Murder at Harvard: John Webster Story - A DEATH SENTENCE

The most important expert, in the criminal trial against Dr. Webster, was Nathan Keep, the dentist who had made Parkman's false teeth. Those teeth were unusual because of the way Parkman's lower jaw jutted out.

Dr. Keep testified he recognized the false teeth. He said he made them for the murdered doctor. That evidence was crucial for the case. It was also the first time dental evidence was ever used in a trial.

But prosecutors still had to overcome two huge issues:

  • They did not have a body;
  • They had to tie Dr. Webster to the crime.

Webster had denied any wrongdoing, and there were no eyewitnesses. The janitor's testimony - the link takes you to the notes of George Bemis, one of the prosecutors, regarding that testimony - was crucial, and he was unshakable on cross examination. 

The prosecutors faced a final battle. Even though their circumstantial evidence was overwhelming, they still had the problem of the corpus delicti rule. They had great secondary evidence, but the primary evidence - the body - was missing.

How the Judge instructed the jury would make or break the case. Here is the most telling part of his charge:

It has sometimes been said by judges that a jury never ought to convict in a capital case unless the dead body is found. That, as a general proposition, is true. It sometimes happens, however, that it cannot be found, where the proof of death is clear. Sometimes, in a case of murder at sea, the body is thrown overboard on a stormy night. Because the body is not found, can anybody deny that the author of that crime is a murderer?

The instruction was just what the prosecutors needed. It took the jury less than three hours to convict Dr. Webster.

Judge Shaw passed sentence: Death by hanging.

Dr. Webster tried to save his own life by filing an appeal. That didn't work.

Then ... he tried to save his life by petitioning the governor for clemency. That didn't work either.

Only after he had exhausted all the legal means to save himself, did he confess.

But therein lies the ultimate irony. Webster's confession was strongly supportive of temporary insanity. Had he told the truth at trial, he would likely have avoided the hangman's noose.

Instead, he was executed on August 30, 1850.


0 Question or Comment?
click to read or comment
3 Questions 2 Ponder
click to read and respond
0 It's Awesome!
vote for your favorite

Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 01, 1999

Updated Last Revision: Feb 25, 2015

To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"A DEATH SENTENCE" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 01, 1999. Jul 17, 2018.
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Show tooltips