True crime history is not just about reviving the stories of America’s scandals, scoundrels and scourges, but also about exploring the history of true crime as a genre.
Edmund Pearson was a librarian by trade, but also one of the early writers of true crime, who first came to prominence in his articles about the Lizzie Borden trials in the 1890s. In 1928, he wrote a series of eight true crime articles for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about some of America’s Classic murders.
This case takes place in 1849, a week before Thanksgiving, in a laboratory at the Harvard Medical College while the famed physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes was lecturing in the room directly above. The victim was one of Boston’s wealthy elite on a mission to collect a debt from a geology professor.
The Parkman-Webster murder case, as it came to be known, was notable because it was one of the first murder cases where circumstantial forensic evidence was used in a trial.
Musical direction and theme music by Chuck Wiggins.
Some sixty years before the trial of Lizzie Borden brought infamy to the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, the body of Sarah Maria Cornell, a 30 year old mill worker from that town, was found hanging from a haystack pole in the nearby town of Tiverton, just across the Rhode Island border.
The first coroner’s jury ruled the death a suicide, but a note later found in the woman’s boarding house led to the first of two exhumations of the body and the arrest of the Rev. Ephraim Kingsbury Avery for her murder.
It is believed to be one of the first trials of a minister for murder in America, and it was a scandalous one. Newspapers across the country published transcripts on a daily basis, and when it was all over, many booklets—including one by the defendant himself—were published with the complete testimony and arguments of the 27-day trial.
The Reverend Avery spent the rest of his life dodging the accusations and his tarnished reputation, in spite of his acquittal. The court of public opinion is not so easily swayed by facts. He embarked on a speaking tour to clear his name, and eventually settled in Lorain County Ohio and lived out his days as a farmer. He died on October 23, 1869.
There were a couple of items of clothing mentioned in this story that had me rushing to the Google. I’d never heard of a surtout or a calash, but here they are: