A true-crime chronicle of dark doings among the upper crust of Harvard Medical School in the middle of the 19th century.
On Nov. 23, 1849, the esteemed Dr. George Parkman went missing. The dour doctor, a well-known lecturer in the nascent science of medicine at Harvard, was last seen making his rounds. At the time, he was also collecting considerable cash receipts from his many real estate ventures. Naturally, foul play was suspected, and substantial rewards for information were posted. Collins (Chair, English/Portland State Univ.; Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, 2014, etc.) introduces a cast of diverse players. There was Littlefield, the school’s janitor, who found the grisly remains of Parkman dismembered and burned in the laboratory and adjacent privy used only by chemistry professor John White Webster. Then there was Cambridge marshal Francis Tukey, whose past was not unblemished. Also included in this drama were Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A nimble writer, the author skillfully sets the stage for this 19th-century murder mystery. Skeletons, death masks, pickled organs, and cadavers abounded in the medical school. There were demijohns, casks, and bubbling retorts in the labs, and outside the building were pools of fetid water, clattering hansom cabs, and an occasional riot. Mesmerism was popular, and reporters did their agitated best to add colorful detail, true or imaginary, to their stories. It was a wonderful world of daguerreotypes, roaring printing presses, and even a mechanical man, all advertised to be powered by steam. The murderer was discovered, and the subsequent trial featured some forensic and jurisprudential innovations. Dental evidence was seriously employed for the first time, and the judge’s charge to the jury became accepted law. Collins also reveals lively bits of information about police procedurals as practiced during that time.
A vivid true-crime tale from a fascinating bygone era.