Book Review: Blood & Ivy by Paul Collins


Author: Paul Collins
Title: Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard
Narrator:  Kevin Kenerly
Publication Info: Blackstone Pub (2018)
Summary/Review:

This historical, true crime narrative relates the story of the murder of Dr. George Parkman, a Harvard-educated physician and philanthropist, and from a prominent Boston Brahmin family.  The murderer is revealed to also be a well-born man, John White Webster, a chemistry professor at Harvard Medical College.  I’m familiar with the story since it is central story of Boston By Foot’s Dark Sie of Boston tour, but it’s not a well-known historical incident these days.  At the time though, the social class of both murderer and victim, and their connections with Harvard University made it an international scandal. Even 18 years later, English author Charles Dickens asked to visit the murder site on his visit to Boston.

Collins details the murder, investigation, trial, and conviction of Webster, but also focuses on the case’s place within the chasms among Boston’s social classes.  Initial blame for Dr. Parkman’s disappearance was directed at the Boston’s Irish immigrant population, then swelling due to the famine in Ireland.  Even after Webster is brought to trial, the defense’s main strategy is to deflect attention to Ephraim Littlefield, the Harvard Medical College janitor who is the main witness.  The class mores of the time saw the working man Littlefield as someone who better fit the mold of murderer.

Collins also explores the innovations that emerged from the case.  These include dental forensics as Parkman’s dentist was able to use dental molds to identify Parkman’s remains. The judge, Justice Lemuel Shaw, also gave instructions to the jury regarding the definition of “reasonable doubt” that became widespread in American jurisprudence, and weren’t updated in Massachusetts until 2015!

This book is a good introduction to this remarkable case for those unfamiliar with the story.  As someone who has read quite a bit about the Parkman murder, I also picked up quite a few new tidbits.

Recommended books: Dead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations by Simon Schama
Rating: ***

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