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Historic Testimony of Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep


The murder was committed in 1849 and the trial and execution took place in 1850.   It had everything needed to make it the trial of the century and probably was the most sensa­tional one up to the recent Simpson case, excluding those connected with Presidential assassina­tions and the Lindberg kidnapping.  While TV brought the Simpson trial into everyone’s home, the new tele­graph brought the details of the murder of Dr. George Parkman to newspapers around the country with almost the same speed.  60,000 people were allowed to view the 11-day proceedings of the trial by parading them in one door of the courtroom and out the other.


The details were such that they captivated everyone.  There was a week-long disappearance with daily reports flashed across the country.  There was the gory, grue­some discovery of a body, described in the most dread­ful detail.  And almost everyone involved with the case, including the victim and defendant, were con­nected to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and the presi­dent and nearly every member of the faculty testified at the trial.  After the trial there was great controversy as to whether Dr. John Webster was fairly tried for the crime, and the case is studied in law schools to this day.  

Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep

There are a number of aspects in the trial that make it of historical significance.  The one of concern here is the part that DR. NATHAN COOLEY KEEP  played in the trial.  Simply put, he is credited as being the first ever to identify a corpse in a court of law by dental records.  But before getting to his landmark testimony, we must start at the beginning and get to all the dreadful details.


Dr. George Parkman, of a very prominent Boston family, was a graduate of Harvard and a wealthy benefactor of the Harvard Medical School.  He was a doctor of medi­cine and was involved with that profession until the pressures of managing vast real estate holdings that he had inherited from his father caused it to become his full-time occupation, especially rent collecting and money lending.


Dr. John Webster, a Harvard medical graduate, was Erv­ing Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy at the university.  He also had inherited money from his father, but unlike Parkman, he was not a good manager of his holdings. From the beginning, his spending exceeded his income, and when his money was gone, he was con­stantly in debt.


And so it may have been inevitable that Webster secured a loan from Parkman, since they were friends from the time that they were undergraduates together at Harvard.  Actually, the loan was made by several of Webster’s friends, with Parkman’s share being some $483 at the time of his disappearance.  To secure this loan, Webster put up his valuable mineral collection as collateral.


Some time after this loan was made, Webster turned to another friend, Robert Shaw, with an appeal for more money, telling him that it was desperately needed to save his furniture from being seized.  Shaw agreed to loan him $1,200, and was given a mortgage of the same valuable chest of minerals.  So now Webster had used the same collateral to secure both loans.


He might have gotten away with this somehow, but as it happened, Shaw was Parkman’s brother-in-law, and in the course of a discussion it became apparent to both that Webster had no business using the minerals twice in such a way.


Dr. Parkman’s disposition when it came to money matters was not a good one.  When he learned of Web­ster’s double dealing, he became enraged and apparently was determined to confront him with what he had just learned and collect his money immediately.  An ap­pointment was made for a meeting of the two men. On the appointed day, he set out to meet Dr. John Webster at his chemistry laboratory at the Medical Col­lege.  He was seen on the route to this location, but after one o’clock on Friday, November 23, 1849, Dr. George Parkman was never again seen alive.

Sketch of Dr. John Webster

A week passed with descriptions of Parkman posted and rewards offered for information of his whereabouts.  Many leads were followed with no result, and as time went on, fear built up about his well being.                


Webster made no secret that the meeting took place, and he produced “paid in full” notes indicating that the Parkman loan was paid up at that time.  His laboratory was visited by the police twice and given rather quick searches.  Also during that time, the build­ing janitor be­came suspicious because rooms that he normally had access to were kept locked by Dr. Webster.


This janitor was present at the police visits, and he knew that all rooms had been looked into except Dr. Webster’s privy, a room just above a vault that had openings only big enough to allow the tide of the Charles River to enter for cleansing action.  For whatever reason, the janitor resolved to look into this vault, and he proceeded to break through the outside wall beneath the privy.

What he saw prompted him to call the police to the site.  The opening was enlarged to permit entering, and the ghastly discovery was confirmed.  A human pelvis, right thigh, and right leg were seen in the vault.   The coroner was called, and a careful search of the laboratory then resulted in the discovery of more remains.  A tin box in the lab was emptied and a thorax with left thigh stuffed in it was found.  Attached to the thorax were some of the organs; some were missing.


A furnace contained more fragments--parts of hands, numerous pieces of skull, and parts that are very impor­tant to our story here:  a jawbone, a human tooth, and three blocks of mineral (artificial) teeth.


In the next few days, a group of practicing physicians and specialists in anatomy were called to examine the body parts.  The conclusion of the examination of the remains revealed that the parts all came from a single individual and one that fitted the physical description of Dr. Parkman.  But the medical people could go no further.  Each one when asked said that if they had not heard that Dr. Parkman was missing, it would not have occurred to them that the remains were of that person.   In other words, the description of the body could have matched countless people.


In the ensuing months before the trial, Dr. Webster was tried and convicted in the newspapers around the coun­try, in conversations among people, and in their corre­spondence.  In fact, incredibly, the verdict of the inquest not only ruled that a homicide had taken place, but that Dr. Webster was the guilty party.


