come back with a guilty verdict." [9] The Webster-Parkman Murder trial has been billed as the "Case of the Century" and has been widely cited as one of the earliest uses of forensic evidence to identify a body. As the remains of Dr. Parkman had been partially cremated dental evidence and bone fragments were used to verify the remains. [10]

In popular culture[edit]

The Parkman-Webster murder case was dramatized in the CBS radio program Crime Classics on July 13th, 1953 in the episode entitled "The Terrible Deed of John White Webster." Webster was portrayed in this program by Jay Novello.


  1. ^ DAB
  2. ^ Augustus Addison Gould. Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, v.9. 1863; p.336-337.
  3. ^ Boston Directory. 1823
  4. ^ Cohen, I. Bernard, 1950, Some Early Tools of American Science. An Account of the Early Scientific Instruments and Mineralogical and Biological Collections in Harvard University, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 201
  5. ^ Hale, Edward Everett, 1927, A New England Boyhood, new edition, Grosset and Dunlap, New York, pp. 208
  6. ^ Hoar, George, F., 1905, Autobiography of Seventy Years, v. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, p. 101.
  7. ^ Annie A. Fields, Memories of a Hostess, 1922, p. 153
  8. ^ Frondel, Clifford, 1988, The Geological Sciences at Harvard University from 1788 to 1850, Earth Sciences History, v. 7, p. 1-22
  9. ^ Sullivan, Robert, 1971, The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, pp. 241
  10. ^ King, Vandall T., 2006, Mineralogy and Chemistry at Harvard 1800-1865: In Search of John White Webster - an Innocent Man, Journal of the Geoliterary Society, volume 21 (#2): p. 5-24

External links[edit]