Kirkus Star


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Justice has been done fully and handsomely by the Honorable Robert Sullivan to an old case of exceptional interest and to a victim of perhaps the most incompetent and naive courtroom trial ever conducted. The crime itself roused avid excitement at the time; it has an enduring interest, legalistically, since its presiding judge, Shaw, formulated definitions still in common usage for ""alibi,"" ""reasonable doubt,"" ""murder,"" etc.; and it would be hard to think of any demonstration of slipshoddiness comparable to that of the so-called defense counsel, who even introduced evidence damaging to his client. In 1849. a Dr. George Parkman, eccentric if not unhinged and certainly most unpleasant, disappeared. Dr. Webster, a professor of chemistry at Harvard (everyone in this whole proceeding was a Harvard man), was accused of his murder. His only dereliction was the two thousand dollars he owed to Parkman -- his annual salary. He was arraigned after Parkman's (store) teeth were found in Webster's laboratory and other spare parts -- a ""disarticulated"" leg here, a kidney there -- turned up in his privy or the furnace. Webster by nature was an amusing, gentle, well-read and highly intelligent family man -- an early friend of Keats and Longfellow -- and perhaps too surprised to do anything except lapse into tears at the close of the long trial in which he was so slackly represented. In fact, even the opposition wondered why the janitor who found the dismembered remnants and was known to have been a purveyor of bodies for students was never questioned. And how Oliver Wendell Holmes could take the stand and further incriminate Webster without a scintilla of evidence, let alone common sense. Sullivan has exhumed the old and little-known story with care, remounted it in its period frame, and enhanced it with his own humor, sympathetic insight and persuasiveness. Magisterial.

Pub Date: July 29th, 1971
Publisher: Little, Brown