Julia Ward Howe, author of Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote to her sister Annie that “there has perhaps never been in Boston so horrible and atrocious an affair.  The details of the crime are too heart-sickening to be dwelt upon.  There can scarcely be a doubt of the guilt of Dr. Webster. . .the wisest people say that he will be convicted and hanged.”1

Sketch of Dr. George Parkman

Since it could not be determined to a certainty how the murder took place, the indictment accused Webster of killing Parkman by several different means:  with a knife by “strike, cut, stab and thrust. . .on the left side of the breast. . .to the depth of three inches;” a hammer “with both hands. . .on the head;” with his hands and feet “did strike, beat and kick;” and then to make sure, “by some means, instruments, and weapons to the jurors unknown.”


To convict Webster of murder, fairly it is hoped, the prosecution had to establish the corpus delicti and also to prove at least one part of the indictment.


The establishment of the corpus delicti is of great inter­est to us here.  Our English tradition as well as Massachusetts law made it very clear that a body must be identified, for the simple reason that once a person has been hanged, the victim must not turn up later on.  Testimony regarding the commission of this crime took up eight or nine days.  That of identification of the body lasted little more than half a day. Yet that half day of testimony by Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep was critical in identifying the body.  Without it, conviction would have been very difficult.

And this half day’s testimony by Dr. Keep was historic and groundbreaking.  No one had given evidence of this type ever before.


Dr. Parkman’s teeth were not in good shape.  Some time before, he was scheduled to speak at the dedication of the medical building in which he was murdered.  For this event, he wished a new set of artificial teeth to be made quickly, and he went to his friend, the most prominent dentist in Boston, Nathan Cooley Keep.  Dr. Keep was a pioneer in this country in the use of mineral material for this purpose, as opposed to organic material such as animal bone.2   It is important in this case because mineral teeth are not consumed by fire so easily as some other materials in use at that time.


Here is Dr. Keep’s testimony, in part. It is given in Bemis3, the official "transcript," in narrative form without the questions, and is given here with the punctuation cleaned up and with a few connecting conjunctions added.  Gaps are not indicated.  [Bracketed sentences] are in the Bemis narrative.


“I am a surgeon-dentist and have been in the practice of my profession thirty years in this city.  I have given at­tention to both natural and artificial teeth.  I knew the late Dr. George Parkman, and since 1825 he employed me as his family dentist.

Top:  Dr. Keeps Trial Plate Lower Jaw
Next:  Dr. Parkman's Jawbone
Next:  Dr. Keep's Plaster Cast Lower Jaw
  Taken from Life, with Block of         
  Dr. Parkman' Artificial teeth from 
Bottom:  Dr. Keep's Plaster Cast, 
  Opposite View, with Trial Plate.           

“Some mineral teeth were shown to me by Dr. Lewis on Monday, December 3, on my return to Boston from Springfield.  I recognized them as the teeth which I had made for Dr. Parkman in 1846.  These blocks now shown to me are the same as I then recognized as having made for Dr. Parkman.


“Dr. Parkman’s mouth was a very peculiar one, so marked in respect to its shape and the relation of the upper and lower jaws, that the impression of it was very distinct with great exactness.  The receding of the upper jaw and the projection of the lower one were strongly marked showing an unusual length of chin, differing from others who have merely a prominent chin.”


“I began in the usual way with taking an impression of the Doctor’s mouth--an exact facsimile of his two jaws. This was done by applying soft wax in a piece of metal to the lower jaw and then pressing it down until the wax be­came cold. After the impression was thus taken, it was oiled and liquid plaster poured in, which hardened in about ten minutes and produced an exact copy of the jaw, of the surface of the jaw where the teeth were wanting, and of the teeth themselves, or any stump, where such teeth or stump still remained.  A like process gave an exact facsimile of the upper jaw.


“[The witness here produced plaster casts of an upper and lower jaw.]  This is the plaster cast of Dr. Parkman’s lower jaw, taken from life.  It had in it, as the cast shows, four natural teeth and three roots, or stumps.”


“Here is the trial plate, accompanying the plaster cast, which was fitted into Dr. Parkman’s mouth and found to correspond exactly with the shape of his lower jaw, teeth, &c.  [Here the witness produced a thin, indented strip of copper, exactly fitting to the shape of the lower jaw as represented in the plaster cast, with interstices for the admission of the natural teeth].”


(Likewise, he demonstrated those parts for the upper jaw, and he explained in great detail how he completed the set of teeth.)

“I saw Dr. Parkman afterwards for the purpose of making slight alterations or repairs as were needed.  The last time that I saw him to do anything to his teeth was about two weeks previous to his disappearance. 


“Dr. Lewis presented to me these three portions of min­eral teeth [taken from the furnace].  I proceeded to look for the models by which these teeth were made. On comparing the most perfect block with the model, the resemblance was so striking that I could no longer have any doubt that they were his.  [Here the witness was so overcome by his feelings as to be unable for a moment to proceed.]


“[The witness here exhibited to the jury the blocks of teeth in connection with the plaster model or cast calling attention to the coincidence between the left lower block and the model.  He also pointed out the place of grinding (which he remembered as his) showing a roughening of the inside with a slight concave indentation.]


