Blood & Ivy
by Paul Collins
There have been countless trials of the century. Most have no lasting impact other than to the victim and defendant. In Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard, Paul Collins tackles the 1850 case of Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. John White Webster. Not only did the White case attract enormous public attention, it had a major place in the development of criminal law. Collins recreates the gruesome murder of Dr. George Parkman and the trial that followed. Parkman, a physician, was known not for his medical skills but for his vigor in collecting rents owed to him.
Parkman disappeared in Boston on November 23, 1849. The city and nation followed the search for him, with newspapers competing for every lead and rumor. After a futile search, police received a tip from the janitor of Harvard Medical School, Ephraim Littlefield. The janitor became suspicious of intense heat from the areas of Professor John White Webster and a surprise offer of Professor Webster to buy him a Thanksgiving turkey. Littlefield notified police who found body parts and dentures in Webster’s laboratory. Webster was charged with the murder of Dr. Parkman, although there was no definitive way to prove the body parts and dentures were Parkman’s.
Collins recreates the trial, and it reads as if you are in the courtroom. Crowds packed every session and newspapers reported each word. It was not easy for prosecutors. There were no eyewitnesses or a face to identify. DNA testing was a fantasy. Prosecutors called a dentist to identify dentures as Dr. Parkman’s, one of the earliest uses of forensic dentistry. Physicians matched body parts to Parkman. White blamed others for his predicament, from the janitor to his own lawyers.
The trial also had a lasting impact on criminal law. Before the trial, there were no standard instructions for reasonable doubt. Juries received different instructions. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw presided and his jury instructions became standard instructions in Massachusetts until 2015. Shaw’s definition was so well regarded that the U.S. Supreme Court cited it in 1994, 144 years later. The Webster instructions outlived all the participants by a century and a half.
Collins could have focused solely on the crime and personalities and written a compelling book, but he goes beyond that in showing how Professor John White Webster, however unintentionally, changed the way trials are conducted.
David Mandell of Norwich, Connecticut, is a member of The Florida Bar.
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