The George Parkman House

Posted on November 4, 2019

During every time period and every city, there has always been an upper class of society. Boston was no exception. The Parkman family was one of the richest in the city of Boston and they aligned themselves with other upper class, rich members through marriage.

And as will sadly happen every so often, a crime is committed that is beyond terrifying and it grips the city with terror. This was the unfortunate case with George Parkman.

Who were the Parkman’s?

Samuel Parkman and his wife Sarah Rogers had five children: Elizabeth, Francis, George, Samuel, and Daniel. Samuel Parkman had also had six other children with his first wife, Sarah Shaw. Samuel Parkman, George’s father and the family patriarch made his money by purchasing up low-lying lands and income properties in Boston’s West End area. He also founded and was part owner of the towns of Parkman, Ohio and Parkman, Maine.

Parkman’s sons from his first marriage were in charge of the Ohio properties, while his second set of sons were responsible for the Maine property. Samuel’s daughters inherited wealth as well. The most notable sister was George’s sister Elizabeth Willard Parkman. Her husband was Robert Gould Shaw, the eventual grandfather of Robert Gould Shaw, Union Army colonel during the American Civil War. Robert was able to grow his wife’s share of the fortune and to become the senior partner in the most powerful commercial house in a city, thanks to the China Trade.

The eleven Parkman children were united in marriage with the Beacon Hill families of Blake, Cabot, Mason, Sturgis, Tilden, and Tuckerman. Out of all of his eleven children, Samuel chose George as the one to administer the Parkman estate.

George’s Early Life

George Parkman suffered from poor health as a young child and this led him to want to study medicine. He entered the freshman class of Harvard University he was only 15 years old, and he was chosen to deliver the “Salutory Oration” in 1809. Despite being incredibly wealthy and set for life, it was a lecture by Benjamin Rush that inspired George to take an interest in the terrible state of asylums for the mentally ill. He spent two years at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland earning his medical degree. After returning to Boston George traveled aboard the USS Constitution to Europe and was under the charge of a former Bostonian, Benjamin Thompson. Thompson then introduced him to the Minister to France, Joel Barlow. Barlow then introduced George to many doctors in Paris. While in Paris, George was able to observe the pioneering and humane treatment methods of two famous French psychiatrists, Philippe Pinel and Étienne Esquirol.  The 70-year-old Pinel’s ideas impressed Parkman. Under teachers like Pinel and Esquirol, Parkman was able to practice at the Parisian Asylum, and he learned the history and treatment of mental diseases. At this time Parkman developed his own career path in medicine.

Parkman returned to the U.S. in 1813. The War of 1812 called for the service of young men and Parkman was commissioned as a surgeon in a regiment of the third brigade belonging to the first division of the Massachusetts militia. He began his practice in South Boston and simultaneously he served as a physician to the poor with a desire to replicate the practices of Pinel and Esquirol.

Parkman had strong ideas with regards to how mental health hospitals should be run. He believed that psychiatric institutions should reflect a residence-like setting, where patients could enjoy hobbies and socializing and they could also have the chance to participate in doing household chores, as permitted. Parkman thought Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital was a good example of how it should be run and he spoke to the faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital about having a mental health hospital connected to it. In 1817, he wrote two papers, Remarks on Insanity and The Management of Lunatics, both in an effort to convince the trustees of Massachusetts General Hospital that he could supervise an asylum they were considering opening. During that same year George Parkman offered to raise $16,000 for the construction of a full-size institution.

Unfortunately, the trustees interpreted the offer as a proposal to fully endow the project. Sometime later the McLean Asylum for the Insane was established, but the trustees didn’t think it looked right for Parkman to hold a position. Parkman then retired, but he continued his interest in medicine and mental health. He would visit and entertain the patients, he bought them an organ, and opened up his own mansions during outbreaks of cholera and smallpox in order to treat patients.

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His later years

Parkman remained involved with the organization and the publication of The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery When his father died in 1824, George took over complete control of the family estate. He continued to buy huge amounts of land in Boston, including many tenement buildings. This money lending and real estate business increased his income. George also sold the land for the new Harvard Medical School and the Charles Street Jail.

Parkman was well-known throughout Boston.  He walked daily, collecting his rents. George Parkman was tall, lean, and often wore a top hat. By all accounts, George Parkman was a gentle person who worked hard and lived simply. He was most interested in helping the physically and mentally ill of society.

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The Murder of George Parkman

George Parkman was murdered on Friday, November 23, 1849. After an extensive search by the new Boston police force, Parkman’s dismembered and partly burned body was discovered on November 30 by a janitor at Harvard Medical School. The funeral for George Parkman was held on December 6, an event for which thousands of people lined the streets of Boston.

John White Webster, a professor of chemistry and geology at Harvard Medical School, was convicted of murdering George Parkman in a trial that rocked Boston.

The aftermath

The murder of George Parkman, and Webster’s trial and execution, was extremely distressing to Parkman’s widow and children.  In fact, this was one of the first times that forensic anthropology would be used in court. They became virtual recluses in their home at 33 Beacon Street, and neither of their two children ever married. When their mother died in 1877, the children inherited the entire estate. After his sister Harriet’s death in 1885, George Francis remained the sole heir to this considerable fortune. When George Francis died on September 16, 1908, the estate was valued at nearly $5.5 million. Almost the entire estate was left to the city of Boston. Today the George Parkman house still stands at 8 Walnut Street in Beacon Hill.

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How is the George Parkman house haunted?

The remains of George Parkman were stuffed into a privy that was located in Webster’s lab. Years later, the toilet in the Parkman house on the 3rd floor would overflow, causing water to rush down the stairs. It is said by many that George Parkman continues to haunt the house to this day. Perhaps his spirit is still not at peace?

Parkman and Webster apparently had argued over money that Parkman lent to Webster. And although a court of law convicted Webster of the murder, some people were not convinced of his guilt. There were those in town who felt that the janitor who coincidentally discovered the dismembered remains of Parkman was the one who should bear the responsibility.


George Parkman had the financial means to live a life of luxury. However, he was more interested in living simply and helping the mentally and physically ill. Unfortunately, he was brutally murdered and dismembered. Parts of his body were stuffed in the bathroom of the lab. So, is it a coincidence that the toilets in his home overflow and water is seen rushing down the stairs?  It’s an interesting question. Perhaps next time you are visiting Boston you can check out the George Parkman house and try to decide for yourself.