On cross examination:  “In reply to your question, ‘When they first came to my mind after his disappearance?’  I can hardly say when they were ever out of my mind.  They always occurred to me whenever I met the Doctor.  They were in my mind when Dr. Lewis first showed the teeth to me; and I immediately said, ‘Dr. Parkman is gone.  We shall see him no more.’  [The witness and many in the audience were here affected to tears.]” (Both the defendant and victim were his friends, and he knew that he was convicting the one and would never see the other again.)


“I recognized them at once and then went to look for the moulds.  This name [of Dr. Parkman on the mould, shown to the jury] was written upon it at the time it was made.  They were kept in my cellar.”


Some of the reasons for controversy over this trial will appear below.  Sullivan, a high court Massachusetts jus­tice, feels that the rebuttal testimony to that of Dr. Keep by Dr. Wm. Morton was specific and forceful.4   In short, Morton testified that not enough of the teeth remained to connect them with certainty to Dr. Keep’s moulds, and also that Dr. Parkman’s jaw was not particularly rare.  Nevertheless, he admitted that it would be a rare coinci­dence to find a set of artificial teeth made for one individual that would fit another.  Four other dentists were called to testify that Dr. Keep should have been able to identify his own work.


In regard to Morton’s testimony, one need only read of the controversy over the discovery/demonstration of ether anesthesia, which clearly indicates the rea­sons for ill-will between Morton and two witnesses for the prosecution--Dr. Jackson and Dr. Keep.  Dr. Philip Keep wrote in his paper, "Nathan Keep, William Morton's Salieri?" that “Morton’s position. . .appeared not only untenable but possibly perverse and mischievous. The previous year’s decision by the Congressional Committee had implied that Morton’s word was more to be trusted than Keep’s; clearly this was not a view shared by the people who knew them.  The judge sensed this; in his summing-up [charge], he stressed the importance of Keep’s evidence and was mildly disdainful of Morton’s contribution.” 5


The jury took three hours to deliver the verdict of guilty, and the sentence of death by hanging was pronounced some time after.  Subsequently, Dr. Webster confessed to the crime, once by proxy, and another by letter to Parkman’s brother.  He was hung August 30, 1850.


There was a hue and cry soon after the conviction that Webster had not received a fair trial, and that his sen­tence should be commuted.   That there were faults in the trial is apparently without question.  The controversy lingers to this day.  If these faults had been recognized by the attorneys, judges, and jury, it may well be that on the evidence given, the verdict might have been Not Guilty.  But as is well known, a Not Guilty verdict is not the same as Innocent.  It just means that guilt is not proved beyond a reasonable doubt.


For those who might wish to read what is about as close as can be gotten to a transcript of the trial, the Bemis book is available, though a bit expensive; and the best book pointing out the weak points of the trial is the Sulli­van book. But one controversial part concerns us here because it has to do with the judge’s charge con­cerning the identification of the body.  Certainly, though, if Dr. Keep’s testimony had been found to be not conclu­sive, then the same could be said in countless trials since in which bodies have been identified by their teeth.


Another cause for controversy is that the judge in his charge changed the rules regarding corpus delicti, and his opinion in this regard  has in itself made the case historic.  Up to that point, the fact of the corpus delicti had to be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, in fact to an absolute certainty. The judge, in his charge, changed this to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  Sulli­van quotes an anonymous indignant member of the bar at that time who was very critical of the judge and con­cludes by saying that proof of homicide requires positive evidence of the perpetration of the crime or the actual production of the body.  (But the judge’s new standard is still that of the state of Massachusetts and in many other states.)4


All of this probably has more to do with proof that a murder took place in the first instance, but obviously the identification of the body would be an important part of this.  The judge, in his charge, tells the jury, “You are to determine, by all the testimony, whether those were the teeth of Dr. Parkman and belonged to the same body as the other parts; and, if so, it has a strong tendency to a proof of death by violence, and then the corpus delicti is established.” 


The jury apparently had the required con­fidence in the testimony of Dr. Keep.


The name of Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep is found in histories of dentistry, obstetrics, anesthesiology, dental societies, Harvard University, and even rope making.  In his lifetime of accomplishments, his testimony in this trial is comparatively a minor claim to fame, but none­theless, it is a very important one that guarantees that the Keep name will be found in one more place in written history.


1Richards, Laura:  Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Vol. I, Chapter 6, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1916.


2Ring, Malvin: Dentistry, An Illustrated History, Abradale Press,  New York, 1985.


3Bemis, George:  Report of the Case of John W. Webster, Little, Brown, Boston, 1850.


4Sullivan, Robert:  The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman, Little, Brown, Boston, 1971.


5Keep, P.:  Nathan Keep—William Morton’s Salieri?, Anaesthesia 50:233-238, 1995.


Sketches of Dr. Webster and Dr. Parkman from Trial of Professor John W. Webster for the Murder of Doctor George Parkman, Stringer & Townsend, New York, 1850.


Illustrations of Dr. Parkman’s jawbone and Dr. Keep’s casts from Bemis.

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