Historical Scandal, Murder and Medicine at Harvard

Book review: Blood & Ivy, by Paul Collins

On November 23, 1849, shortly before Thanksgiving, Dr. George Parkman entered Harvard’s Medical College to visit a tenant of his, the college’s chemistry professor, John White Webster. He was never seen again. A familiar figure in and around Boston, Dr. Parkman’s disappearance grabbed plenty of news headlines, both the expected and the fanciful, and generated waves of gossip, reported sightings, and theories among the locals.

Boston city police, under the newly formed leadership of Francis Tukey (himself quite a character) searched diligently, turning up plenty of strange details, odd leads, and possible clues. But the case wasn’t broken open until the Medical College’s janitor, Ephraim Littlefield, acted on his suspicions that the doctor had never left the building and took the task of investigating into his own hands.

Ever present in the background of this disappearance narrative is the idea of Harvard’s shortage of bodies for its medical students to work with.

Harvard had some legal right to unclaimed indigent bodies but for years had quietly supplemented its supply of cadavers by buying them in bulk on the Manhattan black market. The problem was so acute that Harvard medical students paid a special five-dollar fee for access to the dissecting room, and while this collection was not labeled a grave-robbing fund, it might as well have been.

All that is to say that a lot of suspicion was already in the air about what lengths certain professors and staff at Harvard might go to in order to obtain bodies for research. Another missing person had actually mysteriously turned up in the Medical College in the past. Any missing persons reports immediately stoked that suspicion, and this one especially so, considering the doctor’s relationship with Professor Webster.

About the crime, I don’t want to give too much away because although it’s not the most twisty-and-turny of murder stories, it still had some excellent moments of surprise. The writing is suspenseful with plenty a chapter-end cliffhanger. It’s that perfect narrative nonfiction style that I think many readers (myself definitely included) always hope to find – that elusive ability to be nonfiction reading like a compelling, well-paced crime thriller.

Collins fleshes out the narrative of the murder – which takes place within a relatively short time frame – with excellent reporting about the city of Boston, Harvard University and its reputation and standing within the community, and the historical goings-on of both at this period in time. It makes for a vivid, never dull portrait of both the institution and the area.

As a welcome bonus, Collins has a special eye for picking out the humorous and absurd within the annals of history. There were so many instances of small, fascinating historical asides as the narrative progressed, either something printed in a newspaper or the recounting of a peripheral event, that were so bizarre or comical. Sometimes it’s just his style of writing or storytelling that puts things in this laughable light:

The holiday meant men at home, and men at home meant feasting, and feasting meant drinking, and mild weather meant going outside. And Boston men at home feasting and drinking and then going outside meant one thing: it was time for a riot.

There are lots of such (I think well-meaning) jokes at Boston’s expense as Collins describes the mood of the city and the atmosphere of the era. The scene-setting he provides is extraordinary.

I’d never heard of this case, but in addition to being fascinating to read about, it’s also historically significant for several reasons, legally and forensically.

The case would have an outsized role in American legal history, both for its innovative use of forensic evidence and for Chief Justice Shaw’s instructions to the jury on the definition of reasonable doubt. Shaw’s formulation became standard usage and a staple of law school instruction across the country; by 1866, the California Supreme Court had deemed it ‘probably the most satisfactory definition ever given.’

The forensic innovations had to do with Dr. Parkman’s false teeth, and their ability to reveal something about his fate. This was groundbreaking in terms of what information could be determined from such an object.

Beautifully, smartly written, skillfully researched, page-turning narrative nonfiction about a mysterious historical crime, with fascinating insights into Boston, Harvard, and medical studies and culture of the day. 4.5/5

Blood & Ivy:
The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard
by Paul Collins
published July 17, 2018 by W.W. Norton

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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12 thoughts on “Historical Scandal, Murder and Medicine at Harvard

    1. It’s disturbing but very informative and so well written. Was the same for me – I’d heard of how doctors and medical students became notorious for grave robbing in some parts but never knew it had affected Harvard!!

      Liked by 1 person

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