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December 27, 1971

The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman

Author Affiliations

Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine Chicago

JAMA. 1971;218(13):1947. doi:10.1001/jama.1971.03190260061031

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In 1849, Dr. George Parkman, a benefactor of Harvard Medical School, disappeared and one of its professors, Dr. John Webster, was hanged for his murder. This case has been called "America's classic murder," in part because of the eminent people involved and the uncertainty about the conduct of the trial but more significantly because of its sequels. It set the precedent for dental evidence as proof of the identity of a body. The elaborate anatomic studies influenced the establishment of a medical examiner system in Massachusetts. For more than 100 years courts have cited the charge to the jury in such matters as the definition of circumstantial evidence and alibi. The adverse effect of publicity on this trial was used in the proceedings to close the inquest on Senator Kennedy's accident at Chappaquiddick.

The latest additions to the voluminous literature on the case are two contrasting books. Judge Sullivan has