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Boston Herald

Murder at Harvard' digs up dirt on 19th century

Boston, Mass.; Jul 13, 2003; Monica Collins;
"American Experience: Murder at Harvard."
July 14th, 2003 9 p.m. on WGBH (Ch. 2).

Two and a half stars (out of four)

The most telling comment about "Murder at Harvard" comes midway through the hourlong film, when historian Ronald Story compares the crime and its aftermath to the O.J. Simpson circus.

"There were 120 periodicals in Boston in 1850. People were hawking newspapers all over the place. You couldn't avoid it. It would be almost like the O.J. Simpson trial on television. This is a perfect example of a serious social drama becoming mass entertainment."

From O.J. to the Laci Peterson case, we are used to gut- wrenching murders becoming blasts of entertainment for the masses. Public television is not immune from capitalizing on the blood sport. Even though this "American Experience" (tomorrow at 9 p.m. on WGBH, Ch. 2) comes wrapped in the distinguished cloth of scholarship, the elements of scandal are no less sensational, albeit toned down by the considerable distance of time and filtered through the perspective of historians.

In the mid-1800s, Dr. George Parkman was one of Boston's most entitled Brahmins. Indeed, the Parkman House, the plush mayoral refuge on upper Beacon Street near the State House, still stands as testament to the family's money and privilege.

Parkman, however, was a bit of a loser. Having failed in his medical career, he occupied himself with family financial matters - collecting rents and other monies owed. One of those indebted to Parkman was John White Webster, a chemistry professor at Harvard Medical School. Parkman was last seen making his way toward the medical school during Thanksgiving weekend in 1849. He was never seen again.

In creating this anatomy of a murder, "American Experience" also tells the social history of Boston. The portrait of a city in flux is fascinating. The short film has no photographs from the period to draw on, so clever producers use vintage etchings, black-and-white re-enactments of what might have happened, interviews with experts and ooky-spooky music befitting the crime story genre.

The narrator is Simon Schama, the historian who wrote a controversial book, "Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations" (Knopf, 1991) featuring the Parkman murder. Schama's book, apparently, was quite controversial in some academic circles because the author had no way to tell, with dead certainty, what happened - except that Parkman vanished and his bones were later found by the medical school's janitor under Webster's privy.

The janitor, who also moonlighted as a grave robber, would later testify at Webster's trial. Webster was convicted and executed - a public hanging to which polite Brahmins dispatched engraved invitations.

Schama is given to grandly eloquent proclamations about the elusive nature of recounting history, which he says is like "breaking bread with the dead." He spends some of the film justifying his data about the motive and the scenario for the killing while letting other historians provide sound bites that legitimize his methods. This is the self-conscious flab in "Murder At Harvard."

The best parts of the film explore the society that set the stage for murder. In the mid-19th century, Boston was a city undergoing tremendous change. The upper-class elite was losing control, while an Irish immigrant underclass was gaining ground.

Initially, the blame for Parkman's murder was directed at the Irish. Schama theorizes, however, that this accusation prompted school janitor/grave robber Ephraim Littlefield to spend two days tunneling in the Harvard Medical School basement until he discovered a clean pelvic bone under Webster's privy.

At the time, the Harvard Medical School was not seen as a prestigious place of learning and healing. Modern medicine was still in the dark ages. The school was looked upon as a creepy place where ghoulish students dissected dead bodies. The Parkman murder only reinforced that notion.

Schama tells us that in the end the criminal Webster would have been horrified that he was laid to rest in Copp's Hill Burying Ground, the low-rent boneyard of the time. Now, of course, it's a prime tourist attraction along the Freedom Trail in Boston's North End, commanding a glorious view of Boston Harbor and the 21st century Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge.

As Schama strolls in the famous cemetery, the cameras focus on the headstones engraved with the macabre skull and crossbones motif that was the funereal style of the day. The effect of looking back at the past becomes chilling and stirring. Others walked here, died here, were buried here. Their headstones remain.

What relics of us will define our life and times to future generations? "Murder at Harvard" prompts the question.