Friday, November 08, 2013

A Story Joe Quinn Is Dying to Tell


See the house at left? It is #8 Walnut Street on Beacon Hill in Boston. It was built in 1811 and has now been converted to condominiums but there was a time when it was a private home—a private home that belonged to a very distinguished man. This is a story most fiction writers could not conceive!

I have been doing research on a few curious stories with the intention of coming up with a new story for my Beacon Hill Chronicles series. I'll talk more about that in another blog but this is such a fascinating find that I'm quite mesmerized. In my Beacon Hill books there is an ex-cop named Joe Quinn who writes a blog called Beantown's Dark Side about strange tales from his experience as a Boston cop. Ever since I found out about this story Joe has been bugging me—as only a character can bug you—to let him write about this. First of all this house is just around the corner from GrammyLou's gorgeous but haunted townhouse on Mount Vernon Street. But if you think the stories associated with GrammyLou's are creepy, #8 Walnut Street may have her's beat.

In the early nineteenth century #8 Walnut was the home of Dr. George Parkman (we can only guess if he was an ancestor of Dr. Kendrick Parkman who was murdered in the 2ndBeacon Hill Chronicle.) Dr. Parkman was from a very distinguished family and was a respected psychiatrist. He was particularly interested in the humane treatment of people who were then diagnosed as lunatics and he traveled to Europe to meet with physicians there who were developing new ways of working with these unfortunate people.

Upon returning to Boston, Dr. Parkman was involved in the founding of a new hospital called he McLean Lunatic Asylum. It became one of the most distinguished psychiatric hospitals in this country and is now called McLean Psychiatric. Destiny Starlight, the bumbling ghost-hunter from The Crazy Old LadyUnleashed wound up there. However, though Dr.Parkman helped raise the funds to build the hospital, he was passed over by the committee when they appointed the first head psychiatrist. Bitter and angry at being snubbed, Dr. Parkman abandoned psychiatry and became a landlord known all over Boston for his curious combination of generosity and parsimony. Residents of Beacon Hill were quite accustomed to seeing his lean, gaunt figure making daily rounds to collect debts and rents.

On November 23, 1849 Dr. Parkman set off as usual on his route. He stopped by the grocers to place an order for Thanksgiving and asked the grocer to hold a head of lettuce for him which he would collect on his return home to take for his wife's lunch. His wife, whom he had lunched with every day for 33 years, loved lettuce. But Dr. Parkman never returned.

When the family contacted the police they immediately began their search. Police officer Derastus Clapp was told tat the last known sighting of Parkman was when he entered Harvard Medical School, ostensibly to visit a fellow physician and professor of chemistry, Dr. John Webster, who owed him money. Webster denied ever seeing him.

The family, in extreme distress, offered a $3000 reward for information leading to discovery of his whereabouts. This was quite alluring to many people, including a man named Ephraim Littlefield, who worked as a janitor at Harvard and earned extra money by procuring cadavers for those interested in having a cadaver procured. Over the Thanksgiving break, while the buildings at Harvard were virtually empty, Littlefield set to work and, after considerable effort, discovered the remains of a man's pelvis and thigh in the bottom of a privy near Dr. Webster's laboratory.

The remainder of the story is lurid in the extreme. Eventually more body parts were discovered including the torso with one thigh stuffed inside of it, part of the jaw, and assorted other parts. Neither hand, nor the rest of the skull, was ever found. Gruesome details are included in the trial's transcript including the fact that the poor, recently widowed Mrs. Parkman was able to identify the body by the—ahem—manly remains of her husband's pelvis.

Dr. Webster was arrested and tried. It was the most sensational trial of its era ad the first one in which the testimony of dentists was accepted for identification. The expert witness or the prosecution was Oliver Wendell Holmes and Fanny Appleton Longfellow (wife of Henry Wadsworth) documented much of it in letters. Even Charles Dickens, when visiting from England, visited the scene of the crime. Eventually, Dr. Webster was arrested and hanged.

Naturally, it is always a challenge to know how to write about a story as sensational as this one was, but Joe Quinn keeps telling me he thinks we should give it a go. Discussions are ongoing.

Thanks for reading.


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