The last time anyone saw Parkman alive was on November 23, 1849. At 1:45 that afternoon a witness observed Parkman, clad in a purple vest and top hat, walking into Harvard Medical College. He never came out.
Parkman’s family grew increasingly anxious as the days passed without sign of him. They contacted the police and printed up thousands of fliers asking for information about him. Then, on November 30, the janitor at Harvard Medical College made a grisly discovery: the dismembered remains of a human body, which had been bricked up in a wall behind the privy in one of the college’s dissection vaults. The police were summoned, and a partially burned male torso was discovered locked in a trunk. The coroner, with help from Mrs. Parkman, identified the remains as those belonging to George Parkman.
The main suspect in the case was Dr. John Webster, a professor at Harvard Medical College. Deeply in debt, Webster had borrowed several hundred dollars from Parkman, using a collection of minerals as collateral. Still desperate for cash, Webster also borrowed $1200 from Robert G. Shaw (father of the man who would one day lead Massachusetts’ 54th Regiment during the Civil War), using the same set of minerals as collateral for that loan, too. Parkman had been furious when he learned of the collateral double-dipping and had gone to Harvard Medical College to confront Webster about it the day he disappeared.
Webster was indicted for murder on January 26, 1850. His trial began on March 19 of that year. Because both the accused and deceased were prominent men in Boston, and because of the gruesome nature of the crime, the trial was sensational and generated massive interest in Boston and around the nation. Thanks to the new technology of telegraphy, news of the trial was carried in papers around the country. The newspaper Lincoln took, Springfield’s Illinois Daily Journal, was one of them. On March 23, 1850 the Journal noted “a despatch from Boston, dated 20th March says – Webster’s trial commenced yesterday.”
Over the next two weeks the Daily Journal gave periodic updates about the ghastly trial. A dispatch from Boston of the 22nd summarized the testimony pertaining to the identification of Parkman’s remains. On the 27th the paper reported that “everything looks dark for Dr. Webster this morning,” as all the evidence seemed to indicate that the doctor was guilty of “a crime too fiendish for devils.” On April 1st the Daily Journal described the trial’s closing arguments, which Webster listened to as “the perspiration rolled from his forehead in large drops, though he did not lose control of himself.” Finally, on April 2, news came from Boston that Webster was found guilty and sentenced to hang. John Webster was executed on August 30, 1850.
Lincoln was Springfield throughout the course of the Webster trial and no doubt would have read about it in the Daily Journal. He might have had a particular interest in the case as an attorney who occasionally defended accused murderers. It is clear that the subject of the Webster murder trial was talked about in the Lincoln home, because Lincoln’s seven-year-old son Robert took a macabre interest in Webster’s hanging. The day after Webster’s death, one of Lincoln’s friends, David Davis, wrote home to his wife: “Poor Dr. Webster was hung yesterday. It is terrible for his family. Lincoln says that his little boy has been counting the days, that Dr. Webster has to live & Thursday he said that Thursday was the last night he had to live. Rather singular that the event should so mark itself…on a child of seven years.”
Two days later Lincoln, and perhaps the precocious Robert, read the Daily Journal’s account of John Webster’s last day on earth: how he breakfasted on tea and bread before ascending the scaffold with firmness; how only thirty people were permitted into the jail yard, but hundreds more watched from windows and rooftops; how a prayer was read and the prisoner was escorted to the scaffold, and finally, how at 9:40 a.m. “the last duty was performed” and “Webster died without a struggle.”
 Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 23 March 1850.
 Ibid, Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 27 March 1850.
 Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 1 April 1850.
 Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 2 April 1850.
 David Davis to Sarah Davis, 31 August 1850, Davis Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
 Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 2 September 1850.