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An Aristocrat's Killing

Some homicides just won’t die. The 1849 murder and dismemberment of Boston Brahmin George Parkman, A.B. 1809, a compulsive, disagreeable, and embittered landlord and moneylender (who had failed in a medical career) still roils the imaginations of historians. Simon Schama, a onetime Harvard history professor now teaching at Columbia, exercised the crafts of both history and fiction in Dead Certainties, his 1991 book on the Parkman case. Now, Murder at Harvard, an hour-long television documentary directed by Eric Stange, visiting fellow in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, and written by Stange, Schama, and Melissa Banta, curatorial associate at the Harvard University Library, exhumes the Parkman case once again. Schama narrates the American Experience program, which PBS airs nationally on Monday, July 14, at 9 p.m.

Harvard Medical College professor John White Webster, A.B. 1811, M.D. 1815, was arrested and eventually hanged for the Parkman murder; his trial in 1850 attracted press from as far away as London, Paris, and Berlin. Yet some, like the late surgeon and Harvard Medical School professor Francis D. Moore ’35, M.D. ’39, S.D. ’82, who appears on the program, believe that Webster may have been innocent. Some suspect that Ephraim Littlefield, a janitor and trafficker in dead bodies who worked "downstairs" at the Medical College and despised Webster, may have framed him. (Littlefield discovered—or planted—Parkman’s dismembered corpse beneath Webster’s lab.)

In the documentary, MIT historian Pauline Maier ’60, Ph.D. ’68, and Harvard clinical assistant in surgery Anthony Patton ’54, M.D. ’58, among others, chew over the Rashomon-like ambiguities of competing versions of what really happened when Parkman visited Webster in his laboratory to dun him for payment of a debt. (Parkman essentially held mortgages on all Webster’s worldly goods; the latter, a Boston blueblood himself, had squandered his inheritance and had lived beyond his means for years.) Several scenes dramatize "possible" versions of encounters among the three protagonists.

Shot in black-and-white to evoke the period, Murder at Harvard also peers into the class frictions that were a backdrop to the event. Some speculation, for example, locates a homicidal rage in Littlefield, a "swamp Yankee" equally resentful of social superiors like Webster and of the wave of Irish immigrants who fled to Boston during the potato famines of the 1840s (local aristocrats grumbled that "the Athens of America was becoming the Dublin of America"). At the end, Schama pronounces his own verdict, complete with a reenactment of the murder scene. The result is a thinking person’s whodunit, and a televised glimpse into a grisly chapter of Harvard history.